There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,

Which existed before Heaven and Earth.

Soundless and formless it depends on nothing and does not change.

It operates everywhere and is free from danger.

It may be considered the mother of the universe.

I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

– Tao Te Ching

Today we’re going to be exploring the philosophy of Taoism, and how we can use parts of this ancient Chinese philosophy to look at the world in a slightly different way and in doing so live more peaceful, and resilient lives.

I’ll break this down into a couple of areas to give it structure and hopefully make it as easy to digest as possible. We’ll go through:

  1. The origins of the Taoism

  2. What Tao means

  3. The Core Beliefs

  4. How We Can use it practically

The Origins of Taoism:

Taoism originated in China, widely attributed to the writings of Lao-Tzu around 500BC, it evolved from a rural folk religion of the people into the official religion of the entire country during the Tang Dynasty which ran from roughly 600-900AD, making Taoism both a philosophy and a religion.

The Tao itself, to this day, remains a difficult thing to explain in any concrete way, which we’ll get into in a bit, however the principles of Taoism promote:

  • achieving harmony or union with nature

  • the pursuit of spiritual immortality

  • being ‘virtuous’

  • self-development

One achieves harmony with nature through accepting that the Tao connects all things, of which you are a part, and accepting your place in the interconnectedness.

The pursuit of spiritual immortality does not mean the immortality of our physical body, it is the idea that as the Taoist grows closer and closer to nature over their life, they accept death as the final step in passing over into absolute unity with nature and the universe.

Virtue is an individual’s ability to be aware of the Tao – the nature and flow of the universe, in combination with the person’s ability to follow the Tao, instead of sacrificing the Way for their own greed, vice, temptation or other draws that cause us to leave the path.

“There is something fundamentally honest and psychologically healthy in being oneself and striding forward with one’s vision facing directly ahead, instead of trying at every turn to satisfy abstract standards of goodness established by a reigning orthodoxy. This is what te/de is all about.”

-Professor Victor Mair

What is The Tao?

So, what exactly is the Tao?

The Way is to man as rivers and lakes are to fish,

the natural condition of life.

-Chuang Tzu

Scholars have been struggling with defining The Tao for over 2000 years, and it may well be that it cannot be defined, but there are interpretations that make the concept easier to understand.

At its core the Tao is not a thing to be seen or felt, or a substance that has a form. It is not an object or a form. To some it is understood as the way of the universe. The way of nature. It can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line.

“It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course.”

-Chan, Wing-tsit

Taoism teaches us that The Way of Tao is one in which all living things live in harmony with the universe, and with the natural order of everything that exists within it. One central value in Taoism is called Naturalness which explains a primordial state of all things, often associated with spontaneity and creativity. For one to achieve naturalness we have to identify with the Tao, and conduct ourselves in accordance with nature. This means detaching ourselves from desire, attachment and selfish action, and instead embracing simplicity, harmony, and moving with the world around you rather than against it.

Taoism is not God, as some people might believe – the religion does contain gods, however these gods are part of the same universe and you and I and therefore also depend on the Tao.

Depending on your personal inclination to accept things that can’t be seen or observed, The Tao may be a bit too far down the road towards faith or religion. However it is an interesting thought experiment, and the ways of living do still provide value regardless of whether or not you view The Tao as a real thing, or as humanity’s way of trying to explain something we don’t yet understand about the universe.

How Can Taoism Add Value To Our Own Lives?

So we’ve touched on what Taoism is, but how can we use it in our modern, busy and chaotic lives?

The practicality of the Taoist texts and teaching come from the observations about human beings and our place in the natural world, how we interact with what’s around us and what we can do to lessen the psychological burden we carry as we go through life.

In Taoism, people are viewed as inherently good creatures, needing only a reminder of their true nature in order to realise this good and make the shift from a life of selfish vice into one of virtue.

Taoist teaching explains that there are no bad people, only people who behave badly, whether that be due to negative past experience, an improper education regarding what is right and wrong, or lack of guidance needed to walk the path of their own true nature. A path in harmony with themselves and others.

When one walks the path of Tao, we align ourselves with nature and the order of things, thereby reducing the friction we experience as we live. In contrast, when one follows a path not of The Tao, friction and obstruction are common, and will inevitably lead to frustration, anger, jealousy and suffering. When we learn to accept life and move with it, flexibility adapting to the event is our path, we live more easily, happier and less troubled. But, if a person resists changes, these changes become obstructions and lead to resistance, adversity and suffering.

In many ways, while the two have their differences, there are many parallels with the Greek and Roman Logos, and the Tao. Where the logos was a concept used by Stoic philosophers to explain the natural order and path that nature inevitably follows. The Logos is neither good nor bad, everything that happens simply happens, the good or bad is projected onto the happenings by people and how they perceive what occurs.

Epictetus once said:

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.”

In both philosophies all things that happen, do so as part of the natural way of the world. They are neither good nor bad, they simply are.

So whether or not you believe that The Tao is a real thing, the principles and way of life that Taoism promotes can still have a positive influence on the way we live our lives. Whether it be from trying to live with less resistance, accepting that the things in life that happen around us aren’t necessarily good or bad until we have judged them, or simply that to help us act with virtue we can think about what vices and desires pull us away from acting in a way more aligned with who we are.

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