Living With Ease: the Heart of the Tao te Ching

A student asked a Zen master, “How long will it take me to become enlightened?”

“Seven years,” the master answered.

“That’s too long,” the student replied. “How about if I try hard and put forth great effort?”

“Fourteen years,” the master said.

The point: We can act spontaneously and effectively in the world — without internal struggle or excessive effort.


On the spiritual path, we are meant to walk with ease and joy.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Even when working long days, Gandhi said he was always on vacation.

In the midst of activity, we can be at rest.

This is one of the core messages in the Tao te Ching — often described as the most translated spiritual text in the world after the Bible. And it is one of many insights that make this book a manual for living serenely in the midst of chaos.

About the Tao te Ching

Both the date of composition and the name of the author of this text are matters of speculation.

Legend holds that Lao-tzu — a contemporary of Confucious — wrote it in the fifth century BCE. The occasion was his retirement from the position of archive keeper in one of China’s many kingdoms.

When Lao-tzu tried to leave the country, the gate keeper demanded that he first reveal the essence of what he’d learned.

In response, Lao-tzu sat down and composed 81 verses of poetry on the spot. Afterward, he mounted his horse, rode away, and disappeared forever. What he left behind was the seed of the Tao te Ching.

Actually, this book may have many authors. It has passed through editors and translators for over two thousand years.

All we have, really, is the text itself. I agree with Stephen Mitchell, who created a superb translation of the Tao te Ching:

Like an Iroquois woodsman, he [Lao-tzu] left no traces. All he left us is his book: the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with humor and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world.

Where to start

If you decide to read the Tao te Ching, your first challenge is to choose a translation.

Oy! There are so many of them. And, they are so different.

Philosopher Jacob Needleman jokes that “the word Tao, and even the whole of the Tao Te Ching, is not readily translatable into any language, including Chinese!”

May I make a suggestion?

Start with Stephen Mitchell’s translation

Then go deeper with Jonathan Star’s Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition. There you will find extensive commentary and word-by-word translations of the original Chinese characters.

Once you discover the riches of this ancient text, you may want to read it many times.

This is a text to study for a lifetime and live by every day.

Two aspects of Tao

The Tao te Ching is rife with paradoxes that are stated and then transcended.

Verse 1 — widely regarded as the essence of the text — is a case in point.

Start with the term Tao itself. Tao is the unity beneath all differences. It’s the enduring reality from which all seemingly separate things emerge. It’s what we see when we release the artificial distinctions imposed by language. 

Possible synonyms for Tao include:

  • Absolute Reality
  • Supreme Reality
  • Self
  • God
  • Brahman

In this the Tao te Ching itself, Tao is also called:

  • Non-being
  • Origin
  • Nameless

Keeping these synonyms in mind allows the Tao te Ching to slowly reveal itself to you.

Tao becomes te

Tao is impersonal. When it manifests in the form of a human being, however, it becomes personal. It becomes te — a singular expression, form, or aspect of the underlying unity.

In many translations of the Tao te Ching, te is also called virtue. This refers not to morality but the power of the Tao to move — to find its perfect expression in all the separate persons and things in the world.

For the same reason, te is also called Being and the Mother of all things. The One — Tao — gives birth to the many.

What makes this expression so perfect is that Tao remains essentially unchanged — even as it manifests as countless changing objects.

As fire, Tao is hot. As water, Tao is cool. As a human being, Tao emerges at birth, grows older, and dies. 

But Tao itself never changes, ages, or disappears. It has no beginning and no end.

In his introduction to another fine translation of the Tao te Ching, Jacob Needleman sums up verse 1 beautifully:

The metaphysical doctrine now stands before us in outline: an unformed, ungraspable, pure conscious principle lies at the heart and origin of all things; it is referred to as the Tao. This principle moves, expands, descends into form, creating the hierarchically, organically ordered cascade of worlds and phenomena called “the ten thousand things,” or simply the great universe — and this movement, especially as it can move through humanity, is called Te, Virtue.

Seeing the world before words

The Tao te Ching reveals that separations and dualities exist only when we use language to name things and make distinctions. This is the difference between the named and the Nameless.

To see this and feel it at a gut level is enlightenment, which I describe as the world before words. This means perceiving the world without symbols, including language and images.

Does all this seem too abstract? Then discover the Tao for yourself. Meditate or do any spiritual practice that stills the mind and stops the constant chatter inside your skull.

Words carve up reality into the “ten thousand things.” When we let them go, what we glimpse is the underlying unity — Tao.

Spiritual practices offer direct paths to the Nameless hidden behind the named. Through such practices, as Eckhart Tolle says, you discover that “God is as real as your hands and feet.”

The end of suffering

Why would we care about discovering the Tao? 

Because it can relieve us of the fear of death and other kinds of suffering. 

It is nirvana, the “peace that passeth all understanding.”

This is what’s described in verse 13 of the Tao te Ching (Jonathan Star’s translation):

When a person does not identify himself with the body
tell me, what troubles could touch him?

Just remember that anything you can name is te, not Tao. The Nameless cannot be contained in any word.

“Just as you cannot fit the ocean into a cup” Star writes, “you cannot fit the limitless universe into your mind.”

Living in harmony with Tao

Many verses in the Tao te Ching point to the virtue of living in harmony with Tao.

Our job is not to conquer nature or have “dominion” over it as described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. We don’t find our place in the world by trying to conquer it. Instead, our practice is to live in harmony with the cosmos, the greater whole.

A key term here is wu wei — “non-doing.” This kind of behavior is spontaneous, effortless, and selfless. In his translation, Stephen Mitchell describes wu wei as trusting “your natural responses” and allowing everything to “fall into place.”

Wu wei happens when we allow feelings to rise and pass without attachment or aversion. Resisting unpleasant feelings and grasping at pleasant feelings takes a lot of energy. When we let go of that constant struggle, we gain emotional balance. And as we release negative emotions, we can act with natural compassion.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen gives an example related to Buddha’s teaching about “right speech”: Before you speak, notice your emotional state. If you’re feeling angry in the moment, then refrain from speaking:

If you would awaken, the point is not so much to be concerned with the actual words you speak, or even the tone. Instead, be concerned with observing your own heart and mind. Then speak out of your awareness of what you observe — in your heart, mind, and situation. The words you select, and their tone, will follow appropriately. And you will be speaking and listening out of wisdom and compassion.

One misconception about wu wei is that it leads to laziness and passivity. Actually, people who cultivate this virtue can get a lot done. They can even disappear into flow states — also called “being in the zone.”

As Stephen Mitchell notes:

A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.

When we live according to wu wei, we can relax into action.

We can also free ourselves from trying to remember many of the techniques, strategies, and “life hacks” presented in self-help books.

Instead of mechanically imitating someone else’s past behavior, we can simply act with clear attention to the current situation.

This is living with ease, taking the Tao te Ching as our guide and fellow traveler.

Talking to Lao Tzu About Time Management

What if Lao Tzu — purported author of the Tao te Ching — came back to life and we tried to explain time management and goal setting to him?

How would he respond?

It’s easy to dismiss this thought experiment. After all, Lao Tzu died over two millennia ago. We’d have to catch him up on centuries of human history and teach him a few things about our technology besides.

Impossible, right?

But consider how much about our species has not changed since Lao Tzu lived.

We’re still dealing with same primordial human problems, after all — our longing for sex, success, and material comfort.

Our interpersonal conflicts and struggles to coexist with people who differ from us.

Our attachment to pleasure and our aversion to pain (especially in the midst of a global pandemic).

And, above all, our coming to terms with death.

Lao Tzu looked deeply into all of these issues and spoke directly to them in the Tao te Ching.

So let me imagine the impossibly old man smiling enigmatically at my questions. Instead of answering them directly, however, he’d ask for a pencil and paper to put his response in writing.

Perhaps — in the spirit of the Tao te Ching — he’d compose something along the following lines.


What is most real cannot be named.
What is closest to us and most ordinary is the greatest mystery.
Time is like this and defies every attempt to control it.
Even the most finely honed effort will not expand or contract it.

When we stop trying to explain time, we know what it is.
When we stop trying to control it, time opens into eternity
And our burdens are lifted.

Acting without intention, we accomplish all our plans.


People place great faith in planning and doing.
In setting and achieving goals, they seek fulfillment.

Instead of wealth, they seek money.
Instead of honor, they seek fame.
Instead of loving, they seek lovers.
In restless activity, they seek stillness.
In impermanent things, they seek permanent happiness.
In acquiring things that decay, they seek immortality.

All this effort burdens us with complexity.
The means are all we know, and the ends elude us.


People forget that every solution creates a new problem.
Every success creates a fear of its loss.
Every completion gives birth to something unfinished.
Every goal achieved creates a condition that changes.
Every achievement points to an area where we are still lacking.


Moments of joy are timeless, but people seek them in time.
Happiness comes uninvited, but people try to control it.
Peace comes by releasing struggle, but people try to force it with willpower.
Serenity comes when we relax the body-mind, but people grasp at it by redoubling their efforts.


When people sit in stillness and wait for what comes from silence,
They see that time does not exist and there is nothing to do.
From that same stillness they enter the marketplace and do their work.
They make friends, make love, pay taxes, and cultivate gardens,
Understanding that activity proceeds from prior fulfillment.


Nothing that I have to say is new.
Fulfillment is full feeling — pleasant or unpleasant — without resistance.
Happiness is immediate.
Peace is already present.
If you can’t awaken where you’re already standing
Then where will you go to do it?

What keeps people from seeing this is their belief
That nothing simple can be true
That nothing worthwhile can come from relaxing effort
Even for one moment.


What if this is all there is
And it never gets any better than this?
Can you live with that?

Is the present moment really so difficult
When you relax into it with no resistance?

Get rid of your problems in one stroke, right now.
Either do something about them or stop dwelling on them.


When teachers present their personal preferences with the force of law,
Their tools and techniques sound like prescriptions,
Though they are merely options that you can take or leave.

Tools and techniques are not the point.
Simplicity is.

Productive people are divinely lazy.
They create the desired result with the least possible effort.

If you want to change your behavior, then take it easy
And don’t ever try.
Don’t attempt anything that depends on motivation or willpower.
The minute that you step on the exercise mat
Celebrate the act of showing up.
Anything that happens after that
Is beside the point.


Contemplate death daily.
Focus on people as well as projects.
Life is only relationship.
Nothing else matters.


Planning means choosing what not to do.
Release is peace.

When we pay attention to what’s happening right now,
Life changes in ways that we cannot explain or predict.
We cannot force a new quality of life to appear.
We cannot schedule transformation
Or make an appointment with paradise.

Paradise can only be recognized, not created.
Fulfillment takes place outside of effort, outside of seeking, outside of time.
We can only act with exquisite attention and release our preferences.
We can open ourselves and wait
While God and grace do the rest.

A Song for My Father

Psychologist B. J. Fogg has a habit of saying “Today’s going to be a great day” as soon as he gets up in the morning. I do that, too, and here’s why.

My dad, Don Toft, is a guiding light to me.

He laughed a lot. He played music. He sang. He painted pictures. He wrote poems.

He loved me very much. I know that because he told me.

My dad was a commercial artist who worked from home during the 1960s — long before anyone considered that normal.

I remember his office in the basement of our house on Seneca Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa. It was filled with paper and paints, triangles and T-squares. It was all so exotic.

I remember standing in that office one night when I was 10 or 11 and staring at every object, trying to figure out what each one was for.

When I was 14, my dad bought me my first electric guitar — a solid body, 3/4-size Fender Duo-Sonic. It was painted cherry red and had a neck of polished wood that felt like velvet. Next to a sunset, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I will never forget that guitar. It was a Christmas present. At midnight on Christmas Eve that year, I snuck out of bed to peek under the tree. I saw the long, flat case wrapped up in bright green paper with a red ribbon on top. I knew exactly what was inside.

The next morning, when we opened presents, I pretended to be surprised.

During the years after that Christmas, my dad got sick from time to time.

Real sick, actually.

When I was in 8th grade, he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis. None of the adults told us was what was really going on. I found out years later that he almost died then.

Fortunately dad had more years of good health while I finished high school and college.

Then, in 1974, he started developing symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It was the beginning of a long, slow decline. I pray that you and all the people you love never ever have to go through something like that.

During the 1970s I went to college. I studied philosophy and religion and wondered how I could use my studies to help my dad.

Meanwhile, he was slowly losing the ability to walk and talk.

Finally, I sat in my room one night and wrote a letter to him. It was a short letter. I told him that I loved him and didn’t want him to die.

That was all, basically: The fruit of my tuition payments. The sum of my knowledge.

It was the truest thing I ever said to anybody.

I am glad I wrote that letter. Mom said that that dad kept it in his desk drawer and pulled it out to read over and over again.

Watching my dad die taught me not to put off saying the important things that are hard to say to the people who the matter most. You never know when they will be taken away from you. Forever.

My dad died on Mother’s Day, 1982. He was 53 years old.

Even after all this time, I can hardly believe that he’s gone. When I think about it, I still get stabbing sensations in my stomach.

There is still a part of me that thinks dad will call me on the phone or knock on my door.

There is a small child in each of us who never gives up hope.

When my dad died, I promised myself that I would think of him every day. I have never broken that promise.

Every morning, when I get out of bed, I check to see if I can still walk and talk. Then I remember my dad. And then I know that no matter what happens, today will be a great day.