You may know the concept to which Taoists ascribe — of emulating water to more closely be attuned to the Tao. It is a difficult idea for Westerners, as we have been taught to break through whatever barriers we face with brute strength, regardless of cost to ourselves or others.
In fact, being like water is considered too passive in a society that wants everything and they want it now. Who has a million years to carve out the Grand Canyon? Water does.
I spent the last week working a labor job, which is atypical for me but I thought it important, as I would be exposed to many lessons of the Tao. For the first couple days I was on my own, doing repetitive work that bruised my hands and challenged my joints and muscles. I am not young. But I went at the work steadily, bit by bit, box by box until the end of each work day without ceasing.
By the middle of the week, the owner of the small company decided to join me in the effort and her methods to address the work were quite different. Where I was methodical and steady, she moved quickly, pushing boxes about with a harsh shove rather than a gentle nudge.
I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she did the work in sloppy fashion. Materials were ruined and discarded. Others fell to the floor at her feet where she would kick them away or spend time retrieving them. Her work was loud and hurried.
I continued at the pace of water, now with the new challenge to avoid being hit by her boxes as she moved in frenetic fashion.
Even at lunch she demonstrated a different manner as she stood up to eat her processed food from a container while I sat to eat my homemade lunch. She would finish first and race back to her desk as though hurried self-denial was the mark of a good worker. Her lack of care and respect for her body’s needs was evident. She is obese and looks unwell, indicating the cost of her approach to work and life.
Perhaps the point of her frenzied effort was to show me how much faster her methods were and how my quiet, steady practices were unwelcome, but the toll on her process was high. She excused herself often to sit down and rest.
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
— Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu reminds us that water seeks the lowest level which humans abhor. We strive for the top position, hurried and angry in our efforts to rise above our peers. And for our efforts to bully and bulldoze our way to the top, we find ourselves damaged and unwell.
Through Tao we do not hurry, yet nothing goes undone. This is Wu Wei. This is emulating water that slowly drips and wears away all things with a great, steady power. As a Taoist this is your way of being in the world — unhurried, steady and strong.