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)
Yesterday, I typed page after page after page. I tend to get carried away when I get a chance to explain how philosophical Taoism and libertarianism or anarchism fit together. Today, I may not be so lengthy. We are returning to something that Lao Tzu was talking about a couple chapters ago. Something I have noticed as I have been going through the Tao Te Ching, over and over again, is that Lao Tzu seems to write in such a way, that he begins a thought in one chapter, and then leaves it; only to return to it a couple chapters later.
If you will remember a couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu was talking about the living and the dead. He said a characteristic of the living is that they are soft and yielding. And a characteristic of the dead is that they are hard and inflexible. He was using nature to represent how the Tao manifests itself in our world. The life cycle is a natural cycle that begins with birth, followed by growth, to maturity, and finally to death. I say finally, but it isn’t really final. Death is followed by decay and then rebirth where the cycle of life begins again.
That is all very elementary, but it is important for us to keep in mind; for the Tao manifests itself in our world, naturally. Today he talks again about the soft and yielding and the hard and inflexible. And, he returns to one of his favorite metaphors, that of water. He says that nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Water here, is then a metaphor for life. He is wanting us to be alive. To be soft and yielding is to be alive.
Contrast that with the hard and inflexible. Which Lao Tzu has already told us, is characteristic of the dead. If you want to dissolve something that is hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass water, something that is is unsurpassed in being soft and yielding.
Now at this point, you may want to picture in your mind those qualities of water. Lao Tzu has talked at length about them before. That picture in your mind serves the purpose of confirming to you that the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true. So why are we talking about it? I am glad you asked. The reason we are talking about it is that while everyone knows it is true, few seem to be able to put it into practice. And putting these things into practice is the whole point of what Lao Tzu is teaching. Only having an intellectual understanding is not enough. We need to be able to put the lessons we can learn from nature to practice in our lives. We, after all, want to be among the living; rather than among the dead.
This is also important when you think of yesterday’s chapter, in which Lao Tzu was telling us how the Tao manifests itself in our world; and I said that dealing with the problem of interfering with the Tao was a matter of dealing with the problem of supposed power. We have to strike at the root of the problem; and that is that the powers that be don’t want the Tao achieving balance.
How do we strike at that root? I didn’t say. Because Lao Tzu tells us today. The powers that be are hard and inflexible when it comes to letting any change come. And sometimes we are inclined to fight the hard and inflexible by being hard and inflexible. But Lao Tzu is telling us, that is not the way to overcome them.
How can we overcome the hard and inflexible? By being soft and yielding. And this is where he once again points to the example of the Master. Remember, we are trying to put into practice this thing that everyone already knows. The Master gives us an example of overcoming the hard and inflexible by being soft and yielding.
Sorrow is a hard thing. Evil is a hard thing. Trying to help, even that is a hard thing. Anyone that has ever tried to help someone knows just how hard it is. Even trying to let someone help you is a hard thing. How does the Master overcome these hard things?
The Master overcomes sorrow by remaining serene. Stay with me, here. This is a very important lesson for us today. Even when you are in the midst of sorrow, you don’t have to be overcome by it. Whether we are talking about our own sorrow or we are talking about the sorrow of friends or family, we can overcome it. Not by being hard and inflexible, right back, but by being soft and yielding. Remaining serene is being soft and yielding. How does the Master do it? I don’t know. Perhaps he pictures in his mind, water. Like the Pacific Ocean. Pacific means peaceful.
By picturing in your mind a calm deep pool of water. Still waters do run deep. Imagine that pool of water unperturbed by the chaos that may be surrounding it. Breathing in and out slowly and deeply is also a good practice. We are talking about maintaining an inner attitude that isn’t affected by outward circumstances. I have likened it before to setting the thermostat to what ever temperature you want. Regardless of the outward temperature, your inner thermostat remains unchanged. That is serenity.
This is how to overcome sorrow. And, it is how to overcome evil. And here I am thinking of all the evil that is in the world. Lao Tzu has talked before about guarding our three treasures. We deal with evil by being soft and yielding. Stepping around it. Not confronting it. Confronting it is being just as hard and inflexible as the evil is being. When we respond to evil by being hard and inflexible, rather than serene, we invite the danger of allowing evil to enter our own hearts. And our three treasures are destroyed.
Do you want to be of the greatest help? Stop trying so hard. Like I said, trying is hard. You can be the greatest help when you are soft and yielding, rather than hard and inflexible. Give up trying to help. I know this sounds paradoxical. Lao Tzu ends this chapter by saying that true words seems paradoxical. But appearances can be deceiving. Often, what is real and true is hard to see; because it is masked by this seeming paradox.
Nevertheless, it is true. And everyone knows it is true. But can you put it into practice? That is the question.