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 eight, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
It has taken until chapter eight; but Lao Tzu has finally come to his favorite metaphor for the Tao, saying it is like water. Lao Tzu will return to this metaphor many times in the days and weeks ahead. Today, he wants to bring out only two aspects of water which make it like the Tao.
The first is that it nourishes all things without even trying. This is an illustration of the practice of wu-wei, doing not-doing. This is effortless action. How is it that water nourishes things? By being itself. It doesn’t have to do anything to nourish us. It simply has to be. This is also how the Tao nourishes all beings. By being itself. It doesn’t do anything. Yet through it, all things get done. We, too, need to be like water. We need to practice doing not-doing. Don’t do, be. Just be who and what you are. Don’t strive. Don’t force. Act effortlessly. This goes back to what I said in yesterday’s chapter. If it sounds easier said than done, perhaps you are trying too hard. That kind of defeats the purpose, anyway. We aren’t going to arrive at doing not-doing in one easy step, however. As we will find out in future chapters, this is a process. We let go of one thing each day until there is nothing left to let go of. Then we will have arrived at doing not-doing.
The second aspect of water that makes it like the Tao is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is humility. We don’t usually think of water as humble. But remember, water is only a metaphor here. Water is just being water. Lao Tzu observed water; and noticing these two attributes (and more), he sees a manifestation of the Tao. Humility. Being content to simply be yourself. Why do people disdain this? We live our lives as if we always have something to prove. Cease your striving. Don’t compare or compete. And, surprise, surprise… Everybody will respect you.
Now that we have a better appreciation for water simply being water, it is time for us to start seeing how to put these aspects of water, and the Tao, into practice in our own lives. You wanted to know how? Here we begin seeing just how easy (unless we try too hard) it is.
Lao Tzu lists six ways we can go about our daily living, practicing wu-wei (doing not-doing) and humility. I am going to resist going through each of these one by one. Lao Tzu keeps it short and sweet. Don’t make these harder than they are. Living close to the ground doesn’t preclude you from living in a high rise apartment building, or in a tree house, or in the international space station. The point isn’t where you dwell. It is how you live. Keep it simple. Nothing is near as difficult as we make it out to be. Stop making things so difficult. Don’t strive. Don’t force. Just be. That is how you arrive at doing not-doing. Will you be humble enough to eliminate all the stress you otherwise create in your life? To be, or not to be? That is the question.