It was at a university book sale where I was first introduced to the ideas of Taoism. Hidden away deep in the philosophy section, I picked up what initially seemed like a strange esoteric book – the Tao Te Ching. It was a short text, under 100 pages, that was filled with often puzzling language and concepts which seemed contradictory at first.
As I dived deeper into the book exploring its key themes and lessons, I saw its potential to act as a roadmap for inner freedom and liberation. Moreover, I understood the possibility for Taoist ideas to be used as a remedy for the anxiety of our current age. A period in which we have come to measure success in terms of status, wealth and power. Mass pop culture has propagated homogeneity and conformity, resulting in everyone feeling the need to be the same. This has detached us from our inherent spontaneity, creativity and uniqueness.
Taoism invites us to live in harmony and balance with the natural world. To surrender and let go of our futile attempts of control. It opposes the cold, mechanical and alienating world view that has come to dominate our thought in the 21st century.
It claims that we should see ourselves as part of nature, not separate from it. Humans are both situated within and inseparable from the universe. Just as a single wave is a part of the ocean at large, we are deeply connected to the world around us.
As religious scholar Jacob Needleman writes in his introduction to the Tao Te Ching,
Man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe is and moves.
Many of the core Taoist ideas can be summarized with the widely used cliché, ‘go with the flow.’ Just as it makes sense to swim with the current of the river than against it, we should aim to live as simply and effortlessly as possible. From this perspective, we realize that many of our struggles do in fact come from making things more complicated and difficult than they need to be.
The more we try to control things, the more uncontrollable they become.
One example of this phenomenon can be seen when dealing with stress or anxiety. In many cases it is usually unhelpful to try and control or get rid of anxiety when you are experiencing it. This approach will likely only heighten one’s stress levels. Rather, the trick is to learn to surrender to the present moment. To learn to ride the waves of anxiety and let is pass and flow through you.
Taoism, also spelled Daoism, is both a philosophy, spiritual practice and religion which emerged during a period in ancient China known as the Warring States period (453-221 BC). This time was characterized by violence and societal turmoil as rival political factions competed for control in China.
In the midst of this chaos and uncertainty, the Tao Te Ching allegedly written by the mysterious figure Lao Tzu, advises to us to let go of resistance and live in accordance with the Tao. While a key characteristic of the Tao is that it can’t be defined, it is loosely translated to ‘the way’ or path towards virtue and the good life.
In the next few articles, I want to look at some of the key ideas of Taoism including:
- The limits of language and analytical thought;
- The Yin/Yang polarity; and
- The notion of wu wei or ‘effortless action’
Throughout this series I will argue that Taoist concepts and ideals offer a means to break through the rigidity of modern systems of thought, and lead us towards freedom and authenticity.
We can see the world as interconnected refraining from over analyzing and categorizing everything into neat little boxes, and come back to the wisdom of intuitive ways of knowing and understanding.
As we quickly progress towards an ever more technological society, I think Taoism offers us a reminder for us to not forget what it means to be human.
It provides us with a means to understand our proper place in the world.