Daoism in it's modern western version is a misconception of Daoism as to "go with the flow" and "doing nothing" (wu wei) leading to relativsm, hedonism, egocentrism and lazyness and thinking it's spirituality or "cool", tolerant, liberal. The modern Daoism in the East is a syncretism with Buddhism and Confucianism and obscure religious practice plus manipulating the body and mind to get some (sexual) superpowers or immortality.
If we go back to Laozi and Zhuangzi there are four central teachings:
- naturalness and simplicity
- the calm and clear mind/spirit
- unity with the Dao
The Daodejing has 81 chapters, chapter 1 - 37 called the Dao jing and chapter 38 - 81 called the De jing. Virtue is an important capability because "the Dao does nothing but nothing is left undone". If "nothing is left undone" there has to be a lot of virtue, because Laozi and Zhuangzi seeing man and society on a wrong path. This virtue is not moral but more in a sense of the greek "arete" (qualities of a person).
The Zhuangzi is more narrative with 33 chapters, giving stories about the "True Man", Relativism (life and death, knowledge), protecting and nourishing life, about simplicity and naturalness, virtues and skills, the clear and calm mind, rambling in the boundless and the unity with the Dao.
Wouldn't it be senseless to "float and to drift with the river to the ocean", if you have to, or want to go to the spring? Could that really still correlate with "Seiryoku zenyō"?
The most important questions for goals and aims are, if the goals are valuable and meaningful goals , in which you should put your energy and work. If your answer is positive, you should start and put your effort into it. If you go to the spring, you get clarity, if you float to the ocean, you get unity.
And - be it that to go against that river current is possible at all - couldn't there be (a) way(s) to do that still according to the daoist way and "Seiryoku zenyō", while other methods may unnecessarily waste energy?
There is a famous story in the Zhuangzi, Confucius observing a man swimming and diving in a waterfall/cascade (an extended version):
Confucius and his students went on a hike out in the countryside. He was thinking of using the opportunity to engage the students in a discussion about the Tao when one of them approached and asked: "Master, have you ever been to Liu Liang? It is not far from here." Confucius said: "I have heard about it but never actually seen it with my own eyes. It is said to be a place of much natural beauty." "It is indeed," the student said. "Liu Liang is known for its majestic waterfalls. It is only about two hours' trek from here, and the day is still young. Master, if you would like to go there, I would be honored to serve as your guide."
Confucius thought this was a splendid idea, so the group set off toward Liu Liang. As they were walking and chatting, another student said: "I grew up near a waterfall myself. In summertime, I would always go swimming with the other children from the village." The first student explained: "These waterfalls we will see aren't quite like that. The water comes down from such a great height that it carries tremendous force when it hits the bottom. You definitely would not want to go swimming there." Confucius said: "When the water is sufficiently powerful, not even fish and turtles can get near it. This is interesting to ponder, because we are used to thinking of water as their native element." After a while, they could see the waterfall coming into view in the hazy distance. Although it was still far away, they could see that it was indeed as majestic as the first student described. Another hour of walking brought them even closer, and now they could clearly hear the deep, vibrating sound it made. They topped a rise and were able to see the entire waterfall.
Then they gasped collectively, because at the bottom of it, they saw a man in the ferociously churning water, being spun around and whipped this way and that by the terrifying currents. "Quickly, to the waterfall!" Confucius commanded. "He must have fallen in by accident, or perhaps he is a suicide. Either way, we must save him if we can." They ran as fast as they could. "It's useless, Master," one the students said. "By the time we get down there, he'll be too far gone for us to do him any good." "You may well be right," Confucius replied. "Nevertheless, when a man's life is at stake, we owe it to him to make every effort possible." They lost sight of the man as they descended the hillside. Moments later, they broke through the forest to arrive at the river, a short distance downstream from the waterfall. They expected to see the man's lifeless body in the river. Instead, they saw him swimming casually away from the waterfall, spreading his long hair out and singing loudly, evidently having a great time. They were dumbfounded.
When he got out of the river, Confucius went to speak with him: "Sir, I thought you must be some sort of supernatural being, but on closer inspection I see you are an ordinary person, no different from us. We sought to save you, but now I see it is not necessary." The man bowed to Confucius: "I am sorry if I have caused you any grave concerns on my behalf. This is merely a trivial recreational activity I enjoy once in a while."
Confucius bowed back: "You say it is trivial, but to me it is incredible. How can it be that you were not harmed by the waterfall? Are there some special skills that you possess?"
"No, I have no special skills whatsoever," the man replied. "I simply follow the nature of the water. That's how I started with it, developed a habit out of it, and derived lifelong enjoyment from it." "This 'follow the nature of the water' - can you describe it in greater detail? How exactly does one follow the nature of water?" "Well... I don't really think about it very much. If I had to describe it, I would say that when the powerful torrents twist around me, I turn with them. If a strong current drives me down, I dive alongside it. As I do so, I am fully aware that when we get to the riverbed, the current will reverse course and provide a strong lift upward. When this occurs, I am already anticipating it, so I rise together with it." "So you are working with the water and not just letting it have its way with you?" "That's right. Although the water is extremely forceful, it is also a friend that I have gotten to know over the years, so I can sense what it wants to do, and I leverage its flow without trying to manipulate it or impose my will on it." "How long did it take for you to make all this an integrated part of your life?" "I really can't say. I was born in this area, so the waterfalls have always been a familiar sight to me. I grew up playing with these powerful currents, so I have always felt comfortable with them. Whatever success I have with water is simply a natural result of my lifelong habit. To be quite frank, I have no idea why this approach works so well. To me, it's just the way life is."
Confucius thanked him and turned back to his students. He smiled, because he suddenly knew exactly what they could talk about on their trip home.
In my opinion, this is a great story/example to demonstrate "the best use of energies" because naturalness, simplicity and skills working together.
Why shouldn't there be the possibility of daoist "Seiryoku zenyō" WITHIN a "confucian requirement" like "rowing or swimming a river upwards", if that's the (albeit challenging) task to be accomplished?
I think we agree, that if the goals and aims are valueable and meaningful, you should go for them.
But as good Judo is not pulling and pushing but to move in circles and throw in waves, the "best use of energies" is a reminder that there is not only one straight direction and one method to reach your goals. You have to lift your head to see the obstacles and the horizon and you have to have a feeling for the flow (power, nature, variety, circumstances, development, evolution) of the waters like the swimmer to use your energies and all energies in a best way.