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)
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu brings together a couple different concepts that we have been talking about the last few days. The first, is that to be soft and yielding is to be truly living. If you are hard and inflexible, you may be alive; but you are not truly living. You are, instead, among the dieing. The second, is that everyone knows this is true. But knowing is not enough. You have to progress beyond mere knowing and start putting these teachings into practice. Few seem able to do this. It requires that further step of realization.
And, Lao Tzu returns to one of his favorite metaphors: which is water. There are many things about water that Lao Tzu points at to illustrate what he is teaching. Today, he begins by talking about how soft and yielding it is. We all know this. If you push your hand into a pool of water, the water yields to your hand without any effort. Water is soft and yielding.
As we observe the flow of water at a beach, along a river, even a drainage ditch, we will see water in its natural element, doing what water does. It flows effortlessly. Because it is soft and yielding, whether we are talking about the ebb and flow of the tide of an ocean or the current of a stream, water moves effortlessly along its course. Where it encounters obstacles, like rocks or other debris, it usually just moves around those. At least that is how it appears, superficially. But if we look beyond the superficial, we begin to see what is actually taking place. That soft and yielding water is making an impact on everything it touches. How much of an impact, depends on how long the water is touching that something it is encountering.
For instance, push your hand into that pool of water. The water immediately gives way to your hand. But your hand is immediately impacted by the touch of the water. Your hand gets wet. Keep your hand in the water long enough and your hand will start to wrinkle up because of its exposure to the water. If we go back to a stream of water, we can see the effect the water has on the rocks and debris it encounters. It immediately begins to dissolve the hard and inflexible. Oh, it appears to go around it, but it is actually busy gnawing away at it, too Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. But even the most hard and inflexible thing will dissolve because of its encounters with water.
Like we said earlier, we already know this is true. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid. We know it; yet, we often fail to realize exactly what this means. How do we put these teachings into practice?
It might help to remember that we aren’t talking about water. The water is just a metaphor. I only mention this because I know that I sometimes get lost in the wonder of the metaphor. And like Lao Tzu has said before, we are then merely enjoying the flower; without tasting the fruit. There is some fruit here. We need to look beyond the flower. And begin to appreciate the fruit.
So, what is the fruit? Ah, that is where we need to look to the Master. The Master doesn’t merely know these things. He puts them into practice: by realizing them. Soft and yielding. Remaining serene, even in the midst of sorrow.
In the midst of sorrow, what is our most basic instinct? HELP! We either want help or want to be of help. For our purposes today, let’s say that the sorrow we are in the midst of is not our own, but some others. Perhaps someone we love, though it doesn’t have to be. It could be a perfect stranger. But we want to help. We don’t like it when someone is in sorrow. It touches us deep down inside. To our very heart. We want to help. And just when we want to try and help, we find we are not being at all helpful.
This is where this all starts to sound paradoxical. You know what I mean. When a statement seems like it is self-contradictory, but it just might be true anyway. Well, that is what Lao Tzu assures us. True words seem paradoxical. I want to help, but as long as I want to help, I am not much of a help. The Master has learned how to protect his own heart from the evil of having good intentions. What? Having good intentions is evil? Good intentions are some of the most evil things that can enter your heart. You’re wanting to help. That is a good intention. A really good intention. Pat yourself on the back. Good job, you. Now, that the self-congratulation is over, let’s take a look at the truth. It will seem paradoxical. But it is still true.
Your good intentions are going to motivate you to interfere. To try to make things better. After all, who likes sorrow? Sorrow isn’t good, is it? Why not try to make that person happy? That is what good intentions do. Oh, we aren’t wanting evil for this person. We only want to make them happy. So, we are going to circumvent the process. We are going to take matters into our own hands. Kind of like grabbing that bow. Remember that one yesterday? Our good intentions are evil. There, I said it. Do you really want to be people’s greatest help? Stop trying to help them. Give up helping.
I know, I know, this sounds paradoxical. And maybe cold. Uncaring. At the very least, indifferent. So, most people are not going to put this into practice. But indifference is so much better than good intentions. That is the Master’s way. Let’s get back to him. He remains serene even in the midst of sorrow. That serenity will seem like indifference, too. And, you know why? Because it is. It is that indifference that keeps evil from entering his heart. He has given up helping. He is indifferent, yes. But, watch what happens. Because he hasn’t allowed evil to enter his heart, because he isn’t trying to help, to interfere, to make that person or persons happy, he is now their greatest help.