“Taoism extols the virtue of flexibility. What survives on Earth is what effortlessly adapts to the changing environment and changing circumstances.” — Ernie J. Zelinski
Founded around 500 BC, Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that focuses on living in harmony with the “Tao”, which can be translated as “the way”, “the path”, or “the road”.
In many ways, it is a perfect guide to a person’s journey through life. Taoism is all about floating effortlessly amid the different things happening in the world. It is a mindset that allows you to adapt to your changing environment and your shifting circumstances.
American spiritual teacher Frederick Lenz described Taoism as having no rules:
“It’s a suggestion for perceiving life in its wholeness, without unnecessary categorization, yet enjoying the beauty of categorization.”
Tao is a paradox. It’s about not having categorization but enjoying the beauty of categorization. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat problem of quantum physics, where the cat is both dead and alive inside the box.
For a modern, logic-based mind this is hard to comprehend. However, to physicist Fritjof Capra this paradoxical view is the very essence of nature.
Only now with the advent of quantum physics has science started to analyze the paradoxical nature of the universe.
As Capra states: “Whenever the essential nature of things is analyzed by the intellect, it must seem absurd or paradoxical. This has always been recognized by the mystics, but has become a problem in science only very recently.”
The founding of Taoism is traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, and mystic. He is credited with writing the “Tao Te Ching”, the fundamental text of Taoism.
Lao Tzu is often regarded as an ancient sage, whose wisdom transcended the ages. His sayings have served as a guide for people who wanted to know how to conduct their life.
In many ways, contemplating the teachings of master Lao Tzu will open up your mind, and allow you to gain a new perspective on yourself and the world.
“Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu’s teachings reflect the lessons that many wise sages from around the world have discovered. You are your greatest friend, but also your greatest enemy.
If you want to master others, first you need to master yourself. While knowing others might make you smart, knowing yourself will bring true wisdom.
Self-reflection is what will lead to self-mastery. Engaging in meta-cognition, and being aware of your thoughts and why you think them is a crucial skill to have.
Attaining mastery over yourself is both physical and mental. However, most people make excuses not to do it.
The thing is not to remain complacent. Life isn’t about comfort zones. Don’t tell lies to yourself. Better yourself instead.
“A self-willed man has no other aim than his own growth.” — Bruce Lee
If you go to public parks in China, you will see groups of old people doing exercises. Many of them will be practicing t’ai chi, while others are engaging in some other form of exercise.
They are working on attaining physical and mental mastery over themselves, even in old age. This type of mindset is what gives you true power.
“To attain knowledge, add things every day.
To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” — Lao Tzu
Learning about the world happens in paradoxical ways. In order to attain knowledge, you need to add things every day. You have to be constantly reading, writing, and discovering.
However to attain wisdom, you need to remove things every day. At first this might be hard to grasp, but you will get a picture of what this means once you look at some Zen stories.
In one such famous tale, an important man used to being in charge, came to a Zen master wanting to learn what it is all about.
Looking sternly at the master, he said: “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.”
The Zen master just smiled at him and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of delicious tea.
The master then set a cup in front of the man and started pouring. The tea rose to the rim, but the master kept on pouring.
Soon, the tea was overflowing, spilling all over the table, until it started getting onto the important man’s clothes.
“Stop! Enough! Stop pouring! Can’t you see that the cup is full?” yelled the man.
This instantly brought a smile to the master’s face. He stopped pouring and said: “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty.”
Zen (Chan) Buddhism was greatly influenced by Taoism and reflects many of the key precepts of the Way of the Tao. Several of the things you learn in Zen, also apply for Taoism.
One concept in Zen is the beginner’s mind. You need to let go of your preconceived notions and open up yourself to the world.
Get rid of your anger, biases, and ego.
When you attain wisdom, you will see that you need less, not more. You don’t need to chase after riches or fame. Life is about living simply.
Several more of Lao Tzu’s quotes show what it means to be wise:
* “Wise men don’t need to prove their point. Men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.”
* “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.”
* “The wise man is one who knows, what he does not know.”
Practice without practicing
“Act without act. Work without work.” — Lao Tzu
If you want to go on a journey, you always need to take the first step. As Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
It is practice that is the important part of your life journey. The destination itself doesn’t matter that much.
However, in practice you need to separate hard work from smart work. Smashing about mindlessly might be hard work, but it is not smart work.
As the first part of Chapter 64 of the “Tao Te Ching” reminds us, you need to solve problems when they are still small. If you want to succeed you have to do the difficult things when they are still easy.
Act without acting, and work without working.
For Taoism, this means going with the flow. Alan Watts, the British author who popularized Eastern religions and philosophy in the West gave the example of boats in water in order to illustrate what going with the flow means.
If you have a rowboat, you need to struggle and use all your power to go against the water. However, if you have a sail, then you don’t need to strain anymore. You have the wind do all the work for you.
This example shows well the concept of “wu wei” or effortless action. It’s about being spontaneous in a free-flowing way, doing action through non-action.
The point is to just do, not try. This kind of sounds like what Yoda said to Luke in the swamps of Dagobah, but in reality it is an old Taoist precept.
Edward Slingerland who wrote the book “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” is of the opinion that trying too much can in fact have the opposite effect from what you want to achieve: “Thinking that you are good can make you bad. Talking about positive behavior can encourage negative behavior. Lao Tzu is clearly on to something when he warns us that consciously trying to be righteous will, in fact, turn us into insufferable hypocrites and that anyone striving to attain virtue is destined to fail.”
Life is often unpredictable and can get in your way even in the best of times. You make plans, and then something unexpected happens.
At times like this, it is when the principle of wu wei really shines. Just roll with the punches. You might have wanted to throw a right hook, but your opponent surprised you with a jab.
Duck away from the punch, and continue with your game plan. If the game plan isn’t effective, change it up for another. It’s no big deal.
Don’t think too much about doing things, just do them. Psychologist Jonathan Schooler believes that Lao Tzu had the right idea: “Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”
Paradoxically getting the ability to look like you are not trying, often requires a lot of effort at the beginning. It takes practice to become a master.
In martial arts, the masters of these disciplines often look like they are not engaging in any effort and dispatching their opponents with ease. However, in order to get to that level, they had to undergo years of training.
In many ways, “wu wei” resembles the state of “flow” described by modern psychologists. This is all about being in the zone, immersed in the activity you are doing, and even forgetting the passage of time.
Keep your cool
“Respond intelligently even to unintelligent treatment.” — Lao Tzu
As you live in a society of people, and most people are not very enlightened, you are bound to encounter uncomfortable situations.
Many people will treat you in an unintelligent manner, shout at you, or put you down. You have to keep your emotions in check in such situations and respond intelligently.
One way to do that is to “be like water” as Bruce Lee says. The concept of water is very important in Taoism.
According to Frederick Lenz, water is the most used metaphor in the philosophy: “Taoism is the way of water. The most frequent element or symbol referred to in Lao Tzu’s writings is the symbol of water.”
While water may seem soft and weak, in fact it is very powerful. It can fit in any space, and over time, it changes all the nature around it.
For Lao Tzu, water shows how the principle of softness can overcome hardness. “Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.”
The lesson to take from this is to always keep your cool. In practical terms, this can take many forms.
One technique that I like to use is one that I took from improv. It’s called “Yes, and…”
The way it works is easy. If someone insults you, you just confirm the insult, and add another thing to it, seemingly making it even worse. This way you show that you don’t care. In an instant, this disarms your attacker’s power.
This is in fact an ancient technique used by the likes of Stoic master Epictetus.
“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.” — Epictetus
The quote on responding intelligently is from one translation of chapter 63 of the “Tao Te Ching”. In other versions, the part is translated as “respond to resentment using kindness” or “return animosity with virtue.”
However, no matter the translation, the lesson stays the same. Turn the other cheek, and show that you are the better person through your actions.
“Accomplish but do not boast, accomplish without show, accomplish without arrogance, accomplish without grabbing, accomplish without forcing.” — Lao Tzu
If there is one thing to remark about many of the greatest ancient sages is how humble they were. Humility is an important trait that you need to have if you are to live a happy life.
Humility is a key ingredient for wisdom. Lao Tzu, just like Socrates, knew that despite all the learning and thinking that he did, in reality he knew nothing.
In the “Tao Te Ching”, Lao Tzu described how much power staying humble actually gives you. He talks about how all the streams flow to the sea, because it is below them. This is the secret to its power: humility.
A wise ruler doesn’t boast or tries to place himself on top of others. In fact, he follows.
In a striking passage, Lao Tzu reveals the secret of a good ruler. “If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn to follow them.”
You should stay humble, just for the sake of staying humble. However, the paradox is that by doing that, you will accomplish a lot more than by boasting.
Taoism is full of paradoxes, but paradoxes are the basis of existence. By keeping this in mind, you will have learned one of Lao Tzu’s greatest lessons.
Work without working
Keep your cool
Remember to put these insights into practice. For as you know, practice is the key that unlocks life’s treasures. Just do it.
This story was originally published on “Medium” here.