Taoism – Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World: The Tao of Daily Living
by Ted Kardash
This is the first in a series of six articles on fundamental Taoist principles. Each commentary will focus on explaining and understanding a separate principle and its application to daily living.
The Circle of Tao
We have all had the experience, at one time or another, of being deeply connected with something larger than ourselves. This often happens in nature. Watching a sunset or hiking in the mountains or woods, you feel a oneness with your surroundings. Similarly, a feeling of expansion and wellbeing can result from enjoying works of art or undergoing a profound realization or insight. And certainly relationships with others, whether involving love and friendship, or feelings of compassion, can evoke this same response.
In each of these situations, at least momentarily, we transcend the narrow confines of our separate sense of self and encounter an expanded reality. We find ourselves wholly present, experiencing fully what is taking place. The boundaries between us and the outer world seem to vanish. These occurrences are often special and memorable, deeply meaningful and profoundly satisfying. In these moments it can be said that we have entered the Circle of Tao, the experience of oneness with all life.
The Chinese wisdom tradition of Taoism traces its beginnings back five thousand years to our earliest human history and to those people we would describe as shamans, seers, or healers. These women and men used their superb powers of observation and remarkable gifts of intuitive understanding to develop a profound awareness of the workings of the universe, of how life functions. They named this process “tao”. The first actual written works on Taoist thought appeared around 500 BCE and are attributed to the legendary Taoist sages, Lao Tzu, whose Tao Te Ching is considered the seminal work of this tradition, and Chuang Tzu, whose Inner Chapters is also regarded as a classic Taoist text.
The word Tao has several meanings and many applications. Primarily, Tao refers to the eternal, life-giving force of the universe. Tao is the universe. It is also the process by which the universe governs itself. It is all-inclusive. There is nothing outside Tao. It is, in Lao Tzu’s words, “the mother of all things”. Everything that takes form is an expression of the Tao. All of us are the Tao - you, me, people on the other side of the world, Christians, Muslims, atheists, plants, animals, rocks, air, good guys, bad guys – all one, all part of one whole. Beneath the apparent separateness of “the ten thousand things” of everyday life is a deeper underlying unity.
A more contemporary way of stating this is that all life is a never-ending net or sea of energy energy. Tao is that energy, life-giving and benevolent.
Taoism is organized around several key principles and, like any philosophical outlook, presents a way of seeing and understanding reality. The word Tao itself translates as “the way”, or “path”. This meaning includes both “the way” in which we perceive the world around us (how do we make assessments? what are our values?) and also “the way” in which we interact with life (how do we behave? what are our actions?). The manner in which we understand reality influences our way of being in the world, and this becomes our path of action.
The early seekers discovered that Tao is most directly perceived in our immediate surroundings, in nature. By becoming aware of the patterns and cycles of nature, by understanding its characteristic ways of functioning, they arrived at three primary determinations: life constitutes an organic whole, a web of interconnectedness; the one constant in life is change; and there is within nature a dynamic movement towards a state of balance.
The ancient sages concluded that humans, being part of the Tao, could lead lives that would be characterized by the balanced, harmonious flow found in nature simply by following the same principles that governed the functioning of the universe. They also realized that this process of alignment would be natural to us, would allow our true nature to emerge. In this way we would achieve our true birthright, experiencing ourselves as an integral, rather than separate, element of creation. We would enter and become the Circle of Tao.
In this way Taoism offers a practical wisdom dedicated to personal well-being, social accord, and the accelerated evolution of individual consciousness. Its purpose has always been to assist humans in experiencing their essential nature as inseparable from that of the cosmos. As such the concepts of Taoism function as a guide to spiritual growth and transformation and are directly applicable to daily life.
An Expanded Awareness
One major challenge to this experience of unity and wholeness is our own human consciousness which can be regarded as a double-edged sword. On the one hand we are able to separate, distinguish, and evaluate. While this allows us to understand our world, make decisions, and take action, it can also restrict us to only seeing everything as separate from ourselves, blocking the experience that we are part of a larger whole.
The consequences of this type of perception, which often results in focusing only on our own individual needs, are evident. Environmentally we end up soiling our oceans, destroying natural habitat, and polluting the air. On a social level we allow history, geography, language, skin color, ethnicity, gender, and politics to create a sense of otherness with our fellow humans, which often leads to alienation, conflict, and war. Even on an intrapersonal level, we reject our own wholeness by judging, repressing, and denying painful or misunderstood parts ourselves, bringing about depression, shame, and low self-worth.
However, our consciousness, as part of the energy that is the Tao, can also experience itself as an integral part of the whole. This sense of wholeness allows us to function in a manner that promotes balance and harmony internally as well as on a larger scale. We then see that the needs of others and of our environment are in accord with our own needs. When our awareness attains this level, we naturally become a part of the Circle of Tao.
This principle - “All is Tao” - applies to all levels of existence, the universal and the personal.
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?
Do you feel a connection with others in your life? Do you experience kinship and compassion not only for your fellow humans but with all living beings?
Do you honor your own self, accepting both strengths and limitations?
Note the ways in which you may split off from the environment, from others, from yourself. What are the underlying beliefs that cause you to do this? What are the feelings involved? What needs to happen so that “all is Tao”?
Mystery – The Art of Not-Knowing
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.” Names, while useful, can be limiting. We must go beyond names and see the Tao in all things. In the same opening chapter Lao Tzu writes that to fully experience Tao one must enter its mystery, a mystery shrouded in darkness, “darkness within darkness.” To do so we are required to go beyond our traditional ways of thinking and perceiving, and beyond a traditional understanding of knowing itself.
Conventional knowledge is based on making distinctions and determinations, on gathering information. It is the realm of our rationality. However, this level of mind simply cannot encompass the vastness of life. Rationality is limited in the way it perceives. Our intuitive understanding, on the other hand, is connected to universal wisdom, to the Tao, and speaks our deepest truths. This understanding is experiential rather than intellectual. We become that understanding.
Chuang Tzu encourages us let go into “not-knowing”. When we stand in awe of the sunset we are not analyzing how it “sets”. We simply take in the experience. Our mind is calm, quiet, and empty, and we are fully present. We can also learn to bring the same letting go, the same “simply being”, to all areas of life, including those involving change or conflict. We learn to trust that whatever information is necessary to bring balance to a given situation is present in the Tao. And as part of the Tao, that information is available to us if we are open and receptive. Our rational mind can then apply that information in a skillful manner.
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. Not fearing the unknown, we can enter the mystery, and from that “darkness within darkness” will emerge the order and balance that is characteristic of the movement of the Tao.
Are you aware of the mysterious in your life?
Enjoy the mystery! Recognize that there is a mystery.
Can you allow your internal Tao, your intuition, to guide you?
Learn to value your intuition. Insight, discovery, and creativity all come from a place beyond the logical mind.
How steadfastly do you hold to your beliefs and opinions as if they are the absolute truth?
Where do we find mystery? In nature (sunsets, walking in the wild, animals); in our creativity (art); in our relationships (children); in “miracles”
Allow yourself to “not know”. Allow the “answers” and solutions to arise from within, from the darkness, from the eternal Tao. The Tao “knows”.
Approach all things with a sense of wonder and awe and openness.
The Tao of Daily Living
Taoist teachings are intended to be utilized as a guide to daily living. Their greatest value lies in their ability to direct us toward our own process of self-exploration, growth, and transformation which connects us deeply to ourselves and to the world around us. The writings of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu provide us with excellent counsel on how to achieve this state of union with the Tao. It may be here that Taoism exhibits its greatest appeal for not only does it represent a way of connectedness, harmony, and balance, its “way” is one of naturalness and simplicity!
Many of us experience stress and difficulties in our lives. As we deal with challenges on personal, local, or global levels, we naturally seek solutions that will restore us to a more balanced, harmonious, and satisfying way of living. By recognizing and learning to follow the characteristics of the Tao we are able to gradually align ourselves with this great universal flow of energy. We learn to “go with the flow”. While this is a life-long process, every step along the Way connects us more intimately with our true nature, with the Tao. And, as Lao Tzu reminds us, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
In future articles we will examine five other main principles of Taoist thought which will support and strengthen our process of expanding our consciousness. By applying these principles we can cultivate our awareness of the interconnectedness of all life, and recognize our own path or “way” as inextricably linked with that of the surrounding world. This leads to an experience of natural self-balance and receptiveness to the natural and nourishing flow of the Tao. We release into the mystery of life and become part of its unity.
All is Tao
Plan a one-hour walk (or longer) alone in a natural setting. As you walk repeat the phrase, “All is Tao”, silently to yourself. Simply note your surroundings as well as your own responses to the environment. Try to do this on a regular basis. Make it a part of any regular activity – walking the dog, riding your bike, driving your car (traffic is also Tao).
Whenever you are confronted by a challenging situation, try to remember that “All is Tao”. You are Tao, your feelings are Tao, the challenge (person, place, or thing) is Tao. Being in the Circle of Tao can “blunt the sharpness” and “soften the glare” of daily life.
Imagine you are something else - a plant, an animal, an ocean wave, or a ray of sunlight. Try to picture your existence as that part of the Tao. What would that experience be like? Write about your experience.