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 8, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is the first time that Lao Tzu compares the Tao to water (it won’t be the last). There is only one reason for Lao Tzu to do this. He is teaching us how to practice not-knowing and not-doing. The Tao is like water. If we want to follow the Tao, we will need to be like water, as well. But notice the specific qualities of water that make it like the Tao: It nourishes all things without trying to; that is doing not-doing. And, it is content with the low places that people disdain; it’s humility is knowing not-knowing. We will learn other things about water and the Tao as we go along on this journey through the Tao Te Ching; but today, that is enough. Everyone asks, so how do we put Lao Tzu’s teachings into practice? How do we practice knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing? The problem lies in thinking that we have to do something. We have to try to put these into practice. What do I have to do? What do I need to know?
But water doesn’t do or know anything. It just is. I always think of it as “being, rather than doing.” We are human beings, not human doings. There isn’t some special knowledge we need. Our so-called knowledge just hinders us. That is why we need to be humble enough to know that we don’t know. And “Taoism” isn’t something to be tried. We need to be like water. Not try to do what water does. Water nourishes all things without trying to. Think about that for a moment. What does water have to do in order to nourish us? We know that without it we will only last a few days. But its life-giving properties are just a matter of what it is, not what it does. It is the same with the Tao. It nourishes all things, not by what it does, but by what it is.
Okay, okay, but how am I to be like water? I will overlook the obvious connotation that you are still thinking you don’t know something you should know; or, that there is still something to do that you aren’t doing. Lao Tzu offers us six ways to be content simply being ourselves, like water is. Notice, these are not things to do. They are ways to be.
Let’s talk about your dwelling. I am not just meaning your physical dwelling here. I am talking about attitude. Live close to the ground. I would venture to say that this could be accomplished in a high-rise apartment, just as well as in a hobbit-hole. It is all about attitude. Are you living close to the ground? How connected to the Earth are you? You do realize you are made of the same stuff that makes up the Earth. Don’t lose your connection to that. Live close to it. Be like water.
And how many times have we heard the now, old adage: K.I.S.S., keep it simple, stupid. We are talking about our thinking. Do we over-think things? Or, do we keep it simple? If you want to be like water, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous. Lao Tzu isn’t promising some Utopia, where there will never be conflict. He already said that evil is always going to be present. So how are we to be, when we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a conflict? Why not be fair and generous? I can already hear the whiners. “But they started it. Why can’t they be fair and generous?” But it isn’t about others. It never was about them. It is about your attitude. How will you be?
Why is there conflict, anyway? Someone is trying to maintain some kind of control. Which is why, in governing, Lao Tzu tells us to stop that. Don’t try to control. Don’t just read by this too quickly. This is very important. Why do we find it so hard to follow the Tao? Because we don’t want to admit that there are things that we have no business trying to control. We like to be in control. Most of us don’t like being controlled, but we sure enough like trying to be in control. Let it go. Your need to be in control. Don’t even try it.
This next one is one that we think we have heard far too often. Who hasn’t heard, concerning work, find something that you enjoy doing. I know that the majority of my readers are considerably younger than me; and you all are sick and tired of hearing this. After all, your own experience has been that as soon as you start doing what you enjoy doing, the same people that were telling you to follow that advice will be complaining, you don’t have a real job. Still, I have to say it. I worked for many years doing stuff that paid the bills, but I didn’t enjoy. It was not the way to be content. I learned how to be content with a simple, ordinary life; only after I stopped doing what I didn’t enjoy, and started doing what I did. I make a fraction of what I used to make. And I have never been happier. Would I be happy making a lot more? It isn’t about how much I am making. It is about being content with my simple, ordinary life. I am.
No list of ways of how to be would be complete, without a mention of how to be in family life. Families are important. Your family is important. Whatever role you are in in the family, and most of us have multiple and changing ones, if you want true contentment, be completely present. Just like the Tao is present for you. Be there, in the now. Your parents, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your whatever relations you have, you need to be present. Completely present. This isn’t about them. It is about you. This is how to be like water. To be content with simply being yourself.
The practice of knowing not-knowing and doing not-doing is being content simply being yourself. Don’t compare or compete. I promise you, be this, and everybody will respect you.