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)
On Being Like Water
For the last couple of chapters, the need to be soft and yielding, instead of hard and inflexible, has been our theme. Lao Tzu has used such metaphors as newborn children, tender new plants, and a bow, to illustrate how we should be in our world. And, he warned us that the hard and inflexible will be broken. Today, Lao Tzu returns to using his favorite metaphor, water, to teach us the art of living in our world.
I talked a couple chapters ago of reevaluating how I am doing at the art of living. I have begun to see myself becoming hard and inflexible, lately. I, also, spoke at length of how the ruling elite, being parasites or leeches, are being hard and inflexible in their attempts to go against the current of the Tao.
Today’s chapter is a good one for us, because it teaches us exactly how to deal with our own hardness and inflexibility, and the hardness and inflexibility we may encounter in others (particularly the ruling elite).
If you want to overcome the hard and rigid, whether in yourself, or in others, you must be soft and gentle. Water is the perfect metaphor to illustrate this.
One reason for this is nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water; yet, for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. A second reason water is such an excellent metaphor is everyone already knows this is true. So, there isn’t anything new to learn, here.
But, while we all know of these attributes of water, few seem to put “being like water” into practice.
Can you remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow, not letting evil enter your heart?
Can you be the people’s greatest help, because you have given up trying to be of help?
I know it seems paradoxical, but true words often are. We need to be like a thermostat, rather than a thermometer. Steady in the midst of turmoil. Not prone to changes in temperament, based on our outward circumstances. We need to be willing to outwardly appear indifferent, disinterested and unmoved by those clamoring for us to DO something. What did Lao Tzu say, in yesterday’s chapter, about the bending of that bow? We need to let that bending happen naturally, like the wind acts on trees. Don’t worry; the wind will blow, just as surely as water flows downhill. If you are soft and yielding, flexible, you will go with its flow, and be able to give out of your own abundance. The hard and inflexible, both in you, and those who oppose the Tao, will be broken and dissolve. The soft and supple will overcome and prevail.