Tao Te Ching
Essence of Water
The Tao of Water
I’ve been involved with the practice of Wisdom Healing Qigong for many years, and in April, I accepted an invitation to participate in an eleven month Mentorship program called The Living Tao. I’d read several versions of the Tao Te Ching on my journey, but I was not one who had seriously studied it, although I’d explored other paths that ultimately led to the same place. I resonated with the esoteric poetry of the translations, yet had not given deep thought to the practicality of its tenants as expressed. So, I looked forward to exploring The Living Tao’s deeper focus on the teachings of Lao Tsu.
Once each month, our intimate mentorship family of participants have a full day seminar with Master Mingtong Gu, our teacher. A few days before our August gathering, on two separate occasions, in conversations with two different friends, the subject of water came up, specifically being in water, and I found myself talking about my fear of water. Well, actually, my fear of both not being able to see to the bottom of the water, and the fear of my head being underneath the water. And yes, I have memories of past lifetimes where I drowned, once by jumping off a cliff, down into the water. I also tense up even taking a shower when water is pouring over my face and head, especially when, after each of several eye surgeries, I had to be sure for weeks at a time that that didn’t happen.
Although I may not relish the thought of being submerged in water, I love being around water, and it somehow seemed in sync with my life theme that week that Mingtong chose Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching to present that Saturday. As he had been doing, he offered his own literal and intuitive translations from Chinese to English of three versions of Chapter 8. Here’s one version, with additional translations/interpretations he added for some lines:
The greatest goodness is like water.
Water always nourishes everything and never competes.
Water always resides at the low place others avoid.
So water is almost like Tao.
Like nature of water, realized one is humble and respects others.
Know your right place and right direction, grounded like earth.
Like depth of water, her mind is quiet and deep without bottom.
Ultimate kindness benefits life without asking anything back.
Like kindness of water, she treats others with equality, trust, ultimately unconditional love.
Ultimate kindness benefits life without asking anything back.
Like cleansing of water, she speaks with truth.
Like selflessness of water, good leader leads others with pure motivation of benefiting all.
Like authenticity of water, she leads others by walking the talk.
Like the vastness of ocean, she leads others to unlimited potential.
Like water as source of nourishment and growth, life-benefiting action will always succeed.
Like a stream, good “move” happens like spring following winter.
The greatest doesn’t compete
Therefore can never lose or worry.
Lao Tsu on his buffalo
Mingtong, also being an artist, shared a gorgeous compilation of some of the videos he had made of water from various sources, in various places along his journey. I was mesmerized by the eloquence and artistry of the presentation. It reminded me of how much I miss and love the sound of water, dipping my feet in a cool clear stream (not deep, not muddy), marveling at the magic of a waterfall, listening to the soothing ebb and flow of the ocean. I felt renewed in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while.
One of the practices for the month was to meditate on the nine qualities water, to feel and live like water, to apply the nine qualities to myself and my life. Here are the qualities set forth:
- clarity, purity, honesty, sincerity
Clear water can reveal the bottom and reflect what is true.
- nourish, love, recharge, empower
Water quenches thirst, without discriminating.
- movement, change, flow
A river is never stuck.
- form and formless
Water can take any form without a fixed form.
- happiness, joy, bliss
Water is contented from the depth to the wave, like the ocean. Water flows around obstacles, and even creates a waterfall.
- vulnerability, softness, strength
Water can be penetrated but can’t be fixed. Water can permeate the depth of soil and over time, cut through rocks.
- benefiting without competing
Water nourishes trees, plants, animals, humans, and all life, without intention, will, or owning anything.
- purity, cleansing, purifying
Water can clean and purify everything, without judging anything.
- returning home, uniqueness and universality, one drop of water versus ocean
One drop of water will dry and lose its power. It becomes the stream when it returns to the stream. It becomes a lake when it merges into the lake. It becomes an ocean when it returns to the ocean.
The Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
There was much to contemplate and inwardly reflect upon, much to explore in beingness. And there was the realization for me that so much is taken for granted about water — the key ingredient of life in the Universe. How the surface of our magnificent blue Earth is the only planet made up of over 70% liquid water. How our own physical bodies, as a reflection of Earth, are composed of 70% water. And how we’ve been poor stewards of this phenomenal resource on our phenomenal planet.
Again, synchronistically, that same week, I was re-listening to an audiobook by one of my favorite authors, Donna Leon, who has written thirty-two books in her Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series, which takes place in Venice, Italy. With the water theme that seemed to be flowing through my life, I wondered if any films had ever been made of her books, and I went online to do a search. I found there were eighteen separate episodes, each one from a different book, filmed between 2000 and 2012 in German with English subtitles. They were on a streaming venue called Mhz, which featured new and exclusive international mysteries, dramas and comedies. I was elated. Really. I can get elated over these kinds of things.
I won’t go into details here, but I will say that after the fourth film, they changed the actor that portrayed Brunetti, and the new actor, along with the rest of the cast, now lived up to my expectations of them as a reader, as did the screen writing. But a main reason for wanting to “see” this series was for a sense of what it would be like to live in Venice, the floating city.
Although the cinematography was superb, my water issues surfaced as I watched. I found myself feeling into living with no cars, police in boats, only water buses, water taxis, having to master moving back and forth from a floating vehicle to the impact of solid land. And then there was the acqua alta, when each year, water levels rise and seriously flood the city, something that, along with so many other environmental imbalances, has been getting worse. Although living in Venice was definitely not for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the series.
As I played with the ideas Mingtong offered, I found myself thinking of my interactions with water in a more conscious and expansive way. I became more aware of how integrating the essence and qualities of water as expressed in the Tao could enhance my life. Yet, the deeper fears around water that I’d carried with me probably over lifetimes were still there. At one point I remembered a poem I’d written a long time ago.
This liquid prayer, this rolling
figment buoyant as a promise
in alluvial skin
this body, this salty swell
which holds a sea
within each potent drop
is not me.
Its currents toss my dreams;
its human tempests
stop my breath.
I’m not Undine. I haven’t born
a mortal child and won an earthly
I am fairy and my fragile
wings are soaked with longing.
I cannot find my air. I cannot fly.
And hard as I have tried, I never
learned to swim.
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