Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 43

This short chapter highlights a theme that runs through the Tao Te Ching.

What is most soft
Overcomes what is most hard

Two characters are used for “overcome,” literally meaning to gallop on horseback. Having grown up riding horses, I have wonderful memories of galloping bareback across meadows, hands entwined in flowing mane, hanging on as my horse ran free. It was exhilarating and powerful.

The horse’s strength came from being supple, its speed from finding its rhythm. This is the image I have of softness overcoming rigidity.

The next line uses a different image.

What is without form or substance can enter the impenetrable

While not exactly on point, I am distracted by a memory of being inadvertently caught in a revolution in another country. With just minutes of warning, I and some fellow travelers crowded into a hotel room as chaos erupted in the streets below. When we saw the tear gas canisters exploding, we began stuffing wet towels around the windows, hoping to seal them. But within moments, our eyes were stinging red and watery as we looked at each other helplessly.

Flipping to the other side of the concept, much of what I practice in martial arts is about not being stiff or forceful. As one teacher says, “I know you, but you don’t know me.” He means that he can sense where our resistance is, where his advantage is, while we are unable to find any vulnerability on his part. If I push, I meet nothing and suddenly my own effort is my defeat.

“I’m trying…,” I begin. “That is your problem,” he laughs in response.

Just like in life. I’ve learned with my grandchildren something I never mastered with my strong-willed children. Don’t meet force with force, but rather yield and overcome. Deflect and redirect!

I’m reminded of the fable about the wind and the sun arguing about who is stronger. They agree to decide the question by competing to see which one can remove the coat of a person walking along the road. The wind blows as hard as it can, but the person grips her coat and wraps it tightly around her body. The sun shines gently and soon the person removes her coat to bask in the sun’s warmth.

The chapter ends with a lament that few people understand this principle. So true, isn’t it? We exhaust ourselves with our force and resistance, trying to make the present moment something other than what it is.  But each new moment gives us another opportunity to mount up and go for the galloping ride.

12 thoughts on “Tao Te Ching – Chapter 43”

  1. This post had a lot of thoughts to ponder upon. I enjoyed reading it and especially your life experiences. I can relate to the wonderful feeling of riding a horse and the power you feel beneath you. I'm sure your other experience was very frightening and you felt powerless in that situation.
    Of course, I can really relate to your experiences with Children vs. Grandchildren. As always I enjoy your writings and the deep ideas you present.
    Blessings and hugs for you!

  2. I love the fable of the wind and the sun, Galen. It so perfectly illustrates this point about softness, yielding, overcoming hardness, rigidity. Beautiful!

  3. The whole concept of non-action in Taoism is fascinating. I like your example of non-action for the well trained horse. It is supple and flexible, it finds its rhythm and flows in it. I was observing life in my backyard today; squirrels, birds, and insects are all busy but it is action without concern for outcome. They have no concept of reward, no thought of tomorrow, they have no memories of past, they are just living in the moment. When there is no thought of reward for action everything gets accomplished.

    Nature has so much to teach us, without words and without force. The gentle spirit all around us works through non-action and it can flow and penetrate into our hardened hearts if we can open up a little space for new perceptions. In this way the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world, the closed human heart. That which has no form/no substance, by non-action, can enter where there was previously no space and it can transform our whole life.

  4. Oh, this reflection is so full of common sense wisdom and intuition, Galen. "Don't meet force with force, but rather yield and overcome."
    I was babysitting my two youngest grands today, ages 4 and almost 3. Savannah (4) likes to throw a pout and fit when she can't get what she wants right then, either because I don't understand what she's asking for, or because this might get a reaction from mom and dad. Guess what? Instead of correcting or scolding, I imitated physically and vocally what she was doing – never thought of doing that before, but did it ever work! She smiled almost immediately, as if she realized in one fell swoop how ridiculous her little tantrums appear to adults. Can't begin to tell you how she shaped up after that!
    Blessings, dear friend!

  5. Brian, I LOVE your description of how gentleness and soften the closed human heart. I'm going to remember that. Thank you! And I agree that nature can teach us all we need to know. Even our own bodies can. I'm thinking about holding our breath versus breathing naturally.

  6. That just came to me has I was making the comment on this post I hadn't thought of it before then.But, its true "What is without form or substance can enter the impenetrable". Mitchell's version reads "That which has no substance enters where there is no space" The hard heart has no space for it but spirit gently fills the void when an opening is allowed.

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