Timeless Wisdom in a Pandemic: Give Up the Need for Control

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A Meditation on Verse 20 of the “Tao Te Ching” — what it can tell us about the COVID-19 Pandemic

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the centre of the circle.
— Source


See things as they are without trying to control them

What does it mean when someone says, “I want to make a difference in the world?”

The Tao tells us,

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

None of us can change the world — all we can change is ourselves and how we relate to the world (the planet) and all the creatures that inhabit the earth.

The world is sacred.

The Tao is not suggesting that the world is sacred in a religious sense, rather ‘sacred’ can be understood as a sense of wonder and something we will never be able to fully understand. The Tao means something like, “The Way of Life or Being.” It is not meant to be a religion, a dogma, or a practice. It is a way of being oneself by being one with the word.

It can’t be improved.

You can’t change something so complex and organic as the planet. Just like you can’t change another person, you can only improve yourself.

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.

We see this clearly with climate change as a result of how we are polluting the earth by depleting resources, using them in a way that creates toxicity and waste.

If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

This is the sin of the ego when it sees the world and people as a subject versus object instead of a subject-subject relationship.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The states of being contrasted in this verse demonstrate the natural balance and equilibrium of life — that there is a time for everything. This balance is also called yin and yang, or as a mental construct, a binary or a duality.

You can only go so far before you have to return to the centre in some sense. If you take more than what there is, something else must be taken — or destroyed — to make up for that consumption. There is no sustainability if we take without replenishing that which can be easily replenished.

When the ego only sees everything outside of us as an object, the value we place on those objects is how they will be of benefit to us, exclusively. But if we see everything as a subject in relation to ourselves, we come from a place of connection, compassion, and oneness. We would make dramatically different choices if our actions were to harm another subject, which would, in turn, be directly harming ourselves.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the centre of the circle.

The circle is the place of equality and equilibrium. In the centre, there is no better than, or more powerful than. Instead, there is the complete exposure and visibility for all to see from all sides. The person at the centre — the subject — must then be mindful that her actions can have visible and identifiable consequences when she tries to control what she perceives to be objects in her environment.

The COVID-19 Pandemic is teaching us how little control we have.

What does verse 29 of the Tao Te Ching mean if you use it as a filter to understand what we are experiencing as a result of the novel coronavirus and its impact on society?

What are you seeing revealed about yourself and society as we are forced to change our behaviours and actions like physical distancing and social isolation, or how many of us have lost our source of income, and how we are managing our feelings, thoughts, words, and actions when we don’t feel a sense of control?

“Yes, there seems to be a time for such things, and I choose not to remain in extremes of resentment and anger. But there is also my desire to do something about these circumstances — that feeling is also a part of the natural law unfolding. I choose to act on my inner desire to rectify these conditions. By remaining internally peaceful and avoiding the extremes, I will impact the world in the same loving way that the Tao eternally manifests from love and kindness.”

Change Your Thoughts — Change Your Life” by Wayne Dyer

When we see ourselves as one with the world, we demonstrate a kind of self-love that is a form of personal responsibility to respect the world and all its inhabitants as subjects and not objects. When we see ourselves as ‘residing at the centre of the circle’ we open ourselves up to loving-kindness.

The alternative is not pretty and the pandemic is showing us what’s not working, what’s hurting, what’s ugly, what’s sick, and what’s broken. And people are beginning to see from the centre of the circle with a new set of eyes — an awareness that has always been there, but because of how things were, they were distracted from the central point of looking outwards.

This is not to say that this will be easy. The COVID-19 virus will do what it does. We cannot control it per se, in the sense that the virus doesn’t take action based in ego. It simply is.

We have an opportunity to respond to this pandemic in a way that will improve society and change our behaviours and actions in our attempts to control the world and other people. This is a tipping point for humanity — a time for witnessing the harm we have caused the planet and other human beings with aggressive capitalism, unsustainable production, gender and sexual inequality, human rights violations and a lack of human dignity.

If — as a global society — we don’t walk far enough from what have previously done, towards how we need to behave, we will have lost the opportunity for profound social transformation and a better, kinder, more loving humanity.


How can you establish more control in your life, right now?

Paradoxically, you start by getting clear about what is specifically and exactly out of your control. Find out how in my free mini-coaching program, What’s Out of Your Control, Right Now?

Image credit: Islands In The Sand — Kevin Labianco

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Darren is a leadership coach in Toronto, Canada who helps his clients to connect and embrace their uniqueness and freely create the life they want. He writes and podcasts regularly about Queer Leadership.