Encountering Hardness
May 2017


The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
—Lao Tzu

There was a time when a small trickle of water moved over a plain of bedrock. The rock was solid, thick and hard. The water was flowing, shapeless, ephemeral. With time and consistency the water wore through layers of rock and formed a vast abyss.*

If the water had recoiled from the hardness of rock, unsure or doubting, it might have simply evaporated.

If the water felt the unyielding rock and reacted by hardening as well, it would have been lost in confusion and fighting, hard on hard.

If the water had been impatient, wanting to cut through the hardness, it would have exhausted itself quickly.

It was the softness, patience, intimacy and always-thereness of water that overcame the hardness and immensity of rock. **

How can we meet hardness without becoming hard or turning away?

Awareness is finer and softer than water. It has no weight, texture or shape. It cannot be grasped or contained. Yet it can move everywhere. Finding something hard within ourselves, we can illuminate this hardness (in the body, heart or mind) with awareness, patience, and many fresh starts and that which was hard transforms. Practicing this, we grow our capacity for embracing the hard with the soft.

We might encounter hardness from another. With practice we can learn to let go of our immediate reaction to fight back, freeze or flee, and move with softness, connection, flexibility, indirection, and awareness. Softness is not submissive, slack or passive. Living softness is filled with clarity, sensitivity, and respect.

Softness erodes our positions. For a position or belief is often hardness in the mind. As we practice we learn to smoothly release our view and enter other perspectives (“Put yourself in the place of your partner.”). In this way we become able to see from everywhere.

Softness eases aversion. For aversion, hate or distaste is often hardness in the heart. This softness is not naive, romantic or mushy. As we practice not following reactive aversion, we become able to move-with what was intolerable or dramatically inappropriate.

When your partner comes to attack with hardness and is met with this kind of alive, receptive softness, conflict dissolves. But most of us contract with tension when feeling hardness. So it takes practice which emphasizes actually feeling the quality of the hardness, as well as the tone of our reactive tension. Rote repetition in practice can help some, maybe eventually. Analysis, judgement, and comparison in practice is useful and important, but also tends to create separation from the actual felt moment, and so, practicing with alive awareness, right in the moment, mind and body unified, softness moving with hardness, curiosity and clarity flowing together directly grows our capacity for meeting hardness with grace.

There is a little bit of space and softness right in the heart of hardness. There is a firm resiliency right in the heart of softness. The experiential relationship between hardness and softness is a wondrous exploration in the bodymind. Holding to neither soft nor hard, and not holding to the in-between, we are able to move and connect with whatever happens and be amazingly appropriate (oneness…) to the changing moment.

* Or perhaps the rock eased to contain and guide the river by forming a canyon…

** Or perhaps it was the firmness of rock and the fluidity of water, moving together, each being true to their own nature, but each listening and connecting with the other, that resulted in the vast canyon.


May your practice go well.




© Steve Self, 2016, All rights reserved.