Beyond Language: A Taoist Perspective

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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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The Flow of Yoga


Being in a state of flow is when many of us feel most alive. In these awe-inspiring moments, we flirt with the sublime, and can momentarily feel transcendent. We become filled with meaning, connecting to something greater than ourselves.

Flow is a subjective experience. Just as the tourist may see a boulder as just a piece of rock, the climber views it as something to be conquered. They immerse themselves in the challenge, and evaluate the countless possibilities of getting to the top of the cliff.  

Yoga is an activity that is almost synonymous with being in a state of flow. It is a moving meditation requiring one’s focus on the breath and the continuous movement of the routine. As noted in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,

The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.

I’ve known James from high school, and we reconnected recently due to our mutual interest in yoga, spirituality and philosophy. His responses to the questions were insightful and illuminating.  I was particularly drawn to how he eloquently articulates the connection of being in a state of flow with the disappearance of the ‘ego’, and how the practice of yoga enables him to fully be present.

His full responses were provided below.


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1. How did you first get into yoga and how long have you been practicing?

The very first time I practiced yoga was 10 years ago. I followed some friends from university to a hot yoga class. I almost passed out during the session but remember walking out onto the street with a great ‘high’ that I had not experienced before.

I practiced on and off since then, but it was 4 years ago that I became dedicated. In 2015 I sustained a bad whiplash injury from bungee jumping. When I started my full time desk job, symptoms bubbled up in the form of back and neck pain to a point where I could not concentrate on anything for more than 20 minutes. Yoga presented a way to take charge of my own healing that other traditional medical routes could not provide. And it healed me.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about yoga?

What I find the most enjoyable about yoga is the way my body and mind feels during and after the practice. Stretching and moving the body is such a great way to undo tension and stress we sustain throughout the day. I see it as sort of a ‘shower’ routine for my body & mind. There is a real cleansing aspect to it.

3. You’ve said before that yoga is like a meditation for you. How does it feel to be in a meditative state?  Does this experience share similarities with the ‘flow state’? 

For me, a meditative state and a flow state share a main similarity which is the disappearance of self. In both states, “I” cease to exist along with any thoughts of who/what/where/how/when I am.

At the end of every yoga session, you practice a pose called ‘savasana’ which is Sanskrit for ‘corpse pose’. You lay down on your back, close your eyes, and let yourself go into a half-sleep state. The idea is that having exhausted your mind & body with the previous poses, you are able to let everything go and allow rest. And in this process of letting go, you sometimes experience a complete disappearance of your self. And when the ‘self’ disappears, you start to simply be. This state of just ‘being’ is the ultimate meditative state for me. It is a feeling of simply being and nothing else.

So both meditative and flow states share this quality of disappearance of self. But one difference that I see between them is that flow states have an active quality to it. My sense of self disappears in a flow state as similar to a meditative state, but in flow, I am also actively participating in something. I am in constant motion and creation. For example, in the ‘flowing’ part of my yoga practice, the sense of my ‘self’ has disappeared, but I am also still moving and flowing. And it’s not “I” that is controlling or directing this movement. My body just intuitively knows where to go next. Before ‘I’ know it, I am doing it. And there is no hesitation or pause. I flow through my movements without thought and it unfolds as the ‘perfect’ sequence of motions that I can take.

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4. Do you associate the state of flow with happiness, how is it similar or how does it differ?

I wouldn’t associate the state of flow with happiness per se, but more so bliss. Or perhaps contentment is more accurate. I typically associate happiness with gaining something. You get something that you wanted and you become happy. On the other hand, I see the state of flow as more of contentment with what already is; the lack of desire or need. Flow is being OK with the lack, whereas happiness is feeling good through some gain.

The Torchbearers of Flow: A Mind like Water

Interview with Silvio

‘Mushin’ is a term in Zen Buddhism which roughly translates to ‘no-mindness.’ It shares similarities to being in flow in that it describes a state of consciousness in which an individual experiences full concentration and mental clarity. In this state one is liberated from emotion and thought, and fully awake in the ‘now’. The movie icon Bruce Lee expands on the importance of flow in martial arts: 

“Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

 I met Silvio in university, and after watching some of his karate performances online I immediately connected the dots between the practice of karate and flow state. Success in martial arts requires the delicate balance between surrender and discipline. Only through hard work and a dedication to one’s craft can a martial artist fully be present during their routine. Intuitive action and the flow of the routine relies on the muscle memory developed through extensive training.  

In this interview Silvio touches on the importance of karate in his life, how he approaches a competition and the connection between the flow state and his practice.

Silvio’s full responses were provided below.


  1. How did you first get into karate and how long have you been practicing?

I first started training kempo karate when I picked up on the fact that my father was always going. I naturally wanted to follow in his foot steps at 4 years old, and fell in love with the art ever since. I earned my blackbelts in both the styles of kempo and shotokan since then. I would train quite frequently when I was younger, on average 2-4 times a week. It was difficult to keep up at this pace during my university years, hence I would try to attend 1-2 times a week. My martial arts training has therefore expanded across 23 years.

2. What do you find most enjoyable about karate?

There are many aspects about karate I enjoy, however it really comes down to my personal journey of seek-perfection (the primary rule of shotokan karate’s dojo kun – rules of the training facility). I have used the skills and disciple of martial arts at various stages of my life, it just does not start and stop from one moment to the next. For example, the capacity to learn numerous katas (forms) is an incredible gift that allowed my mind to expand at an early age. Karate has also given me the confidence to break out of my bubble whenever the time has called. I have been blessed to also have lifelong friendships with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, the tournaments are always a fun time where I can put my skills to the test, and travel across North America as I have done.

3. The flow state, other wise known as being ‘in the zone’, requires a delicate balance between surrender and discipline. With the high pressure of your routine, how do you exercise control and remain grounded in the present moment?

The more work and preparation I have put into performance has always produced great results. One has to accept standards, and work towards the level of basics that is needed to go beyond them. I like to work backwards and vision the goal ahead of time. I build on the foundation from there because the work you do prior to being in the zone will show. Whether it is a day, week, or months, your time and practice will speak volumes and says a lot against more naturally gifted individuals when the time arises. The practice of control and grounded naturally come the more and more I train, similar to anything.

4. When your in peak performance, and everything goes according to plan, how does it feel both during and after your routine? Does this relate to any of the ‘flow state’ characteristics?

Absolutely amazing to know I performed a strong, well-balanced routine with the right amount of kime (power), which has developed from the last performance as well has an abundance of energy and confidence. This can be related to many of the flow characteristics:

 Challengeskills based: My martial arts performance seems most relatable to this flow characteristic because it is important to accept the challenge (ie competition), and not feel overwhelmed by who is there. It is also engaging to test oneself against senior, advanced students as a way to improve.

 Clear Goals: It is very natural to have both short and long term goals in karate. One could be achieving different ranks of blackbelt, while striving to always get better at competitions. Regardless, one has a good awareness of what to do next if these goals do not go according to plan. 

Unambigous feedback: Unambiguous feedback, is quite common a lot because the sensei (instructor) are there to teach, provide feedback as one progresses. There are also judges at competitions that can provide feedback and what to improve on following the end of the competition.

 Concentration of the task at hand: Martial arts involve a great deal of concentration at the relevant moves and their appropriate application. It is common to see one who does a move and understands the purpose behind it, compared to one who does something for the sake of just doing it.

 Autotelic experience – It is not unusual to get lost in one’s performance. It is easy to understand whether one is just doing it for the sake of doing it, while bringing an abundance of energy and power to their routine.


Many thanks to Silvio for sharing his experiences. I have a couple more interviews in the “Torbeaers of Flow” series coming up soon.

Till next time,

AA