“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”
― Lao Tzu
Question: Lao Tzu says, “Do your work, then step back.” What does he mean?
Speaker: We don’t step back. Do we? Like a salesman who has come to deliver goods to our house, we remain standing on the customer’s door steps. We don’t step back. We say, “We won’t step back till we get the payment.”
“I did something, now I want the result. How can I step back? Where is the fruit of my action? How can I step back? The circle is not yet complete, how can I step back? How can I step back?” We don’t step back.
We wait and wait, and this waiting creates time, this waiting creates future, this waiting is hope and expectations. And there is no suffering worse than hope. There is no torture, worse than, looking at future, in expectation.
Lao Tzu is compassionate; he wants us to avoid the suffering that is totally avoidable, totally avoidable, yet so chronically present in our lives. Have you noticed that even when you just say a casual ‘Hi!’ to somebody, there is an expectation of reciprocity involved there? It might be a faint expectation, nevertheless it is there. Have you seen that when you leave that small tip for the waiter in the hotel, in the restaurant, you expect to see gratitude on his face, not really? You expect at least not to see ingratitude on his face; now that would make it easier for you to understand, right?
You leave a fifty-rupee note for a waiter, and if he just picks up the bill, the note, and turns back expressionlessly, you won’t feel good. And you would feel worse, if he forgets to serve you water, when you are about to leave your table. You just tipped him, you just tipped him, and the fellow is so ungrateful that he is forgetting to serve water after being tipped.
We don’t step back. No action is ever complete, that is why we keep getting stuck in the ‘cause and effect’ cycle. That is why freedom never comes to us. One action never gets completed in the moment; it only prepares the ground for the next inappropriate action. No action ever begins in the moment; it is always a carryover from the past. And no action ever gets completed in the moment, it always keep residue for the future. Do you see how the whole chain is operating?
As you stand here, at this point in time, you are not free; not free to know, or realize, or experience deeply, or respond to the experience. No you are not free. There is that entire dirty stream from the past that is coming to your mind, with all its force. You have to take care of it. And even as you are taking care of it, it’s spoiling everything. And this stream from the past, after spoiling everything, doesn’t die down right now. What you are doing right now, only adds to that stream. And that stream, with enhanced force and vigor, now moves to the future. This is the law of action; this is the law of karmfal.
Lao Tzu is saying, “Do your work, then step back.” Why are you creating misery for yourself by having hopes or fears? Why are you looking towards the future? The future really does not exist; you create it, out of your faithlessness. Had there been a future, you would have been welcome, to think about it, to plan for it.
You see this has become a very fashionable thing to say these days “Don’t worry about the future, live in the now, live in the present.” Have you not heard these things? “Don’t worry about the future, let go the past.” These thinks have become very fashionable. Everyone likes to utter these words. What they do not know is that, they are saying just the opposite of what they want to say.
When you say, “Don’t worry about the future,” what you are saying is, “there is a future, but don’t worry about it.” “Don’t worry about ‘the future’.” So the future is there, but you must not worry about it. Now this is impossible. If there is a future, why not worry about it? After all it is going to be my future? Those who are trying to give that message, are asking for the impossible. And they don’t even know what they are saying, and what they are asking for.
They are saying “Don’t you worry about ‘the future’.” They are saying, “The future is there, and you, who is a product of time, is there, but worry must not be there.” Are you mad? If I am a product of time, and if future is there, then worry will be there. These are synonyms, these are just synonyms. Without hope and worry, where is the question of future?
The wise man would say, “The future is just your mental construct; it’s a concept, and that is all. He will never say, “Don’t worry about the future,” he will open up to you what future really is. And once you become clear about what future is, then your very self-definition changes. You change, you change.
Please understand this: we define ourselves as coming from the past, and going towards the future. Don’t we do that? ‘Who am I?’ Somebody who has born in a particular year, to a particular people, who has been on a journey, who was once eight years old, then eighteen years old, then twenty-eight years old, right? That’s how we define ourselves. And ‘Who am I?’ Who would now be forty-eight years old, then fifty eight years, and then die one day. That is my self-definition.
Once you realize what ‘past’ and ‘future’ are, that realization is the same as self-realization. To realize time, is to realize the self. Once you have known what future is, and what past is, then you have known who you are. Having known who you are, worry drops. That’s how you get rid of worry; not through fantastic statements like, “Don’t worry about the future,” or “Live in the present.” These are meaningless and stupid statements.
Only through self-realization, will the worry about the future drop, otherwise, you will just end up creating an ideal. And no ideal is ever successful. You will create this ideal for yourself. “I should not worry about future; I should not worry about future.” By repeating this mantra, even a million times, worry will not drop, worry would still be there. But because you have invested so much in this mantra, you will end up hypocritically saying, “I no more worry about future.” The fact is, worry would be hiding, lurking somewhere.
Understand what future really is, then there is no question of worrying. You won’t have to target a state of non-worrying. Forget about worrying or not worrying. You don’t need to have a goal that – “I need to get rid of this or that.” Just understand what this or that is about. Understand this or that, even when this and that are bothering you, because given what you are, given what your condition is, botheration will be there.
Fight the fire even as the fire is making you sweat. Or will you wait for the cool breeze before you put out the fire? If your house is on fire, you would be feeling the heat, or won’t you? Yes. So even as worry is affecting you, even as you are feeling the heat, still, try to understand. And it’s a very-very good opportunity to understand, because worry is right in front of you, so close that you can examine it, you can see what it is all about. It is a fantastic thing to happen.
You are worried, and yet you have the freedom to look at the worry. “I am feeling small, my head is heavy, and it’s almost throbbing in the pain. I am feeling worried, jealous, angry, and yet I don’t know whose blessing is it, that I am able to look at what I am feeling.”
“Even when I am feeling small, and petty, and jealous, still I am able to look at what I am feeling.”
Don’t wait for that grand and golden day when all your problems will be gone. In the middle of the problems, be problem free. That’s the way of living.
That golden day will never come. Either you are free right now, or you can keep waiting for it, forever. That day is never really going to come, because future does not exist. How can a day come? Are you getting it?
Lao Tzu is saying, “Do your work, then step back.” Re-read it. All he is saying is that do your work and then don’t keep jumping around. He doesn’t really mean ‘step back’. All he means is – after having done it, don’t step forward. Even stepping back is not really needed, just don’t step forward. But you step forward, and further forward, with your palms drawn out, begging for the result.
Just don’t do that. That’s all.
~Excerpts from a Shabd-Yog session. Edited for clarity.
Watch the session at: Prashant Tripathi on Lao Tzu: Complete your action, and carry no expectation
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