Newsletter - August 2023
Water Does Not Try
“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.” (Lao Tzu)
Water has no desire. It is not “trying” to nourish anything. It just does what it does. Similarly the Tao simply is what it is. If we must use words, we could describe it as the Oneness/Wholeness that encompasses everything. And it does all that without trying! Trying is only required the moment we desire things to be anything other than the way they are. The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 8) reminds us that when our actions are centered in the Tao, we become part of the flow which nourishes all things.
This newsletter is about trying. We do it a lot, whether we’re aware of it or not. We’re taught at an early age that we cannot produce results without trying, that we cannot succeed without trying. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” As a result, we learn that success is important, and that trying is important. So, if we’re not careful, we can spend much of our lives in a state of trying. But what if that’s not the only way to live? The Tao Te Ching suggests another way.
Let’s start with a question. Is trying the only way to produce results? No, it’s not. The quote uses the example of water. We all know that plants grow along the bank of a river. Do we think the water is “trying” to nourish them? No, of course we don’t. Plants simply grow well in moist earth. That’s just the way it is. In fact, if you think about it, no “results” are “produced.” Nor do plants “succeed” in growing on the river bank. No “trying” is involved. These words are just labels which we introduce.
Is there anything wrong with labels? (Noting, of course, that “wrong” is another label.) The answer is no, because sometimes labels serve us well. But at other times they don’t. Let’s explore whether the word “trying“ is one of the useful labels—or not.
When you think about it, countless things are the way they are without trying. Everything in the natural world can be seen as an example of this. Mountains and trees are the way they are without trying. Spring does not “try” to follow winter; seasons simply come and go. It’s when you look at the people-made world that you see examples of trying. And there’s nothing wrong with many of them. A great cathedral did not build itself; people built it. And they didn’t build it by mistake, they built it by trying. That’s why they drew architectural plans, figured out how to support a roof, gathered materials, and worked—in some cases for centuries.
Fair enough. But I think it’s time to split hairs. Lao Tzu makes an association between trying and what he calls the “will to power.” It’s in the will to power that the trouble lies. “When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results. Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery. Try to make people moral, and you lay the groundwork for vice. Thus the Master is content to serve as an example and not to impose her will” (chapter 58).
Needless to say, none of Lao Tzu’s examples are to do with building cathedrals. They all relate to our behavior towards other people. However, I think the key lies in the phrase “impose her will.” This is what the Master is not doing. And, if we’re not careful, this is exactly what we tend to do when we “try.”
So here’s the tough question in a nutshell. If we’re not trying to do something, then what’s the point in doing anything? Typically when we try to do something, the point of it is to fulfill some desire which we have in mind. Well, you might say, people desired a cathedral, so they tried to build it, and they succeeded. Surely, it was their trying which produced the successful result.
So here’s my challenge. What value is added when we use the words “try,” “produce a result,” and “succeed”? I’m going to stick my neck out and say that, much of the time (not all of the time), these words not only fail to add value but confuse the picture, and put us in a state of continually striving for something we will never grasp. Strong words, I know.
Here’s Lao Tzu on the subject. “Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe. Therefore the Master takes action by letting things take their course. He remains as calm at the end as at the beginning” (chapter 64). So is our role not to try at all and merely watch things take their course? No, I believe we have an active part to play, there is a contribution we can make. But here’s the difference.
Contributing to something bigger than ourselves which is unfolding anyway, is different from trying to control the outcome of our actions to produce a particular result. The power lies in the contribution we can make, not in whether or not we succeed in producing the result we had in mind. Lao Tzu puts it better. “The Master doesn’t try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful” (chapter 38).
So, does the Master act or does he just passively watch things take their course? Yes, the Master acts but he does so differently from the way we might. “The Master does his job and then stops. He understands that… trying to dominate events goes against the current of the Tao” (chapter 30). There it is. I think the trouble starts when we don’t stop, and instead try to dominate events. “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity” (chapter 9). There it is again; the trouble starts when we don’t step back.
Here's where I typically get stuck. I see a contribution I can make. I desire to make it so. I then make a plan with a lot of detail, and tell myself that’s so I’ll know what success looks like when I see it. I then go to work to make my plan a reality. Do I do my work and then step back? No, I don’t. I stay close by to check that all those details are turning out the way I had in mind.
Now does that sound like a person making a contribution or a person trying to dominate and control events? Hmm. The message for me in Lao Tzu’s words is to be careful not to confuse these two things. Basically, I need to stop and step back more often than I do. Is that easy for me to do? No, it’s not. But what if that is “the only path to serenity”?
What’s an example that’s true for you where your “trying” is actually an attempt to dominate and control events? How do we best make contributions which flow with the current of the Tao, as it were, rather than against it?
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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(In Harmony with the Tao: A Guided Journey into the Tao Te Ching is available as an e-book, or as a paperback or hardcover from your nearest independent book store, or from Amazon.com, or from Amazon.ca.)