A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This is the perhaps most enduring line of the Tao Te Ching – a work written by Lao Tzu which itself is still read and studied today, over 2,500 years since its composition. This line sits halfway through the 64th verse of an 81 verse collection, the foundation of all Daoist philosophy.
My introduction to the Tao Te Ching came from Dr Wayne Dyer, through his book completely seriously entitled Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life – bear with me on this one. As is tradition, Dr Dyer presents his own version of the Tao Te Ching, in his case by studying a wide corpus of translations and compiling selected verses. Untraditionally, each verse is followed by an essay on the preceding teachings. Purportedly, the author spent several days meditating on each lesson of the Dao, attempting to live the Way of the Eternal Dao. This process included walks along the beach, incense, and (among other things) gazing upon a portrait of Lao Tzu, in an attempt to Change His Thoughts, and Change His Life. If you’re willing to put aside judgement and be comfortable with some life-changing suggestions one reviewer described as “a bit pollyanna”, it’s a worthwhile read.
One translation of the 64th verse of the Tao Te Ching, as presented by Dr Dyer, reads as follows.
What is at rest is easily managed. What is not yet manifest is easy to prevent. The brittle is easily shattered. The small is easily scattered. Act before things exist. Manage them before there is disorder. Remember, a tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling. A tower nine storeys high starts with one brick. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Act, and destroy it. Grasp it, and lose it. A sage does not act, and so is not defeated. He does not grasp, and therefore does not lose. People usually fail when they are on the verge of success, so give as much care at the end as at the beginning. Then there will be no failure. The sage does not treasure what is difficult to obtain. He does not collect precious things. He learns not to hold onto ideas. He helps the Ten Thousand Things find their own nature, but does not venture to lead them by the nose.
Even by the standards of the Tao Te Ching, this is a particularly insightful and instructive verse. In part, this is due to how immediately accessible much of the verse is, if not its entirety. There are lessons we can carry with us from these words. What follows is only one interpretation of the many-faceted Dao.
A tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling.
A tower nine storeys high starts with one brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Having recently ventured to the Grampians National Park and climbed atop many peaks and mountains, I was humbled by the scale of it all. There were many mountaintops and rolling valleys, many trees and forests, and a great many boulders designed almost perfectly for climbing upon and meditating. Yet there was a time where there was nothing. Before the trees, there were but seedlings, and before the mountains were sweeping plains. Over thousands of years the land has been formed and reformed, with changes never perceptible yet never ceasing. If mountains could grow from flat earth and forests from a single seedling, is there any limit to the heights to which we could rise? What does this say about the lives we could build?
In his most enduring line, Lao Tzu tells us of both what can be achieved and the means by which we can achieve it. In each of our lives are towers we wish to build. I’ve written about a few of mine before – a consistent meditation practice, an Olympic dream, this very blog. For others it is a fulfilling career, mastery of a language, a family. Viewed in their completion, these towers seem far to great to ever scale, let alone build. Yet all around us we see the manifestation of things which seemed impossible. Literal towers define a city’s skyline, each tower built brick by brick. In national parks reside thousands of trees which form the canopy above, yet each of these began life smaller than the blades of grass underfoot. Every journey of a thousand miles began from no journey at all. In this 64th verse of the Tao Te Ching, we come to realise the heights of what we achieve.
There is a way in which we can build our towers and complete our journeys. Slowly, one brick at a time, step by single step. All we need do is what is small. By taking small steps, we not only achieve our goals, but we achieve them without noticing resistance. Just like the tree which grows from a seedling, we are always growing. Yet just like the tree, our growth is not always perceptible. What is one step along a journey of thousands? Other than the first, nothing is special about the step itself, nor is any day more defining for a tree than any other. We must still take each step, and still grow each day, until one day, we look back on the many miles we have travelled, and look down upon the great heights which we have grown.
Act before things exist.
Reading this line, I am reminded of The Art of Learning, an autobiographical account of former child chess prodigy and tàijíquán world champion Josh Waitzkin. In learning tàijíquán, Josh studied texts on this Chinese martial art to more fully understand both its martial and spiritual facets. In one section of his book, he recalls the following precept: “When the opponent moves, I move first”. As is a hallmark of Chinese philosophies, this precept appears at first paradoxical. At the very least, to suggest that one moves before their opponent, after the opponent has already moved, suggests a poor understanding of causality and continuity. Yet the deeper meaning of this precept suggests a reversal of how martial artists conventionally approach their combat. Instead of acting reactively, after their opponent moves, one can act proactively. This action is not mere prophylaxis – that is, taking proactive action to prevent the opponent from moving first. We are instead guided to control the entire flow of an engagement. What Josh came to learn from these words was to control the fight entirely, by making the opponent move in the way he wanted, to understand the opponent, to know what the opponent would do next – because he was the one controlling each movement. When the opponent moves, one who understands this precept would know exactly when and where. When the opponents moves, I move first.
While it is difficult to imagine Lao Tzu as a fighting man, there are parallels we can draw between his 64th verse and the precept taught in texts on tàijíquán. For one to act before a thing exists, we must know the thing. We must understand how things come into this world, what has come before them, and what will come afterwards. Lao Tzu’s image of a journey of a thousand steps reminds us that all things begin small, and that the only way things ever progress is by infinitesimal steps. In advising us to act before things exist, he reminds us that before things are even small, they are in a state of non-existence. By acting before things are manifest, they are easy to prevent.
This is wisdom we can apply to our own actions in our own lives. On a simple level, we see the benefit of preventative action. The effort in rebuilding a damaged relationship far exceeds the effort in maintaining a healthy relationship, through frequent and open communication. Our relationships are made easier by addressing and discussing issues before they arise. At work, we have many opportunities to see into the future and foresee problems which may occur. By sweeping aside the problem – such as a bug to deal with when you finally get the time (spoiler: you won’t), or a point of confusion with a client who you hope will figure it out themselves (spoiler: they won’t) – we only forestall and exacerbate an eventual disaster.
The aphorism an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure rings true (even accounting for the conversion from imperial). Lao Tzu presents us with something more than mere aphorism. For us to act before something exists, we must know the thing. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, yet we must know what it is we are preventing. We must exercise our foresight and be aware of all things which have come before, and hence all things which are to come, if we are to live well, in accordance with the Dao.
Lao Tzu offers us many things, even now, thousands of years after his time. Start small, build upon each brick and each step, be aware of what has come before and what is to come. Act while things are manageable, before they become too difficult to sway from their own inexorable journey of a thousand miles. While an oil painting of a Chinese philosopher may not take pride of place on your desk at work, the wisdom of the Dao is easily transportable.