Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Verse 76: Rigidity

Verse Seventy-Six
While a person is alive, he is soft and yielding;
When dead, in the end they become stretched out stiff and rigid.
All living things including trees and plants are flexible and fragile while alive;
When dead, they become dry, withered and rotten.
Therefore it is said that those who are stiff and rigid are companions of death; while those who are soft, yeilding, flexible and fragile are companions of life.

A rigid weapon thus will be defeated;
A rigid tree thus will break.
What is rigidly large dwells below;
What is soft, yielding, flexible and fragile dwells above.

~ Nina Correa translation ~
In reading the TTC, one might get the idea that rigidity is always a bad thing. This verse, in particular, suggests that being rigid is the path to death and flexibility is the path of life. But I think it's important to talk a bit about what flexibility entails before we completely cast rigidity aside.

To be flexible is not a static state. It's not one position or movement. When a tree or person is flexible, it means that each can move or react differently depending upon the situation. In some instances, we need to stand up straight and strong -- in a rigid position. At other times, we need to bend or step to the side in an easy and fluid manner.

The continual warnings in the TTC regarding rigidity concern how we make this our default reaction. If we react to every situation with a stiff resolve and refusal to budge an inch, this is where we will find ourselves in trouble. Every situation is different and every situation calls for a movement that flows with it, not against it.

While bending and pliability are great virtues in Taoism, we must remember that if anything is bent past it's breaking point, it may well snap in two. In other words, even when we are behaving in the most flexible way possible, there still is an essence of rigidity involved that keeps the person or the tree from breaking apart.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. true, and it has been pointed out that death and life are two sides of the same coin. flexibility and firmness are simply two sides to the same coin as well.

    notice i did not use the term "rigid", as it denotes excess, whereas "flexibility" does not. thus i use "firmness."


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