School and life have conspired to make me miss not one but two weeks worth of my weekly Tao Te Ching project. This disappoints me, but I have to prioritize my work. Unfortunately, that means that my blog gets pushed aside when school gets to be more demanding. That said, I am going to try to catch up this week, picking up where I left off: Chapter 8.
The highest good is like water.
Water give life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
No fight: No blame.
Like many young people, I went out and got a tattoo almost as soon as I could legally, and like many people in the late nineties and early aughts I chose to get kanji in place of English words. I thought it looked more artistic, and I was getting a tattoo that reflected a Chinese concept anyway. People often ask me what they mean, and literally the one on my right arm means “to live,” while the one on my left means “water.” This was my approximation of the phrase “to live as water.” Of course, like many kanji tattoos, the translation is clunky at best, but I at least am satisfied to know that my characters mean exactly what I thought they meant.
But what does that mean, to live as water? As chapter eight describes, water exhibits the qualities we should most desire to emulate. Without striving, water fulfills its role, even if that role is to flow in the lowest of places. Likewise, we seek to achieve contentment, even if fortunes bring us to poverty and low status. Without striving: that is a hard concept for many Americans, because it is so easy to confuse it with having a lack of action or direction. But that is not the case. Water flows where it will flow, but it when it meets obstacles, it does not push and work to force those obstacles out of the way. Instead it parts and flows around them, wearing them away over time. But when water meets an obstacle with which it cannot contend — a dam, for example — it does not struggle and rage against the obstacle. Instead, it simply stays where it is. That is a contentment we could seek for ourselves: the contentment of knowing when something is beyond our control and accepting it and accepting our position in light of it. Effortless being is to live like water.
There are differing translations of the rest of this chapter. In the translation above, we get simple, straightforward maxims: live simply, think deeply, be kind, true and just, act accordingly to your moment. And if we follow these maxims, and if we strive to be like water, we do not fight against the nature of life but live in accordance with it, and thus we live a life less problematic.
Simple enough, right? Perhaps in thought, but putting these ideas to daily use is more difficult than it should be. Our whole American lifestyle is built around complicating our lives with activities and things, about filling every waking moment with a flood of information and entertainment. Trying to live simply — in the mental or physical sense — goes against the grain of our society. Trying to take a moment to think deeply, rather than know the surface of everything at all times, goes against the momentum of our always-on information channels. Succeeding in American business often means not being gentle and kind, not being honest and not being just.
And what of competence? In our culture, we’re told to strive for perfection, but perfection is the enemy of good. We often sacrifice being good at something while waiting for an unattainable perfection. I do this all the time: I hesitate to write, because I don’t want to put something out that isn’t perfect. But my hesitation means less practice writing, which means less chance of being good at it, perfection be damned. Perfection is the unattainable. Perfection is the phantasm quality we envy in others — the skill, the wealth, the charisma — that we want for ourselves. It is a phantasm quality because the reality never matches the vision we have in our heads. As long as we hold ourselves up to unrealistic expectations, we will find fault in ourselves. When we stop, however, we find contentment and happiness with ourselves. No fight, no blame.
It can be difficult to have these qualities in American society, but we do not have to be perfect. We do not have to immediately be the wise sage. The first step to finding our contentment is letting go of our dreams of perfection and instead looking for happiness within the lives we have. We can nurture that happiness by being the goodness we want to see, by being kind and just and true, being thoughtful and modest and appreciating the good in our lives.