The best way to live is to be like water ~ Tao Te Ching
When I was in my twenties, going through one of my many dramas, I turned to my chiller, old-soul of a brother for guidance.
“Be like water,” he told me, “just roll over sh*t and say, ‘F*ck this, I’m water.’”
Now this same brother is holed up in his Brooklyn apartment, infected with the Coronavirus and I am living one long day at a time in the ‘burbs as my kids’ constant teacher/cook/playmate.
I’m water, I mumble to myself repeatedly. I. Am. Water.
When he first gave me this urban-tongued suggestion to emulate liquid, he was riffing on the teachings of the Tao Te Ching — the ancient Chinese philosophy that espouses stillness, acceptance, and inner peace — tenets which were pretty much the opposite of my then-chaotic existence. I was always suffering in one way or another, giving my power away to whoever would take it: any guy I fell for, who inevitably treated me like crap, or, at best, ignored me, or to some leering talent manager who told me I wasn’t beautiful but at least I was sexy.
“Here you go, here’s my power,” I’d practically belt out on my knees, “make me a star or a wife; make me something that matters.”
Of course, no one else had the capability to fix my life. Only I did.
And when my stupid, often self-created circumstances did in fact look like a pile of excrement, my brother was right — it was time to roll over it and flow on. So eventually, that’s what I did.
Here’s the thing: water itself is the savior. It is ever-transforming, ever-sustaining and it’s boundless. “In this way it is just like the Tao,” wrote Lao Tzu, the mythical Chinese philosopher. We too can aim to be Tao-like. The human body, after all, is made up of mostly H2O.
In the words of Bruce Lee, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour [it] in a bottle, it becomes the bottle… Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
This liquid also nourishes everything it comes in contact with, not caring if you are rich or poor, flora or fauna; it cleanses you and keeps you alive. Practicing such non-judgment is the ultimate Tao. It’s what we are seeing now in the nurses and doctors on the front lines of this pandemic — the ones working tirelessly despite the peril, and those coming to New York from other cities to help — as well as in the grocery store workers stocking our shelves and wiping them clean, and in the postmen, the pharmacists, the home health aides.
But as I, too, try to step up to what the moment asks of me, I sometimes find myself falling short. I get agitated with my uncontrollable children, I resent my distracted husband, I curse politicians left and right. In other words, I buck the flow, feeling the anxiety constrain my chest (or is it COVID-19?!). Thankfully, I’ve been a student of the Tao Te Ching since my misguided youth. It’s helped me through addictive, self-destructive behaviors and through many an awful thought.
And so I’ve learned to accept my catty inner voice (when I tried to extinguish it, it only grew) and to let my emotions ping-pong every which way. Rather than get caught up in them, I allow them to be and then to pass. I remind myself that I can exist in both a dropper and in the ocean. Eventually, I give into the shape of whatever the situation calls for.
Because life — immigration and other hardships — had forced me to recalibrate before, and because I’ve discovered this masterful philosophy, not to mention therapy, yoga, anti-depressants, Reiki, I am usually able to return to a state of peace. When I can’t, I stop. I do nothing at all, other than wipe butts and break up fights — as a mom, that is a non-negotiable, especially with the children home all day, every day. But I am able to cease my constant planning and worrying and to wait. If I can keep my mind still, I know the next step will become clear to me. Like currently, when I must stream myself wholly into the kiddie pool — until one day I am set free to evaporate and to return as a thunderstorm, or as post-pandemic dew or something.
You too must now adjust and flow and vaporize. You too are a shapeshifter, more fluid than you may have realized. In the words of my Corona-infected brother: “F*ck this, I’m water.” Say that to yourself over and over again and, no matter what, keep flowing.
Jessie Kanzer is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Independent, The Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, NY Daily News, and an array of other publications. She’s writing a book based on the Tao Te Ching to helps us navigate our turbulent times.
Image courtesy of Haley Phelps.