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)
Lao Tzu uses a variety of different metaphors to tell us of the Tao. But none, more than water. How is the Tao like water, and what can we learn from water as a metaphor for the Tao?
Without having to try, water nourishes all things. That “not having to try” is significant. It is the practice of non-action, which many sadly interpret as passivity. But Lao Tzu isn’t promoting passivity. Far from passivity, water is just being what it is. It doesn’t have to try. It doesn’t have to do. It just is. Everything about water flows (pun intended) from the essence of its being. And that is certainly a property of the Tao.
And Lao Tzu doesn’t intend for us to content ourselves with just agreeing with this idea. Yes, water and the Tao behave according to their natures. But what is that to me? No, Lao Tzu is wanting us to draw a lesson for how to live our own lives. The art of living is all about all of our actions being effortless. Just like water. Just like the Tao. We will have much more to say about this in the coming days and weeks as we go through the Tao Te Ching a chapter at a time.
Another property of water that makes it like the Tao, is that it is content with the low places that people disdain. This is another property that we will return to again and again. But Lao Tzu is talking about the reality that water is humble. Water is humble? Well, it always seeks out the low places. It is a strange thing indeed to find water running uphill. You know something is amiss when you find that happening.
Whole volumes could be written (and they probably have been) on why people disdain low places. Oh, to be content. Being content with the way things are. Remember, the way things are is likely to be very different from the way things seem to be. I am not talking about being content with the way things seem to be. But knowing the difference between the two, between the truth and the lie, between reality and illusion, between the way things are and the way things only seem to be, that, is liberating. That is something that makes you free to pursue your own happiness to your heart’s content. And being content beats being miserable, any day.
And being content, is what this chapter, and indeed, the whole Tao Te Ching is all about.
So to help us along our journey, and to really give us much more practical advice on how to learn the art of living, or the art of being content, Lao Tzu gives us the rest of the chapter. These one-liners are short and pithy. And they pack a punch.
Are you interested in finding contentment? Or will you disdain what Lao Tzu has to offer?
In dwelling, live close to the ground. I envision a hobbit hole.
In thinking, keep to the simple. Why must we make things so very complicated? It always starts with how we are thinking.
In conflict, be fair and generous. Those are some of the most important words you are ever going to read. If people were fair and generous, there wouldn’t be any conflict.
In governing, don’t try to control. Lao Tzu will have a whole lot to say about the art of governing. But everything he will have to say, he says in a nutshell, right there. Don’t try to control. There. That solved everything.
In work, do what you enjoy. It isn’t like we haven’t heard this in so many words over and over again. If the work that you do is a drudgery for you, you will never be content. You really must make changes. I know how difficult this can be. I spent a good deal of my adult life with my work as drudgery. And that is no way to live.
In family life, be completely present. This isn’t talking about quality time vs. quantity time. Just in case you were thinking that was where he was going. It isn’t about making sure that you spend a little quality time each day with your children, parents. It is about being completely, one hundred percent, present with your family. But it isn’t about time at all. It is about presence. Be completely present.
I think I understand why it is that people disdain the low places. It is because we want respect. We want other people to respect us. We want to respect ourselves. And somehow, we have the mistaken notion that by being content with the low places, we can’t possibly be respected by others, let alone ourselves.
That is what drives us to compare and compete. But Lao Tzu has a very interesting prescription for just what ails us: Learn to be content with simply being yourself.