The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about unity and oneness. Of how the whole Universe is contained within each and every one of us. We aren’t individual parts of it. Not some insignificant part. Not even some integral part. We are the whole. Each one of us. The whole. The integral. And, I stopped there. I let it go at that. But, was I satisfied? No, never. Because there is always so much more. It is infinite, after all. Particularly of interest to me is how Lao Tzu sees the individual as infinite and eternal. Lao Tzu’s language concerning the individual could easily be interpreted as collectivist. I could certainly see people picturing the Borg collective. But, far from swallowing up, or absorbing, the individual into the collective, I find Lao Tzu’s infinite and eternal Tao as empowering the individual.
Today, Lao Tzu offers the metaphor of water to help me to explain. Too often, we libertarians are criticized for being atomistic. “No man is an island” is a critique I have often heard when we talk about the individual as being supreme. But what is it that Lao Tzu says about the supreme good? He says it is like water. What do we know about water? We know it nourishes all things without even trying. And, we know that it is content with the low places. He says that people disdain that. People here, I think, does refer to the collective. The collective doesn’t seek to nourish, but to be nourished. It doesn’t seek out the low places. It seeks to be supreme. How very different is the Tao in each one of us; which is very much like water.
I said that our individualism is not atomistic. And that water is a metaphor for that. What do I mean? Well, what is the smallest unit of water? It isn’t the atom. There is no such thing as an atom of water. There are atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, but that is on the atomic level. That would be breaking down the individual into mere particles. But, Lao Tzu isn’t doing that. He is speaking of the whole individual. And if we are speaking of whole individuals as water, then we are talking about molecules. If I were a molecule of water in a vast ocean of water, I would still individually be water as much as all the rest of the ocean is water. I am not a part of water. I am water. I am complete, in and of myself. That, I think is what Lao Tzu is trying to get across to us, when he speaks of individuals having the infinite, eternal Tao present within them.
And we wonder what to do with this information. I’ll tell you what Lao Tzu wants you to do with this information. He wants you to be content to be simply yourself. If you are a molecule of water, be content to simply be a molecule of water. We worry about whether or not we will be respected. We busy ourselves with comparing and competing with everybody else. And, Lao Tzu? He just wants us to be like water. He tells us exactly what we should be about. In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep it simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
Why must we make things so difficult? Water nourishes all things without even trying. It is content with, and remains content with, the low places. That is why it is supreme.