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)
We have been talking, for the last couple of days, about the need to be soft and yielding to be a disciple of life. It is the only way to prevail in living. What runs counter to that are those who are hard and inflexible. They will be broken; since they are not able to go with the flow of the Tao. Today, Lao Tzu continues this theme, contrasting the soft and yielding with the hard and inflexible, by returning to his favorite metaphor for talking about the Tao, water.
Lao Tzu returns, again and again, to water; because, for him, the attributes of water perfectly illustrate how to be in harmony with the Tao. And, when you consider how abundant water is on our planet, it would seem to be something that everyone can immediately relate to. In addition to the fact that 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, there is also the fact that the human body is comprised mostly of water – anywhere from 50 to 65 percent in adults, and an astounding 75 to 80 percent in infants. That’s a lot of water! When Lao Tzu tells us to be like water, he isn’t really expecting us to be anything other than what we already are.
He has talked so much about water in preceding chapters. He has said, for instance, that it nourishes all things, without trying to. That is how he shows us the practice of doing not-doing. And, he has talked about how water always seeks out the lowest places, making it a metaphor for the practice of humility.
Today, it is how soft and yielding water is, that has Lao Tzu’s attention. Nothing compares with it. To illustrate just how soft and yielding water is, I want you to draw yourself a nice hot bath. Go ahead, you need this. Light some candles, put on some of your favorite music, and let your body luxuriate. Did you notice, as you lowered yourself into the water that the water offered up no resistance to the intrusion of your body? It just acquiesced to your presence, allowing your body to displace it. Soft and yielding, isn’t it?
Doesn’t that feel nice? But, if you stay in there too long, your body will start to shrivel up like a prune. Our bodies may be mostly water, but there is also a part of us that is hard and inflexible. And water, over time, always does a number on the hard and inflexible.
Yes! Yes! Everyone knows that the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone “knows” it, but just how few can put it into practice?
It is because there is such a difference between merely knowing and realizing, that Lao Tzu brings in the Master, once again, to show us just how to practice being soft and yielding to overcome the hard and inflexible.
How many times have we all been told that all we really need is a good cry? Tears, water, are certainly a good antidote to sorrow. Have a good cry. Cry until you have no more tears to shed. Then get a bowl of water and wash your face, for good measure. That is quite helpful for most sorrow. But what about a sorrow that isn’t assuaged so easily?
Sometimes, sorrow can be quite implacable. Sorrow can be one of the hardest and most inflexible things you will ever encounter. It demands your attention. All of it. And if you don’t give it your complete attention, its demands only become all the more urgent. What does sorrow demand of you? It demands that something be done. And that is where people, with the very best of intentions, will step in and try to help. After all, every fiber of your being is crying out to you to come to the aid of someone who is suffering. It isn’t easy to turn away when you see someone suffering, and you know you can help. But, I learned a lesson from my father, many years ago. He said it often enough, I will never forget it. “The streets of Hell are paved with good intentions.”
Is Lao Tzu asking us to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering? Not at all. But, watch how the Master deals with it. This is where true words are going to seem paradoxical. The Master knows exactly how to remain serene, even in the midst of sorrow. He doesn’t let evil enter his heart. He seems indifferent, disinterested. What are his intentions? They are neither good, nor bad. He actually has no intentions. Oh, I suppose he will rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. But, his heart doesn’t seem to be into it. He is present; but he isn’t swallowed up by the tidal wave of emotions that are consuming everything and everyone around him. The waves come crashing down. Then, the waters recede. He is still there. Still present. Now, he can be the people’s greatest help.
That was a lot to chew on. I would suggest you get yourself a tall glass of water to help wash it down.