The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all of creation
without trying to compete with it.
It gathers in the low places unpopular with men.
Thus it is like the Tao.
Live in accordance with the nature of things.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In dealing with others, be fair and generous.
In governing, do not try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself,
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
One who lives in accordance with nature
does not go against the way of things.
He moves in harmony with the present moment,
always knowing the truth of just what to do.
Lao Tzu muses that rather than climbing upward, water is content to flow downward, for that is its nature. This is the opposite of most people, who prefer to elevate themselves and are constantly trying to climb their way up the various ladders of life, making themselves ‘bigger’, ‘higher’ and ‘better’.
The rest of this verse offers Lao Tzu’s sage advice for living in alignment with the nature of the Tao. The key points are simplicity, gentleness, kindness and balance. He warns against competing and trying to control others and urges us to be in harmony with the essential nature of life and ourselves. All too often we see ourselves as somehow separate from life. Indeed, there’s an erroneous collective assumption that “me” and “my life” are somehow two separate things. Yet, as much as our egos might balk at the notion, it’s nevertheless true that we don’t “have” a life, we are life! That's a humbling but strangely comforting realisation.
Perhaps we could take Lao Tzu up on his analogy and see ourselves as water. Instead of trying to climb ever upward, what would happen if we allowed ourselves flow downward? When we try to act against our nature we usually experience blockages of some kind. The human mind likes to call the shots and determine our trajectory, but in doing so it often operates counter to our true nature.
If we could allow ourselves to be like water and to simply flow in the direction that life takes us, unafraid of the ‘low’ places disdained by those obsessed with getting ahead, then perhaps we will discover a peace and joy beyond understanding?
Being like water, we are soft and gentle, yet immensely powerful. We are able to offer life-giving and life-sustaining nourishment to any and all that might need it. And as with water, if we really have patience and perseverance, we can even move mountains.