Taoist Turtle in the Mud

You likely know this story.

The Emperor sent his men to bring the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, back to the palace so he could serve and provide good counsel to the Emperor. Of course, Chuang Tzu declined the honor when the soldiers found him sitting in the dirt at the foot of a shade tree.

The soldiers demanded he explain his refusal and Chuang Tzu replied, “Do you recall the massive tortoise shell on the wall above the Emperor’s throne? That turtle was sitting in the mud when he was captured and taken to the palace to be sacrificed.

 “It was, of course, a great honor. But don’t you think that turtle would have preferred to be left alone in his pool of mud?”

“Of course,” replied the soldiers.

“Than leave me in my pool of mud,” Chuang Tzu replied.

I thought of this story yesterday as I worked with an acquaintance who asked for help with a project for her client. She needed to ship product and was fearful the materials would not arrive for a meeting on time. She even fretted over how straight the shipping labels were on the boxes.

This woman has owned her business for 30 years and been blessed with an income most regular people like you and me could not hope for. And she has spent it lavishly on fancy homes, cars and material goods of no lasting value.

Now, at age 60, she is down to this one client, living project to project, borrowing money and paying it back to stay one step ahead of her expensive lifestyle. The stress has impacted her health in the worst ways. She spent the day yesterday denying herself food and bathroom breaks, fearful that a momentary lapse in focus would mean a mistake that resulted in the loss of her only client.

I drove home last night to my pool of mud, thinking how much happier I was to have emulated Chuang Tzu with my life choices. I have no fancy sports car, no luxury home and I cook my own basic food. I no longer have to work, my needs are so few. But most importantly, no one owns me to the point I feel I must deny my own need to use the toilet.

Chuang Tzu knew a life in the palace would mean great riches and rewards. He also knew it would require living in constant fear and eventually sacrificing his life.


About Leigh

Leigh is an American Taoist philosopher, exploring how modern life and its problems can best be addressed with ancient teachings. She is also a doctor of psychology.
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