The Path: Influence

September 25, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Sept. 25, 2016

“The Path – Influence”
Based on the book The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
Luke 13: 18-21

Imagine you are walking through a forest. It’s a glorious summer afternoon, and the sun is shining brightly through the vibrant green leaves. Off in the distance, you see a mighty oak towering above the others. It’s so high that you can barely see the top. A few yards away is a tiny sapling, growing in the shadow of the larger tree. Odds are, you will see the larger tree as powerful, steadfast, magisterial, and the sapling as fragile and vulnerable.

But when a windstorm comes, the forest floor will be littered with large branches. The oak tree might not be able to withstand the wind, rain, and lightning of a fierce storm. In the end, it will topple to the ground, yet the sapling will remain intact. Why? The sapling has been bending and shifting with the winds; pliable and soft, it stands up again when the storm has passed. Its very weakness is what has allowed it to flourish and prevail.

We often assume – because this is what we’ve been taught – that to be influential we have to be strong and powerful like the tall oak in the forest. But there is a different recipe for influence to be found in Chinese philosophical texts such as Laozi. It derives from appreciating the power of seeming weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated.

Laozi wrote about the Way. The Way is commonly perceived as an ideal that is “out there”; or the natural perfection that exists beyond us and with which we need to come back into harmony. To Laozi, the Way was different than this. He believed that the Way is something we can actively generate ourselves, in the here and now. We each have the potential to become effective and influential in transforming the worlds in which we live. He believed that we can re-create the Way.

Compare this to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God there is equality, peace, hope, enough for all. And Jesus – like Laozi – taught that this harmonious way of living was available in the present. It can be brought about by each of us in our own ways. Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” When Jesus said these things, he was espousing the idea that small, unnoticed things make a huge difference, and can actually bring about the Kingdom of God.

We go about finding harmony the wrong way, taught Laozi. When we leave our normal lives behind and head off to a beautiful location to “get away from it all”, we have missed the point. Eventually we have to return to our normal lives, leaving behind our brief feeling of deeper connectedness to the world. Although we think that taking a rejuvenating weekend walk in the woods is how we reconnect with the world and with ourselves, this attitude leads us to greater disconnection from both. Instead, the Way – or the ultimate harmony we seek – is something we bring about actively through our daily interactions. Laozi said, “the key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.”

Imagine that you have a difficult supervisor at work – someone who is overly demanding and unkind. He seems to have irrational expectations of you and yet doesn’t provide you with the guidance or feedback you need. By quietly observing the bigger picture, you can think through whether there is something about you that draws out his traits:
• Maybe you have a skill he is feeling competitive about.
• Perhaps you have a weakness he thinks he can exploit.
• Is he insecure and are you playing into that?
• What might you be doing unwittingly that feeds into his personality?
To apply Laozi’s technique to the situation, you can try new ways of relating to him. Before your next project, you could try seeking his advice on a small aspect of it, so that he sees you as someone looking to learn from his experience.

Things like this help you slowly and deliberately shift the relationship over time, making him feel more like an experienced mentor helping a colleague to flourish and grow. That takes time, I know, and consistent effort. When your aim is to reconnect people, emotions, or things, you can sense how to change the environment and the relationship for the long term. You have the power to bring about the Way. You can be the mustard seed in Jesus’ parable, or the yeast.

Another example: your children get in a squabble. It is the weekend and you need some quiet time because it has been one of those weeks at work. Your immediate urge is to respond by sending them to their rooms, ask them to be nicer to one another, offer them a bribe, or distract them. Instead of responding directly to the quarrel, Laozi’s teachings would encourage you to work to understand what’s happening with each child, and then shift the attitude of the room to alter what’s going on. You look beyond the presenting emotions ~
“He hit me!”
“She started it!”
“I never get to do it…”
“Make her stop!”
~to understand the underlying emotions causing this to happen. Maybe your daughter is acting out because she wanted to be with her friends instead of home with her brother. It might be that your son feels ignored because you were distracted.

So you take a deep breath, use a calm voice, and reassuring body language to create a different atmosphere in the room. When you really try to understand the feelings, you can choose the best way to elicit a different side of your children that will change the entire dynamic between them. You can, slowly, bring about conditions for the Way. Your actions – confronting, coaxing, bribing, scolding, cajoling – can create distinctions between them. The reason a Laozian approach works is not just that you are being less overt or that everyone is calming down. It works because you are actively reconnecting things or people. You are creating a new environment. As Laozi wrote, “Weakness overcomes strength. Softness overcomes hardness.” As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” Small. Seemingly insignificant, yet capable of producing bright color and blooms.

Think of who is most effective in the workplace: the office bully who is always throwing around his weight, trying to dominate everyone else, or the one who is attuned to people’s emotions, to how they receive things, who uses humor and laughter to connect, and who stays ever aware of the atmosphere of the place.

Think of the teachers you had as a child. Who was most effective in the classroom: the teacher who used a loud voice and threats to intimidate everyone? Or the one who kept the classroom ticking along harmoniously through the judicious use of drawing the students together with a quiet, low-pitched, slow, and calm voice? True power does not rely on strength and domination. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be,” said Laozi.
Strength and domination render us incapable of relating to others and the things around us.

The enduring power of Laozi teaching is in its potential to help us become infinitely more influential through softness, not hardness; through connecting, not dominating.

Imagine that you have had a hurried day…
You woke up late and had to hurry through the morning routine.
The traffic was snarled and cost you even more time.
You had meetings scheduled throughout the day.
You didn’t even have time for lunch.
Now, you have another meeting, and this one you are supposed to lead. You could rush into the meeting, harried, stressed, angry at your pressure cooker life, and just get it done. The others at the meeting would begin to feed off of you stress, anger, and exhaustion. Even the suggestions you make are opposed because of the contentious mood of the room. The entire experience is unpleasant, and you leave the meeting feeling even worse than before.

Or… you can rush to the door of the conference room and pause to take a deep breath and calm yourself. You are stilling yourself, bringing down your stress level and you anger, and getting into the spirit of the Way. Then, you walk into the room. You immediately take stock of the room and all the people sitting there in their own complexity. Some of them are stressed, some are disengaged, others are ready to meet and perhaps even excited.

It is your job to help all these different people reach an accord so the meeting can be productive. You have an agenda and you know how you want things to go. Instead of stating your position overtly, you elicit responses from the group. You may raise a few questions, or bring up some points, but it is your thoughtful approach that quietly steers everyone down the path you want them to take. Plans form and ideas are flowing. Slowly a consensus forms.

When the meeting is over, the other participants might go away thinking, “Wow, that meeting went really well; it seemed to run smoothly all by itself.” But it was you who shifted the mood of the room; softly, subtly, you developed a moment where everyone was connected, excited about ideas, and working in harmony. You created the Way.

True influence isn’t to be found in overt strength or will. It comes from creating a world that feels so natural that no one questions it. This is how Laozi taught the sages to wield enormous influence.

We can create Laozi’s Way or Jesus’ Kingdom of God by actively weaving together everything around us.