Tao Te Ching, ch 8: the greatest good

Published   Updated

Last time, I discussed “useful absence.” Sometimes the lack of something is what makes a thing good: the lack of ceramic in the center of a cup is what allows it to hold water. And that brings us to the topic of this chapter. So far, we’ve seen some confounding and mind-expanding ways of thinking. Here, we’re going to get as simple as possible.

The greatest good is like water.
Water nourishes and benefits all living things,
But it settles and gathers in low places.
These are the kinds of places people despise.
This is how water is like the Tao.

The suitability of a dwelling is in its location;
The quality of a person is in the depths of their heart;
The benefit of giving is in trust;
The purpose of governance is justice;
The ease of daily life is in competence;
The goodness of a decision is in its timing.

Without conflict, there is no blame.

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 8; trans Legge/Davis
The Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend and a portion of Lake Powell
The Colorado River, Horseshoe Bend and a portion of Lake Powell by NASA Johnson is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“I fucking love water” – Lao Tzu

To me, one of the biggest challenges of the Tao Te Ching is overinterpretation. “Ah, so the water is a metaphor!” No, it really isn’t. We are definitely talking about water here, first and foremost.

Taoists love water. I mean, what’s not to love? If you can love water, then you’re about 60% of the way to loving yourself. Every single living thing on this planet requires water. Water is very important.

Water, like anything, obeys the physical laws of reality. It flows downhill. In the absence of anywhere lower to flow, water pools. It doesn’t act, it simply exists. And as it exists, it can create and transform almost limitlessly. It’s pretty remarkable stuff!

Birkey burn waterfall
Birkey burn waterfall by Colin Kinnear is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Do not doing

This chapter is trying to articulate something profoundly simple: it is a perspective on action, and determining the why of an action. Why give? Why govern? Why practice? All of these things are actions that have purposes. We don’t do them for the purpose, we do them when they need to be done and to the extent that it is necessary in the moment.

And every action has a consequence, an effect of the causative action. Giving builds trust, but you don’t give to get trust. You give because it is the right choice in that moment, and a consequence of that choice is trust. Lao Tzu is not mechanistic, he is observant.

And here’s the kicker: if you start doing things to seek a specific outcome (giving to earn trust), you may not get the desired outcome. When we seek outcomes, we become focused. Focus is helpful at times, but it also means we are attending to certain details and ignoring others.

Forego outcomes

Instead of focusing on an outcome, just do what you need to do. Do you need to walk the dog? Then go walk the dog. Don’t walk the dog to receive a certain outcome, just go walk the dog. Maybe you’ll have a good time, maybe the dog will tug at the leash, maybe it’ll chase a squirrel, or any other permutation. It doesn’t really matter what happens, because the purpose of the action is rooted in the need to walk the dog. Whatever happens, happens.

To me, the hardest thing about Lao Tzu is that he asks you to trust yourself in the moment. Don’t plan, don’t imagine the outcomes. Just go for it, be observant, and respond accordingly. That still includes preparation, but it’s not preparation for a specific outcome.

Let it happen, trust yourself to make appropriate choices, and go for it. You got this.

Be the first to leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.