The Best Quotes From “Tao: The Watercourse Way” By Alan Watts

Photo of a lake in Nanjing, China by Jennifer Chen on Unsplash

This book by Alan Watts was given to me by my mentor before I left the States to live in China. He told me it was one of those books, “you don’t just read. You have to pick this up multiple times to get new lessons.”

It provides background knowledge on the Chinese Taoism philosophy and what their culture used to be focused on before it shifted to where it is today. Below is a list of reflections I had written from my favorite quotes in the book.

“As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away from us.” Page 20

  • Ambition is the enemy of man. It stunts his ability to simplify the day. It is in simplicity we find peace.
  • The best way to obtain simplicity, which comes and goes, is to focus on what we can immediately control — this ultimately being ourselves. We also have to leave a little wiggle room too; we are fallible creatures and have to tend to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes.
  • We cannot control how others react to the world and how they respond to us; this is an impossible feat, no matter how long we’ve known the people in question.

“Simply be aware of what actually is without giving it names and without judging it, for you are now feeling our reality itself instead of ideas and opinions about it.” Page 36

  • This quote alludes to the limitations embedded within language for describing what we observe within any given moment.
  • All moments in life can only be described when we either reflect on the past or contemplate the future. The moment we try to describe a moment we are experiencing within the present, that moment ceases to exist within the present.
  • When we try to describe something as simple as a chair to someone, we assume that they see the same object that you are describing. When we gesture at the chair that we are describing to someone else, there is no way we can be certain that they see the same thing. Both of you have different eyes, life experiences, and value-sets placed onto the chair in question that makes it so you can never truly see the same thing.
  • Another author to look into about this particular topic is Jorge Luis Borges. See his poem, “A Yellow Rose.”

“There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag.” Page 42

  • Are we dealing with the actual issue at hand or the issue caused by using words to describe said issue?
  • There is a limitation to understanding the world when we try to process it with words and human language. This limitation is always present, and the knowledge of this limitation helps us to cope with the uncertainty of tackling any issues or with the often unspoken sense that we can never truly understand a concept in its totality. For example, how confident am I that the sky I look at every day is the same sky that others are perceiving? I doubt that it is ever the same (as with the “chair” mentioned above).

“Great Power is worry, and total power is boredom, such that even God renounces it and pretends, instead, that he is people and fish and insects and plants: the myth of the king who goes wandering among his subjects in disguise.” Page 78

  • Complete control of others and even over the self isn’t a goal that one should seek. It seems that this goal in itself could lead to a very dull life, considering how unattainable it is.
  • We should always leave a little space for wanting but, not obtaining. The chase of what we want to accomplish brings great pleasure in and of itself.

“Trust in human nature is acceptance of the good-and-bad of it, and it is hard to trust those who do not admit their own weaknesses.” Page 84

  • How can we hope to improve the world if we cannot see the faults that reside within ourselves?
  • How can anyone trust us if we aren’t willing to show both the good and the bad of our character?
  • The easiest way to build rapport with someone is to showcase your vulnerabilities; not for seeking pity in return, but for connection.

“Taoism is not a philosophy of compelling oneself to be calm and dignified under all circumstances. The real and astonishing calm of people like Lao-tzu comes from the fact that they are ready and willing, without shame to do whatever comes naturally in all circumstances.” Page 122

  • True self-awareness comes from both understanding the common tendencies you have to life’s repeating scenarios, as well as to the acceptance of those tendencies.
  • It is not enough to be aware of how you react to the world; you have to come to terms with your own limitations. There are aspects of who we are that can never be changed, and this is okay. Certain aspects of life you will always be in love with, others will spur a deep frustration within you that you cannot avoid. Just feel it and let it go.

“One who is immortal and who has control of everything that happens to him strikes me as self-condemned to eternal boredom, since he lives in a world without mystery or surprise.” Prolegomena, xxvi

  • I don’t have much to reflect on when it comes to this quote. I haven’t lived long enough to add anything here; this portion just simply stands as my favorite quote from the book.

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