Friday, July 24, 2009

Verse 8: Flow Like Water

Verse Eight
True goodness
is like water.
Water's good
for everything.
It doesn't compete.

It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.

For a house,
the good thing is level ground.
In thinking,
depth is good.
The good of giving is magnanimity;
of speaking, honesty;
of government, order.
The good of work is skill,
and of action, timing.

No competition,
so no blame.
~Ursula K. Le Guin rendition ~
Water. It's a metaphor used again and again in the Tao Te Ching.

In the comments section of Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English's translation, it is noted that
Water is one of Lao Tsu's principle symbols for the Tao...He who lives the Tao acts in his life and dealings as water acts in nature. Water does not resist, yet it conquers all; it is tasteless -- suggesting the invisibility of the Tao -- yet life-giving. It moves through all that lives and in movement remains clear and pure. It is supple, flexible, and humble; it does not compete...
Alan Watts reminds us that
...water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship. But Lao-tzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree, but if they do the tree will collapse.
When I was first becoming acquainted with Taoist philosophy, I thought a lot about this metaphor and how I could incorporate its message into my life. I realized that, in nature, when an obstruction impedes the flow of water in a river, the river simply cuts a new channel around it. While flowing through this new channel, the river is also slowly eroding the edges of the obstruction so that, in time, it melts away.

The message for me is clear -- don't force things. When we attempt to exert our will, we almost always meet with resistance which impedes the effort being expended. If, on the other hand, I can learn to behave as a river, then I can flow around obstacles and get more accomplished.

Another thing to keep in mind is that water is not always placid. A river can have lazy pools, a meandering current and also white water rapids. So, being like water should not be confused with passivity. When action is called for, act. When action is no longer needed, relax.

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


  1. I think I must have read this post at least 4 times over the last day. It deeply resonates with me. Your last paragraph is a really, really good synthesis of how to put it all together.

  2. I'm glad it spoke to you, Val. It's such a simple and clear concept, yet it seems so difficult for each of us fully to embrace.

    For most of my life, I haven't had much trouble with the "acting" part; it's the "relaxing" part that has often evaded me. I'm getting better at letting go -- not perfect, but better.


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