Taoism: nature, balance, simplicity

Taoism

Subjugation of Desire
Too many colors confuse the eye
Too many sounds confuse the ear
Too many tastes confuse the palate
A life of hectic pleasure, riding and hunting will drive you crazy
Coveting precious objects destroys your morals.
The wise man is concerned only with having a full belly, not with vane aspirations
He concentrates on the former and distances himself from the latter.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Introduction

Taoism, an ancient philosophical tradition dating from around the 6th century BCE, offers a guiding light along life’s journey. Rooted in the heart of China, Taoism is more than a mere belief system—it is an embrace of the natural ebb and flow, and an exploration of the path to inner serenity.

At its core, Taoism finds its essence in the concept of the “Tao,” a term that defies easy definition yet encapsulates the essence of all things. The Tao is the way, the underlying thread that connects the seen and the unseen, the known and the mysterious. It’s the pulse of the universe, guiding rivers and stars, echoing in the subtle rustle of leaves, and resonating in the depths of the human spirit. The concept of Tao or Dao has no specific meaning, or perhaps it means infinitely more than a word or phrase can encompass.

Within Taoism, a delicate equilibrium between opposing forces, symbolized by Yin and Yang, forms the cradle of balance and harmony. This writing is my attempt to get a grip on Taoism’s principles, practices, and stories. We will delve into the concepts of balance, nature, and simplicity that form the very fabric of this philosophy. From the tranquil flow of water to the boundless expanse of the cosmos, Taoism urges us to align with nature’s rhythms and find serenity in embracing the paradoxes of existence.

In the pages that follow, we’ll journey through the heart of Taoism, discovering how its wisdom might guide us through the complexities of modern life. We’ll uncover Taoist practices that cultivate inner stillness, explore timeless stories that impart profound insights, and recommend readings that offer gateways to deeper understanding. I want to learn more about this philosophy that has captivated ancient sages and modern seekers alike. Through writing this, I hope to shine a light on lessons and practices that improve the well-being of all nature.

I’m a seeker. Born of stardust destined to return to the stars. Drawing insights from philosophies, science, and nature, I’m composing a comprehensive belief system that can help guide 21st century humans to improve well-being for all. I’m a Stardust Pilgrim.

I. The Principles of Balance, Nature, and Simplicity:

The Way of Balance:

At the heart of Taoism, we encounter the principle of balance—manifested through the interplay of Yin and Yang. These two forces, distinct yet inseparable, illustrate the fundamental dance of existence. Imagine the night sky yielding to the dawn, darkness giving way to light, and the intricate dance of duality that weaves through all realms. You can’t have good without bad. Or a sell without a purchase.

The significance of balance within Taoism symbolizes the delicate equilibrium that governs the cosmos, reminding us that harmony resides in embracing opposites. But it’s more than just opposites, it’s that these opposites are actually a unity. These pairs without one pole or the other pole would cease to exist. Therefore, in essence what seems like a dualistic universe is really a universe of unisons.

Because of this mutual dependance, Taoism teaches us to view polarities not as adversaries but as partners in the cosmic waltz. Like the tides that ebb and flow, balance invites us to find rhythm within the ephemerality of life. By embracing the Yin and Yang within ourselves, we can be more kind to ourselves, others, and nature. For me, seeing that there is a balancing act between all the various emotions, feelings, impulses, and actions, leads me to be more aware that we are all trying to find that center point and that some people or situations are in better balance than others.

To put it another way, the secret to harmony lies in recognizing that darkness and light, strength and vulnerability, are interconnected threads of life. The Tao, the unifying force that underlies it all, whispers its invitation: harmonize with duality, and find serenity amid contrasts.

Alignment with Nature:

Using Taoism to align with nature.

Taoism’s wisdom extends its roots into the very fabric of the natural world. I see the lessons of Taoism as point to aligning our lives with the rhythm of the universe. As we step into the realm of nature, we recognize that our existence is but a vapor of a vapor in the cosmos. Small as we may be we are of the cosmos and Taoism speaks to the feeling that we should follow the heartbeat of the earth, and to become more aligned with our nature.

This alignment with nature, like a gentle stream finding its course, calls us to live in harmony with the cycles of creation. “Wei Wu Wei,” the principle of action through non-action, guides us to recognize that the unfolding of life’s mysteries is a dance that needs no choreography. From the unfolding of a flower’s petals to the majesty of a mountain’s peak, Taoism imparts the wisdom that nature itself is a sacred script—one we can learn to read with a heart attuned to stillness.

“Nature is not in a hurry and yet everything is accomplished.” We should strive (or not strive!) to approach our lives in a similar manner. Follow our natural paths without hurry and all will be accomplished.

The times that we flow with our nature, we find solace and peace. We learn that the chaos of existence finds serenity when we yield to the flow of the Tao, when we harmonize with the seasons, and when we allow the currents of life to guide us home. Much easier said than done! This is aspirational and something that needs to be cultivated. Most of us must break many ingrained habits to follow a Taoist way.

This alignment with one’s nature was the main thrust of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I wrote about this in my article: Embracing the Hero’s Journey: Navigating Life’s Adventure with Purpose and Passion. Essentially, the more closely we can follow our natural path, the more fully alive and at peace we will be.

Simplicity and Wu Wei:

Among the gems within Taoism’s treasury of wisdom lies the concept of “Wu Wei,” the art of effortless action. Our world glorifies busyness and productivity – I wrote an article on how out of balance I feel with the pressure of forever increasing efficiency. Taoism reminds us that true power resides in the gentleness of flow. Like a river that carves valleys without force, “Wu Wei” suggests we act without striving, to achieve without grasping, and to create without contriving. This is very counterintuitive to my American upbringing and the culture at large where everything we do is about striving, trying our best, not giving up, pushing through, etc… Wu Wei is a complete shift.

Simplicity, a cherished companion of “Wu Wei,” invites us to release the burdens of excess, to shed the layers that obscure our essence, and to embrace the beauty of the unadorned. The Taoist sage Lao Tzu eloquently reminds us that “Simplicity, patience, compassion—these three are your greatest treasures.” The human world is complex, and Taoism guides us back to the quiet majesty of simplicity, where the essence of life can be tasted in its purest form. This is why when we meditate or find a place to be quiet and mindful, we can listen to ourselves, and simply be honest with ourselves and our surroundings, we feel closer to what matters – clarity.

With “Wu Wei” and simplicity as our compass, we have a better chance of finding our natural path. We relinquish the need to force outcomes, and instead, allow the currents of the universe to guide us. Effortless action equals harmonizing with the Tao and discovering that the greatest strength emerges from the gentlest touch – or no touch at all.

II. Taoist Practices and Stories:

Meditation and Inner Alchemy:

Meditation and mindfulness may be all the rage now, but Taoism was emphasizing exploring our inner universe long ago. Meditation is not merely a technique—it’s a sacred pilgrimage, a way to attune ourselves to the harmonious currents of the universe.

Taoist Meditation Practices:

Inner Smile Meditation: Imagine gazing into a mirror, but the reflection is your inner landscape—a meditation known as the “Inner Smile.” With gentle intention, Taoists direct their awareness to each organ and energy center within the body, offering a loving smile to the vital essence of each part. This practice fosters a deep connection with one’s physical and energetic being, cultivating gratitude and harmony within. As Taoist Master Mantak Chia describes in his book “Awaken Healing Energy Through the Tao,” this practice helps clear emotional blockages and promotes healing.

Microcosmic Orbit: Rooted in the Taoist principle of circulating energy, the “Microcosmic Orbit” meditation weaves a pathway along the body’s meridians, allowing the flow of “Qi” (life force energy) to be consciously directed. Practitioners guide energy from the lower “Dantian” (an energy center near the navel) up the spine to the crown of the head and back down the front of the body, creating a harmonious loop. This practice aligns with the Taoist belief in balancing Yin and Yang energies, as described in Mantak Chia’s “Taoist Yoga: Alchemy & Immortality.”

Breathing Meditation: Central to Taoist philosophy is the idea that breath is the bridge between the inner and outer worlds. Taoist breathing meditation involves conscious, deep breaths that allow practitioners to synchronize their inner rhythm with the external world. As the breath becomes a gateway to the Tao’s flow, practitioners experience a sense of unity with all of creation.

Buddhist Meditation vs. Taoist Meditation vs. Mindfulness Meditation:

Buddhist Meditation:
  • Focus: Often centers on mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
  • Goal: Attaining enlightenment (Nirvana) and liberation from suffering.
  • Techniques: Vipassana (insight) meditation, Samatha (concentration) meditation, Metta (loving-kindness) meditation, Zen meditation, etc.
  • Approach: Emphasis on observing thoughts, emotions, and sensations without attachment, cultivating awareness of impermanence and non-self.
  • Principles: Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering), and Anatta (non-self).
Taoist Meditation:
  • Focus: Aligning with the natural flow of the Tao (universal principle).
  • Goal: Harmonizing with the Tao, cultivating vitality, longevity, and inner alchemy.
  • Techniques: Inner Smile, Microcosmic Orbit, Breathing, Tao Yin (Taoist yoga), etc.
  • Approach: Cultivation of life force energy (Qi), balance of Yin and Yang, integration of physical, energetic, and spiritual aspects.
  • Principles: Wu Wei (effortless action), Yin-Yang balance, alignment with nature, and embracing paradox.
Mindfulness Meditation:
  • Focus: Present moment awareness and non-judgmental observation of thoughts, sensations, and emotions.
  • Goal: Cultivating mindfulness, reducing stress, and enhancing overall well-being.
  • Techniques: Mindful breathing, body scan, open awareness, walking meditation, etc.
  • Approach: Noticing thoughts and sensations as they arise without attachment or aversion, fostering self-compassion and self-awareness.
  • Principles: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s teachings.

While each form of meditation has its unique philosophy and practices, they all share the common thread of guiding practitioners toward self-awareness, inner balance, and a deeper connection to the inherent nature of reality.

Just as the stillness of a tranquil pond mirrors the vastness of the sky, meditation enables us to reflect the boundless nature of the universe within ourselves.

– Pilgrim Solarrson

Tai Chi and Qi Gong:

Taoists practice two graceful forms of movement intended to be gateways to harmonizing mind, body, and spirit. These two movement practices are Tai Chi and Qi Gong.

Tai Chi, often referred to as “moving meditation,” is a series of graceful, deliberate movements that reflect the natural rhythm of existence. Each motion flows seamlessly into the next, akin to leaves swaying in the breeze or ripples upon a pond. Rooted in Taoist philosophy, Tai Chi embodies the principle of Wu Wei, urging practitioners to act effortlessly and find balance within motion.

Basic Movements in Tai Chi:

1. “Grasping the Sparrow’s Tail”: This foundational movement sequence embodies the essence of Tai Chi’s flowing grace. It includes four primary components: ward off, rollback, press, and push. Practitioners move in a continuous, circular motion, resembling the gentle dance of a sparrow in flight. This sequence emphasizes balance, coordination, and the harmonious transition between Yin and Yang energies.

Grap Sparrow’s Tail

2. “Single Whip”: In this movement, the body takes on a diagonal stance, with one arm extended in a graceful arc resembling the shape of a whip. The gesture embodies Tai Chi’s principles of softness and redirection, allowing practitioners to learn how to yield to incoming force and redirect it fluidly.

3. “Cloud Hands”: In this sequence, the arms and hands move in a flowing, circular manner as if tracing the contours of a cloud. Cloud Hands cultivates graceful shifts in weight, coordination between upper and lower body, and the sensation of Tai Chi’s continuous movement and fluidity.

Qi Gong, on the other hand, is a dance with the vital life force that courses through our veins—the “Qi.” With gentle postures, breathwork, and intention, Qi Gong cultivates the flow of energy, inviting it to weave its melody through the meridians of the body. Like the whisper of wind through the trees, Qi Gong harmonizes our inner landscape, aligning us with the Tao’s innate rhythm.

Basic Movements in Qi Gong:

Lady doing Tai Chi on cliff

1. “Tai Chi Ball”: This exercise involves holding an imaginary ball between the hands, moving it in various directions, and cultivating a sense of circular energy flow. It promotes physical coordination, balance, and energetic awareness while simulating the movement of “Qi” (life force energy).

2. “Five Animal Play”: This set of Qi Gong movements imitates the movements and characteristics of five animals: the tiger, deer, bear, monkey, and crane. Each animal’s movements help activate specific meridians and energy pathways, promoting overall well-being and vitality.

3. “Ba Duan Jin” (Eight Brocade Exercise): This classic Qi Gong set consists of eight movements that focus on stretching and opening the body’s energy channels. Each movement targets different areas, such as the spine, kidneys, and digestive system. It’s a comprehensive practice for cultivating strength, flexibility, and balance.

Both Tai Chi and Qi Gong movements emphasize mindfulness, relaxed yet purposeful motion, and the cultivation of “Qi” to enhance physical and energetic well-being. These practices offer a way to harmonize the body and mind, connecting practitioners with the natural rhythms of the universe.

How these practices cultivate the flow of “Qi” (life force energy) and enhance physical well-being:

These practices serve as conduits through which we connect with the universe’s vital energy, fostering its graceful flow within us. Just as a river nourishes the land it courses through, “Qi” nourishes our physical, emotional, and spiritual being.

Through the deliberate movements of Tai Chi and the focused intention of Qi Gong, practitioners become artisans of their own well-being. The gentle stretches, twists, and turns stimulate the flow of energy, enhancing circulation and inviting balance into every fiber of the body. With each graceful motion, the body awakens to its innate wisdom, aligning itself with the natural rhythms of the universe.

Practicing Tai Chi and Qi Gong serve the inner purpose of aligning with nature as well as contributing to physical well-being as we age. By keeping moving through our later years, we will be in a place better suited to age with better health and mobility.

The Legend of Lao Tzu:

Depiction of Lao Tzu in forest.

The story of Lao Tzu, the legendary founder of Taoism:

In the annals of history, the figure of Lao Tzu emerges as a sage, a luminary whose legacy illuminates the path of Taoism. As the story goes, Lao Tzu was a 6th century BCE scholar and philosopher who, disenchanted by the turbulence of society, embarked on a journey to seek solace in the mountains. His quest led him to a pass where he encountered a guard who recognized his profound wisdom. Lao Tzu was urged to share his insights before departing, and thus, the “Tao Te Ching” was born—an embodiment of his timeless wisdom.

Lao Tzu the person probably did not exist. Much like Homer in Greek literature, the Tao Te Ching is an accumulation of a variety of sources.

Lao Tzu’s teachings and the wisdom contained in the “Tao Te Ching”:

The Tao Te Ching, a text of only around 5000 characters, is a succinct profound collection of verses. This text serves as a beacon guiding seekers toward the path of virtue, harmony, and wisdom. Within its verses, Lao Tzu weaves insights that echo through the corridors of time, speaking to the nature of existence and the art of navigating it.

The Tao Te Ching delves into three primary themes that offer profound insights into the nature of existence and the art of living in harmony with the Tao:

1. The Nature of the Tao:

The “Tao Te Ching” explores the concept of the Tao—the fundamental principle that underlies and permeates all of creation. It describes the Tao as the source of everything, an eternal and ineffable force that cannot be fully comprehended or defined. The text emphasizes that the Tao is both the origin and the destination, the underlying unity that connects all things. It guides readers to align with the Tao’s flow, to embrace the paradoxes of life, and to harmonize with the natural rhythms of the universe.

2. Balance and Harmony (Yin and Yang):

Central to the teachings of the “Tao Te Ching” is the principle of balance and harmony—the interaction of Yin and Yang. The text discusses how opposites complement and define each other, creating a harmonious dance within the world. It invites readers to recognize that darkness and light, strength and vulnerability, are interconnected and necessary for the wholeness of existence. The wisdom of Yin and Yang is mirrored in human life, urging individuals to find equilibrium between effort and non-effort, action and stillness, and humility and strength.

3. Simplicity and Wu Wei (Effortless Action):

Simplicity and Wu Wei, the art of effortless action, form another cornerstone of the “Tao Te Ching.” The text suggests that by embracing simplicity and non-striving, individuals can align with the natural order of things. Wu Wei invites practitioners to act without forcing outcomes, to achieve without attachment, and to allow life to unfold organically. The “Tao Te Ching” teaches that true power emerges from gentleness, that by letting go of control, one can attain a state of flow and harmony with the Tao.

Through these three primary themes—understanding the nature of the Tao, embracing balance and harmony, and embodying the principles of simplicity and Wu Wei—the “Tao Te Ching” offers timeless guidance on how to navigate the complexities of life, fostering inner peace, wisdom, and alignment with the essence of the universe.

It extols the virtue of humility, urging us to recognize that true strength resides in gentleness and vulnerability. Just as water’s unassuming flow shapes even the mightiest of landscapes, Lao Tzu’s wisdom teaches us that embracing our own authenticity can reshape the world around us.

Lao Tzu’s teachings urge us to return to simplicity—to shed the trappings of ego, to let go of attachments (a very Buddhist idea as well!), and to discover the profound beauty in the present moment.

Lao Tzu’s legacy, like the gentle brush of a breeze against the skin, reminds us that the path of the Tao is both ancient and ever-relevant. His teachings continue to guide modern seekers toward the heart of balance, nature, and simplicity.

III. Recommended Readings on Taoism:

Alongside the “Tao Te Ching,” several other texts are considered foundational to Taoism, offering further insights into its philosophy and practices:

1. “Liezi” (Lieh-Tzu):

The “Liezi,” attributed to the sage Liezi, also offers philosophical tales and anecdotes that illustrate Taoist principles. It explores themes such as simplicity, spontaneity, and the interconnectedness of all things. The text delves into the art of living in harmony with the Tao by letting go of attachments and desires.

2. “Huainanzi”:

“Huainanzi” is a comprehensive text that explores various topics, including cosmology, governance, ethics, and philosophy. It draws upon Taoist, Confucian, and Legalist ideas, offering a multidisciplinary perspective. The text emphasizes the interconnectedness of nature and human life, advocating for a balanced and holistic approach to existence.

3. “Daozang” (Taoist Canon):

The “Daozang” is a vast collection of Taoist texts compiled over centuries, covering a wide range of topics, from philosophy and meditation practices to rituals and alchemical practices. It includes texts from various Taoist traditions and schools, reflecting the diversity of Taoist thought.

4. “Neiye” (Inward Training):

“Neiye” is an ancient Taoist text that focuses on inner cultivation and self-transformation. It provides practical guidance on developing one’s inner virtues, aligning with the Tao, and attaining a state of profound tranquility and harmony.

These texts, alongside the “Tao Te Ching,” contribute to the rich Taoist philosophy and offer different perspectives on how to live in alignment with the Tao’s principles.

“The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff:

A modern book presents Taoist principles through characters from Winnie the Pooh:

A far less ancient work is “The Tao of Pooh.” Written by Benjamin Hoff, this book ingeniously weaves Taoist principles through the endearing characters of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and their companions. Through their adventures, Hoff unfolds key elements of Taoism by demonstrating how the simplicity of Pooh’s approach mirrors the essence of the Tao.

“The Tao of Pooh” takes the profound concepts of Taoism and distills them into accessible insights, making its wisdom accessible to readers of all backgrounds. Just as Pooh navigates the Hundred Acre Wood with simplicity and authenticity, Hoff illuminates complex Taoist concepts with gentle clarity. By exploring the nuances of the characters’ personalities and interactions, the book reveals the depth and relevance of Taoist teachings, demonstrating that the principles of the Tao echo not only through ancient philosophy but also through the simplest moments of life.

I received a copy of this book from my guidance counceler when I graduated high school. I remember liking the book, but perhaps didn’t appreciate the finer points and wisdom it contained. Now, I’ve reread it and find I’m able to more fully drink in the consequences of following/understanding/witnessing the Taoist principles.

The Way of Chuang Tzu

Among the Taoist luminaries, Chuang Tzu emerges as a guiding star—a philosopher whose insights continue to shine through the ages. In “The Way of Chuang Tzu,” Thomas Merton presents a collection of Chuang Tzu’s writings, offering a gateway into the heart of Taoist thought.

Through Thomas Merton’s careful curation, “The Way of Chuang Tzu” captures the essence of Chuang Tzu’s wisdom, presenting a mosaic of teachings that delve into the mysteries of existence. Merton’s insightful commentary guides readers through Chuang Tzu’s stories and parables, shedding light on the layers of meaning hidden within. Just as Chuang Tzu invites us to explore the boundaries of reality and perception, Merton’s book provides a compass that navigates the depths of Chuang Tzu’s thought, inviting us to journey into the heart of Taoist philosophy.

Within these recommended readings, the legacy of Taoism unfurls. As we immerse ourselves in these texts, we uncover the universal essence that echoes through the ages, offering guidance and illumination on the path to balance, nature, and simplicity.

Here is a link to a full PDF translation: Chuang Tzŭ (Giles) – Wikisource, the free online library

Conclusion: Nurturing Harmony Through Taoism

Nature, simplicity, and balance through Taoism.

Taoism, like the gentle currents of a serene river, flows through the landscape of existence, offering profound insights and practical guidance for those who seek to live in harmony with the rhythm of the universe. At its heart lie key principles that illuminate the path to balance, nature, and simplicity—a path that invites us to rediscover the innate wisdom of our own being.

Balance, Nature, and Simplicity:

Taoism teaches us to embrace the delicate dance of balance, where opposites find unity, and the dynamic interplay of Yin and Yang harmonizes all things. Through this balance, we find the essence of nature—the interconnected web of existence in which we are but a thread. Embracing simplicity, we shed the layers of complexity that obscure our true nature, allowing us to return to the purity and authenticity that dwell within.

Simplify your surroundings and lifestyle. Declutter your physical space, allowing room for tranquility to flourish. Detach from material possessions and attachments that no longer serve you. Embrace the principle of non-attachment by recognizing that true fulfillment arises from within, rather than external sources.

Practical Guidance for Harmonious Living:

Taoism’s practices and stories are not mere abstractions; they offer practical maps for navigating the labyrinth of modern life. From the grace of Tai Chi’s movements to the serenity of meditation, these practices provide tools to cultivate inner balance, vitality, and presence. The stories of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu invite us to explore the landscapes of our own consciousness, inspiring us to embrace the journey of self-discovery with open hearts.

One of the stories from Chuang Tzu, as translated by Lin Yutang, goes like this:

“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”

Chuang Tzu, Butterfly Dream

Invitation to Exploration:

As you traverse the landscape of Taoism, consider these teachings not as distant echoes, but as guides for your own journey. Let the principles of balance, nature, and simplicity illuminate your path, guiding your choices and actions. Embrace the practices that resonate with your spirit—whether through the fluid motions of Tai Chi, the contemplative embrace of meditation, or the wisdom of Taoist texts.

Incorporating Wisdom into Your Life:

As you explore Taoism further, take its wisdom into your heart. Let the Taoist way of being infuse your interactions, decisions, and perceptions. Allow the teachings to inspire your daily life, enabling you to cultivate harmony within yourself and your surroundings. By aligning with the rhythms of the universe, you become a participant in existence, finding solace in the journey and embracing the beauty that unfolds with each step.

Let the ancient wisdom of Taoism be your compass, guiding you toward the center of your own being and the heart of the universe—a journey of balance, nature, and simplicity that leads to the radiant shores of harmony.