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Newsletter - May 2023

Choppy Waters

It’s an odd title for this month’s newsletter, but here’s where I want to go with it. We’ve all heard the phrase “to go with the flow.” When phrased this way, who wouldn’t want to go with it, right? For me, it conjures up an image of a wide river flowing steadily on its way carrying me peacefully along in a comfortable canoe.


But our experience of life tells us the water is not always like this. Sometimes the river does not feel wide, steady, and peaceful. Instead, the water is turbulent and we feel tossed about. I call these “choppy waters.” Are we still supposed to “go with the flow” even when it’s like this? This is what I’d like to explore in this newsletter.


I think we all like to feel we’re in control of what we experience in our lives. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say we like to feel we can strongly influence what we experience. I know I like to feel that way. Why? I think it’s because there’s often a good connection between what I do and what happens. That means if I do certain things then certain outcomes become more likely. (“More likely” is my acknowledgment that I do not have 100% control.) The point is I can use my actions to stack the odds in favor of outcomes I’d like to experience or results I’d like to produce.


So what happens when the waters get choppy, when I feel tossed about, and when what I do doesn’t seem to be making any difference? Does that mean my actions are pointless? No. Do I remind myself that likelihoods are not certainties? I could do that, but it’s not very comforting. Do I simply resign myself to “having a bad day”? Okay, but also not very comforting. On the other hand, does Lao Tzu have anything helpful to say in his Tao Te Ching? Let’s see.


“The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them. She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle” (chapter 29). Hmm, how helpful is that? My first reaction is: really, so she doesn’t do anything? Does she just accept she’s having a bad day? My second reaction is: what happens when it feels like life knocks you out of the center of your circle?


So now that I’m done reacting, let me slow down a bit and see if there’s something to be learned here. I think I’m jumping to at least three conclusions. My first jump is to think that letting things go their own way amounts to not doing anything. My second jump is to think that the Master likes to label her days as good or bad. My third jump is to think that whether I reside at the center of the circle is somehow not up to me. Let’s look at each in turn.


I’ll go back to my choppy river which, from time to time, fails to do its job of carrying me peacefully along. If I just let things “go their own way” won’t I just keep getting tossed about? Well, first let’s be clear the river doesn’t actually have a job to do. It’s just being a river and doing what rivers do. Second, let’s go back to the difference between influence and control. Putting my paddle into the water to try and guide my journey into calmer water is certainly no guarantee I will succeed—but it’s also not “doing nothing.” The Master is not passive. “The Master allows things to happen. She shapes events as they come” (chapter 45). Shaping is not doing nothing. So guiding and shaping are still up to me. This means I have a part to play even if I cannot guarantee the outcome.


Second, let’s look at the business of good days and bad days. Do these labels really help? I guess they’re a convenient way to express our feelings. We know that no day is intrinsically good or bad—it just is what it is. However, we certainly prefer some days to others. Perhaps it would be more accurate for us to say “Relative to the good days I have experienced, this one feels like a bad day” but that’s a bit of a mouthful. What’s more, it still leaves us pinning goodness and badness on the day itself rather than on what we happen to be feeling about it. Lao Tzu reminds us that this habit of labeling has predictable consequences. “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad” (chapter 2).


Third, what about the business of residing at the center of the circle? Earlier I said it can feel like life “knocks you out of the center of your circle.” I think it’s worth taking a close look at this circle. Why? Because I think the Tao Te Ching refers to only one circle. It’s not like I have my circle, you have yours, and the Master has his (or hers). Here is Lao Tzu describing the circle: “There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao” (chapter 25). This Oneness/Wholeness is the circle where the Master resides—along with us and everything else. It’s just that on bad days, it’s really easy to forget that. Well, we may ask, is it at least a friendly circle?


Leaving aside that “friendly” is just another label like good and bad, how about this? “The Tao gives birth to all beings, nourishes them, maintains them, cares for them, comforts them, protects them, takes them back to itself, creating without possessing, acting without expecting, guiding without interfering. That is why love of the Tao is in the very nature of things” (chapter 51). Not a bad description. Especially the bit about guiding without interfering.


So, what has this exploration shown me? I think I’ve been reminded of three things. First, that letting things go their own way is not the same as doing nothing. Guiding and shaping are always up to me. If there’s one thing I need to let go of, it’s thinking I can control the outcome. Second, I’ve been reminded that labeling days (or anything else for that matter) as good or bad is not very helpful. All it does is put distance between me and what’s happening—which just makes it harder for me to respond rather than react. Third, there is only one circle—and we’re never knocked out of it. We just choose where we reside. The Master has the practical wisdom to reside always at the center, which is why he or she is such a great example. 


In summary, I don’t think the Master is somehow exempt from experiencing choppy waters. The Master is just keenly aware of what’s going on and recognizes that reflecting on the choppiness of the waters doesn’t help. “Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Tao” (chapter 53). That really says it all.


What do you think? I’m sure you’ve experienced choppy waters, or had what we call bad days. Have you found any ways of recognizing what you can and cannot do about them, or ways to distinguish what you can influence, from what to let go of?​

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:


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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, or from

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