It must have happened to you hundreds of times.
There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”
Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.
This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:
First concept: No-Name
The first is the no-name principle. The Tao Te Ching opens:
The tao that can be named
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
What is true and real has no name. Once you step outside of the Earth’s eggshell-thin atmosphere into outer space, you reside in the nameless vast. It’s just there. No name tags, no labels, no logos, no brands, no rank. So anytime you see a name or label, it’s not real. And we’re not just talking about brands and logos like Coke or Mercedes-Benz. We’re talking about nationalities, ethnicities, religions – and even your own name.
Sure, they’re useful for calling people and searching for stuff on Google. But names of countries, languages and people are arbitrary things. You didn’t choose your name or nationality, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get too attached to it. And knowing something’s name doesn’t necessarily help you know it any better.
Every time I visit London I make an effort to visit my personal time machine – also known as the British Museum. One of the pieces I visit is the Stela of Ashurnasirpal II – a stone engraved in cuneiform with the military exploits of a long-deceased Assyrian king. It reads something like this:
I stormed the rebel stronghold of Kinabu and ravaged the land of Nairi. I exacted tribute from Amme-Ba’ali and kicked Bit Adini’s ass – and also that of the Aramaeans, for good measure. I took over Carchemish, then built me a killer palace in Calah with water from the Great River Zab.
Carchemish? Nairi? Zab? To you and me, that just sounds like a whole lot of drivel. You conquered Kinabu? That’s awesome. Probably a good 5000 people in that city! ‘Cause I just came back from a European trip in which I conquered Paris, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and St Petersburg, each of which kick Kinabu’s ass 1000 times, thank you very much.
Except that 3000 years from now, someone’s going to look at some long-defunct sign saying ‘London Olympics 2012’ or ‘New York’ or ‘East Crapville’ and say, “My, such quaint and unpronounceable names they had! How strange that they could have thought they were cool for living and visiting there.”
Buddhism has a parallel concept called anatta, or no self. The idea here is that since everything in the universe is in flux – the ocean, the coffee table and your bank account – then nothing has a fixed identity. Especially you. So don’t get attached to any notion of identity.
Names. Ephemeral things. Best to take them less seriously.
Second concept: Complementarity
Every coin you’ve ever seen is two-sided. You can’t have a one-sided coin. Every mountain casts a shadow. What goes up must come down. When you pay attention, you’ll notice that there’s a certain complementarity to the world. As the Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching puts it:
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
This runs pretty deep everywhere in nature. If every negatively-charged electron weren’t balanced by a positively-charged proton, the whole world would fly apart and disintegrate instantly. For every north pole of a magnet, there is a complementary south pole. Magnetic monopoles, famously, do not exist. (And if you want to get really technical, in the Standard Model of particle physics, every particle has a corresponding anti-particle with same mass and opposite charge.)
Taoism has a name for these complementary aspects of nature: yin and yang. Yin is the feminine aspect, or that which receives, and yang is the masculine aspect, or that which projects or directs. Yin is being; yang is doing. Yin is like water; yang is like fire.
When you start looking at the world this way, you notice the yin and yang in everything. For every ebb there is a flow; for every up there is a down; for every light there is shadow. Essentially, the fundamental structure of the universe says that it’s not only unnatural but impossible to have everything be up (or down) all the time. The existence of a peak implies the existence of a valley.
As far as human relations go, the concept of yin-yang duality allows you to better see the dance between masculine and feminine energies. Everybody has both kinds of energy, with women possessing predominantly feminine essence while men being mostly masculine. Relationships work better when there is energy flow between partners: one being the feminine pole and the other the masculine. Maintain your predominant energy most of the time while remaining aware of the subtle shifts in energy in yourself and your partner requiring that switch back and forth between them. Sometimes you give; sometimes you receive.
Third concept: Effortless Flow
The third and perhaps best-known Taoist concept is that of effortless (or minimized-effort) flow. There is a natural way to the world – the Tao (literally, ‘way’). It’s a path of least resistance. When you’re with the Tao, things are easy. It’s like swimming with a river’s current. When you’re in opposition to the Tao, difficulty arises – like swimming against the current.
We always know intuitively when we’re experiencing struggle and when we’re experiencing flow. And yet we sometimes ignore that message, usually to our detriment. The way to get into the flow of the Tao is to stop all thought and belief. To flow with the Tao, you want to observe the world unfolding around you so you can respond to it. Thought and belief instead impose a model of how the world should be instead of seeing the world as it is. Plans, agendas, ambitions, creeds, religions, ethnic prejudices – these are the various disguises of counterproductive thoughts & beliefs. From Chapter 20:
Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value, avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous indeed. You may have noticed that a strong thread of lightheartedness, humor and flexibility weaves throughout all of these concepts. And if you were to adopt a little bit of those as a daily practice, you’ll have no choice but to have a healthier, happier life in the long run.
So that was the super-abbreviated, condensed, neutron-star compact version of Taoism. Thousands of volumes have been written on this stuff, so for further exploration, I recommend:
The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. My gateway drugs to Taoist thought. As timeless as the Tao Te Ching itself.
What is Tao? by Alan Watts. Really, really good. Actually, just buy everything Alan Watts ever wrote. If you’re going to get only one book on this list, make it this one.
All the best, AB