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)
Because we have been talking about being soft and yielding to be a disciple of life, you just had to know that Lao Tzu would return to his favorite metaphor, water. He always comes back to water. It is something with which we are all familiar. The human body is made up mostly of water, anywhere from 50 to 65 percent, in adults; and 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Obviously water is important to us. And it is a great metaphor for what we need to be like. Interestingly, I just found out that human infants are made up of even more water, 75 to 80 percent. Does that have anything to do with why they are another favorite metaphor of Lao Tzu’s? Perhaps, it is easier to be like water, the more water you have in you.
Water is the perfect metaphor because the properties of water are exactly how we want to be. It nourishes all things, effortlessly. And, all our actions can be effortless, as well. It seeks out the low places. That makes it humble. I know that is anthropomorphic. But the point isn’t that water is trying to be humble. The point is that that is what water is, naturally. One way that we, as humans, can be like water, is to be humble. The sea gets its power by dwelling beneath the streams that run into it. Humans think the source of their power comes from them being above others. Lao Tzu insists that real power is to be found by placing ourselves beneath them.
And, water is soft and yielding. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Fill up your bathtub with water and lower yourself into it. It doesn’t put up any resistances to you. As you lower yourself into it, it is soft and luxuriating, yielding to you; it simply rises, as your body displaces it. It feels nice, doesn’t it? But, if you stay in that bath long enough, your skin will start to wrinkle up. Much like the hard and inflexible rocks in a river, over time, water, while seemingly yielding to the rocks and going around them, also slowly eats away at them. Nothing can surpass water for its patience in dissolving the hard and inflexible.
Yes, yes! Everyone knows the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid. We all know this is true. But only a few can put it into practice. And that, my friends, is the point of the metaphor. Oh, we could marvel for a good long time on the attributes of water. But, what we really need to be doing is realizing how we can put these truths into practice in our lives.
How does the Master do it? He is our example, after all. And, here, Lao Tzu talks about his ability to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. This won’t make a whole lot of sense to those who can’t accept the paradox.
Perhaps you have never realized before just how hard and inflexible sorrow can be. It can be implacable. It demands all of our attention. And if we don’t give it our complete attention, its demands become even more urgent. What does sorrow demand of us? Well, mostly, it demands that something be done. This is where people with the very best of intentions step in and try to help. Every fiber of your being may be crying out to you to come to the aid of the one suffering in sorrow. One of the lessons I learned, long ago, from my own father is that good intentions can be the most evil of things. He told me, many times, “the streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.” The Master understands this. He doesn’t let evil enter his heart. Remaining serene, seemingly indifferent, disinterested, he doesn’t offer up any help, at all. No good or bad intentions here, my friends. He has no intentions, at all. But, because he has given up helping, because he is disinterested and indifferent, because he remains serene, he is able to be people’s greatest help.
How is this possible? How can disinterest and indifference translate into being the greatest of help? That is the paradox. But that is the soft and yielding quality of water. Maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is to draw yourself a nice hot bath. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water.