It’s All Over — Water Wisdom from Waves to Wu-Wei
Extraordinary learning from something ordinary
Water is a recurring reference in Lao-Tze’s singular booklet of profound wisdom. If you are in the flow, you are in accord with The Way of all reality (The Tao), and you can accomplish all you need as if you were doing nothing (wu-wei).
“Supreme excellence approximates water.”
Chapter 8, Verse 1, Tao Te Ching
Unlike a cookbook, the wisdom of The Tao inspires a mindset reset. The specific actions you take have to be fluid and organic to be optimal for any given circumstance, like water.
Where there is life, there is water. Where there is water, there is wisdom — if only we care to soak it up.
“To understand water
is to understand the cosmos,
the marvels of Nature, and life itself.”
Water’s teaching and impact on my life are endless. Water flows out of everywhere, to me, in me, through me, and out of me, ever since life began.
This ordinary element of life offers extraordinary wisdom to all. But…
First, You Must Empty Your Cup
The Zen teacher keeps pouring water into the student’s overflowing cup and says:
“You are too full of yourself. There is no room for knowledge, let alone wisdom. Out there are countless springs ever-flowing with this fluid wisdom. To hold anything, you must first empty your cup.”
With an empty cup, I am a beginner. I am expected to ask questions, even stupid ones. And I get intelligent answers. Besides, as Zen also teaches:
“To the expert, there may be only one option. To the beginner, the possibilities are endless.”
Let’s begin as beginners with empty cups.
Earth is the ultimate water recycling plant — uh, planet. She has preserved the same totality of water since the beginning of life billions of years ago.
Tracer-tagged H2O molecules in a cup of water flung elsewhere on the planet will end up in your cup within days. We all share the same water, again, since the beginning of life billions of years ago.
Indeed, about two-thirds of our body is water. Sorry, no substitution, ever! Nothing else even comes close.
Science calls H2O the only universal solvent. It dissolves everything, and itself dissolves into anything.
Socially, a person like that would be the ultimate mixer. As Bogg declares in Star Trek, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
Can immortal, all-pervasive water teach us how to dissolve our problems by finding our own solutions? Let’s see.
Bipolar, Schizophrenic Water…and Reality
We all run into people and life events that we don’t know whether to love, hate, or both. Like us all, water is full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and opposites. Yet, it is just one unitary entity. That’s a paradox in itself.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability
to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time
and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
When you’re dying of thirst, water — tasteless and bland — can quench you like the sweetest elixir. Be clear about what you’re genuinely thirsty for, though.
“Is not dread of thirst when your well is full,
the thirst that is unquenchable?”
Water can keep you afloat on a lifeboat in a stormy sea, yet 4 inches of it in a puddle can drown you. How you position yourself can save or kill you.
Tiny as a droplet and enormous as an ocean, water can be everywhere or nowhere. It’s a shape-shifting ninja, being anywhere, anytime it pleases.
It’s soft as steam and hard as ice. It’s gentle as a shower and horrific as a tsunami. It’s as conforming as blank space and as unique as every snowflake. It’s not just how we are but how we avail ourselves.
You can see clear through water until it is pitch dark when you look too deep. Its surface reflects just as you are, so you can’t hide. To see clear through, we must also reflect.
“The face of the water…
it had a new story to tell every day.”
Wacky Ways of Water
You can beat at water as hard as you want; you can’t hurt it. It instantly returns to its original shape and never punches you back. Ultimate passive resistance!
Slight as a mist, yet once gathered with more of its kind, water ascends as voluminous clouds, then downpours as droplets that swell into grand rapids and mighty seas. You are just one, but when you are one with all, you become unstoppable.
“Water is the driving force of all nature.”
Leonardo da Vinci
Splashed on a hot stone, water vanishes in an instant. Drip by drip, it drills through huge, rigid rocks over time. Gentle patience and consistency are more powerful than brute force.
Water assumes the shape of whatever container you pour it in. Yet, when a river runs through, continents get carved, and civilizations get created. If they think we can be contained, we will show them what civilly disobedient self-determination can do.
Like all of reality, water flows, mixes, and is ever-changing, even though it may look stagnant to the fixated mind.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it’s not the same river
and he’s not the same man.”
When we are in the flow, fluid as water, time streams by, though it seems to have stood still. Try to push the river, and you’re up the creek. When you glide along, making all kinds of surprise and scenic turns with it, you hardly have to do a thing.
That’s how the greatest artists, writers, scientists, and sages travel. Let’s see how we can find the flow.
“Empty your mind,
be formless, shapeless
— like water.”
Life is like an ocean, and lifeforms like us are the varying forms of the water in it. Some are like mist spraying here and there. Others are like the surf bursting up and down.
We frolic and linger for as much and as long as the Nature of water would have us. Our time varies, but after a relatively short while, we all mix back in the same timeless, shapeless, unfathomable ocean of life. Then others take their turns for re-creation and recreation. The cycle never ends.
Does it make any sense for sprays and surfs like us to contest, combat, compress and conquer one another during our brief presence? I’m too busy marveling at the diverse and ever-changing grandeur to bother.
In this ocean of life, we’re all just waves; why not just wave while surfing and spraying?
“In one drop of water
are found all the secrets of all the oceans;
In one aspect of you
are found all the aspects of existence.”
Your Way, Our Way, The Way (The Tao)
Life is tumultuous, and the mind can get murky in the churns. Whenever I can, I go to the beach and watch the waves. If not, I just take a few minutes to watch drops of water dripping slowly from a faucet. Meditative practices are based on rhythmic, non-thinking, non-verbal repetitions into stillness.
Soon, thinking diminishes, and my mind slows down. The mud settles, and the water clears. After a while, even complexities become plain as water, and I can soak it all up like a sponge.
Coming from the highest stratospheres in the sky, water descends to the lowest substrata underground. In between, it does it all and serves all that it needs without passing judgment, incurring stress, or soliciting reward.
It does not hesitate to water those trapped in the lowest cracks; it does not bathe in glory for cleansing those up high. Beginning, middle, or the end, cause or consequence, victory or defeat, water doesn’t care. Coming and going, it is always inspiring, never expiring.
What a flow to follow! What a life of meaning, not merely meandering!
“Nothing can replace water.”
Chap. 78, V. 3, Tao Te Ching
When you have the clarity, courage, and commitment for your life’s purpose, and that purpose is in accord with your nature, and with the way of Nature, like water, you are in the flow.
You will descend from the highest plane, reach every level, morph into every form, enjoy every turn, and arrive at every destination you need. It just appears as if you are simply flowing along, having no purpose, making no effort, almost doing nothing (wu-wei).
Like water, the way of The Tao.
Tak C. Poon, MD, PharmD, ABHIM, FACC, Preventive Cardiologist, now developer of a non-profit wellness blog and a habit-forming lifestyle app at www.metacardio.org, and confessor of hard lessons I have learned in life.