The Warring States period was one of great turbulence and fear in China. Warlords rose and fell like the ebb and flow of the tide, their legacy a string of bloody conquests. During this time the Hundred Schools of Thought arose, seeking to find a better way of governing, and to instill peace in the nation. One of these schools, Taoism, taught the principles of Wu Wei; action through inaction. They believed if we can govern ourselves through this principle, then we will be fit to govern a nation by it.
In this article I will be sharing a philosophical (as opposed to religious) overview of Taoism, and then will proceed to extract lessons from this exposition, on how we can live a better life according to it’s principles.
Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature. No name can fully express what it represents.
The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao.Laozi
“Tao” can be translated to path, or way. It is described as nature, the source of all things, and the embodiment of everything. To be slightly less cryptic, it is the path we must tread to live in harmony with the universe.
However, we cannot find this path through the intellect. We cannot describe it in words, as these are merely human constructs that allow us to categorize and conceptualize things, and can therefore not fully express eternal truth. The intellect may only bring us closer to the Way, allow us but a glimpse of it.
Rather, Taoism teaches, to tread this path we must develop a spiritual connection with nature, through meditation. I like to think of it as becoming in-tune with the universe; the meditation allows us to realize what the universe requires of us, embrace the present moment, and through this awareness we may follow the path nature has laid out for us.
The dexterous butcher
The Tao te Ching contains the parable of “The Dexterous Butcher”. It speaks of a cook who carves an ox with such great skill that a Lord inquires about it, hoping to obtain his secret. When prompted the cook shares his method — he follows the natural makeup of the ox, moving not by physical perception, but by the path of the spirit. His knife traces the natural way, the one of least resistance, thereby avoiding the tendons and ligaments — obstacles in his way. It goes on to talk about how the same cook has used the same knife for 19 years, and how a good chef uses it for one year, and a common one for a few months.
The path traced by the knife is a metaphor for the path we must follow. The cook (as we must) abandons physical perception and pre-concieved ideas about the path he should follow, and rather embraces the present, following the path laid out by nature on instinct.
Through this practice his knife has remained sharp for 19 years. Likewise, if we follow the path of least resistance; the path of nature, the Tao, so will we remain ‘sharp’; unburdened and unwearied, as we do not seek to impose our will on nature, but rather follow it.
The path of least resistance is the natural path; by obeying the suggestions of nature, not straining against our fate, do we follow the easiest path, and therefore live effortlessly.
We can think of Wu Wei as a principle to live by that helps us to follow this natural path. It translates roughly to action through inaction or effortless action. It means going with the flow of the universe, not exerting energy to make our own path, but letting the natural path carry us along.
We can compare it to a sailboat on the ocean, which follows the currents and winds (the path of nature) in order to move forwards, rather than seeking to fight against them. By resisting nature we impede our own progress. By ceasing to act (inaction) we make more progress (action through inaction).
Wu Wei and Taoism areabout surrendering to the current of nature, welcoming the change brought in each moment, rather than seeking to control the moments. We must embrace the present, rather than seeking to control the future.
Being fully in the present
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present — Lao Tzu
When we abandon our preconceived goals and prejudices, which cause us to strive, we can be at peace. This means being in the present, living each moment according to its merits rather than worrying about changing the next.
According to Taoism, to live fully in the present means to be in tune with nature, through meditation finding a harmony. It teaches that we can follow the path of nature by abandoning our attempts to change it.
Cease to strive
Striving brings suffering
Living effortlessly does not mean living without pain. It means we must welcome the pain if it comes, not straining against it, but accepting it and bearing it with courage. Through this we still experience pain, but it does not become misery; suffering that is self-imposed by a desire to absolve pain.
Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness — Zhuangzi
Striving to relieve ourselves of pain brings anxiety and misery into our lives. Therefore we should accept the present, and cease to strive.
Does striving give meaning?
But is an effortless life what we truly want? Probably not. Many believe that striving, tension between who we are and who we want to be, gives us meaning. If we cease to strive altogether (as Taoism encourages) it might leave us empty and unfulfilled.
Savour the present, ignore the future
But living effortlessly is still a worthy pursuit. While giving up any sort of tension in our lives might be impractical, even nonsensical, it must still be said that too much striving and ambition is detrimental. It is sometimes better to accept the current situation, to accept the will of nature, seeking to find happiness in our circumstances rather than trying to change them.
Humans are always in search of something better, but often this blinds us to the joy we may find in our present. Sometimes it is better to stop and appreciate what is around us, than try to forge something better. There will always be something greater to look forward to, but the present is fleeting, once it has passed, it is gone, forever.
Simplicity is paramount
Shedding our burdens
The fabrications of society, states Zhuangzi, prevent us from a harmony with nature. Society imposes desires on us, for wealth, fame and the like, which encourage us to reach for more. These things do not have inherent value, but derive their value from the common agreement of society. The desire for these things brings us further from a harmony with nature. They lead us astray, cause us to wander off the path nature has laid out for us.
He therefore teaches that we must shed these things, the burdens of society, baggage that we unnecessarily carry (for what actual value do they have?).
I do not encourage you to go out and become a destitute monk, but I do implore you to take a step back and think, to bear in mind that it is often better to let go of things than accumulate wantonly. Simplicity, a shedding of the multitude of desires and aspirations we tend to attract, can often provide relief from anxiety.
By imposing order we bring chaos
Furthermore, society imposes order on our lives, order that is counter-productive according to Taoism. There are a multitude of systems in place, which we willingly adopt, meant to make our lives easier, to reduce the chaos present in nature. However, these systems create complexity, in the form of new responsibilities (to maintain them), more potential for things going wrong, more friction between systems etc. Consequently, we adopt further systems of organization and automation to remedy this, in turn creating more complexity.
It is a vicious cycle, with systems warranting more systems to manage them, all creating further complexity. Our society now is far more elaborate than those of a thousand years ago. Complexity necessitates more complexity, which breeds chaos. There is an inexorable increase in entropy, one that cannot be halted for fear of total collapse.
By imposing something we give its opposite significance — this is the idea expressed by Yin and Yang. By opposing something we allow it to come about. Both sides support each other, and by increasing one we increase the other.
The same applies for us as individuals. More systems, more organization, more order, is not always the solution to chaos. Rather it is often best to get rid of the cause of the chaos itself, to pursue simplicity.
For your consideration
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it — Aristotle
Taoism is an ancient and deep philosophy, one I find fascinating. I hope I have intrigued you, and given you some things to consider. How can we reconcile such alien beliefs with our modern dogma? What compromises can be made? It is important to consider these perspectives, even if we do not agree with them, for this is how we advance as individuals.