Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and rigid,
nothing can surpass it.
Everyone knows that the soft and yielding
overcomes the rigid and hard,
yet few can put this knowledge into practise.
The Master remains serene
in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up trying to help,
he is people’s greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
The Tao Te Ching is filled with paradoxical words that at first glance might seem nonsensical to the mind, but which can nonetheless be verified upon deeper reflection. Perhaps it was deliberately written this way to shake us out of our complacency, our unconscious assumption that we know exactly how the world works and how life ought to be.
In order to truly know, any pre-existing assumption of knowledge must be discarded, until ultimately the only thing we know with certainty is that we don’t know, that we can’t know, that it is beyond the capacity of our mind to know.
Again and again the Tao is likened to water. Water is the softest and most yielding of elements, but it is perhaps also ultimately the strongest. Whilst wind, fire and even earth have the power to create and destroy, their power is finite. Only water, the seemingly weakest and most ineffectual of substances, has the power to, over time, cut through solid stone and literally tear down mountains.
We are invited to emulate water and in so doing emulate the Tao. Soft and flexible, water exists in one of two states: it is still, or it flows; it is active or passive. It does nothing of itself, it simply follows its nature and effortlessly adjusts itself according to the circumstances around it, manoeuvring around any obstacles and always flowing back toward its source.