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Daoist virtue

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

This week we talked about virtue (德)。This character for virtue (德) is the second character in Daodejing (道德经)。One way of thinking about the Daodejing is as the timeless text of living a life of virtue. One who cultivates virtue for a long time by applying the principles, can be considered a sage (圣人)。Let’s be honest, if we are seriously trying to apply the principles in Daodejing, we have a goal of wanting to be a sage. What does the text tell us about how to do that?

Water doesn’t discriminate and lets all rivers and streams flow into it. Water is constantly changing and only seems to spoil when stagnant.

The strongest metaphor in Daodejing that conveys the qualities of the sage, is that of the sage being like water. What are the qualities of water? It is inherently soft. It yields. But it is also powerful when moving. One can imagine a forceful river twisting through a cavern like a dragon after a hard rain. But water doesn’t assert itself to make itself prominent. It reacts to the energy and makeup of the environment. Water is incredibly sensitive. One drop that lands in it creates ripples that radiate out in all directions. Water is humble and equanimous. It seeks the low places with the least resistance and if it’s agitated, it settles itself quickly. Water doesn’t discriminate and lets all rivers and streams flow into it. Water is constantly changing and only seems to spoil when stagnant.

In this sense, Daoist virtue is based upon qualities, not on rules. These qualities emerge spontaneously based upon what circumstances are present. We can also act spontaneously based upon what qualities are present. Keeping in mind the qualities of water can aid us in guiding our direction moment-by-moment.

If my mind is rigid and inflexible, I'm not being like a sage. In fact, as a psychotherapist, one of the key things we focus on from a third-wave cognitive behavioral approach is psychological flexibility. And what is more flexible than water? Not much, if anything, particularly if you consider water vapor and its manifestation as clouds. So even modern psychological research has brought us to the place that Laozi (老子)arrived at thousands of years ago. The more our minds are like water, and flexible, the more psychologically healthy we are. Look at water itself. When it freezes and becomes its most rigid state, it is easily shattered and broken. Our minds are the same way and both Laozi and modern psychology agree.

Some practical ways of training ourselves to be more psychologically flexible include:

  • being in the present moment--not ruminating on the past or obsessing about the future

  • creating space for whatever emotions arise in us

  • not fusing with our thoughts, but rather letting them flow

  • not living according to a rigid idea about who we are but rather letting ourselves just experience our lives

  • engaging deeply in whatever we are doing

  • knowing what we stand for

In the end, becoming a sage isn't a destination, it's an on-going process. As was mentioned, the worst state for water is to stagnate. A sage is always flowing through life and filling in the spaces of the moment with modesty and openness. Can we practice each day to do the same?

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