“If you let cloudy water settle it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear”

Jeremy O’Kelley contacted me this morning about the following quote:

If you let cloudy water settle
It will become clear
If you let your upset mind settle
Your course will also become clear

This was one I’d never seen before, although I’m very familiar with the image, which is very popular among meditation teachers. In fact in teaching young children about mindfulness it’s common to get them to make a jar filled with glitter. When the jar is shaken up then you see a lot of swirling bits of shiny plastic. Just let the jar sit for a while, and the water naturally clears.

This represents how our turbulent thoughts will settle down and the mind will clear if we simply sit and refrain from stirring up the waters of the mind. It’s a great teaching tool and a wonderful metaphor.

I also recognize the image as canonical. There’s a well-known sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya where the Buddha uses metaphors for the five hindrances, which are sense desire, ill will, laziness and tiredness, worry and restlessness, and doubt. The five hindrances are in fact a remarkably complete inventory of the kinds of distraction we experience both on and off the meditation cushion.

The Samyutta Nikaya passage says that sense desire is like water tainted with dye, ill will is like boiling water, laziness/sleepiness is like “water covered over with slimy moss and water-plants” (i.e. stagnant water), worry/restlessness is like water whipped by the wind, and doubt is like “water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place.”

Here, in full, is the passage on doubt:

Again, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering, and does not know, as it really is, the way of escape from doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, nor can he know and see what is to the profit of others, or of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has not studied.

“Imagine a bowl of water, agitated, stirred up muddied, put in a dark place. If a man with good eyesight were to look at the reflection of his own face in it, he would not know or see it as it really was. In the same way, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart possessed and overwhelmed by doubt-and-wavering that has arisen, then he cannot know or see, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both. Then even sacred words he has long studied are not clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.

Doubt in this sense is not honest skepticism, where we’re not sure what the truth is and are making a good-faith effort to determine it through questioning. It’s more a state of confusion and of low confidence. Clinical depression is a good example of extreme doubt. When we’re depressed the mind lies to us. It tell us that we’re useless (making us forget our accomplishments), that no one cares about us (causing us to ignore the many instances where people have expressed love and concern for us), and tells us that we’ll never be happy again (even though we have ample experience of unpleasant mental states having previously arisen and passed away). Doubt is a liar. It does the opposite to seeking the truth.

In this sutta the Buddha is talking about doubt regarding teachings or practices. The Brahmin who questions him is asking about why sometimes he is unable to make sense of the “mantras.” Here too, doubt lies. We can find ourselves believing, for example, that meditation doesn’t work, or that we can’t meditate. In that state of unclarity we are unable to recall instances where we’ve felt happier after meditating, and lose faith that we’ve changed as a result of our practice, even though we’ve noted that fact many times before. Our ability to see our practice, ourselves, and our memories is obscured, just as our vision is obscured by muddy water.

The quote in question is from page 119 of Jack Kornfield’s “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” the title of which has led many people to assume it’s a book of scriptural quotations. Actually it’s Jack’s own adaptations and distillations of wisdom from various traditions.

In turn it seems to be based on a saying in chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching, where in Mitchell’s translation is in the form:

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

So this is apparently a contemporary Buddhist’s recasting of a Daoist saying, rather than something the Buddha taught. That doesn’t call the wisdom of the quote into question, of course. It just means we shouldn’t call it a quote from the Buddha.

6 thoughts on ““If you let cloudy water settle it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear””

  1. From Chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching, translation by Victor H. Mair:
    If turbid waters are stilled,
    they will gradually become clear;
    If something inert is set in motion,
    it will gradually come to life.

    1. “Do you have the patience to wait
      Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
      Can you remain unmoving
      Till the right action arises by itself?”

      ― Lao Tzu

      1. Thanks very much for this source, which looks like it may well be the original text from which the quote above is adapted. I see it’s from Chapter 15 of the Mitchell translation.

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