A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead. Grass and
trees are pliant and fragile when living, but dried and shrivelled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death; the supple and the weak
are the comrades of life
I feel life more deeply when I’m aware of how weak and fragile I really am. I think this may be what Jesus was getting at when he said the meek shall inherit the earth. When I am in a hard and arrogant mood, I am oblivious to the mystery; life becomes very one dimensional—I this, and I that.
The hard and strong approach freezes me up and I can’t move out of the way of the bus barreling down on me. When I’m supple, I sit loose to life and am able to adjust to changing circumstances. This is a real low stress survival advantage.
Life has been a process of setting aside my hard and strong desires. I’ve gradually come to know what I don’t really need. This has been sobering as well, for it has made me more circumspect with current strong desires. I’m much weaker in my pursuit of them. It is easier to be pliant and let go.
Ideals are hard and stiff. My mind imagines how life should be and conjures up ideals that should be realized. This is less satisfying than realizing the moment. When I live for tomorrow instead of today, I am comrade of death.
Pliant and supple is the essence of compromise. To reach a compromise I must humble myself, weaken my position and meet my adversary half way. The most difficult thing in life is being weak and letting go of ‘all or nothing’.
Life is a fragile emergent property which depends on the co-operation of each and every part of its whole. Life is wholistic. Pliant parts make such co-operation possible. This is vital at all levels from a single cell life form to the life of a family or a nation.
Therefore a weapon that is strong will not vanquish;
A tree that is strong will suffer the axe.
The strong and big takes the lower position,
The supple and weak takes the higher position.
I’ve always dreamed of having the ultimate power to set right all problems. When I was a kid this was a wish to be Superman. As a young adult this wish for the ultimate weapon changed into the ideal of enlightenment. Eventually, I found that the pursuit of any perfection, as an ideal, was doomed. The higher my standards became, the more precarious my position. I paint myself into a corner. I’m moving now, slowly, to the lower position—ironically this is turning out to be the ultimate problem solver.
All my attempts to be strong always left me with greater insecurity. The level of strength I achieve becomes the level where the universe shows me the rather infinite extent of my weakness. Until I realized this, I would try all the harder to be strong—a vicious circle. That is why pursuing a sense of security through strength is futile.
I really know the strong will not vanquish when I consider to what end any vanquishing will lead… more vanquishing I’ve found. This ends in emptiness, literately and figuratively. It all ends up back in the lower position.
The desire to be strong and competent is a no win situation. My experience with music exemplifies this. When I began to learn, I set my goals and pushed to reach them. Then, when I reached them, I pushed to goals out still further. When I remember that the obtainment of perfection is an illusion, I’m able to simply play according to my natural abilities and enjoy. I’m supple when I can just accept my weakness and enjoy the peace of the lower position.
Words lead us into confusion at times. Another chapter says: He who overcomes others has force; He who overcomes himself is strong [see ch. 33]. Strong used there correlates to supple and weak. It is like saying strong is really weak. Ah, yes, to paraphrase Chapter 2: the whole world recognizes the strong as the strong yet this is only the weak.
A translation from the older Ma-wang-tui text says The unyielding and mighty shall be brought low, the soft and supple will be set above. This offers a better sense of the cyclic nature of reality than the takes used here. If you would have a thing weakened, You must first strengthen it; [see ch. 36]. I love it! This is why I’ve learned to be more cautious in my actions, for often, the result is opposite to the intention.