Global Resilience Solutions > 2013 > May

Master the Devastatingly Effective “Water Strategy”

“Resist not evil” is perhaps the most difficult saying in all of Christian scripture.  Even “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is easier.  After all, we can love and still resist, can’t we?  On the face of it, “Resist not evil” seems ludicrous, a call to surrender to the forces of darkness.  But it contains a secret that is a key principle of self-transformation.


Last week we talked about water.  “Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.”  Lao Tzu was quite right.  Water not only wears down stone- the preferred method of cutting hardened steel for use in high-precision applications employs high-pressure water jets.  In the Art of War, Sun Tzu writes about the “Water Strategy”- strategists, he says, should be like water, following the path of least resistance.



All of the most effective martial arts use this principle to achieve stunning results.  The secret is to confront any incoming force, not with force in return, but with its opposite, and to do so naturally, automatically.  In Taijiquan (i.e., Tai Chi), this balance is represented by the Eight Energies.  Faced with incoming force, Taiji will roll out of the way or yield and suck it in.  In Baguazhang, combat is visualised as a circle on the ground containing eight trigrams of the I Ching- fire, water, earth, sky etc. (hence the name “eight trigram boxing”).  Faced with one energy, it moves to another.

It’s worth taking a moment to unpack these principles, because they are actually operating on many different levels, and the martial arts are only one area of life where you can apply them.  In the world of physical force, it is always better to avoid strength than to confront it directly, which depletes both sides.  But the same logic applies to many other kinds of decisions in combat, from posture to techniques to attitudes.  The last one is particularly key for us, because this is where the water strategy comes back to everyday life.  The classic martial arts application is confront ferocity with serenity, tension with relaxation, anger with peace and so on.  Aikido is particularly attentive to the application of these principles in real life, and many Aikido stories talk about this (the most famous example can be found here).


Time for a visual.  Draw a circle, with two concentric rings, an inner ring and an outer ring.  On the inner ring, put the various attitudes and emotions of which human beings are capable, with their opposites across from them.  Affection, anger, fear, confidence, appreciation, sorrow, joy- all of these have a legitimate place and expression in human life.  It’s only when they are out of balance that they become a problem.  In the outer track, you can write the distorted versions of the emotion that you encounter.  Next to fear, you could write insecurity, jealousy and so on.  Next to anger- rage, resentment, hatred.

When confronted with an unbalanced attitude or emotion on one side of the circle, you can try confronting it with its balanced counterpart from the other side.  To learn to do this naturally, consistently and effectively often requires years of attention.  It is the most difficult spiritual discipline, to learn to return kindness for rudeness, appreciation for ingratitude, even love for hatred.  You can create peace from conflict this way.  It is never guaranteed.  But most importantly, you preserve your inner freedom.

It requires practice, resilience and sensitivity to make sure that you are adequately addressing the energy that comes at you and to find the strength to stand firm on your side of the circle, but the result is often that the emotions you are confronting can be defused.  If they cannot, then you lose nothing, but you gain the knowledge that the other person is acting out of a more deeply-set pathology rather than momentary impulse.  In that situation, it is even more important to stand your ground and not to get sucked into their emotional state.


On a grand scale, how does this strategy stack up?  The cynical impulse in today’s society tells us that only force can deal with force, that ultimately, goodness is no defense against power.  But is that true?  Gandhi and the Civil Rights Movement are the two counterexamples that people usually point out first, but they are far from the only ones.  The Czech dissident movement led by Vaclav Havel used some of the same methods and achieved similar results.  There are many smaller-scale movements out there today that are using the same methods successfully on behalf of disadvantaged groups.

It is sometimes a very costly strategy.  Some of the most dramatic cases were the Christians martyred for their faith by the Roman Empire.  In most cases, they did not have to die- there was a way out.  But they stuck to their principles, and went to their deaths without bitterness.  They often went out of their way to be kind even to their executioners.  In so doing, they showed a society in which gravitas and fortitude were the ultimate virtues the completeness of their inner freedom.  The result transformed an empire.

But if the cost can be so high, if the water strategy doesn’t guarantee results, then why use it?


We mentioned the importance of inner freedom.  Inner freedom in this sense means that you are the master of your own inner state.  You no longer react to whatever energy other people give you- you respond to it.  Our attitudes and emotions can be like a thick fog when we are faced with stressful situations.  We react instinctively, we activate neural circuits that carry the baggage of previous similar situations, our body floods with hormones and neurotransmitters and before we know it, we’re blinded by our own reaction.  We don’t see other options.  The water strategy returns control to us.  Our inner state becomes our toolkit rather than everyone else’s garbage dump.

But this is only the first level of inner freedom.  What do we use that toolkit for?  Without right intention, there is no inner freedom.  The preferred objective is an honorable peace.  “Honorable” means that we intend to openly and honestly lay out the truth as we see it, minus the emotional baggage we may have attached to it.  It also means that we intend to engage with the other person and gain an understanding of their perspective and deal with it fully and honestly.  The water strategy avoids only the damaging effects of unbalanced inner states, never the conflict itself- on the contrary, it is tenacious and goes to the heart of the matter along the path of least resistance.  Small matters can easily be dropped, but it is better to understand why the other person is in such a state and deal with it if the matter is serious, rather than risk a false resolution and recurrence.

“Peace” means that compassion underlies our whole approach.  You seek to restore right relationship.  The centre of the circle of the emotions is serenity- which is not the absence of emotion but the sublimation of emotion.  But on a deeper level, compassion, or rather, love, is the ultimate centre.  Only with compassion does it become possible to get inside another person’s mind and heart without it being a hostile intrusion, and only if you can do that can you truly create peace.  It is also a good yardstick to check your intentions.  If you are dealing with the other person as an obstacle to be cleared, if you have an ulterior motive of your own, then you can begin to see how you are contributing to the situation.

This is also where the biggest paradox comes into play.  Sometimes, there is simply no way to resolve a conflict.  Sometimes a person is harming others and cannot be dissuaded in a reasonable time.  If you can find serenity and compassion in that situation, you can do what needs to be done.  Even if you’re angry, and we’ve talked about the legitimate uses of anger, you can act without binding your inner freedom to that or any other emotion.

We said in the title that the Water Strategy is “devastatingly effective”.  Hopefully now you see that its effectiveness is across the board – it not only allows you to prevail in any conflict, physical or emotional; it also allows you to prevail OVER YOURSELF.  And what greater victory is there than that?

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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