My current apartment would fit comfortably into the living rooms of most American homes. Even counting the bathroom, it is under 250 square feet.
Yet it is enough, and has been enough for 4 years now. It has become a daily teaching in the most important lesson that a contemporary American must learn, the removal of excess.
The ancient Chinese arts that come under the name of Tao all tend to support this same principle, that there is no such thing as evil; there is only excess. And so Feng Shui teaches the removal of environmental excess to reveal an inherent order; the medical practice of acupuncture redistributes the body’s energies to restore its inherent balance; and poetry such as is found in the I Ching and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching shows us the way of “success through the small,” which applies to both individuals and nations seeking a return to the way of Nature.
Now, as you can plainly see, my apartment is no temple of order; and I can assure you that my body is no model of balance, nor is my life in general an exemplar of natural living. So I write about these things not as some arhat of attainment, nor even as a conventional expert in self-improvement.
But I am learning, and that is the most crucial prerequisite for teaching. If you’re still open, still learning, then you’re still alive and not among the walking dead. There is none of the pomp or noise in learning that you get from the dead; just the quiet exertion of openness to something not yet known or felt by someone not yet complete.
So never mind B.A., M.A., Ph.D., or any of the other honorific letters that people strive so hard to put after their names: the greatest one is also the humblest: S. for “Student.”
This is what those old Chinese writers might have meant by “the small” — the I Ching prompts us to “see the great man,” to open our minds and hearts to the gentle Sage of universal consciousness, which resides within and all around us. The ultimate oracle is daily life.
Lao Tzu urges big nations to act small, and small nations to be grateful for their blessing; for they are “already complete” in their open awareness of not yet being complete. So keep that letter S. after your name and your wholeness will be continually fulfilled.
Learning is, in this view of life, about much more than merely acquiring information. This is a fairly meaningful point for our digital culture: having your facts is sufficient but not complete to learning. Ironically, this is a perspective that is acknowledged even in the arid (and conceptually murky) field of statistics: a probability distribution can be sufficient yet incomplete. In a similar way, data are the ingredients of truth but not its living body; in much the same way as flour, sugar, water, fruit, etc. are not a pie. Truth needs energy, not just data, for it to live and lead.
The melding energy of interdependent individuals is what makes learning possible and life abundant. Working alone is sufficient to the one but not complete to the body of the many. If there is true awareness on the part of the student, then the synergy of communication with others will arise without effort. So here is another reminder to our digital era: connectivity is not enough for there to be a truly social medium; there must be communication. Again: connectivity is sufficient but incomplete to a healthy social order.
In the professional realm where I work — IT Project Management — we are taught to be mindful of the dangers of “silos.” The term is simply a specific application of the principle already mentioned, that connectivity does not equal communication. A silo mentality exists where there is a territorial mindset prevalent among divisions, departments, or business units of a large organization, and there is limited or nonexistent sharing of data, processes, goals, and resources among these disparate entities. Being part of the same org-chart — boxes connected by lines — does not mean that we’re communicating or sharing.
The silo-mind has a tendency to recapitulate itself in an alarmingly metastatic fashion. I am reminded every day that my tiny dwelling at the top of a four-story walk-up is one of a dozen silos within a city of such silos; thus even the language we use acknowledges that — apart-ment. I must recall to myself what I tell my business users at work, that if we must as individuals be (or appear to be) silos, we can still avoid the pain and dysfunction of isolation through a mere awareness of the farm.
This is what learning is all about, the silo’s awareness of the universe, with which it gives and receives nourishment. Led by such an awareness, facts become truth; connectivity becomes communication; and separation leads to union. Small states can make a great nation.
For me, it all begins within. If I can communicate with beings from other dimensions, from an awareness of the cosmic society from which my life arose, then I may become more valuable to my professional circles; more understanding and helpful to family and friends; and maybe even a better citizen of my nation and my planet.
So, returning to the message of the I Ching and Lao Tzu: smallness is not insignificance, not in the sense of Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” meditation on our planet. If you believe that small is equivalent to weak, meaningless, or insignificant, then you are still in the realm of ego and will continue to play its game of striving after greatness — fame, wealth, status.
In the same way, if the way of meditation, yoga, or shamanic activity is merely some esoteric display of mystical power, then the trap is set just as firmly as it is for the Wall St. banker or the Washington power-broker. I must continue to learn the difference between distinguishing and isolating myself. Asserting myself as an individual is not about climbing to the top of a hierarchical food chain of either spiritual or secular society; but continually discovering my small silo’s unique position of interdependence within the great farm of being.