Throughout history water has represented a powerful symbol and metaphor in different cultures, philosophies and religions. It has been viewed as a symbol of purity in the Christian tradition while being embodied as the Greek god of Poseidon in the ancient world.
Water is life-giving. It is vital for the health and existence of life on our planet. As we are all well aware, we couldn’t last very long without it. On the contrary, it also has the potential to exercise great power. Hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters demonstrate its strength and vitality.
In Taoism, water is a central metaphor illustrating several of the key elements of the Tao. It acts as a guide and provides us with direction on how we should aim to live.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.Chapter 76, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water takes the shape of its external environment. It is flexible and adaptable, allowing itself to be redirected and change its path when necessary. It molds itself to the shape of a cup or pitcher, and adjusts to the changing dynamics of a river.
It reminds us to practice non-resistance and acceptance in our lives. After all, what good is it to expend effort and strive against the natural currents of change – the continual flux of our lives.
Rather we can adapt, become flexible and ‘go with the flow’ of events. Change is a natural fact of our existence; we can’t stop it. Thus, it is wise to welcome it with open arms.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.Chapter 78, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water flows gently with ease. It embodies the quality of softness. However, as Lao Tsu reminds us in the Tao Te Ching, even the toughest things in nature can be overcome gracefully.
Over time a canyon, mountain or boulder slowly erodes as the crashing waves begin to break it down.
Little by little, the soft overcomes the strong.
When we exert unnecessary effort or strain, we can often move further away from our goals.
Yes, perhaps force, strong will and exertion can help you achieve short-term ambitions, but how long until you run out of steam?
You will end up in a vicious cycle.
Responding to a situation with anger will only illicit more anger from others as well as yourself. Likewise, acting with envy begets more envy, and greed produces an unquenchable desire for more. Through compassion, non-reactivity and empathy, we can begin to break this cycle.
This is what the social reformer Gandhi knew when he took his position of non-violence as a tool in his opposition to imperial British rule in India in the 20th century. It inspired solidarity across the country acting as a mirror to the expose injustices and inequities, and eventually paving the way to India’s independence.
Humility and Benevolence
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.Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
Water does not judge yet it nourishes everything in its environment. It exercises humility and benevolence by acting virtuously without the expectation of getting something in return.
Taoism, like many other religions or spiritual traditions, reminds us that we ought to perform good acts because they are ‘good in themselves.’
Acting morally and with integrity means that one’s intentions are selfless and not motivated by egotistical desires or rewards – no strings attached.
Be understanding, kind and forgiving. It makes living in a deeply interconnected world a whole lot easier.
Next time you’re sitting next to a stream or staring at the waves in the ocean, remember we can always seek inspiration from the rich symbolic meaning of water.
Perhaps life should not be taken so seriously. We should not be so stiff, rigid and stern.
Maybe, it is just a game in which we make up the rules as we go along. Thus, we should avoid clinging onto desires or lofty ambitions, and flow along with the changes in life.
Dance and move freely like the wind, and drift with ease and grace like the flowing stream.
Be like water.
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This article was originally posted on my personal blog alifeofvirtue.ca