Using Taoism in Everyday Life
So how does all of this philosophy apply to you, dear reader? It applies quite strongly, even if you don't realize it yet. In practicing Taoism, you become a better person, both for yourself and for your loved ones. You shed the petty grievances and character flaws and learn to be more compassionate, loving, caring, and generally fun to be around.
How can you apply some of the Taoist principles to your everyday life? For the past 2,000 years, traditional Western thinking has been dominated by a dualistic, either-or approach: either something is good, or it is bad; desirable or undesirable; someone is an ally or an enemy. We perceive experiences to be either positive or negative and we expend much energy in trying to eradicate that which we consider to be negative. From a Taoist point of view, this is like trying to erase the negative current from electricity because it is not positive.
Because we perceive ourselves as separate from others, we often find ourselves in opposition to them, locked into "this and that," merely because of skin color, language, or beliefs. Taking these "differences" for the way things "really are" leads to arguing, fighting, and even killing—all because of "this and that." We do the same with ourselves. We dislike parts of ourselves and struggle to change, not trusting that our own inner nature will of its own accord move towards a harmonious balance.
By being yielding and receptive, by remaining in relationship with others as well as with ourselves, we learn to flow with life's myriad changes. Indeed, we become an agent of change ourselves, rather than resisting it while desperately clinging to one experience or perception or the other.
"What goes up must come down," and "Every cloud has a silver lining." Our own language echoes the wisdom found within the concept of yin-yang. Bad luck becomes good luck and crisis contains the opportunity for growth. We can choose to cooperate with this complement of opposites by not denying, suppressing, or struggling against unwanted discomfort or pain, but rather by accepting all facets of our existence, good and bad, as the natural flow of the Tao.
By following the path of acceptance and responsiveness to change we can become, in the words of the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, "true women and men of Tao." The true person of Tao "is not always looking for right and wrong, 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 him comes quiet, like the four seasons."
The essential message of Taoism is that life constitutes an organic, interconnected whole that undergoes constant transformation. This unceasing flow of change manifests itself as a natural order governed by unalterable, yet perceivable laws. Strangely enough, it is the constancy of these governing principles (like the rising and setting of the sun and moon and the changing of the seasons) that allows people to recognize and utilize them in their own process of transformation. Gaining an awareness of life's essential unity and learning to cooperate with its natural flow and order enables people to attain a state of being that is both fully free and independent and at the same time fully connected to the life flow of the universe— being at one with the Tao. From the Taoist viewpoint this represents the ultimate stage of human existence.
The writings of the legendary Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu furnish us with specific principles as a guide to attaining this state of oneness. Through understanding these principles and applying them to daily living, we may unconsciously become a part of life's flow.
A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or nondoing. Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of sepa-rateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time, it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression "going with the flow" is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which, in its most basic form, refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.
The principle of wu-wei contains certain implications. Among these is the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a noninterfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in this manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result.
Wu-wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural, and effortless. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it is the right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically as "purposeless wandering!" How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is unthinkable and even frightening, certainly anti-social, and perhaps pathological in the context of modern-day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual or social level.
To allow yourself 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 roles in the world. From a Taoist point of view, it is our cherished beliefs—that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment—that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, "the Tao nourishes everything," Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing "nonaction," then nothing remains undone. We should learn to trust our own bodies, our thoughts
and emotions, and also believe that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus, the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.
In cultivating wu-wei, timing becomes an important aspect of our behavior. We learn to perceive processes in their earliest stage and thus are able to take timely action. "Deal with the small before it becomes large," is a well-known quote from Lao Tzu.
And finally, in the words of Chuang Tzu, we learn "detachment, forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit." By allowing the Tao to work through us, we make our actions truly spontaneous, natural, and effortless. We thus flow with all experiences and feelings as they come and go. We know intuitively that actions that are not ego-motivated, but are in response to the needs of the environment, lead harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives. Such actions are attuned to the deepest flow of life itself.
To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a difficult task. And yet, if we 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.
By listening carefully within, as well as to our surroundings, by remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, by remaining still until action is called forth, we can 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.
In the earliest Taoist written works, which appeared around 500 b.c., there are numerous references to the sage. From a Taoist viewpoint, this term refers to one whose actions are in complete harmony with his surroundings—both the immediate environment and the universe as a whole. Through the example of the sage, Taoism offers us a model of a way of being that is in accordance with the natural laws that govern life. To think and act like a sage is to attune oneself to life's flow and to the Tao.
In the English language, the word "sage" describes a wise person, one of sound judgment. It also means "to perceive keenly." Within the Taoist tradition, the sage has gained a wisdom that extends beyond mere intellectual knowledge or information and reflects a deep, intuitive understanding of life.
The sage expresses his wisdom by directly manifesting these principles in daily living. Because he truly experiences the unity of all life, the sage perceives and understands all opposites as part of the same system. As the sage does not oppose these opposites, they can bring harmony and balance to all situations. Because the sage resides in a state of interconnectedness, his actions do not arise from the needs of a separate age but are called forth by the needs of the environment, which includes the sage himself. These actions are natural, effortless, and spontaneous and are imbued with the power of the Tao.
Taoist thought maintains that cultivating sage-like attributes is part of the process of human transformation. While we may think that to become sage-like happens only at the final stage of this transformation, we also can recognize and foster those attributes already within us. The early Taoist writers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, themselves legendary sages, offer us numerous examples of behavior based on sage-like virtues. Most well known are Lao Tzu's "three treasures": compassion, frugality, and humility.
"Whoever has compassion can be brave. Whoever has frugality can be generous. Whoever dares not to be first in the world can become leader of the world." Lao Tzu maintains that these values are foreign neither to our understanding, nor to our experience, and that we are all capable of cultivating such sage-like characteristics because they are a natural part of being human. It is through our caring that we connect with others and with all of life. By practicing frugality, we maintain a balanced existence with our environment and develop simplicity in action and thought. And by learning to follow, we determine the needs of the environment and provide the necessary service.
The sage, in "perceiving keenly," sees past the dualities of right and wrong, and harmonizes all opposites. Lao Tzu states, "The sage is good to people who are good. He is also good to people who are not good." This is true goodness. The sage does not judge, but accepts everything as part of the intrinsic flow of life, and then acts accordingly. In this manner he (or she) provides the opportunity for all beings to become aware of their own self-worth and to express this as goodness.
The sage lives her life not by conventional standards, but according to the principles that are a reflection of the Tao. Chuang Tzu writes, "Rank and reward make no appeal to her. Disgrace and shame do not deter her. She is not always looking for right and wrong." Thus the sage is truly at peace with herself and with the way of the Tao. She believes that "the world is ruled by letting things take their course."
Chuang Tzu also writes that, as we become attuned to the Tao by living in harmony with the natural order of the universe, we become fully realized beings, or "true persons."
"They took life as it came, gladly. Took death as it came, without care. They had no mind to fight Tao. They did not try, by their own contriving, to help Tao along. These are the ones we call true persons."
Thus, to live in harmony with the Tao, cooperating with the natural laws that govern the universe means to grow and transform as individuals, to become sagelike in our behavior. Initially this process occurs because we consciously adopt and follow those principles that reflect the workings of the Tao—yin-yang and wu-wei, among others. In time we find that our sage-like behaviors occur reflexively and naturally. They emerge from us without conscious effort. We reach what Taoism considers to be a person's highest calling—a life in service of the Tao. "The Sage has no mind of her own. She is simply aware of the needs of others." Just as the Tao "nourishes all things," as it continually returns things to harmony and balance, so too does the sage. And this is the ultimate expression of the natural wisdom, the "sageliness," that is the essence of our being.
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