The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare and compete,
everybody will respect you.
The first stanza above is essentially about the taming of the ego or of humankind's pride or hubris. Our ego, unless it is tamed, will not bring us happiness or contentment. However, when it is tamed and brought into check, it can of course bring us much happiness. Many leaders are happy people because quite simply their egos are controlled. Balance is a word much spoken about in spirituality, as indeed it is in psychology and psychotherapy. The poet speaks graphically about how naturally water helps all things to grow without despising the low places. Indeed, it naturally seeks to avoid the high places. Here, then, it is an image of humility and yet immense power in nurturing growth and life.
The words of wisdom offered by this poem are indeed proverbial and do contain that perennial wisdom adverted to above. Indeed, one could be reading from the Biblical book of Psalms. We are advised to live close to the ground, or to be truly in tune with nature. Indeed, here it is interesting to mention than the etymology of the very word "human" is the Latin root "humus" which means "clay."
In thinking and indeed teaching, one should keep the thought processes clear and simple. As a teacher involved in education for some 35 years now I have been long convinced of that piece of rich advice. When I was a university I was taught by some wise lecturers and fellow students to differentiate the true teacher/lecturer from the poor ego-ridden one by noting whether they were setting out to impress, confuse and mystify rather than inform, clarify and encourage the learner. The next line recommends being fair and generous in conflict, an aspiration that is an ideal indeed, but somewhat depressing in reality as it would seem that most victors are neither fair nor generous as the sad history of human warring has taught us.
I especially delight in the proverbial wisdom of the line: "In governing, don't try to control." All good leaders, in my experience, have never tried to control, while the bad ones have indeed done so, thereby hurting and alienating many as well as slowing all progress down. Those who try to control are often micro-managers: those who cannot allow their staff to get on with the job without sticking their nose in. A good leader allows his or her staff the freedom to achieve and no good boss is ever jealous of their achievements, but rather rejoices in them for he/she has allowed that person the freedom to achieve X or Y. In that special way, the are responsible for the success of their staff. I remember, a wonderful teacher and great Irish writer Bryan McMahon once remarking that a good teacher delights in the success of all pupils even those who will go on to outshine him intellectually and so on.
Amazingly, the piece of wisdom that recommends that we should work at what we enjoy sounds very contemporary indeed. There is much sound wisdom in it, but few of us ever get the luxury of doing so. The most that we can do is to get to know ourselves as deeply as possibly and avoid taking jobs that we might detest or promotions that might ruin our peace of mind. Knowing our own strengths and playing to them is obviously the best course of action for us in life.
Once again being present to others in our family is a wonderful piece of advice that will lead to harmonious relationships. Through meditation and other spiritual practices we learn gradually to be present (i) to ourselves, (ii) to others and (iii) to the source of life some of us dare call God. Being present in the moment is the central recommendation of every spiritual tradition.
Finally, as I've already remarked, we could be reading a modern article in a popular psychology magazine or book when we peruse the final few lines of the above poem. Learning to be content with oneself; being able to be and to sleep with an untroubled conscience; not desiring to compete with anyone else and certainly never needing to compare oneself with others are achievements consequent on much spiritual practice and no little dedication to matters of the soul.
I will finish these few reflections with the usual recommendation to the reader of these lines to re-read the above Taoist poem and to let whatever line, phrase or word spring into your mind and then to close your eyes and use that phrase as a mantra for five or ten minutes. May you always be at peace.