Beyond Language: A Taoist Perspective

As I watch my niece slowly learn her first few words, I am reminded of the importance of language. After all, there is only so much you can communicate to a person with ‘mamma’, ‘pappa’ and ‘ball’. Although other species have their own unique ways of interacting with each other, the sophistication of human language has enabled us to share ideas, thoughts and emotions leading to the development of complex societies and cultures.

Nonetheless, we must also keep in mind that no language is perfect in fully representing our internal subjective experience or the continual dynamic flux of the external world. Although it is extremely useful, language is always limited in portraying reality which is constantly changing and evolving. This is what Lao Tsu is alluding to in the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Limits of Language

To understand his point, let’s look at an example. Two men are in love with a woman. The first is very articulate with a strong command over the English language. He is able to craft exquisite love letters and court her with his beautifully spoken prose. The second, although his love for the women is no less sincere, struggles to find the right words to express his emotions.

It would be wrong to say that the first man’s affection is any greater or is more genuine. Rather, he is just more skilled in the nuances and intricacies of this given language.

We are always restricted by the language(s) that we speak. Take for instance the commonly used word ‘love’ in English. The term is used to describe a myriad of different things. One could use it to describe their desire for a piece of chocolate cake, while another individual can use can use it to express their deep affection for their spouse.

On the contrary, the ancient Greeks had used different words to more precisely describe the unique meanings and connotations of the idea of love.  For instance, ‘philia’ represents friendship and companionship, ‘eros’ signifies passion or intimate love, while ‘agape’ means unconditional love alluding to the warmth and care a mother has for her child. Having a wider array of terminology available allows you to speak with more accuracy and precision.

The key point is that language and concepts slice up reality into fragments, ultimately affecting how we see and make sense of things.  While useful, the concepts we use and rely on during our day to day lives to make sense of things can never fully characterize the complexity of our experience.

It can point towards meaning, but can never capture the complete essence of what is being said. The issue arises when we make the mistake of confusing abstractions and thoughts with reality itself.

 As the philosopher Alan Watts describes in Tao: The Watercourse Way,

There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag. Verbal description and definition may be compared to the latitudinal and longitudinal nets which we visualize upon the earth and heavens to define and enclose the positions of mountains and lakes, planets and stars…. For the game of Western philosophy and science is to trap the universe in the networks of words and numbers so that there is always the temptation to confuse the rules, or laws of grammar and mathematics with the actual operation of nature.

Defining the Sacred  

As I mentioned in my last article, the Tao can be thought of as the ‘way’, source or principle which drives the universe.  

Although there are important differences between the Tao and the Judeo-Christian God[1], there is a similar logic in resisting classification of the divine. As the sociologist Erich Fromm writes in To Have or to Be ?,

The God of the Old Testament, is first of all a negation of idols, of gods one can have…God must not have a name; no image must be made of God.

Every time we put labels and classify things into discrete categories, we turn the infinite into the finite making something into an object that we can possess. The beauty and mystery is lost as the divine turns into an idol or abstraction.

Rather than imposing our will and social conventions on the world, Taoism invites us to be receptive to the ultimate mystery of life – to welcome the spontaneous flow of existence and live-in harmony with nature. To accept things as they are as opposed to the way they ought to be.

Thus, in the Tao Te Ching Lao Tsu continually reminds to be open and receptive to the energy, forces and current of the universe; to embrace stillness and let life flow through you.

Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind become still

Tao Te Ching

Experiential Knowledge

If we can’t fully understand the nature of things through language, models or concepts, what are we to turn to?

Taoism emphasizes intuition or tacit knowledge. That is, knowing through direct experience, by getting the ‘feel of it’ and directly participating in the activity. Tacit or experiential knowledge is that which is difficult to express verbally or in written form.

You can’t learn to ride a bike just by reading an instruction manual just as one can’t adequately learn a language by studying its grammar.

You have to actively and routinely engage in and participate in these activities to be able to get a firm grasp over them.

Conclusion

The illusive and esoteric ideas of Taoism remind us that the world is a far more mysterious place than we may imagine.

I can not be certain if this article has explained the concept of the Tao accurately, but then again words can only get you so far. It is the role of the poet, author or artist to go beyond the confines of words – to make you understand at a deeper level what is attempting to be said.

Perhaps next time you find yourself in a state of awe or wonder, or become immersed in an activity and lose yourself in a state of flow, you will have a better idea of what I mean.  


[1] Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, the Tao is not something that has direct authority/control over the universe nor something to be worshipped.

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Lessons from Taoism: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

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. 

Photo by Rafael Paul on Pexels.com

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.

The surest way to become Tense, Awkward and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard – one that thinks too much.

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

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,[1] 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:

  1.  The limits of language and analytical thought;
  2.  The Yin/Yang polarity; and
  3.  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.

  


[1] It is debated amongst scholars as to whether the Tao Te Ching was  written by a historical figure named Lao Tzu or a collection of ideas from many authors

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Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA