is like water.
It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.
For a house,
the good thing is level ground.
depth is good.
The good of giving is magnanimity;
of speaking, honesty;
of government, order.
The good work is skill,
and of action, timing.
so no blame.
Here are Le Guin’s comments on this section:
A clear stream of water runs through this book, from poem to poem, wearing down the indestructible, finding the way around everything that obstructs the way. Good drinking water.
I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching for nearly half my life, and so it probably isn’t super surprising that I, too, have a bit of a water fixation.
Of course, that’s likely just a function of being human or any species that requires water for survival.
And thinking about water and its importance is nothing new. Thinkers throughout history have discussed water as more than simply an element or necessity for existence. This is especially true in East Asian philosophy. Why that might be, I have no idea. And likely it’s just as common in western thought, but I’ve never read much of the Greeks or Romans or Germans or French or even English, so this could be coming from a place of plain, old fashioned ignorance.
But I’ve been thinking about water for a long time, and have even been applying it for a lot of aspects of my life, in a very practical way.
I used to play baseball and I used to be a pitcher. While pitching requires a lot of physical exactitude, it’s much more of a thinking position. It’s not enough to just throw the ball to the catcher. You need to throw the ball past the batter, without them touching it (at least this is how I always thought of it, since I was more of a power/strikeout pitcher). This requires incredible precision and mechanics. While I could only ever hit the mid-80s in terms of speed (which is a lot or a little, depending on your level of play), the batter was prepared for this speed, even if it was on the higher end of the spectrum. And for those unfamiliar, a pitcher goes, essentially, from standing still, to launching themselves forward and hurling a tiny ball 60ft into a catcher’s mitt. The trick to the whole thing is creating momentum where none exists.
When you start at the full windup, you get to take a slight step back to give you a bit of a rocking movement to work with. That same leg you step back with is the one you raise high (if you’re me, low if you’re lame), and then, at that peak of potential energy, you reach back with the ball, and you connect your throwing hand to the heel of your raised foot. When you launch that foot forward to plant into the dirt of the mound, your arm swings round, gaining momentum, which means power, which means speed.
And, if you’re really great, that hand is hidden from the batter till just before the moment of release so they don’t get to track the ball through its entire range of motion, which makes it easier to hit.
I’m a normal sized human, but I have long arms and legs, which gave me an advantage, in terms of building momentum. I could swing my limbs through the air and crash it down, launching the ball at a pretty good speed. And so I could overpower the batter or at least surprise them. Even though I wasn’t the fastest pitcher around (or even on my team), I threw more strikeouts than just about anyone in the league, at least per innings pitched. In a seven inning game, I once struck out 13 batters, which means a strikeout accounted for nearly 2/3rds of the outs that game.
I was always thinking of water when I pitched. So much of pitching is quieting your brain, shutting out all other thoughts. And I did this by focusing on water. Existing as a waterfall trapped in a well. Finding a stillness and calmness that could be transformed into a tidal wave in just a moment.
I’ve always thought of movement as being closely tied to water, but it applies to so many other areas, as well. Including strategy games like Chess or persuasive essays or even just congenial argumentation. Your goal is to be fluid, adaptable, almost shapeless until the moment requires a shape. And then you fill it robustly.
A lot of these ideas, for me, come from being a little kid obsessed with martial arts movies. I spent hours and hours watching Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee move in ways that were exhilarating and mind-altering to me. I didn’t know humans could move like that, and so I’d sneak down after I was meant to be asleep and try to catch a few more hours of that beautiful watery movement.
Then I’d practice doing what they did. I studied those movies and those movements. I wanted to be that awesome when I grew up.
Of course, I’m sort of a sedentary beast these days, but I still long for those youthful days when I was teaching myself to fly.
Water has always been something at the front of my thoughts (along with dust, but that’s a different discussion), and maybe that’s why I felt home when I first read the Tao Te Ching. It was like coming home. Articulating ideas and images that I always knew where out there, but didn’t have the language for.
Water is formless, until it’s given a form. Water carves through mountain and the bones of the earth. Water creates and destroys. But above all else, water is always water. It never loses itself, even as it changes.
Be like water, my friends.