The Best Are Like Water

(Photo by Joshua Earle)

(Photo by Joshua Earle)

It's easy to live a poor and unfortunate life; all one needs is to be rigid. Yet the best are like water.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

The water metaphor can sound profound but confusing in application. People can mistake it to mean imitating the physical movements of water, like a boneless, squid-like human, for use in martial arts or in reaching some higher state of consciousness. (This also appears to be the popular form of dance at outdoor music festivals.) And that is, perhaps, the literal application. The metaphorical water (water is an analogy after all) is fluidity and adaptability.

We tend to be rigid; that tends to be the natural adult state. If the natural adult state were plastic, then the prescription would be for firmness, for that would be what was needed. I say the "adult state" because as children, nothing is written.

Against a strong wind, a sapling bends. A matured and firm tree either withstands the wind or breaks.

Water is a teaching tool to cultivate balanced temperament. Why is this necessary? It isn't necessary; it is a suggestion for those wanting to live a pleasant life. Adaptability sustains equilibrium in a world of change.

Water rises and falls with the tides.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes:

It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it.

Nothing is permanent; everything flows. Nothing can be defined absolutely, and we will never be in a position to do so. Rather than defining every aspect of our existence or bickering over what is right or wrong, let us live the good life. It is the only reasonable thing to do.

To Flow Like Water

We use adjectives such as "unyielding" and "inflexible" when describing those who cause us the most frustration. But in turn, the same terms are used for our descriptions as well. Then we argue over who is the unreasonable one.

Unyielding is not a description for a particular group of people; it is our universal story. It was true thousands of years ago when Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching, and it continues to be true.

Lao Tzu writes:

The river and the sea can be kings of a hundred valleys because they lie below them.

Water can flow under a valley or carve through a mountain. We can be passive and active; not one or the other, but both. It is when we get stuck in one way, or as social scientists refer to as being fixed in one mindset, that we cause many of our own conflicts.

Often, we are not fighting others; we are wrestling with our own reactions.

Wisdom of Lao Tzu

It's easy to live a poor and unfortunate life; all one needs is to be rigid. Yet the best are like water.

Lao Tzu writes:

The best, like water,
Benefit all and do not compete.
They dwell in lowly spots that everyone else scorns.
Putting others before themselves,
They find themselves in the foremost place
And come very near to the Tao.
In their dwelling, they love the earth;
In their heart, they love what is deep;
In personal relationships, they love kindness;
In their words, they love truth.
In the world, they love peace.
In personal affairs, they love what is right.
In action, they love choosing the right time.
It is because they do not compete with others
That they are beyond the reproach of the world.

We want recognition; we want to get things done. Rather than thinking of others, we think of ourselves. Rather than flowing like water (wu-wei), we force. Rather than calmness, we adopt intensity. If need be: brutality, intimidation, and even violence (be it mental or physical). Yet harshness only begets itself. Tensions mount.

What Is the Best?

Because it is always in flux, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart made this famous argument to define what cannot be defined:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.

Not everything can be clearly understood since it is always in motion, but we know it when we see it.

In Life

To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.
— Socrates

Through martial arts and my own personal quest for knowledge, I have traveled the world and met and trained with a variety of "masters." For some, martial art was their profession, for others, martial art was a passion — while their job sometimes meant leading billion-dollar companies.

Though the collection of wisdom was vast, two patterns seemingly always remained true:

  1. The best asked questions. They were curious and played the student more than the master. Their confidence fed their curiosity.
  2. The worst asked for questions. Always teaching, never learning. They saw curiosity as a sign of personal weakness, of being child-like. Their insecurities obstructed their curiosity.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
— W. B. Yeats

When a master is asked, who is the best, they name their best student (the best learner). When a student is asked who is the best, they name the best fighter.

The best are like mature children. Rather than shedding their childish tastes, they cultivate it to a level of sophistication and good grooming.

The best put others before themselves; confident that their own place is secured, allowing for self-improvement — continuously securing and elevating their place. Security creates room for growth — to learn from the experiences of others — to grow deep kindness and appreciation.

The worst lack in confidence — guaranteeing their insecurities by never improving. Water fills the gaps. Something uncompromising, like a wooden board, merely covers it up.

Interesting to note: wooden boards are what martial artists break. It is symbolic. We cannot break water, but rather, we attempt to be like water. Boards break, water endures.

Being willfully ignorant and arrogant does not mean one cannot be gregarious and generous. I, too, was once a very sweet idiot. In asking my wife if I was no longer a sweet idiot, she told me not to sell myself short; I am still very sweet...

You know nothing, Jon Snow.
— Ygritte, Game of Thrones

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