Drifting with the Tao: Drifting Like Water

Featured

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.


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Nashwan Guherzi on Pexels.com

Featured Image Source: Pexels Free Photos

Podcast : To Be Human

Featured

Below is a poem I wrote on embracing the human condition, and all the beauty and terror that comes with it.


Humans such fragile beings
A desire to be heard
A desire to be seen

A vast longing to be loved and understood

Driven by ambitions and lofty goals
Riddled by confusion and anxiety

Grasping, clinging for any sort of certainty
Building great towers to protect our vulnerable egos

Prepare we may, prepare we can
But Nature will not cede to our demands

Where will you take shelter from the storm?
Where will you go when the flood rolls in?

Flow with the current of life
Dance with danger, tango with terror

What else can we do but love our difficulties
Keep them near, let them change you for they are dear

Beware of those who seek refuge in digital utopias
Seduced by the grand illusions of fame and fortune

Ignore the screens, those cold machines
With perfect bodies, perfect smiles, perfect lives and perfect teeth

What is a human but a flawed being in search of transcendence?

We can still embrace and overcome
We can rise above rough waters and high tides

We can still be human – after all

Image Source

An audio rendition of my poem The Artist
  1. The Artist
  2. Some Thoughts on Stillness
  3. The Machine: A Sign of the Times
  4. Wonder
  5. The Ignorance of the Modern Man

Embracing the Art of Play

Featured

We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

Photo by Daryl Wilkerson Jr on Pexels.com

Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

Featured image source