The 3 Taoist Qualities of Water that We Should Learn
“Be water, my friend,” said Bruce Lee in a famous quote. “Now, water can flow or it can crash.” In this comment on the self-realization process, he summaries one of the 3 Taoist qualities of water, as extracted from the poetry of Lao-Tze. The wisdom contained in this text is truly inspirational for current times.
It was more than 10 years ago that celebrated philosopher Zygmunt Bauman brought us the concept of a liquid society. With this he defined a modernity of voluble values, of shifting social models and structures, of a reality marked with uncertainty. Faced with this fluctuating picture and the difficulty of holding onto anything, the only true solid is fear, paradoxically.
Supreme good is like water.
Water greatly benefits all things, without conflict.
It flows through places that people loathe.
Thereby it is close to the Way.
A good dwelling is on the ground.
A good mind is deep.
A good gift is kind.
A good word is sincere.
A good ruler is just.
A good worker is able.
A good deed is timely.
Where there is no conflict, there is no fault.
We live in a world where few things can be described as stable. Thus, we have to act quickly and stay flexible. Then we can adapt to any sudden change in employment, politics, social demands, and new, varied kinds of relationships.
In the context of all of these dynamics, it’s understandable to experience some amount of disquiet or insecurity. In these cases, great Eastern intellectuals like Raymond Tang (lecturer and professor of the University of Guangzhou) encourage us to learn a little more about the Tao philosophy.
Through these practices, we can stay calm amongst chaos. We can obtain temperance and security in this uncertain liquid world.
1. Qualities of water according to Tao: humility
The first of the qualities of water according to Tao is humility. At first glance it’s hard to see a relationship between the psychological dimensions and the aquatic world. However, that relationship exists, and it’s truly inspiring. Water that flows calmly, placidly, and harmoniously through a river nurtures the earth around it.
When its water levels are normal, it laps at the shore, nourishes animals, and helps the environment strike an ideal balance for all life to function. Now, when the river gets agitated and greedy with its water, everything changes. The strength of its torrent can do real damage. It grabs at the soil, destroys habitats, and affects all living things.
- We must integrate the quality of water that reflects tranquility and humility. He that understands this well and doesn’t try to appear to be more than he is. He will always prefer calm to violence. And though he will occasionally encounter conflict due to external factors, he will always return to his riverbed. Each of us individually can choose serenity in our lives and promote the natural equilibrium.
2. Water is attentive to opportunity
During times of hardship, there’s always a little corner where you can find a glimpse of opportunity. It doesn’t matter what’s going on around us, what changes are happening, what pressures we feel, or what wall has stopped us in our tracks. We, too, can be like water. Find the crack, the weakness in our opponent, or the problem that gives way to a new path – a new opportunity.
This is the Taoist quality of water that reminds us of how adaptable this vital substance can be. When something is restraining us or blocking our path, you can count on two things: implacable force, and finding the weak spot.
We can’t forget that water is a great opportunist. It never hesitates in changing form, setting, or position to keep moving forwards. As long as there’s even the slightest option of getting where it wants to go, water can do it.
3. Change without fear
Few elements are as inspired by or well-suited to change as water. Think about it: in extreme temperatures it can convert itself into ice or vapor. Water doesn’t hesitate to change form depending on its surroundings. It will become a vase when placed inside one and stay small and insignificant if in the crack of a rock. It will become immense if it returns to the ocean, and become vital nourishment when a living thing is thirsty and needs it.
Water has power and character. It knows and understand that nothing is as important as undergoing whatever changes necessary. Nature is so frequently hostile, and that which does not adapt does not survive. Assuming these qualities of water won’t just inspire us, but also help us in various aspects of our lives.
Albert Ellis, a psychotherapist known for developing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), once said that there’s a monster that chases us all every day. A current that tries to sweep away our happiness. The idea that the world should be happy came from us. We know that’s not true, but we still lament every obstacle, every rock in the road, every unexpected and unwanted change.
Be as water. Bruce Lee already had the answer for us, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to see the qualities of water according to Tao as a pretty metaphor. In the end, we too are nature. And nature itself is an expression of Tao.