Over two thousand years ago, the ancient sages of China sought to answer the supposed ‘unanswerables’ of life; the questions human beings have wrestled with since the dawn of our species—
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- What’s the purpose of life?
- Where does the universe come from, and where will it all return?
It was from this line of inquiry that Taoism was born.
Taoism (pronounced ‘Dow-ism’) is a philosophy and, to some, a religion, that can justly be considered one of Ancient China’s greatest contributions to the world.
It can, at first, be a little hard to define. In fact, the opening lines of its most important text, the Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu some 2,500 years ago, warns that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Eternal Tao.” In other words, the moment you try to grasp it with the mind and dress it in words, you’ve already lost its essence.
But while Taoism can seem a little challenging to the uninitiated, its message is a simple and profoundly life-altering one.
The purpose of this article is to demystify this ancient wisdom and show how it can be used to transform our lives for the better.
What is the Tao?
At the core of Taoism is the concept of the Tao or Dao.
Literally translated, Tao means ‘the Way’.
As I explain in my commentary on the Tao Te Ching, the Tao might be understood as:
“The intangible, formless essence of all things. It is the noumenon at the root of all phenomena; the invisible cause presupposed by the visible world of effect. Without it, nothing could exist, and yet our senses perceive only the outer manifestations.”
So we might think of the Tao as the blank canvas upon which this entire universe appears.
More than that, it’s also the driving engine of creation and both the source and essence of all things.
The Tao is the natural, ever-present and effortless order of the cosmos; the creative energy infusing and animating everything, on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels.
It’s the force that directs the orbit of the planets, stars and galaxies; that makes rivers flow to the sea; that enables our bodies to digest food, circulate oxygen and to effortlessly breathe, grow, and live.
This creative principle isn’t visible to the senses. But it can clearly be inferred by its effects. If it didn’t exist, nothing else could exist.
The universe can’t just suddenly appear. In order for anything to exist, there must be some factor in place supporting its existence. That factor is called, for want of a better word, the Tao.
Taoism is very much the ‘chill’ philosophy.
To a Taoist, the secret to life is not to force, fret or struggle to control and manipulate reality, but to relax, smile, and float downstream, allowing things to naturally unfold.
In doing so, we come back into alignment with the natural order of the cosmos.
The result? Our lives unfold with much greater harmony, peace, joy, and ease.
One of my favourite analogies for understanding the practical application of Taoism is to think of muddy water. What’s the best way to clear muddy water? Is it to stir it up or try to remove all the dirt particles? That actually creates even more of a mess. Water clears naturally when we simply allow it to settle.
The ancient Sages came to realise that the human mind works on the same principle.
Instead of trying to grasp, seek, and control, when we allow ourselves to be peaceful and still, we find we return to balance effortlessly.
In today’s hyper-stressful times, could it be that this ancient philosophy offers a remedy to the struggles and strains of modern life?
The Natural Rhythm
Taoist philosophy was inspired by close observation of the natural world.
You need only spend a little time outdoors to sense the eternal, pulsating rhythm of nature. The sun rises and sets each day, and the seasons pass in cyclic succession. Rivers flow to the sea and clouds nourish the land with water. Trees and plants grow, flourish, and decay. Animals live according to their own unique natures, instinctively knowing everything they need to live and thrive.
The entire cosmos functions according to an inbuilt programming; a hidden intelligence that exists and operates within all things and all beings.
That includes human beings.
However, as the only species bestowed with an intellect and the capacity for free will, humans are also the only species capable of contravening their own nature.
It’s clear from reading the Tao Te Ching that a lot of the problems society faced in the time of Lao Tzu are familiar to us today: greed, materialism, vanity, conflict, and warfare.
Lao Tzu addressed significant portions of the Tao Te Ching to the leaders of his day, imploring them to avoid unnecessary conflict and to put the interests of the people above their own.
He believed that people in positions of power should not seek to elevate themselves or dominate others, but to work for the benefit of all.
Alas, more than ever, the political leaders of today need to avail themselves to the Taoist message of harmony, compassion and humility.
Lao Tzu warns that when people lose touch with their own essential nature, with the Tao, conflict, suffering and ruin are sure to follow.
It’s clear that today we live in precarious times.
The planet’s resources are dwindling at an alarming rate. Conflict and exploitation are rife and the grossly unequal distribution of resources is causing suffering for billions.
Human greed is threatening our continued survival as a species — and the future of the planet upon which we depend for life.
If there’s an innate harmony and perfection inherent in the cosmos, then how have human beings managed to go so far wrong?
Taoism teaches that the way to harmony is to come back into alignment with the Tao.
The Tao doesn’t have to be manufactured. It’s already there. It’s the essence of what we are. We simply have to clear any obstructions that might be blocking its flow.
Human beings are both blessed and cursed by the ability to exercise free will. All other creatures on the planet automatically follow their instincts and programming. They naturally follow the Tao.
Human beings, however, are capable of acting against their own nature. It’s fascinating studying the work of anthropologists such as Lasse Berg, who have highlighted the incredible differences between humans in pre-modern, pre-industrial cultures and humans living in our modern post-industrial, capitalist world. Their findings have huge implications.
Basically, society, as it’s developed over the last few thousand years, has distorted human nature.
What Berg found is that humans are not inherently bad; neither are they innately driven by greed, selfishness and violence. That’s not who we are, but it’s been brought about by living in a culture that’s compromised our values and diminished our true nature.
Studies such as Berg’s reveal human beings to essentially be a species of cooperation, peace, curiosity and harmony. We are biologically designed to live in small groups, existing in harmony with nature, having only the belongings that we need, and working a few hours a day doing tasks that utilise our innate skills and proclivities.
Humankind is physiologically the same as we have been for millions of years, but our way of living has changed radically as we went from hunting-gathering to an agriculturally-based society.
The moment we put up fences and created the concept of ‘property’ and ‘ownership’, we decided we needed to be willing to fight, defend and kill for that concept. We then had to create money, armies and hierarchical power structures.
We’re now living in a society that’s completely disconnected from the natural world.
We unquestioningly worship money, which is also just an idea that someone cooked up; a completely symbolic creation. Our society is run and managed by the twin parasites of government and media: things that were designed to serve the people, but which often end up exploiting and controlling the people.
Unquestioned materialism and rampant greed are destroying us, and the planet on which we live.
When we lose touch with the natural flow of life, and our own essential nature, as human beings clearly have done, suffering inevitably happens.
A central theme in Taoism is the notion of ‘returning’.
All things come from the Tao, and all things return to it, just as rivers inevitably return to the ocean.
By coming back into alignment with the Tao, the natural pulse of the cosmos, everything changes.
As Lao Tzu says, “To return to the Source is to find peace.”
Go With the Flow
The expression “go with the flow” comes directly from Taoism.
Lao Tzu likened the Tao to water; “nourishing all of creation without trying to compete with it.”
We can learn a lot from water. While one of the softest and most yielding of substances, it’s also one of the most powerful. Water is essential and life-giving, with an ability to cut through rock and literally move mountains.
In my commentary on the Tao Te Ching, I write:
“Soft and flexible, water exists in one of two states. It is still or it flows; it is active or passive. It does nothing of itself, but simply follows its nature and adjusts itself accordingly to the circumstances around it. It manoeuvres around obstacles with effortless ease, all the while flowing back to its source.”
Nature effortlessly follows the natural order of existence. If it didn’t, there’d soon be chaos. Imagine if one day the sun decided not to shine, or if fire suddenly turned cold, or water stopped flowing. The world simply wouldn’t work!
The human mind is a wondrous thing, capable of great achievement and innovation. It’s also capable of creating untold problems for us.
We’re the only species on the planet that believes we can somehow do better than life itself.
Lao Tzu muses that human beings assume they could take over the running of the universe and do a better job. He’s pretty much certain we’d only make a terrible mess of things, and given what I know of human history, I would tend to agree.
The Taoist sage Chuang Tzu noted the same thing when he said:
“When people are asleep, their spirits wander off; when they are awake, their bodies are like an open door, so that everything they touch becomes an entanglement. Day after day, they use their minds to stir up trouble; they become boastful, sneaky, secretive. They are consumed with anxiety over trivial matters but remain arrogantly oblivious to the things truly worth fearing. Their words fly from their mouths like crossbow bolts, so sure are they that they know right from wrong. They cling to their positions as thought they had sworn an oath, so sure are they of victory. Their gradual decline is like autumn fading into winter — this is how they dwindle day by day. And as their minds approach death, nothing can cause them to turn back toward the light.”
When we’re inflexible and unyielding; when we resist life and try to control and dominate it — arrogantly assuming that we always know best — we think of ourselves as somehow strong and powerful.
What we don’t realise is that the human ego, with its blinkered vision, is the source of virtually all of our problems on both an individual and societal level.
In trying to dominate life and others, we usually end up opposing the natural flow of life. We think we can fight the current and force our way upstream because we’re determined to exercise our will and get what we want.
The Tao Te Ching points out the danger and futility of this mindset. Even nature, with all its power and majesty, can’t create a storm that will last forever.
Attempting to force life rarely works.
Force requires exertion, which can’t be sustained indefinitely, and sooner or later wears us out. We also have no way of knowing that what we think we want is actually in our best interests at all. We can only ever see a tiny part of the overall picture, so our ignorance will always outweigh our knowledge.
Secondly, our rigidity doesn’t make us strong — it makes us vulnerable. Using another nature metaphor, Lao Tzu points out that a tree which stands rigid is likely to snap when a storm hits. The tree that has flexibility, however, will easily weather any storm. Its branches will bend with the wind rather than be broken by it.
All things in life ebb and flow. The secret to success and power is having the wisdom to align ourselves with the way of the universe; to focus our energy wisely and to work with this natural flow rather than against it.
One of the key principles of Taoism, and one of the most fascinating and potentially life-transforming insights of Eastern philosophy is called Wu Wei, which means ‘doing without doing’ or ‘actionless action’.
Instead of straining to force things to happen, which often involves fighting against the current of life, Taoists yield to the flow, allowing the right action to spontaneously arise.
Rather than trying to make life conform to the whims of our mind and ego, a powerful practice is to be still, go within, and find out what life wants — what life wants us to be, do, have, and create.
In India, this is called dharma. Every single being in creation has their own dharma, their own inbuilt duty to perform, based on their particular nature. To follow our dharma is to follow the inbuilt pattern or program of the universe.
By following our dharma and living in the state of wu wei, our actions become effortless and the results far more likely to yield positive results. It also saves a whole lot of energy which can then be used to simply enjoy life.
The Tao Te Ching warns that by attempting to force action we often end up simply causing chaos:
“Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. By forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.”
As a writer, I can certainly attest to that!
Verse 15 asks:
“Can you remain still and tranquil until the right action spontaneously arises?”
Taoism is based largely upon close observation of the natural world, wherein no action is forced.
Nature doesn’t try to do anything any more than your body tries to breathe, circulate blood or digest food.
Everything happens spontaneously through ‘actionless action’.
As I write in my commentary of the Tao Te Ching:
“Everything in life has its own flow, its own pace and speed. If we can tune into and align ourselves with it, we can achieve without undue exertion and enjoy effortless ease in all that we do. We find that we instinctively know what to do and when to do it. This intelligence is the Tao at work within and around us. Relax into this flow and allow the Tao to direct your life.”
When we’re in a state of flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, life becomes far easier, less stressful and infinitely more enjoyable.
I believe this stems from the recognition that it’s not we who are actually directing our lives—it’s the Tao, or the creative intelligence of life, operating within us.
Are we living our lives (and who are ‘we’ anyway?) or is life, in fact, living us?
By acting according to our nature and following the natural pulse of the cosmos, our lives flow with impeccable ease and effortlessness.
Yin and Yang
We tend to think in absolutes; in terms of good and bad, light and dark, positive and negative, beautiful and ugly, desirable and undesirable.
Taoism acknowledges that the cosmos is composed of two opposing yet complementary forces. These are called yin and yang. They are not separate, however. They are depicted in the famous yin/yang symbol intertwined in a state of perfect balance.
While the human mind tends to categorise things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we cling to and resist things accordingly, all things are part of an inseparable whole.
Taoism teaches that the secret to life is coming into harmony with all things; with life in its totality.
In verse 2 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says that “the Sage lives openly with apparent duality and paradoxical unity.”
The opposites are but two sides of the same coin and try though we might, there’s no getting around that fact. We simply can’t have light without dark, hot without cold, high without low or joy without sadness.
Taoists, therefore, seek to live with humility and acceptance; to take the good with the bad, and accept all that comes as part of the rich journey of life.
In my commentary on the Tao Te Ching, I write that:
“The Sage sees the underlying wholeness of life and lives from a place of humility and effortlessness. He surrenders to the flow of life, allowing things to happen as they will, opening himself to the perfection inherent in each moment. That perfection is sometimes outwardly apparent, but just as often hidden beneath seeming adversity.”
Taoists believe that by coming into perfect balance and harmonising yin and yang, we achieve not only peace of mind and heart, but also health and longevity.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has its roots in Taoist philosophy. The aim of TCM is to eradicate illness by bringing the elements within the body into balance. Yin and yang must be in the right proportion for us to enjoy radiant health and well-being.
In addition to medicine, Taoism also provides various methods for achieving what it calls ‘inner alchemy’.
Taoism speaks of an ever-flowing cosmic vital force called ‘qi’, which is essentially the animating force of all life. Qi literally means ‘breath’ and is the primordial force of creation. All living beings are allotted a portion of qi at birth. It is the presence of qi that differentiates between a living being and a corpse.
To increase health and vitality, practices such as Qigong, Neigong, Tai Chi, and the various martial arts, offer ways to nourish and strengthen this life force and eradicate blocks that might obstruct its flow through the body.
The Taoist system of Qigong has many similarities to the various Yogas of India. Indeed, the concept of qi is an almost universal one; referred to as prana in India, ki in Japan, ka in Ancient Egypt, pneuma in ancient Greek, ruach in Hebrew.
Some aspects of Taoist philosophy may be a hard sell to the average 21st-century Westerner.
Most of us are conditioned from a young age to see life as something that we need to mould and manipulate in order to squeeze all that we want out of it (usually in terms of power, money and possessions).
To the ancient sages, this way of looking at life would probably have seemed ignorant and foolish.
Why should we always be seeking all we can get out of life when life has already given us everything?
Shouldn’t we instead be living with gratitude and appreciation, and from a desire to contribute back to life?
My spiritual teacher, James Swartz, once said that “if your life isn’t working, it’s most likely because you’re living with an extractive rather than a contributory mindset”.
If we go through life with an attitude of entitlement, always feeling that life somehow owes us more than it’s giving us, then we’re going to end up bitter, miserable people.
If we instead live with a mindset of gratitude, contentment, and the desire to give something back to life, then it’s pretty much guaranteed we’ll live far happier and richer lives. And we’ll probably be a great deal more popular with other people, too.
As Lao Tzu says in the final verse of the Tao Te Ching:
“The Sage does not accumulate anything but gives everything to others. The more he does for others, the happier he is. The more he gives to others, the wealthier he is.”
And in verse 79, he states:
“The Sage always seeks a way to give. One who lacks true virtue always seeks a way to get. To the giver comes the fullness of life; to the taker, just an empty hand.”
The Three Jewels
Lao Tzu outlines what he calls the three jewels—three values, or qualities of mind, that are key to a life of virtue, integrity and harmony.
These three jewels are compassion, moderation and humility.
“With compassion, you will be brave,” Lao Tzu tells us. “With moderation, you will be able to give to others. With humility, you will be able to live with integrity.”
These are excellent values to live by. Compassion is seeing with the eyes of love — and we do this by simply being aware of our shared connection as embodiments of the Tao.
The human ego tends to feed off judgement, competition and negative comparison. When this happens, compassion goes out the window and we become disconnected and alienated from our fellow man. This almost inevitably leads to isolation, conflict, and disaster.
It’s from this disconnection and lack of compassion that wars begin and human beings are capable of committing terrible acts against one another. To do so is to utterly violate the laws of the Tao.
Moderation is a key principle of Taoism, and the Tao Te Ching mentions it repeatedly. Nature works in effortless moderation, and that is how the natural balance is maintained. Because everything in life is connected, taking more than we need out of fear and greed causes imbalance and will adversely affect not just others, but also ourselves at some point down the line.
The inability to exercise moderation is one of the key failings of the human race, and the reason that half the world’s wealth is held by just 1% of the population. Our lack of moderation may well prove to be our downfall. We’re living like we’re the last generation to exist on the planet. It’s likely to be our children and our children’s children that will suffer the crimes of our excess.
Humility is another key value and one that Lao Tzu frequently references. Humility is to recognise that everything we have and everything we are, we have been given by life, by the Tao. It doesn’t belong to us. Even our bodies don’t belong to us. Like the air that fills our lungs, everything is simply on loan to us; and eventually, we’ll have to give it all back.
To the wise man or woman who truly understands the nature of reality, there’s absolutely no place for complacency or arrogance. Such a person lives with utmost humility and gratitude, and in constant wonder at the miracle of existence.
Leadership, War and Peace
A large part of the Tao Te Ching was addressed to the political leaders of the day. Legend has it that Lao Tzu worked as an archivist in the court of the Chou dynasty. He was renowned throughout the land as a man of immense wisdom. Disillusioned by the corruption he saw around him, Lao Tzu decided to leave society behind, so he quit his job, packed his bags and headed off on a water buffalo (because Sages clearly know how to make dramatic exits!).
Upon recognising him at the mountain pass of Hang-ku, the gatekeeper beseeched him to share his wisdom before leaving the kingdom. Lao Tzu duly complied, and it’s said that he wrote the entire Tao Te Ching in the course of a single night.
Lao Tzu’s words are uncompromising when it comes to leadership.
He tells us that the greatest leader is one whom the people barely even are aware of. Rather than imposing himself with bluster and egotism, the true leader works quietly behind the scenes, trusting his people and allowing them to flourish by themselves.
“The best leader speaks little,” he tells us in verse 17. “He never speaks carelessly.” Thank heavens they never had Twitter back then.
There’s no place for ego when it comes to leadership.
Instead of trying to make themselves look good, and spending their time controlling and manipulating others, the true leader trusts his subordinates, stepping back and gently guiding from behind the scenes.
The great leader “leaves no trace” once the work is done. Such humility is the source of their greatness. For, as Lao Tzu also said, “if you don’t assume importance, you can never lose it.”
Instead of trying to elevate oneself, Taoists see the virtue in lowering oneself before others; by focusing on how we might serve rather than what we might get.
Again, the three jewels—compassion, humility and moderation—are essential in guiding one’s actions when in any position of authority.
Taoism urges us to let go of our need to control and dominate others. It sees the role of leadership as one of non-intervention. The more we try to control and impose our view on others, the more seeds of conflict we sow. When this happens, war begins.
Contrary to what we might assume, warfare is not a natural phenomenon. It’s an entirely human invention.
According to Taoism, peace is always to be our highest value, for peace is the nature of the Tao.
Lao Tzu warns that:
“Whatever strains with force will soon decay. Those who lead people by following the Tao don’t try to override the world or use weapons to enforce their will. Using force always creates counterforce. Weapons often turn against the wielder.”
Conflict is clearly to be avoided wherever possible. This isn’t to say that Taoism advocates blind pacifism. Some things in life must be fought for. If injustices and crimes are committed, such infractions must be dealt with. But, Lao Tzu, says, “after you have attained your purpose, you must not parade your victory or boast of your ability. You must rather regret you had not been able to prevent the war.”
In order to live Tao-based life, we must learn to solve problems before they get out of hand and deal with things when they are still simple.
This involves following the flow of the Tao and living in a state of wu wei, responding appropriately to the moment as it unfolds, and keeping things in order without letting things go to ruin.
Leadership, and living in general, is very much about learning to surf the waves of life with skill, balance and poise.
Becoming a Sage
In a nutshell, Taoism is about coming back into harmony with the flow of life.
The truth is we already are the Tao; we are expressions of its universal perfection.
When all obstructions to appreciating our own essential nature are removed, we come to see ourselves as we are — already whole, already free, and at one with all things.
Happiness is no longer something we have to strive to attain.
Happiness, we come to realise, is the essence of our own nature when unobstructed by self-limiting thoughts and erroneous beliefs about ourselves and the nature of reality.
What a tremendous relief!
Balance, harmony, inner peace are not things that we need to add to ourselves. They’re already there. They’re part of the default ‘factory settings’.
When we learn to align with the flow of the Tao, and to enter wu wei, the state of surrender and effortless action, this radiance shines from us naturally. There’s little effort required on our part. Our only effort is to uncover and remove any obstructions to appreciating the perfection of our own nature (including its seeming imperfections — yin and yang, remember!).
Taoism suggests that instead of constantly trying to fill ourselves to the brim with thoughts, experiences, beliefs and sense pleasures, we allow ourselves to be empty; to let go and relax into a state of quiet receptivity.
In verse 15 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu describes Sages, adepts of the Tao, as being alert as warriors in dangerous terrain, careful, courteous, receptive and as yielding as ice about to melt into water.
There’s nothing self-seeking or self-serving about the Sage. Such a person is liberated from the tyranny of both the mind and societal conditioning. They are free, spontaneous and in perfect alignment with their own nature; much like a newborn child — pure, complete and innocent.
The Sage has no need to fear what others fear or desire what others desire. He or she has no craving, because they know themselves to be already full and complete. They are but guests in the world, largely avoiding the limelight and unaffected by the mundane concerns of ordinary people.
“I drift like a wave on the ocean,” Lao Tzu says. “I blow as aimless as the wind.”
He later states, “Only in being lived by the Tao can you truly be yourself.”
This implies that there’s more to us than we can fathom; a part of our nature that transcends the limited body and mind and the illusory self-concept that causes us so much suffering.
To quote my commentary once again:
”Surrendering to the Tao means simply letting go of the conceptual, shaking ourselves free of habits of mind and thought, and coming into alignment with the natural rhythms of life. We then allow the Tao to guide our actions naturally, spontaneously and gracefully…
“There’s no need to force anything. Letting go, we can see the perfection inherent around and within us, and life becomes an exquisite exercise in allowing. When we remove the obstructions created by our grasping mind, things naturally come into balance. There’s nothing we need to do but allow the Tao to flow through us, directing our words and actions. Surrendering to this power inherent within us, we come into alignment with the truth of what we are and become an instrument of peace in the world.”
To conclude, I would summarise Taoism as being “the Way of Harmony”.
By tapping into the universal flow — the creative intelligence that’s running this whole show; making the sun and stars shine, causing flowers to bloom and keeping us all alive — we come to appreciate the joy and wonder of simply being alive.
There’s a natural order to life, and when we come back into balance with that, life becomes simpler, more peaceful and harmonious.
The basic message of Taoism?
Let go, let it happen, keep it simple, be kind, and enjoy life.
Actionable Advice for Living a Tao-based Life
- Become aware of the natural rhythms of life and your body. Instead of trying to force things, follow that rhythm wherever possible. Eat when you’re hungry, do your daily tasks when you have the most energy, and sleep when you’re tired.
- Spend some time in nature. Observe the effortless action of the natural world and all the creatures in it. Life is actually so very simple. Only human beings insist on making things complicated. Reflect on how you can simplify your life.
- Experiment with practising wu wei, effortless action. Become aware of the needs of whatever situation you are in, and allow solutions to present themselves naturally. Turn within and see what you intuitively feel compelled to do in any given situation. Instead of trying to figure life out, let life reveal itself to you. Just let go, observe, and allow the answers to come.
- Become aware of the unity of all things and the interplay of the opposites, the yin and the yang. Instead of resisting problems and adversity, try letting things be. Be like water and find ways to flow around your obstacles with ease and grace.
- Recall the three jewels: compassion, moderation, and humility. Take a fearless moral inventory and see how you can better express these qualities in your daily life.
- If you find yourself in any position of leadership or authority, whether it’s being the CEO of a corporation or a parent, see how you can employ the Taoist approach to leadership. Rather than trying to impose your will on others, step back and encourage people to shine on their own and to become all they are capable of being. Always try to keep your ego in check and let your life be based upon service rather than control.
- Become aware of the mystery and wonder of life. Instead of trying to continually manipulate life, relax, chill, let things be, and appreciate all the beauty around you.