Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people’s greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 78, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Lao Tzu always comes back to water. It is his favorite metaphor. And we have heard this so many times. We know this. Why does he keep going on and on about it? The reason he goes on and on about it is because, while we all think we know it, few can put it into practice.
The last time I wrote my commentary on this chapter, early in March of this year, I spent a great deal of time talking about water. But we already know this. So, I am not going to rehash the qualities of water that are readily apparent to all. We know what water is. We know how it acts in the world. What we need to graduate to, is putting this teaching into practice in our lives. We need to be like water. How difficult can this be, since we are mostly made of water?
It isn’t enough to know what water is like. That would be like observing the flower, without partaking of the fruit. We need to be soft and yielding, like water. We need to, like the Master, remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow.
I think you know the kind of sorrow I am talking about. The hard and inflexible kind of sorrow. It is the kind of sorrow that demands that we do something. And being the good people we always strive to be, we allow evil to enter our hearts right here. Our serenity is lost. We must help. We want to help. With our good intentions. Those good intentions that my Dad always insisted paved the streets of Hell. Have you ever paused and considered how hard and inflexible, good intentions always are? We see before us a problem and we are right there with our solution. And you better do things my way… We are attempting to deal with the hard and inflexible with the hard and inflexible.
How do we remain serene? Even in the midst of this kind of sorrow. How do we keep evil from entering our heart? How can we be soft and yielding? This is where true words seem paradoxical.
Sorrow is making demands on him. But the Master remains serene. He seems indifferent. His heart, unmoved. Sorrow screams out its agonizing despair. The Master remains serene. He is as indifferent as water. Is he not going to help? He is present, yet still serene. He doesn’t try to help. He doesn’t intrude on the sorrow. He doesn’t put forth any effort to make it go away. He has given up helping. Still, he is present. Still, serene. The sorrow passes. Still, he is present. Still, serene. Few can put it into practice. But this is how to be the greatest help. Nothing can surpass it.