“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” Lau Tzu – Self-Discipline
Should you always try to get what you want?
Mind control is a form of self-discipline that is so difficult to master. In tense, stressful moments, our natural reaction is to use our mind actively to control the situation and many times that is exactly what we need. In other settings, if we slow our mind down, we can think more clearly and come up with solutions. A calm, patient mind has true power over the world. Exact knowledge on how and when to use our mind to achieve the goals we want is elusive.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts for a conversation about self-discipline using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method.
Whether you are a teacher, school leader, or simply someone interested in experiencing the joy and fulfillment of challenging kids with big ideas, join our worldwide Community of Educators FREE for 30 days. Membership includes access to our robust library of resources, conversation plans, and lively discussions among teachers and faculty.
Image source: Wikimedia | Tom@HK
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions. Then join our Community of Educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty, free for 30 days.
Dan Fouts 00:29
Welcome, everybody to the Teach Different podcast. This week, we have a great quote about self-discipline from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. We have a few of his quotes in our library already. He’s very good at expressing profound wisdom. To get started, let’s review our conversation method. We read the quote, create a claim for the quote, then move into the counterclaim. This will create tension in the conversation, which is at the heart of the Teach Different method. You agree with something and support your position using your personal experiences. Then, you push against your claim with a counterclaim using your personal experiences. It’s important that both make sense. The magic middle is the conversation that results from reconciling two contradictory things. We’ll end with an essential question. Tonight is Lao Tzu on self-discipline. This is a really deep quote. “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” What is the claim? Steve, what does this say to you?
Steve Fouts 01:58 – Claim
Well, I would start this one off by clarifying things before I get to the claim. We have to talk about what it means for a mind to be still. The universe surrendering, to me, means something a little more obvious. What is a still mind? I’m picturing somebody meditating or enjoying a day without much purpose. I’m thinking about someone who isn’t thinking about the future or the past, but is more focused on the now and probably isn’t talking. Going back to the quote, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders”. What he’s saying, to me, is that in order to have influence, to get what you want, to have the world come to you, then you have to do the opposite. You have to remain still. To me that means you can’t want, you can’t be moving, and you can’t be thinking too much, but ironically, when you do that, you end up getting what you want. So, the claim to me is that to get what you want in life, you have to control yourself, and not covet.
Dan Fouts 03:56
Yeah, I agree. “To the mind that is still,” makes me think of someone who’s not stressed out. Somebody who is calm, able to manage their behavior in chaotic settings. It’s that student who’s able to calm him or herself down before reading a book or focusing on some sort of activity for 20 minutes. It’s not allowing distractions to interrupt you. You mentioned meditation. It’s like your self-meditation, your singular purpose, or focus, and then, the whole universe surrenders. Like you said, you get what you want when you’re able to control your mind and control your desires. It’s like everything just falls into place because you’ve calmed. Life has gone into slow motion, and because of that, you are in a position to control your own destiny a little better.
Steve Fouts 05:20
I’m thinking of a quote, “if you want to be rich, want less, don’t get more.” It’s counter intuitive. When you mentioned students getting what they want by being a certain way, I immediately thought of some of my high-school students on the west side of Chicago. I’m thinking of the leadership dynamic in the student peer groups. One thing I noticed was that the students who had the most influence over other peers were usually calm. They also knew how to talk to adults in the building and had high levels of intelligence. You would think that they would be a little different than what they ended up being from what I noticed. It never ceases to amaze me that a really quiet student has all the other students afraid of him/her/they, but the students see him/her/they as a leader, someone to look up to and follow. The quiet student doesn’t seem like they were looking for that. What is strange is that they actually created a mystique around themselves and reluctantly accepted all the attention.
Dan Fouts 07:22
I can bring us to a totally different context, a classroom discussion. This is how I would introduce this quote with students to get them thinking in a productive way. Let’s think of the universe as a classroom right now. “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” I would talk about the importance of listening, slowing down your thinking to really listen closely to other people and what they’re saying. Only speak in a discussion when you have something important to say. I found consistently, throughout my almost 30 year career, that the students who had the most influence in the class during a discussion were the ones who didn’t talk that much. When they did talk, after allowing their mind to be still for extended periods of time, then people listened. The whole classroom surrendered. In that sense, you have a lot of power, when you’re not trying too hard to get what you want, and you’re letting things come to you. What do you think of that as a way to bring it down to something that they could understand?
Steve Fouts 08:44
I like it. The classroom listened, because the student listened. It’s like they received reciprocity. Whereas, if you’re talking all the time, running here and there, and your mind’s all over the place, you just become part of the noise. You have less power, and less influence.
Dan Fouts 09:23
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of wisdom to that. A quick sports analogy. What do they say about athletes who perform the very best, and are most successful? They are able, for whatever reason, to get into a zone during the most stressful parts of a game. Their mind is still. While everyone else is nervous, they are thinking clearly, and that leads to success. Maybe you could talk about that with some of your students who are athletes.
Steve Fouts 10:02
If you could get the students to understand the claim of the quote, then it would be interesting to hear personal experiences about what happened when they calmed their mind. Did they end up receiving attention, power, and influence? The key would be to get that claim down, so that everybody is on the same page.
Dan Fouts 10:48
Yes. This is a really deep quote, but I think if you bring in some familiar words, get them to think of what still means, and maybe bring the universe down to a classroom, then they can understand the quote. Well, what do you think a good counterclaim is? I see the wisdom of this claim very clearly, but let’s go against it. What is an equally reasonable thing to say here?
Steve Fouts 11:18
I don’t know. What do you think? Would you put it a certain way?
Dan Fouts 11:26 – Counterclaim
Well, you could just switch the words. To the mind that is active, the whole universe surrenders. To the mind that is thinking of things, thinking ahead, being vigilant and exerting power over an environment and people, is a way to get the universe to surrender. You dominate it.
Steve Fouts 12:01
Some people exert power by being a talker. They just talk up the room and talk circles around people. That’s not a still mind. That’s not a bad argument. In certain circumstances, you can get power and influence by being proactive, by talking, thinking, and strategizing, by always thinking of the past, learning from it, thinking about what might happen in the future, and preparing for it. That’s someone who could be very successful.
Dan Fouts 12:54
I’m thinking of a group project in class, when you have your students together in groups of three, four or five. Typically, there is a student who doesn’t let their mind be still. They insert themselves into the group and start organizing other people’s energy around a common goal. They get the project done, usually because they get frustrated by people who aren’t working as hard as they are. They would not follow this quote. They would go right into the counterclaim and say, somebody has to get something done. It’s not going to magically happen unless I intervene.
Steve Fouts 13:41
Yeah, everyone’s mind can’t be still. We need to accomplish things. We need to get things done. This is a situational quote. First, get the students to appreciate what Lao Tzu is saying, then ask them how they would implement this wisdom.
Dan Fouts 14:18
Yeah. Maybe the questions to ask during the discussion are: In what situations in your life do you think it’s important for your mind to be still? In what situations in your life do you feel like your mind should be more active and proactive? As you said, this is situational. They’ll start realizing that this quote fits in different settings, but it’s not one size fits all.
Steve Fouts 14:55
Maybe a good storytelling prompt for the counterclaim would be an example of when you had to act. A time when someone had to step up and do something or say something. Ask them if they’ve ever experienced that? That will reveal things. I can see that getting interesting. You could offer a prompt, has anyone ever been in an emergency situation where everyone is just sitting or standing around and no one is doing anything? Then, someone stepped in. Maybe it was you. Have you ever been in a situation like that? Would this quote help you understand how to handle yourself in a situation like that?
Dan Fouts 16:14
That’s a good one. This really gets the kids thinking about their mind, how to control it, whether they should control it, or when they should act and not control it. This is a good quote on self-discipline. Sometimes self-discipline is really important, but other times you have to act in different ways.
Steve Fouts 16:53
Before you go into that, can I tell a quick story? I have a perfect story. I was teaching, and there was smoke in the hall. An emergency. I came out into the hall and saw students running down the hall away from the smoke. The smoke was billowing toward my room, and students were screaming and running. Don’t ask me why, but on that day, my mind was still. I remember not reacting to it with fear, excitement, or anxiety. I literally just walked toward where the students were running from, and I remember seeing this metal trash can about three feet high with a bunch of paper in it. That was what was burning in the middle of the hall. That was the source of all the smoke. My mind was so still, and I thought to myself that I have the source of the fire. That’s a really good place to have a fire, contained in a metal trash can in the middle of the hall. It could be a lot worse. I remember just having this sense that this was going to be okay. We’re going to be under control here in a moment. The rest of the universe was going crazy. I felt like I was ahead of things because I wasn’t overreacting. It’s powerful to change how you perceive something, and how you react to it.
Dan Fouts 18:56
Let me jump into this conversation. As a teacher, when my class is chaotic and out of control, I act the exact opposite. My mind is still because that is how I gain control over the situation. When my mind is still that role models that being still is the right thing to do. I actually get what I want by being that way.
Steve Fouts 19:40
You could also ask them how they feel when they’ve done something wrong and all the teacher does is stare and doesn’t say anything. How do you react to that?
Dan Fouts 19:55
They would be more willing to stop their behavior, if their behavior is met with silence, calmness, and stillness.
Steve Fouts 20:06
At least it’s more uncomfortable for them. If you’re yelling at them, then you’ve been triggered, and now you don’t have any power or influence over them.
Dan Fouts 20:22
We got into some good specific examples that you could bring into the classroom. I think they’re going to have a lot to say about this quote, once the conversation gets going. Sometimes these conversations take a little bit to get going. But once they do, you’ll get an avalanche of personal experiences that the kids share. That is when this method becomes so powerful.
Dan Fouts 20:46 – Essential Question
Well, here’s an essential question that could wrap up this conversation. Should you always try to get what you want? Getting to this idea of how much control do you have over life if you discipline your mind? Is it worth it? It’s situational, but the kids can work that out. Should you always try to get what you want, or should let it come to you?
Steve Fouts 21:15
Yeah, that’s good. That’s so situational.
Dan Fouts 21:20
Good. Well, thanks, everybody. It’s been great. We’ve really enjoyed tonight with Lao Tzu and his quote on self-discipline. “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” Have a good evening.
Steve Fouts 21:34
Take care everybody.
Dan Fouts 21:37
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join our Community of Educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there and next time on the Teach Different Podcast, take care!