Knowledge to be applied in our lives: Tao:the watercourse way(Watts, A. 1975)

Being like water:

Similar to the life Philosophy, Stoicism, the Tao, or the way is a method through which we can live to some degree, in accordance with nature. Underlying this is the Chinese principle of polarity. contrariwise, the Western religions have stressed dichotomies such as Good vs Evil, Material vs Immaterial and light and darkness which ultimately cultivates an idealism that attempts to dispose of the latter and keep the former. Watts draws on the project of western technology as a means to ‘keep the former'(Watts, A) yet with the advent of these technologies(Penicillin, nuclear energy and the internet), new problems have arisen and again retreat to polarity. In Taoism, this is called the Tao(way) which is the interdependence of opposites as well as a realisation that one’s self and nature ‘are one and the same process’.

Watts and the Taoists analogise the movement of water as akin to the way in which humans can experience an existence less dependant on fixed, oppositional ways of thinking that can often distort the arising and passing that inherently exists in the universe. Namely, water represents this flow which takes the path of least possible resistance. Namely, Watts quotes an ancient Chinese text that states:

The great Tao flows everywhere, to the left to the right, all things depend upon it to exist, and it does not abandon them. (103d).

This may not be scientifically accurate but it is beside the point to see it in a scientific context, the comparison of humans to water has utility when applied to our lives. It can remind us that attempting to control many situations in our lives is in contradiction with the flow of indeterminate experience that governs our existence. This is not to be passive but instead harness a calmness that is simultaneously aware of the dimensions of activity and decision making in our lives but also the chaotic nature of the universe that is mostly out of our control. Out of the great ‘mutual arising'(Watts, A) of chaos and order, good and bad, selling and buying, Watts and Taoism in still in us a way of living that is both active and decisive whilst being fully aware and accepting that the physical laws of the universe are playing out. In other words, ‘what goes on simply happens of itself’.

Wu Wei:

‘The Tao does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone’. These famous words from Lao Tzu imply a state of laziness, yet this is the opposite of what he hoped to infer. The phrase ‘Wu Wei’ roughly translates to ‘not forcing’ which is roughly akin to western phrases like “rolling with the punches” and “trimming sails to the wind”. I will try and explain this by using two of watts examples. The first is the sport of Judo. Judo is a sport in which the opponent is defeated by the force of his own attack, further, Watts attests to seeing a man thrown to the ground without being touched. The second example is that of a parable about branches laden with snow in winter. The pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight whereas the willow branch yields to the weight and the snow drops off. These a both metaphors describing a form of intelligence that knows ‘the principles, structures and trends of human natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them'(Watts, A). This is equally an unconscious intelligence of the mind and body or as Watts explains, ‘the innate wisdom of the nervous system'(Watts, A). In more detail:

‘Wu Wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all ones actions. In Judo, for example, one uses muscle but only at the right moment, when the opponent is off balance or has over extended himself.’

Wu Wei shows us how we should be effortful in acquiring wisdom so that we are able to act effortlessly in the world.


Alan Watts (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. 2nd ed. London: Souvenir Press. p18-106.

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