“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– from The Tao Te Ching [mistranslation]
“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath the feet.”
– from The Tao Te Ching [accurate translation]
I’ve been reading The Tao Te Ching recently and it’s been helping me overcome several challenges I’ve been facing.
The Tao (pronounced “Dao”) means, simply, “The Way.” (I am told that “The Way” sounds just as vague and non-denominational in Chinese as it does in English.)
The Tao Te Ching is the core teaching of Taoism. Taoism, I’ve learned, is not a religion. It’s a wisdom teaching that has been around for thousands of years. The Tao Te Ching itself is a collection of very simple, straightforward wisdom teachings.
“The Journey of A Thousand Miles” Revised
Although you may not know it, you may already be familiar with The Tao Te Ching.
For instance, have you ever heard of this popular phrase:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”?
It’s very likely that you have.
I’ve heard this phrase over and over my entire life, and I’ve inadvertently been living by its teaching. But I never knew where this teaching came from until very recently, when I discovered that it came directly from The Tao Te Ching.
Now, if you were as familiar with this phrase as I was, then you would be just as surprised as I was to discover that the famous phrase is actually a mistranslation.
The following is a more accurate translation of the phrase:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath the feet.” [Bold added.]
When I read this I was stunned.
I used to think that the lesson here was that every task we endeavor to accomplish begins with us taking a small step toward achieving our goal. Because I thought that this was the lesson, I had been looking to take that “single step” my entire life.
Now I realize that it’s no wonder I could never find “the single step”: it was never there to begin with.
The Problem With The Journey of “The Single Step”
First of all, I think it says volumes that some Westerner translated the Tao Te Ching incorrectly, and that this mistranslation has resulted in all of us misunderstanding a core teaching of the Tao.
You see, as Westerners, we are strong believers in self-reliance, independence, and individuality.
So, Westerners understand very well what it means when someone tells us that we need to take a “singe step” toward a goal. The idea of “the single step” makes us feel powerful. It gives us work to do: taking a step.
Taking “the single step” not only gives us something to do, but, most importantly, it gives us something to obsess over. It’s so easy for us to obsess over every part of taking that “single step.”
“How should I take this ‘single step’?” we might think. “When should I take the step? Who should take the step with me? Where should I take the step?” And at last: “What is the step for and why should I take it in the first place?”
The idea of “the single step” also gives us something to make our own. It’s our step that we’re taking, after all. We have the power in this scenario. We are the sole pioneers in the journey of our life.
Unfortunately, we have only inserted this Western idea of self-reliance and individuality into a teaching that wasn’t talking about self-reliance at all.
Because the real way to accomplish a task, the Tao seems to say, is not by taking a single step, but by looking “beneath one’s feet.” Which is to say that in order to begin the journey of a thousand miles, you have to go outside of your “self” completely. You also have to stop obsessing over taking a “single step” and simply become aware of where you are at this very moment.
It is only when we relinquish “the self,” and become aware of our surroundings, that we truly know what to do next.
Why The Journey “Beneath Our Feet” Makes More Sense
As I’ve said, The Tao Te Ching seems to be implying that, in fact, our journey in this life may not rely exclusively upon our own initiative.
I know. It sounds too rigid for us.
Where’s the freedom? We wonder. Where’s the spirit of individuality? Where’s the “me” in the whole scenario? And the part where “I” take “the single step”—where “I,” alone, am the one that takes the initiative?”
Even though the first step is gone, and the narcissistic “I” has gone with it, I don’t think that the implosion of “free will” is what The Tao Te Ching is driving at here.
I think the point The Tao Te Ching is driving at is this: when we get rid of having to take “the single step,” we can also get rid of the stress we’ve piled up on top of taking that “single step.”
Because, if we need not take a single step–if we are already where we need to be–then there’s no need to stress. There’s no need to wonder, or puzzle, or debate.
Our focus no longer has to be on taking a single step.
Our focus can be shifted. Our focus can land on inhabiting the space in which we currently reside in: the present moment (a.k.a. the area “beneath our feet.”)
Then, when we are fully present, we need to trust that the answers will come to us, and that soon we will know what step to take in order to fulfill “the journey of a thousand miles.”
Our job, the Tao Te Ching seems to be telling us, is not to act out on our lofty goals as a separate, distinct individual. It is telling us that we also need to be receptive: we also need to act on behalf of something bigger than us. (After all, we are co-creators, not sole creators.)
If there is any action we need to take, then, it is the act of becoming aware of this simple fact. Because it’s only an individual that is fully aware of his place in the grand scheme of things who can begin the journey of a thousand miles and, in the end, succeed.
Moreover, the answer to our current dilemma cannot be found by taking action–because the answer is actually hiding beneath our very noses!
Any search for an answer outside of us is only distracting us from the answer that already exists within us right now, right here, where we currently stand.
Why Starting “Beneath One’s Feet” Leads To “The Single Step” Anyway
According to the Tao, the first thing we have to do in order to succeed is to become fully aware of where we are in this moment. Then, once we are fully aware and present, “the single step” will arrive organically and effortlessly out of our simple choice to become aware.
If you stop trying to take the “right” step, and simply do nothing, then you’ll end up taking the right step anyway.
Isn’t that wonderful?