Circle of Tao
Written by Ted Kardash, Ph.D., Taoist Priest
This is the first of several articles to explore the nature of Tao as presented in the writings of legendary sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and to investigate how we might understand and apply these ideas in our daily lives.
The Circle of Tao
We have all had the experience of being “plugged in”, deeply connected with something greater than ourselves. Watching a sunset or hiking in the woods, enjoying music or some other work of art, experiencing a special relationship with another person, whether through love, friendship, or compassion – any of these events can evoke a feeling of expansion and well-being.
Such occurrences are most often deeply meaningful. We encounter a larger reality where the boundaries between us and the outer world seem to vanish. We are totally present and feel whole and complete. We have entered the Circle of Tao.
All is Tao
All things arise from Tao.
By Virtue they are nurtured.
Ch 51, Tao Te Ching
The word Tao has several meanings and many applications. It essentially refers to the interconnectedness of life and its constant transformation. Tao signifies all that exists. Tao is the universe, “the mother of all things”. And it manifests itself as a flow of unceasing change continuously moving toward a state of balance and harmony. We are all Tao and part of this natural process of change.
Our current scientific view of reality, quantum physics, concurs, asserting that all phenomena, such as our bodies and the distant stars, are constructed of the same basic particles of energy and that this energy is always in motion. Imagine everything as part of a vast, never-ending, always-changing grid or sea of energy. Tao is that energy and “all is Tao”.
As humans we are, by our very existence, a part of that continuum of life. However, we generally don’t experience ourselves that way. Rather, we perceive ourselves to be separate entities, or “individuals”. Albert Einstein once described this perception as “an optical delusion of consciousness” and urged us to see ourselves as part of the larger whole.
Actually, humans have sought this realization of interconnectedness throughout history. In order to attain this state and achieve our full potential, over the centuries we have developed an array of practices and belief systems. Taoism, as one such tradition, provides us with a vast array of tools, including ideas for contemplation, mind/body disciplines, and even specific behavioral guidelines, to direct and support us in this quest. The writings of legendary Taoist sages Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu, by acquainting us with the various characteristics and functions of Tao, help us recognize and fully experience our true nature.
The Realization of Interconnectedness
The greatest Virtue is to follow Tao and Tao alone.
Why is it so important that we realize our oneness with the Tao, with all of life? Such a realization is critical to our natural development because it is part of an innate drive toward wholeness, a basic need which reflects our essence. Just as a seed matures and reaches its potential by becoming a full-grown plant, we become psychologically or spiritually whole by experiencing our true nature.
We are already one with the Tao whether we recognize it or not. By training our awareness to open to deeper levels of existence and to our own natural processes, we make this knowledge part of our conscious experience and gain all of the benefits that such an awakening offers.
Freeing ourselves from the limiting delusion that we are separate and isolated beings provides us with the opportunity and the power to totally enter life’s flow. We become fully-grown and whole, part of the harmonious and natural change that is the Tao. Recognizing the various attributes and principles of the Tao guides us in this undertaking.
This experience of oneness applies both outwardly and inwardly. Externally, we are an inseparable part of the natural world, sharing space and air (oxygen and carbon dioxide) with other beings and with the vegetation of the earth And as we have learned so dramatically, our behaviors, our interactions with our environment can have great impact,.
Internally, the importance of psychological wholeness, knowing who we truly are, is recognized in both Western psychology and spiritual traditions as fundamental to well-being and healthy functioning. Rather than disowning or denying parts of ourselves because they are painful or offensive, we learn to accept them as part of our current process and to cultivate the skills necessary to bring ourselves into balance. To fully know ourselves is to experience ourselves as part of the Tao. To be whole is to heal ourselves.
My own experience might serve as an example. Earlier in my life I often felt angry, hopeless, and confused about the state of the world. Everything seemed overwhelming – environmental and social crises with pollution, war, and poverty. How could I equate this with the “natural and harmonious way” of the Tao?
Through contemplation, study, and wise guidance, in time I was able to see myself as part of this larger dynamic. This allowed me to connect with life more fully, rather than rejecting it because of my feelings of anger and powerlessness. In turn I was able to see how I might contribute to a more harmonious balance in the world. After all, I, too, was part of the Tao!
Today, aside from doing whatever I can personally – using water wisely, recycling, respecting others experiences – I include environmental awareness and social cooperation in all of my teachings.
On a personal level I have become more accepting of myself, seeing my challenges, my struggles, and my “failings” as part of my own natural path of growth and development. I try to understand my own process with kindness and patience rather than judging or denying it. “All is Tao”, I often remind myself – including my neuroses or bad habits (which are hopefully moving in a direction of harmonious balance)!
The Tao Flows Everywhere
The great Tao flows everywhere,
Both to the left and to the right.
It nourishes the ten thousand things.
Chapter 34 Tao Te Ching
We continue to face significant challenges regarding life on this planet – politically, economically, and environmentally, as well as individually. Yet only by embracing these experiences and seeing ourselves as part of the process – “no man is an island” – can we align with and positively affect the flow of natural change. Taoist teachings can help us to develop an accurate awareness of what is currently happening in our lives, on both global and personal levels. Then we can see ourselves as part of the process and, by extension, part of the solution.
Remember, all is Tao – both “the left” and “the right” (a political challenge, if there ever was one!). Our ancient sages tell us that as human beings we have some choice as to how to live our lives. We can learn to live in accord with the environment, with the Tao. Or we can remain ignorant, out of harmony with the natural flow, and not achieve our potential. Life itself will continue on. As a species, we are an expression of the Tao, and we can contribute to the balancing of life energies. This, in turn, brings stability and the most profound meaning to our own lives. The Tao acts through us. We become the Circle of Tao.
Here are some thoughts for your own contemplation based on the idea that “all is Tao.” How can you create a life that is more balanced, connected, and whole?
Do you feel a part of your environment? Do you notice your environment – the air you breathe, the street you walk or drive on, the park you enjoy, the home
in which you live? How do you relate to these different aspects of your life? Note the ways in which you split off from your surroundings.
As individuals we tend to see others as different on the basis of skin color, geography, or attitudes and beliefs. Yet scientists tell us we are 99% genetically identical! How do you separate yourself from others? What are the underlying beliefs that cause you to do this? What are the feelings involved?
To be psychologically healthy we must understand and honor all parts of ourselves. What parts of yourself do you reject or deny? What are the feelings and beliefs involved?
What needs to happen in your life so that “all is Tao”?
Take 2-3 hours and allow yourself to “wander” in some natural setting (a park, the beach, your backyard). Silently repeat to yourself: “All is Tao” as you walk or sit. Whatever you experience – sights, sounds, your own thoughts and reactions, your breath, other beings – simply repeat, “All is Tao.”
Mystery-The Gateway to the Tao
Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Everpresent and in motion.
Chapter 25, Tao Te Ching
The ancient Taoist sages believed that humans, as part of the Tao, could lead lives characterized by the balanced, harmonious flow found in the natural world.
We could achieve our true birthright – experiencing ourselves as an integral, rather than separate, element of creation – by becoming familiar with the various attributes of the Tao and incorporating them into our lives. One of those key elements is the unknown or mysterious quality of Tao.
Opening to the Mysterious
The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching state, “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao. The name that can be named is not the true name.” Defining or labeling the Tao attempts to limit what is limitless. Can you imagine eternity? Can you envision a universe without end or beginning? Our rational mind or conventional intelligence cannot encompass the vastness of existence. We become one with the Tao through experience rather than by way of intellectual understanding. Lao Tzu writes in the same opening chapter that to fully experience Tao, one must accept the unknown which is shrouded in darkness, “Darkness within darkness, the gate to all mystery.”
And if you think that last statement is simply creative symbolism on Lao Tzu’s part, consider a recent online article from NASA, the American space agency, where astrophysicists discuss the recent discovery that the universe consists of 70% “dark energy”, and another 25% called “dark matter”, both which currently defy description. This leaves only 5% of the universe that we can observe. A number of paragraphs in the article conclude with the words “so the mystery continues”.
Look deeply enough into any aspect of life and eventually you discover mystery, the place where our knowing ends. There is always something that lies beyond the grasp of our intellect. Every scientific discovery leads to the next uncharted territory, as the astrophysicists have discovered. The more we learn about life, the more we discover that there is still even more to learn. The mystery will always continue.
If we are to “know”, to truly experience Tao, and by extension ourselves, then we must be prepared to recognize and accept the mysterious, the “not knowing”. We do this by entering the darkness and embracing the mysterious.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not think it can be done.
As humans we strive to know. Our whole history can be described in terms of the pursuit of knowledge. We have even named ourselves homo sapiens sapiens, the “wise” or “intelligent” species (repeating the Latin word “wise” for emphasis, or possibly for a sense of security). We regard knowledge as the cornerstone of progress. It can give us power and control of our surroundings and of one another. Or perhaps it only gives us the illusion that we are in control.
Knowledge and information have provided us with benefits. As a species we have have extended our life expectancy, eradicated certain diseases, and created certain comforts. But our knowledge, and especially the manner in which we have put it to use, have also wrought great havoc on both our environment and our individual health and well-being. We know how to build cars and roads. But we are having a difficult time “knowing” how to solve the problems of traffic and the resulting pollution.
When Lao Tzu questions our desire to improve on the universe, he is encouraging us to examine our pursuit of knowledge and how we apply it. In the next to last chapter of the Tao Te Ching he describes a community living in harmony with the Tao: “Though there are machines that work ten to a hundred times faster than man they are not needed. Though people have armor and weapons no one displays them. Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure. They are happy in their ways.” Consider that observation, written some 2500 years ago!
If we wish to be aligned with the Tao and follow a path of harmony and balance we need to use our knowledge wisely. We need to go beyond data, facts, and information to gain a deep and wise understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Valuing the mysterious and allowing it to guide us in our actions will help us achieve this insight.
Give up learning and put an end to your troubles.
Chuang Tzu states: “Life has a limit, but knowledge is without limit. For the limited to pursue the unlimited is futile. To know this and still pursue knowledge is even more futile.”
Knowledge, information, the stuff of life, is limitless. Our cognitive abilities have limits. By pursuing “the limitless” (the Tao) with the “limited” (our intellect) we lose connection with a deeper awareness – our intuitive understanding. It is our intuition that is connected to universal awareness and allows us to attain wisdom. We must go beyond our knowledge of things to a deeper, experiential knowledge of life. To “give up learning” means to give up our blind pursuit and unwise use of knowledge.
By quieting the mind and bringing a simple awareness to each moment we can begin to let go into “not-knowing”. We can deepen our appreciation of the beauty and mystery of existence: the awe-inspiring natural world; our artistic creations which point to the mysterious through symbol and metaphor, bypassing our analytical minds; and also the many literal miracles that occur in a lifetime. All these connect us to the mysterious.
Releasing our need to know and be in control can also help us meet personal challenges and conflict in a way that is harmonious with the Tao. We allow for the balancing action of the Tao to manifest by acknowledging our “not knowing”.
When we are not sure what to do in a challenging situation, a first step is to accept that fact. Not knowing means engaging the mysterious. Whatever information is necessary to bring balance to any situation is present in the Tao. And, as you are part of the Tao, that information is available and will come to you if you are quiet, receptive, and know how to listen. Even in situations demanding an immediate response the most effective or appropriate answer comes from a clear and quiet mind, from our intuition. “Don’t worry about it”, Chuang Tzu says, “how can we understand it all in one day?” In other words, allow the process to unfold.
I teach classes in clinical counseling skills to students of acupuncture who are learning traditional Chinese medicine. One of the questions I am frequently asked by these future practitioners is, “What if I don’t know what to say to my patient about their illness? What if I don’t know the answer?” And I pass on to them Chuang Tzu’s words – simply be with the “don’t know”, be with the mystery of the moment. “Don’t worry!” That is trusting in the Tao and in yourself. My own personal experience has taught me that the “knowing”, the needed information, appears soon enough through the Tao – either in the form of one’s own memory or understanding, one’s intuition, or perhaps, in this example with the students, from the patients themselves.
Whether we are appreciating nature’s work or facing some challenge in the world of human affairs, we can allow ourselves to experience and appreciate the mystery. Do not fear the unknown, and from that “darkness within darkness” will emerge the order and balance that is characteristic of the motion of the Tao. This implies trust and a willingness to let go. Try it out. See what happens.
At One with the Tao
In the pursuit of learning every day something is acquired,
In the pursuit of Tao every day something is dropped.
Life has a vast, mysterious aspect to it (remember – 95%, for those who want to measure). Enjoy the mystery! Recognize that there is a mystery. Approach life with a sense of wonder and awe and openness. This mystery is everywhere.
Learn how to “give up learning”. Learn to value and develop intuition which takes you beyond the limitations of intellectual thought and connects you with the wisdom of Tao. “Without leaving home the sage sees the whole world,” writes Lao Tzu. We grasp the mystery by focusing inwardly, not solely through logic. Albert Einstein said that his understanding of the natural laws of the universe did not come from his rational mind but from his intuitive understanding.
Insight, discovery, and creativity all come from a place beyond the logical mind. These qualities arise from the mysterious which contains all knowledge. While we may never “learn” that knowledge in its entirety we can fully experience it and allow it to guide us. Do not be afraid of the dark.
Are you aware of the mysterious in your life? Where do you experience it?
Are you able to rest in “not knowing”? Can you tolerate the anxiety this may bring?
In personal conflicts do you cling to your beliefs and opinions as if they are the absolute truth? Do you often think or feel that you “know” and are “right”, while others are not?
Has our current technology essentially improved the quality of life on this planet? Has it brought us into deeper harmony with our environment? Can this same technology be used to undo the harm it has caused? What personal changes might you make in this area?
Whenever you are confronted by a challenging situation, remember that “All is Tao”. Let your mind become quiet. Focus on your breath. Trust in the Tao. Allow the mystery, your deeper “knowing”, to inform you and guide you toward resolution and acceptance.
The Glass is Empty
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center whole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Chapter 11, Tao Te Ching
Recognizing and understanding the various attributes of the Tao allows us to foster and develop them. In time they become part of our natural way of being. One such important characteristic is the quality of emptiness.
The idea of emptiness is central to an experience of the Tao. However, in our culture the term emptiness carries a very negative connotation. We use the word mainly to indicate that something is lacking, that the emptiness needs to be filled. We are implored to see the glass as “half full” rather than “half empty”. Emotionally, emptiness indicates a negative or depressed state, while an empty mind conjures up pictures of low mental functioning or ignorant behaviors.
Our prevailing economic values also place little or no worth on empty space. Cities continue to expand, eating up agricultural land, green belts, and wetlands. Even protected areas, like our national parks and wilderness areas, must contend with pollution, exploitation of resources, and commercial development. By filling space for material gain we lose what is truly useful and necessary.
Yet emptiness, along with the attributes of not-knowing and yielding, is one of the primary features of the Tao.
The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used but never filled.
The emptiness of the Tao is not an absence of something, but an emptiness that is both receptive and creative, and one that allows for responsiveness, change, and replenishment. Lao Tzu counsels us to recognize and value emptiness and to make proper use of it in all areas of our lives. He cautions against the desire to unconsciously fill it up. “Profit comes from what is there”, he writes, “while usefulness comes from what is not there.” It is the very emptiness of the Tao that allows it to become whatever is needed to support life, rather than simply to bring about material gain. “Cut doors or windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful.”
The Tao “is beyond form”, Lao Tzu writes; it cannot be seen, heard, or held. It is “the form of the formless, the image of the imageless.” In this way it has the flexibility and freedom to flow and change into its myriad manifestations, promoting a balance and harmony that is life-sustaining.
The science of quantum physics presents a similar view of reality, telling us that our perception of physical existence as a collection of solid objects is only relatively accurate. Any “solid” object actually contains more space than solidity, with the rapid movement of particles of energy contributing to our sense, and experience, of non-penetrable solidity. The same applies to less tangible aspects of life, such as beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. To see the “emptiness” or space in these allows room for influence and change. Nothing is as solid as we think. There is space everywhere.
Better stop short than fill to the brim.
Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
A perception and appreciation of the quality of emptiness begins with the mind. We are a thinking culture and while intellect is a valued commodity, the ability to gather and assimilate information by itself does not lead to understanding and wise action.
Most of us live our lives in a state of constant stimulation, our minds incessantly busy, agitated, distracted, or unfocused. This prevents our experience of being fully present, at one with the Tao, and blocks our ability to see what is truly taking place. Chuang Tzu describes this state of mind as “sitting-galloping”, likening this experience to that of a rider trying to control a run-away horse.
Our minds indeed gallop, constantly planning, remembering, or dreaming. Rarely, if ever, is the mind still of its own accord. In fact, when we try to “shut off” the mind it is difficult to do because our fixation is so habitual and strong. Even when things around us become quiet, our minds quickly search out some form of stimulation like radio, television, reading material, or small talk.
In order to experience our true state of being and our true potential, we must tame the horse by emptying the mind.
Accept disgrace willingly
Accept being unimportant
Rather than “sitting-galloping”, Chuang Tzu writes that we should cultivate the experience of “sitting-forgetting”. He tells of a disciple who comes upon his master in a state of trance, or deep meditation. As the master awakens from this state he exclaims, “Just now I forgot who I am!” The master is not referring to a case of amnesia or dementia but to the fact that by quieting his mind, by emptying himself, he is able to go beyond the narrow confines, or the “solidity”, of his own separate identity. By “losing himself” he experiences the “cosmic breath” – being at one with the Tao.
Certainly it is challenging to “lose” or “forget” ourselves. From our very birth we are given an identity and are encouraged to see ourselves as unique. And in order to negotiate life in society we need to remember our personal data, our self-image. However, there are many times when our wisest and most skillful responses to the world arise from a deeper aspect of our being, our connection to the Tao. This is a place of emptiness, beyond any particular role or distinctive individuality.
“Forgetting ourselves” is not literally forgetting our identities, who we are in this world, but “forgetting” that we are a separate self. Just as we can experience “losing ourselves” in a given task or activity, we learn to “lose ourselves” in Tao by not being rigidly attached to a given identity.
One way to understand this is by not taking ourselves so seriously. When we are “empty” in this way, things like insults and attacks pass right through us. They have nothing to stick to. We know our own worth and are not attached to either “fame or shame, praise or blame”, as Chuang Tzu writes. Not being caught in our own importance means we are free to act skillfully and with flexibility in any situation.
It is not our personal identity, our titles, or job descriptions that allow us to be “useful” in the world. It is our ability to empty out, receive, and manifest the wisdom of the Tao.
Quieting the Mind
Who can wait quietly until the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
In the Taoist literature the ideal state of one’s mind mirrors the Tao itself – empty, still, calm, and reflecting. Often the opposite is true – our minds are full of endless chatter or cluttered with extraneous knowledge that separates us from our immediate experience. To deal with this constant stimulation Taoist practices offer various methods for quieting the mind, such as tai chi, qi gong, or traditional forms of meditation.
We need quiet and emptiness merely to observe what we are feeling and thinking. When our minds are not overwhelmed either by our senses or by external events, we can perceive more clearly and make informed, appropriate decisions. Waiting “until the mud settles” allows the Tao to guide and move through us.
In my classes with students of Chinese medicine I present the idea of emptying the mind when working with patients. This does not mean “zoning out”, or going to sleep. It means creating a mental space that is alert, yet relaxed and receptive – empty – ready to take in whatever information is required. This quiet, all-pervasive awareness is clear of extraneous thoughts, judgments, agendas, or opinions, and simply focuses on the needs of the moment. It is able to receive what the Tao has to offer. When these future clinicians are with a patient, such an offering may be a memory of an important lecture, a passage from a relevant text, or a new, intuitive understanding that is vital to the patient’s current situation.
Here, too it is important to “forget the self”. If the practitioner is completely “full” of her identity as the doctor, “full” of herself, it will be difficult to learn anything from the patient that might contribute to the healing process.
Empty and be full;
Wear out and be new;
Have little and gain
Being empty often involves solitude, being alone with ourselves and our surroundings. For many of us this is uncomfortable, at least at the beginning of our practice. Tuning in to what we really think and feel can be unsettling. But if we bring awareness to our process and see it as the unfolding of the Tao, then a natural balancing begins to occur. Whatever needs to take place – change or acceptance – will present itself to our consciousness. We must, however, be able to receive the message. We must be in a receptive state, empty of the usual chatter that is in our lives.
When we are empty, we can be flexible and creative; when we experience “emptiness” we can penetrate the seemingly impenetrable because there is always space to do so. When confronting difficult issues, we can follow the example of Chuang Tzu’s master cook who compares his spirit to his knife. “I follow the natural grain, letting the knife find its way through the many hidden openings. The blade of the knife has no thickness so it has plenty of room to pass through these spaces.” Empty the mind and the solution will become available.
We can constantly empty our glass because by doing so we renew ourselves. Allow the Tao to flow through you, let go of the old and take in the new. Rather than fearing the half-empty glass, celebrate it because it means there is room to understand, to grow, to change, and to replenish.
What prevents you from attaining a receptive state of emptiness?
What are your habitual ways of avoiding this state?
What fears or beliefs work against “forgetting yourself”?
What areas of your life can benefit from emptying? Is your home (or some part of it) cluttered? Is your schedule too full? What about your mind?
When listening to others can you empty your mind and be totally receptive?
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes and follow your breath, inhaling and exhaling. Notice and release thoughts, sounds, bodily sensations, and feelings. Gently return to the breath. Over and over. Become empty as the Tao.
Beyond Right and Wrong
Yin and Yang
Merging with the Tao begins with an understanding of the principle of interconnectedness – that all is Tao. Then we explore particular elements of the Tao, such as mystery and emptiness, which open us to the unity of life on an experiential level.
A deepening of this experience occurs through the principle of yin and yang. This fundamental concept lies at the very root of the Taoist tradition. It describes how the interconnectedness of life is expressed through the relationship of two primal forces.
Yin and yang are these two essential energies. While they are interdependent – one cannot exist without the other – they are also opposite in nature which provides the dynamic for movement and change. Yang is characterized as energy that is creative, assertive, positive, and light, while yin is receptive, yielding, negative, and dark. It is important to understand that these attributes do not carry any moral or judgmental value.
The symbol at the beginning of this article is named the Tai Chi Tu (Supreme Ultimate Map), less formally referred to as the “yin-yang symbol”. It depicts the harmonious balance between these two energies. The curved line represents their dynamic interaction – as each energy reaches its fullest expression it already carries the seed of its opposite, signified by the small dot. These two forces are literally flowing into and becoming one other.
Our entire physical reality is based on the interplay of yin and yang. Whether it is the structure of DNA, with its positive and negative strands, the transmission of neurons in our brains, from a positively charged sender to a negatively charged receptor, the makeup of electricity with its positive and negative currents, or the existence of the earth’s magnetic fields which regulate the ebb and flow of the ocean tides – all of these processes take place because of these two opposing energies. Yin and yang make the world go round!
“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil.”
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2
How interesting and how challenging that the underlying unity of the Tao, the interconnectedness of life, is expressed through opposing energies! To fully experience this interconnectedness we must be able to embrace the opposites of yin and yang. That is the challenge.
Taoist texts speak of “life in the round”. The “round” is symbolized by the circle of the Tai Chi Tu which encompasses both energies. Living “life in the round” means to connect and flow with yin and yang as they pass through one phase of change and then the other. Reconciling them is to bring them into a harmonious whole.
While the concepts of change and balance found within yin and yangare fairly straightforward, to see the equality of opposites and their fundamental unity is not an easy undertaking. When considering opposites we most often think of conflict or struggle. And just as often we attach ourselves to one side or the other of this process and then assign it a fixed moral value. Lao Tzu reminds us that one polarity cannot exist without the other. Also, because these opposites are relative to one another and in a state of continuous change, because they arise from a common source and actually create each other, he can then ask, “Is there a difference between yes and no? Is there a difference between good and evil?” Take note of what you are thinking as you read these words. This is definitely out of the box!
Chuang Tzu illustrates this same line of reasoning. He states that depending on your point of view,
“Everything can be a ‘that’; everything can be a ‘this.’ Therefore, ‘that’ comes from ‘this’ and ‘this’ comes from ‘that’ – which means ‘that’ and ‘this’ give birth to one another. When there is no more separation between ‘that’ and ‘this’, it is called being one with the Tao.”
Again, consider these words! What does all of this mean? Is there no moral compass, no taking a position in life? Is there really no difference between “good” and “evil”? Who are these guys?!
Daily Living – The Challenge
“The sage harmonizes right with wrong and rests in the balance of nature. This is called taking both sides at once. Behold the light beyond right and wrong.”
In life the Tao harmonizes and balances. It “blunts the sharpness and untangles the knot”, as Lao Tzu writes. To become one with the Tao is to carry out the same function. However, our tendency is to categorize things as “right” or “wrong” and then to cling rigidly to those labels, creating more conflict. This imbues objects or ideas with an inflexibility which works against reconciliation, against “untangling the knot”.
In our world yin and yang express themselves as opposites – up and down, hot and cold, and, of course, right and wrong. These distinctions are necessary and help us navigate our daily lives. “Taking both sides at once” does not mean there is no “right” or “wrong”. It means recognizing their common source and not getting caught in moral judgment. Being able to “go beyond right and wrong” allows us to act wisely and effectively, helping these opposing sides to transform, reconcile, and flow smoothly.
In nature opposites exist as part of the natural order and there are no value distinctions or moral judgments, unlike our human realm. We accept the fact that there are natural disasters which can cause untold damage, and can lead to great distress and loss. “Bad” things happen but we do not pass moral judgment, or call nature bad, wrong, or evil. Rather, we try to learn from these misfortunes and to live more harmoniously with our surroundings.
This type of understanding is more difficult to apply to human affairs. People exploit, torture, and kill one another. We conduct wars, causing unimaginable suffering. These are “evil” deeds, the antithesis of the balance and harmony of the Tao. Yet, Lao Tzu writes: “I am good to the person who is good, and I am good to the person who is not good because our essence is goodness”. This is looking beyond right and wrong, good and bad, to bring about reconciliation and the greater good of balance and harmony.
Lest you think this is an idealistic or unrealistic approach to conflict, we have in our very recent history striking examples where extreme opposites have been harmonized and reconciled in a “tao-inspired” manner. Colonialism in India, racial segregation in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa, were all systems that were out of balance, did not function in a harmonious or life-affirming manner, and did not serve the greater good. These systems were eventually overturned through non-violent methods because people and their leaders were able to look beyond “right” and “wrong” and conduct themselves in a way that was inclusive and reconciling of both sides. People confronted the “evils” of these systems while not labeling the supporters as “evil”, paving the way to reconciliation and deep understanding. “Beyond right and wrong” does not deny imbalance or injustice. It looks to a shared humanity and an ability to grow and change as a means of reconciliation.
“The true person of Tao is not always looking for right and wrong, not always deciding ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The true person has no mind to fight Tao and does not try by her own contriving to help Tao along. All that comes out of her comes quiet, like the four seasons.”
We do live in a world of “yes” and “no”, “light” and “dark”, and “good” and “evil”. We can see disharmony and imbalance as “wrong” and expend our efforts to make things “right”. Yet, even then, if we can remember our connection to the whole, remembering that we are, in some way, part of “the other side”, resolution will be more harmonious and will lead to a true balance, an outcome that benefits all. That is our compass – to go beyond a conventional understanding of morality and to support and cultivate the essential goodness that transcends “good” and “bad”.
A skilled mediator enacts this principle by looking beyond “right and wrong” and seeking what is common and beneficial to all sides in a dispute. This is reconciling opposites, finding the common ground of the Tao. We can apply these principles to global crises, workplace conflicts, family issues, and certainly to our own internal challenges.
“What goes up must come down.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin and yang and encourages us to embrace these opposites, to see them as relative and changing, and to remember that ultimately all is Tao. By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can be part of the process of reconciliation and become, in the words of Chuang Tzu, true women and men of Tao.
There are “two sides to every story”. Can you listen to both sides and understand another’s experience? Can you see that while there are two “sides”, yin and yang, there is one “story” – Tao?
Are there areas of imbalance in your life? Do you work too much? Do you have enough quiet time or enough exercise? Do you feel emotionally balanced?
By flowing with the ongoing patterns of change we harmonize with them. How strongly do you cling to our own habits, values, and interpretations?
Lao Tzu writes that “evil” will change through the influence of its opposite.
What is your relationship to evil? Do you help create it by standing in direct opposition to it? Can you see it as part of the whole?
Have you ever had an “evil” thought? What might you learn from that?
By gaining an awareness of life’s essential unity and learning to attune ourselves to its natural flow we attain a state of being that is both free and independent while fully connected with the Tao. As expressed through the principle of wu-wei, this represents the ultimate stage of human existence
The Chinese term wu-weitranslates as “non-doing”. For many Westerners this principle is one of the most intriguing and fascinating in Taoist literature. It is also one of the more “enjoyable” because our initial attempts to understand its implications are often quite humorous. Simply the translation – “non-doing” – often causes our culture-bound minds to seize up. “Non-doing?!” We live in probably the most “doing” society in history. Our country was built on doing, our economic system of growth and expansion depends on doing, and continued social progress arises from doing. Non-doing seems to run counter to all of our social conditioning and naturally leads to the question, “How does one achieve anything or get anywhere in life except by doing?”
When we first encounter wu-wei we often react with consternation, confusion, or disbelief. Yet most of us also naturally gravitate toward this concept, absurd or unrealistic as it may initially seem. It’s as if we immediately sense that here indeed is something deeply profound about how life can be lived. Exploring this principle more fully we come to understand that while it derives from the workings of the natural world it is applicable to human existence as well. More significantly, we recognize that we have already experienced wu-wei many times in our lives, and that those experiences have been truly meaningful and powerful.
Tao abides in non action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
Tao Te Ching, Ch 37
So what is wu-wei?
Wu-wei describes the flow of energy as explained in the principle of yin and yang. When one of these fundamental energies – either yin or yang – reaches its fullest manifestation it naturally transforms into its opposite. The patterns of change are recognizable and even predictable.
In nature change occurs organically, following certain laws and conditions. There is a natural self-transformation and a natural self-ordering: the flowing of the seasons, plants growing, snow falling, or ice melting. Everything gets done. This is wu-wei, action that arises spontaneously, “of itself”, and is appropriate to its time and place, always moving toward a harmonious balance. Wu-wei is often referred to as “effortless action” even though great force may be present. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle.
While nature flows effortlessly humans, on the other hand, often struggle with change. We frequently don’t recognize it, resist it, or simply lack the necessary skill in dealing with it. By following nature and learning to flow with the ongoing patterns of change – rolling with the punches, going with the grain, swimming with the current – we harmonize with them. Our actions become unforced and effortless. This applies to personal, internal change as well as external behavior.
Work without doing.
When we consciously experience ourselves as part of the Tao we move beyond a separate sense of self. Then there is no separate “doer”. We channel the Tao. The Tao is the doer. This is difficult for us to comprehend and more difficult to experience. Our prevailing belief is that if you want to achieve something then it is you who must put in the effort, you who must “do” it.
How do we attain a state of effortless action, of non-doing? Lao Tzu writes that we must be “quiet and watchful”, sensitive to the balance and flow of energies around us. We must also listen to our inner voices and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao, relying on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information.
When we become attuned to cycles and patterns of change as expressed through the movement of yin and yang, our actions adjust to these phases, become more skillful, and require less effort. We learn to recognize and manage problems or challenges in a timely manner. “Deal with the small before it becomes large,” writes Lao Tzu. We intuitively sense the flow of energy in a given moment and become one with it. Our natural wisdom lets us know when to intervene (yang) and when to let things play out (yin). And while the principle of wu-wei implies non-striving, it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity.
In order to “work without doing”, it is important that our actions come from a place of non-attachment. Chuang Tzu describes this as “forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit.” How many of us are capable of that?! Such action arises because it is appropriate in the moment, not because of any personal goals such as recognition or accumulation.
In the human realm we speak of being “plugged in”, or “in the zone”. The woodcarver who liberates the form within the block of wood, the pianist who allows the music to flow through her fingers, or athletes who find themselves performing their skills with remarkable ease – all illustrate this concept. Heroic deeds carried out selflessly, without premeditation, and often at great personal sacrifice, are another example of “non-doing”. This is the Tao, universal energy, manifesting and balancing itself through us whether we are saving a life, creating art, shooting a basketball, or even performing a household chore. Again – we as individuals are not the “doers”. The action flows through us. It – whatever needs to take place to restore balance and harmony – simply happens.
Listening carefully within, being in step with our surroundings, remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, remaining still until action is called forth – in this way we perform valuable, necessary, and long lasting service in the world while cultivating our ability to be at one with the Tao. Such is the power of wu-wei, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Tao.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course
It cannot be rules by interfering.
Chuang Tzu describes effortless action in the world as “purposeless wandering”! How opposite this concept is to some of our most treasured cultural values. To have no purpose is considered anti-social and even pathological in the context of modern day living. Yet it is certainly fair to ask whether our current ideals have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level.
To allow oneself to “wander without purpose” can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. If there is no “purpose” what is the point? From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs – that we exist as separate beings, and that we can exercise willful control over all situations without regard to consequences – that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance.
Yet, “The Tao,” Lao Tzu writes, “nourishes everything,”. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action, then nothing remains undone. This is trusting that the Tao will provide support and guidance and that we are capable of receiving it. The Tao is all nourishing, life-sustaining. The “point” is to grow into our full potential, to become one with the Tao.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
Wu-wei indeed means freedom. It points us in the direction of our wholeness. It is an abiding, inner trust in our natural drive or inclination to fulfill our potential. It appeals to us because at our deepest levels of being it is natural to let go and become one with the flow of the Tao.
When applied to human existence wu-wei is indeed a radical concept. It is also one that believes deeply in the abundance and benevolence of life as it exists in nature. Wu-wei states that life perpetuates and regenerates itself in a manner that is natural and effortless. Simply let go, the Taoist sages tell us, align yourself with the flow of energy that is life and you can lead an existence that is carefree and also supports the movement of life. You don’t have to “do” anything. The “doing” is in the letting go. In fact, there really is no “doer” other than the Tao which manifests itself through you. Wu-wei occurs when we don’t struggle, when we are able to let go. Let go of what? Let go of our separate sense of self, for one. Let go of whatever we are holding onto that keeps us believing that we are indeed separate beings.
Does this mean we don’t go to college, don’t own a home, and don’t raise a family? Not necessarily. All is Tao. All of these things can happen naturally, without forcing, as part of the harmonious flow of life. Or, the path may be completely different, but no less genuine and fulfilling.
By allowing the Tao to work through us, our actions are rendered truly spontaneous, natural, and effortless. We thus flow with all experiences as they come and go. Actions which are in response to the needs of the environment, rather thanego-motivated, lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and “purpose” to our lives.
To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a daunting task. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment without thought of profit or tangible result. “The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever,” writes Lao Tzu.
All things change and change is constant. Are you comfortable with change?
By recognizing patterns and stages of change we can practice appropriate timing. There is a time to act and a time to be still, a time to intercede and a time to yield.
Going with the flow implies that there is a larger life current with which we can align ourselves. Can you sense that energy? Can you tell when it changes direction?
The next time you encounter a challenging or perplexing situation try being still. Focus on breathing and relaxing. Allow the appropriate action (or non-action) to arise spontaneously.
Wandering in the Land of Nowhere –
Musings on the Tao
“Returning is the motion of the Tao”
So begins Chapter 40 of the Tao Te Ching. It is the shortest chapter in the whole text, only four lines.“Returning is the motion of the Tao”. If we could truly absorb this concept we would move beyond all attachment to outcome, as Chuang Tzu counsels, and free ourselves from fear and anxiety. In both larger and smaller cycles everything comes back to its beginnings, returns to the source. “Ashes to ashes”, as the saying goes.
Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32
Everything returns home. How comforting. Home is a powerful human symbol. “Home, sweet home,” and “Home is where the heart is.” When we reconnect with our experience as being part of Tao, we are home. In fact, we are the home. The “home” is not out there, in some other geographic location. Home is p’u, the Uncarved Block, the essence of our being. “Return to the state of the uncarved block”, Lao Tzu writes. There is a need to come back to ourselves, to the source of our own power and connectedness, to come home.
The Circle of Tao
What is Tao? Tao is about becoming fully human, realizing our potential, our birthright. To enter “the circle of Tao” is to become fully conscious and fully consciously part of everything. How glorious! How wonderful and exciting! How frightening! Frightening? There is a part of our consciousness that is contracted around a sense of separateness, around that which we call and perceive to be “I” as opposed to “you” or “them” or “it”. That part of our consciousness is also the Tao but doesn’t yet know it. We call it “the ego”, which means “I” in Latin. This is where fear resides.
“Tao-ism” is a framework, a guide, a how-to instruction plan for entering the circle. In actuality we are never outside of the circle. We are the circle. But because we filter our perceptions through that part of our consciousness that can only see the relative, the “you” as opposed to the “me”, we believe we are indeed outside the circle and then we act as if that were so. The “circle of Tao” is a symbol of the unity of life. The energy that makes up life cannot be separated.
Why is human consensus reality constructed in a way that supports an experience of separateness? There are plenty of answers – some thoughtful, some silly, some provocative, some that seem to make total sense. Answers can be helpful, entertaining, or distracting. In the end it doesn’t matter why. The answer is in the living, the doing. Once that takes place, we can come up with our own answers. Chuang Tzu, our brilliant sage who represents a realized being, says time and again, “Who knows? Who can understand it all in one day?”
Learning to Yield
Yielding is the way of the Tao
Here is probably a good place to tell you that the second line of Chapter 40 in the Tao Te Ching reads “Yielding is the way of the Tao.” Yielding – the main aspect of yin energy. This is not exactly a promoted value in our society, despite the fact that one of our greatest Western religious teachers counseled us to yield, as in, “to turn the other cheek”. We live in a yang-oriented society and most of our social values reflect this – we are taught to take charge, be aggressive, be pro-active. Where is yin in our lives? My tai chi teacher, a former general in the Chinese Nationalist Army, would say, “Yin is MIA!”
One of Taoism’s central principles states that only permanent thing in life is change. To flow with change means being able to let go, to yield. Ideas, values, opinions, even our attachment to a certain sense of identity – all are legitimate candidates for release.
The Tao “blunts the sharpness and untangles the knot.” The ability to yield allows us to bring balance and harmony to all situations. How many of us can skillfully deflect the forces of hostility and aggression (yang) by turning the other cheek (yin) rather than meeting fire with fire?
Yielding is trusting in the motion of the Tao. Yielding is flowing with change rather than resisting it. Yielding allows us to come home.
Keeping It Simple
It is more important to see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast of selfishness and temper desire.
Complexity is part of the Tao’s expression – our own human bodies along with nature’s multitude of life forms and processes offer a wonderful example of this fact. We pride ourselves on our own complex creations such as machines, or mental constructs like scientific theories and philosophical explanations.
But along with labor saving devices, life-prolonging medicines, and the ability to explore space, we have also created weapons of mass destruction with the capacity to destroy ourselves and our planet. Our economic activity is itself destructive and continues to cause great harm to the environment.
It is obvious there is a cost to what we call progress. Does it serve our planet and its inhabitants? Does it fulfill the purpose of personal growth and transformation for humans? Lao Tzu writes, “In pursuit of learning everyday something is acquired. In pursuit of Tao every day something is dropped.” If “pursuit of the Tao” is to be a guiding feature of human development, are we headed in the right direction?
In the second to last chapter of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu writes of a country where “Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man, they are not needed. Though people have boats and carriages no one uses them.” Are you up in arms yet? What about our human capabilities and our drives or desires for invention and creation?
Perhaps it is not that our creative impulses need to be stifled but rather that we make more informed, wiser choices regarding the application our technology. And perhaps Lao Tzu is suggesting that we restructure our lives in such a way as to renew our ties to nature, to appreciate our environment as well as the fact that we, as human beings, are an integral part of it. And what about inner space rather than outer space?
Life has its complex side yet our behaviors can be simple and direct in order to bring ourselves into harmony with Tao. The writings of the Taoist sages provide guidance on how we might do so.
Quietness of Mind – Learn to meditate. “Forget” who you are. We think too much. We need to quiet our minds. Then the Tao can inform us, move through us.
Desire – Without the body’s desire for food, water, and air, we would perish. Our emotional and mental desires can lead us to spiritual seeking and awakening. And, as we know all too well, desires can also lead us astray. Big time! In referring to “freedom from desire”, Chuang Tzu counsels both fewness and simplicity of desires, and “to not disturb one’s inner being with likes and dislikes.” Or, to be more contemporary, “It’s all good!”
Behavior -“A great tailor cuts little”, Lao Tzu writes. Just as “nature practices economy and does not waste”, so, too, must we emulate these actions. From such simplicity, a natural wisdom emerges. We intuitively understand ourselves and our environment and our actions are appropriate to each moment.
Speech – We live in an era of “spin doctors” and advertising hype. Our western economic model is based on selling and creating profit through persuasion. “Beautiful words are not truthful”, writes Lao Tzu, “and truthful words are not beautiful.” Be direct, clear, and honest in your communications. Tell the truth! Know your true thoughts and feelings. Be aware of your intentions. How eloquent and powerful a simple, heartfelt, “I’m sorry”, or “I love you”, can be.
Appearance – Current social values place great emphasis on appearance. Our attachment to any image separates us from Tao. There is no need to present ourselves as anything but who we are, allowing our essential nature to shine forth. You can be “stylish” or “cool” if you wish – just no attachment.
One with the Infinite
The ten thousand things are born of being
Being is born of not being.
Here are the final two lines of chapter 40. To align our consciousness with the Tao is to embrace non-being. This is “the great mystery”, the “darkness within darkness” that Lao Tzu writes about in chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching. Human life has a beginning and an end. The body comes and goes. These two lines from Chapter 40 remind us that “being” is balanced by “not being” and that the Tao includes both. The Tao is eternal. Chuang Tzu asks us to contemplate an existence where “killing does not take away life and giving birth does not add to it.” A character in one of his stories who is on the verge of death wonders what the “Maker of Things” will do with him. “If my buttocks became wheels and my spirit a horse I would ride them,” he exclaims. Transformation indeed! And no attachment!
This is a challenging stage in the development of our consciousness. It is the doorway to the circle of Tao, our return. It marks our coming home. At some point in the unfolding of our own process we will take this step. We will become, in the words Chuang Tzu, “a true person”.
The true person of old slept without dreaming and woke without anxiety. His food was plain and his breath was deep. The true person of old knew nothing about loving life or hating death. Carefree she came and carefree she went. She accepted what was given with delight and when it was gone, she gave it no more thought. Such a person has a free mind, a calm manner, and an unfurrowed brow. He is in harmony with all things and knows no limitations.