Be Like Water: Reflections on the Powerful Tao Te Ching Symbol

“Be like water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee

I have just returned from another pilgrimage to Colorado and the mountains, rivers, aspens, and pines that I love so much. This was the earliest in the summer I have ever been and as a result, around 11,000 feet or so, there was still quite a bit of snow. However, being early June, that snow was melting, and on the hikes Kirsten and I took, we encountered a lot of water. 

Our longest hike was also the one of highest elevation, the Ptarmigan Lake trail. While on it, I could not help but think of the transformative power of water, which led me to think about how water is one of the most important symbols in the Tao Te Ching. Kirsten then received a twenty minute lecture on the topic, which was well received, I am sure. Such is the wandering nature of the mind while on a hike.

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Ptarmigan Lake – 12, 147 feet

The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese text of wisdom whose content was created roughly 2500 years ago by Lao Tsu and then compiled by others into the collection we know today. Throughout its poems, it utilizes a great deal of nature imagery and symbolism to help give form to some of its more abstract points. Of these, water is one of the most prominent.

A key virtue of Taoism is embodying humility. In conjunction with that virtue comes the somewhat complicated concept of wu-wei, which roughly translates to non-action, or in cliched but perhaps more approachable terms, “going with the flow.” Combined, these make a powerful force towards achieving a life well lived in harmony with all that is around you.

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The Tao Te Ching is filled with paradoxical ideas, water being one of them. If you think about the nature of water, many contradictions emerge. There is no force more powerful on our planet than water; it is an earth shaper, both in its way of overwhelming and immediate destruction or its patient and quiet erosion. Hiking through an avalanche site from the last winter season drove home the immediate destruction aspect quite plainly as an entire mountainside of trees were laid over like toothpicks; its gentle force evident on our way up to Ptarmigan Lake across valleys through which water flowed, the gentle stream slowly pushing its way over and around rocks. 

While an earth shaper, there is probably no substance softer than water. In fact, it has no shape, but this is one of the properties that causes it to be so powerful. It can go wherever it likes because of its shapelessness. Perhaps this can be seen as a weakness, a submissive trait, because if you have no form, your stand for nothing, but formlessness also allows for flexibility, which life often requires of us. Poem 43 discusses the malleable nature of “the softest thing” which I take to mean water:

The softest thing in the universe

Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.

That without substance can enter where there is no room. 

And so is the case with water; because it is soft and yielding, it can fit into the smallest of places such as a crack in a boulder or pavement, small places in the earth, or even soak into the ground. How is it that water reaches the subterranean places of caverns? Here it can begin its slow work of the transformation of other things. 

While water breaks down and transforms, it also is a nourishing agent, a life giver. Nothing can grow without it. From Poem 8:

The highest good is like water.

Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.

It flows in places people reject and so it is like the Tao.

A few things aside from nourishment in this passage. “…it does not strive” is a direct allusion to the concept of wu-wei. To not strive is to not push against that which you might see as an obstacle but rather adjust and find your way around it. Because water does not strive, it is able to do the transformative work that is within its nature. What is the transformative work that is within your nature?

The passage also says that water flows into places people reject, echoing the concept that water can fit into the tiniest of places, but to what end? So it can do its transformative work in even the most unattractive places where the sun never shines, where it can benefit those who are often overlooked, the marginalized. I mentioned earlier that the Tao Te Ching values humility as a virtue. The more we can let go of our egos, the more humility can emerge. The more humble we are, the easier it is for us to see beyond our own concerns so that we might be able to serve and benefit others. 

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Ice Melting on the Edge of Ptarmigan Lake

To further the notion of water and humility, the nature of water is that it always seeks the lowest ground. When you are the lowest, achieved by letting go of the egoic self, there is nothing else beneath you. Ironically, through this achievement, you become the most powerful. The Tao Te Ching speaks of this concept in Poem 61:

A great nation is like low land. 

It is the meeting ground of the universe. 

…It is fitting for a great nation to yield. 

Is it too contradictory to think that the more power you have, the less you should use it? What is power for? What end should it serve? To protect, yes, but to protect whom from what?

Under heaven, nothing is more soft and yielding than water. 

Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better; 

It has no equal. 

The weak can overcome the strong; 

The supple can overcome the weak.

As I hiked the mountain trail and hopped, crossed, or just slogged through the varying types of water –  a trickle, a marsh, a snow bank, a stream, a creek – I thought of its journey ahead seeking the lowest point, the ocean, and how it would get there one way or another. But it would only get there if it went with the flow, or rather, its journey would be far easier if it did by embodying its nature which is softness and formlessness so that when it encountered the inevitable obstacles, it would be supple, adjust, and go around, over, under, or with time, through. 

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Water emerging from underneath a snow bank

But water’s nature is to also be an earth shaper. In this way, no substance is more powerful. Water wears away the hardest substance, patiently, and eventually shapes the course of the stream, the river, cuts the valley, moves the rocks. It always wants to go down and fit into every space. Its feature is adjustment. Its feature is formless, yet it is the most transformative substance on earth. Be like water, my friend.

Compliment this essay with another from the How to Live or Nature and Travel Categories. 

Follow me on Twitter  or contact me at thecuriositymanifold@gmail.com

Note: All Tao Te Ching excerpts were taken from the Feng and English with Lippe translation. 

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