Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu compares the Tao to water. Water can give life, conform to any container, flow around any obstacle, erode mountains, destroy cities, cleanse, heal, travel to the lowest and highest spots, move effortlessly and efficiently, and transform into ice, water, or vapour depending on the circumstances. And in one translation of the Tao Te Ching, in Chapter 8, Lao Tzu says, “the best of men is like water.” In Taoism, this “best man” is referred to as a Sage, and by taking on the qualities of water, the Sage comes close to the Tao. I said that water could be described in many ways, but I think it has one, chief characteristic: it's formless. And because it's formless, water is adaptable. It can become whatever it needs to suit the situation, in cold turning to ice, in heat to vapour. So the water-like sage must be formless too, but what does it mean to be formless? A formless mind is capable of endless, expansive growth. A child is a great example of formlessness. Its mind is still fresh, unjaded, and unconditioned by the world. Nothing but potential lies in front of it, and it does nothing but learn all day. But as many children grow older, their minds tend to calcify, they become more rigid, and they stop learning. But the water-like sage retains a mind that is formless, unbounded, and constantly learning, lacking rigidity and capable of responding to any situation. So what causes rigidity in the mind? Rigidity occurs when the mind creates a barrier that prevents it from receiving new information. Imagine a water-filled glass placed upside down on a table. Next to the glass is a bottle of poison. The water represents the mind, the glass represents the delusion, and the poison represents conflict. The mind wants so badly to protect itself from conflict that it constructs a delusion around itself by telling itself lies. The delusion is a self-isolating barrier. Although the poison can't enter the glass, no more water can either. In other words, no more knowledge can enter the mind. For example, a man, because he's awkward, has a few bad interactions with others. But if the man acknowledges his awkwardness, he knows he would be conflicted, so he protects himself from the conflict by constructing a delusion. He tells himself that society is full of losers not worth talking to. He protects himself from conflict, but he also cuts himself off from all knowledge that would have helped him overcome his awkwardness. And as he seeks to avoid conflict, he tells himself more lies, his delusions cut him off from more and more knowledge, and as a result, his mind becomes completely fixed and rigid. So why does he continue to lie to himself? A lie is something that gives the illusion of resolving a conflict. After telling the lie, the liar believes he's resolved the conflict in a quick and easy manner. But obviously, instead of resolving it, he pushed the conflict off into the future, where it will grow in strength. For example, a mother asks her daughter if she got into college. The mother invested a lot of time and effort into the child's education, ensuring that she would get in. But the daughter never wanted to go to college, so she never applied. The daughter knows the truth will result in conflict between her and the mother, so to avoid the conflict, the child lies and says yes. The daughter feels like she's resolved the conflict, but she's actually just pushed it off into the future. Eventually she will have to admit to her mom that she did not get in. But let's say she's really committed to the lie, moves out, and calls her mom weekly, putting up an act that she's at college. She indirectly taught herself that lying is an effective and reasonable way to resolve conflict, so now she'll begin lying to others when she senses conflict. So not only will her lies continue to multiply and get out of hand, but she'll never learn how to actually resolve conflict. But how does the sage handle conflict? The sage's mind uses its formlessness to grow to the size of an ocean. Now if you drop poison—which represents conflict—into the ocean, what happens? It's diluted. Only an oceanic mind truly resolves a conflict, because it can take all conflicts into itself and dilute them. It cannot be touched by conflict. Even if a strong poison was dropped into the sage's mind, as their mind grows and expands, all poisons, pollutions, and conflicts are eventually diluted. An oceanic mind is virtuous, not because it chooses to be, but because no matter what it comes into contact with, it retains its purity, its life-giving quality. The liar's mind, on the other hand, constructs delusions to protect itself from conflict, and by doing so, becomes rigid. Delusion cuts the mind off from knowledge and deprives it of its own expansion, so it remains the size of a glass. And so when the liar's mind comes into contact with the poison, it's easily contaminated, losing its life-giving quality. As always, this is just my opinion and understanding of the Tao Te Ching, not advice. Feel free to use this information however you like, and if you have a different take on the theme of water in Taoism, I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments.