Today's reading is from chapter 43 of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching from the translation of Jonathan Star
The most yielding thing in the world will overcome the most rigid. The most empty thing in the world will overcome the most full. From this comes a lesson. Stillness benefits more than action. Silence benefits more than words. Rare indeed are those who are still. Rare indeed are those who are silent. And so I say rare indeed are those who obtain the bounty of this world.
What does it mean to yield, to be flexible? When driving, we yield to the flow of traffic when we don't have the right of way because if we don't, we're likely to get in an accident. In nature, we might think of trees, and how supple trees will bend in a storm and old, rigid trees will break.
Flexibility is a paradigm for dealing with change. If we routinely stretch out our muscles as part of out workout routine, we will become less prone to injury. And this is a great metaphor for one of the best ways to train ourselves to be mentally flexible. But before we talk about that, we need to talk about resilience.
So Seth Godin, in his excellent podcast Akimbo, talks about Suppleness and Resilience. And I like how he says and, because they really are two completely separate things.
Suppleness is yielding to oncoming traffic. It is the tree that bends in the wind. Resilience is a different paradigm for dealing with change. It is merging into the flow of traffic because your vehicle can withstand an accident. It is the tree so thick and gnarled that no wind is strong enough to uproot it.
Both suppleness and resilience recognize change as a fundamental force of reality, but they have different approaches to dealing with it. In the Gia fu Feng and Jane English translation, the words yielding and rigid are exchanged for softness and hardness. Resilience, when embodied in the person, is a way of hardening ourselves to change. And resilience is a natural response to trauma. It is the freeze in flight/fight responses, that calcifies us to the harshness of this world.
In that podcast about suppleness, Seth gives the example of Lucille Ball, and how she adapted to the changing media landscape in her time. And so, thinking about flexibility, that immediately brought to my mind the democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Because if you look at Andrew Yang and his platform, which is universal basic income, it is addressing a very similar change over a much broader landscape. That essentially, what Andrew Yang is running on, is not really a concern about how automation and artificial intelligence will replace large swaths of jobs. The concern is really that the people who work in those positions are not supple enough to adapt to the change they will inevitably be confronted with. Because a self taught mechanical engineer may be flexible enough to transfer to software engineering when AI replaces their job, because that is not a very big leap. But for a truck driver, it's a lot to ask.
And so what Andrew Yang is essentially saying is that flexibility is not an option here. That what we need to address this problem is resilience in the form of guaranteed income. And of course, this is not a singular solution, and this is where the paradigm of flexibility comes in. Because if we look at the problem from that paradigm, we might ask ourselves why is flexibility so hard here? And I don't think it has anything to do with the intelligence of truck drivers or the possibility of there being good options out there to transition to. There are a lot of different places to look: in terms of how our educational system is structured, in terms of how our economy is structured, and so on. But at the very least part of the reason flexibility is not an option now is because the hard work to create a system, a paradigm that allows for flexibility has not been done beforehand.
So back to the stretching metaphor and how it's important to building mental flexibility. If we don't stretch, and we fall and injure ourselves, we might also think "why is flexibility so hard here?" And this is what is so important about the metaphor: for our physical body as well as our mental reactions to the changing world around us, flexibility is never an option in the moment. We like to think it is, but unless we have trained ourselves to operate in the paradigm of flexibility, we will default back to that adrenaline fueled resistance response, and break instead of bending. And this is what Lao Tzu get's to in the last part of the reading.
Those who are still and silent train themselves to be flexible. For the body, that is stretching. For the mind, stillness and silence often looks something like meditation. If we have a hard time with the stillness part, yoga or tai chi might be a way to ease into the silence part.
But the important thing is that we are training ourselves to be flexible and doing it regularly, so that when the world changes around us, we know we can count on ourselves to be supple, and bend instead of breaking.
In the last four years, India's wild tiger population has risen by 30%. This is against the sharply contrasted global trend, where from 1900 to 2010 the number of wild tigers in the world has fallen from a hundred thousand to just over three thousand. And this is a beautiful lesson about flexibility and not using the excuse of "too late". Because this is something you'll constantly hear people use, both in terms of physical and mental flexibility. India wasn't in a flexible position to help the tiger population. Actually, there's a cultural phenomenon of locals attacking tigers because of attacks on humans that put India in a highly inflexible situation. But rather than taking the easy way out, they and other countries have taken responsibility, and now they are making the situation better, and improving the flexibility.
“If you want to be more flexible and adaptable, practice challenging your comfort zones.”
― Akiroq Brost