Drifting with the Tao: Drifting Like Water

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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.


Flexibility

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.


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Softness

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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The Flow of Life: The Wisdom of Wu Wei

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Why is it that we spend so much time and effort pursuing goals and desires that go against our natural intuitions and inclinations?

Motivated by the longing for external praise and validation, we chase lofty ambitions which ultimately feel inauthentic and unnatural. This is akin to trying to swim against rather than with the flow of the river; like running faster and faster as you gradually sink deeper into quick sand.

There is a misconception in our society that effort and action is always the best way to address our problems. ‘Hustle culture’ tells us that we are never enough. Under this mindset, one should always aim to work longer, harder, faster and continually be more and more productive.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this kind of lifestyle are far too familiar. Anxiety, perpetual stress and burnout are the outcomes of clinging onto an ever-changing set of fantasies advertised to us on our televisions and phones.

The treadmill never stops, and as time progresses old age soon hinders our ability to keep up.

Wu Wei

Tao abides in non-action

Yet nothing is left undone

Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Luckily, there is an alternative way of thinking which is rooted in the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. The concept of wu wei translates into English as ‘non-action’ or ‘effortless action.’ However, it should not be conflated with laziness (I promise you I am not advocating for you to spend your time couch watching reality TV and eating potato chips).

Wu wei is pursuing what is most natural to you. It aligns with the common idiom of ‘going with the flow’ giving up resistance and the illusion of control.  Rather than forcing things we can always choose to let things be as they ought to be. That is, we can choose to go with rather than against the grain.

The wisdom of wu wei is not a sort of abstract intellectual form of knowledge, but an intelligence that arises out of one’s intuition. By understanding how nature and the world around us operates, an individual can make decisions on how to achieve their goals with the least amount of effort. They can take the path of least resistance.

When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made–or imagined–by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

An Example: Sleep

In some cases, the more energy one exerts the more difficult it becomes to achieve a particular goal. Take for instance the example of ‘trying’ to fall asleep. Despite our best intentions the more we try to force ourselves into a state of relaxation, the harder it becomes.

Rather, as many of us have learned the hard way, it is much more helpful to simply let go. Ruminating over the details of an important presentation at work at 1am won’t do you no good.

Observing our thoughts as they come and go enables us surrender and relax as we slowly drift off in a daze.

The Art of Flow  

The idea of wu wei is also similar to the concept of flow states which I have written about in the past. Think about the effortlessness of the musician closing their eyes and loosing themselves in a solo or a dancer performing a complex routine with ease and grace.

These performers often leave us speechless and confused, how is it that they can make such a difficult thing look so easy?

In these instances the artist doesn’t have time to think of what they are doing next. They must trust the process and immerse themselves in the present moment – the ‘now’.

They embody wu wei ,effortless action and complete presence in their activity.

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Be Yourself , It’s All That You Can Do

When we try to be someone or something we are not, we are awkward, tense and rigid. We know intuitively that this is not the right path for us.

It may sound cliché, but given our uniqueness why would you want to live someone else’s life? Why would you want to be, look or follow the thousands of others who worship celebrities on their smartphones?

Being authentic and embracing your inner nature is much more liberating. Being yourself is realizing inner freedom.

Wu wei nudges us towards the path, our path – the only one that is made for us.


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Lessons from Nature

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You can now listen to this poem in audio format in the link below.

A poem I wrote inspired by the key themes of the Tao Te Ching.


Nature, teach me how to live


To embrace change and

Flow effortlessly like the steady stream


To embody the wisdom of the trees

Who shed their leaves in the fall

Scattering their vibrant colours and

Peculiar shapes across the forest floor


So to can I

Learn to let go

Liberate and regenerate

For refresh and renewal


Nature, you do not judge

Night from day

Calm from storm

Chaos from order

What seems split in two, is all but one


And you do not rush

With time and ease

All that needs to be done is done


Nature, let me learn from you

Let me immerse myself in the vast natural world


For I am you, and you are I

I am you, you-I


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