The power of humility

Reading chapter 61 of the Tao Te Ching

Dennis Hambeukers
Published in
4 min readDec 16, 2023

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“A large state is the lower reaches of a river — the place where all the streams unite.
In the union of the world, the female always gets the better of the male by stillness.
Being still, she takes the lower position. Hence the large state, by taking the lower position, annexes the small state.
Thus the one, by taking the lower position, annexes the other. The other by taking the lower position is annexed.
All that the large state wants is to take the other under its wing; all the small state wants is to have its services accepted by the other. If each of the two wants to find its proper place, it is of meet that the large should take the lower position.”

What I like about the Tao Te Ching is that it is a riddle. The fun and value lies in the interpretation. You have to read it multiple times and revisit it multiple time to get into the depth of it. Take this chapter. It talks about big and small, union, stillness, annexing and higher and lower. What is that about?

The Tao Te Ching uses water as a metaphor in more places. It also does here. The Tao, the way, life can be seen as a river. A river flows from high to low. So the more advanced you are, the lower you are if you are a river. Lao Tzu states here that the lower place, the place you get to as you advance, is the large state. So the large state is a place of knowledge, of skill, of experience. We are all on different paths and we are all more or less advanced in certain skills, knowledge fields. We all end up in a lower place as we advance.

Then he talks about stillness and about the female and the male. The female energy is often associated with being, the male with doing. That is underlined by the fact that Lao states that the female will get the better of the male by being still. So just being (still) will get the better of doing.

He then goes on to combine these two concepts of the lower state (which is the more advanced state) and stillness (which is about doing nothing). Unity is achieved, the proper order is achieved, if the lower state does nothing. In the end, all will end up in the lower state anyway.

But we have a tendency to try to dominate if we are more advanced. If we know more about a subject, we have the tendency to want to call the shots. But this will frustrate the people in the higher position (so the less advanced on the river). They want to be seen and prove their worth so they can learn and get to a lower state. If the people in the lower position can hold back their urge to act, to dominate from their more advanced position, all the annexing can stop and the people in the higher position will flow naturally to the lower position in time. The large state should take the position of stillness, of not doing.

This requires humility and patience. The ego wants to show off and tell other people they are wrong. We have put in work to become more advanced in a subject so we want to show that to people. But this will create frustration because the less advanced people will fight back because they also want to be seen. One will want to annex the other. This annexing is not what people want. People in the lower position want to take people under their wing and people in the higher position want their services to be accepted. What Lao Tzu seems to be saying here is that it is the responsibility of the more advanced people to be humble and patient. The less advanced do not know what they don’t know. The more advanced do know. They should be patient and let the less advanced flow to them. All will end up in the large state in the lower reaches of the river in time.

The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching states that the Tao is indefinable, teaching that each person can discover the Tao for themselves. This is my reading of the Tao. Thank you for taking the time to read this essay. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see more essays pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or chat with me there.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner, Chaos Pilot, Humble Warrior