An Introduction to Daoist Philosophy

(Originally published as a two part article for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

My pursuit of a deeper understanding of Chinese medicine has led me to an exploration of  Chinese culture.  And the study of Chinese culture has led me to Daoism, Confucianism, and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, probably the three most influential institutions of Chinese history.  Of these, my favorite, and the one with the greatest impact on Chinese medicine, is Daoism.  (You may know it by its older spelling, Taoism.)

Daoism is a philosophy based on aligning one’s life with the Dao or Way.  Dao is the origin of all things, the thread that ties everything together, the natural way, the order of the universe.  It is the flow of life – which we can abide by for an easy ride, or resist for a less easy ride.  The first and most famous book on Daoism, the Dao De Jing (written about 500 BCE), starts with the line, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao.”  The Dao De Jing (DDJ) emphasizes that when we speak of the Dao, when we reduce it to words, we lose something of its essence.  Its essence cannot be understood through mental analysis, it must be lived.

Westerners have been presented with translations of Daoist texts without much of the cultural context, including Daoist ritual.  Purists might argue that we think of Daoism as something different than it is in China.  This may be the case, but it appears that the simplicity of Daoist philosophy is exactly what Westerners need.  And many Westerners already have a religion, or, in any event, have little interest in adopting the ritual parts of Daoism.  We have recently entered an age in which global connectedness has made it possible for us to explore a great variety of world cultures and practices.  Plus, we have the profound opportunity to admire and/or adopt any practice that brings richness, clarity, or peace to our lives.  Daoist philosophy does not contradict any religious practice – you could be a Jewish Daoist, a Christian Daoist, a Muslim Daoist, or just a person who likes Daoism, no label required.

I hope to not do Daoism a huge disservice by compressing it into a tiny nutshell, but I am going to try to convey some of the wisdom of this path in the next few newsletters.  We will start with Jian (“jee-ehn”), one of the three “treasures” of Daoism.  Jian is translated as simplicity or frugality.  Simplicity is kind of the antithesis of the trend in the West (and now the East also), where we have a strong drive toward complexity and accumulation of material stuff.  We tend to believe we need special tools and scientific theories to understand the world.  Living with the Dao doesn’t mean you need to get rid of all your stuff, but if you’re juggling a lot of balls you’re in for a bigger challenge.  Some unknown wise person said, “The Truth is simple!  If it were complicated, everyone would get it.”

Chapter forty-eight of the DDJ starts, “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired.  In the pursuit of the Dao, every day something is dropped.”  Frugality isn’t just a matter of being economical with money.  It means curtailing useless expenditures of energy.  It means not doing more than what is needed to make our lives work.  Worry would be a good example of a useless expenditure of energy – it never yields a “return.”

We seek a lot of things: answers, peace, enlightenment, love, a connection to God.  Part of the practice of Jian is recognizing that it would not be frugal to look outside ourselves for these things if they are already within us.  Dao, like water, takes the simplest path –  the path of least resistance.  Sometimes Jian means taking a break from focusing on all the junk we pile onto our natural state of consciousness: to-do lists, worries, desires, etc.  In the quiet that is beneath this noise, we find that the answers, the love, and God are already here.  But don’t take my word for it.  I am speaking of the Dao, so the truth of it has been colored by my interpretations.  See for yourself.

Part Two

In our last newsletter, I introduced some of the basics of Daoism, including the concept of Jian – simplicity.  Simplicity is the essence of Daoist philosophy.  The foundation of this simplicity is the understanding that our most natural, unadulterated state is one of peace, love, openness, and spontaneity.  This state is called Pu – the uncarved block.

Most humans live in this state as small children.  But gradually our social conditioning and mental-emotional patterns begin to manipulate our experience of life.  Rather than being immersed in the experience of each moment, we become immersed in our thoughts, memories, anxieties, and analyses about our experiences.  Eventually we lose touch with our natural state.  We may think, “How can I get back to that carefree place?”  Deep inside, we have always known the answer to this question.  The short answer is, “Let yourself live in that carefree state.”

In contrast to the way most of us live, getting back to the uncarved block is much less mental work than we’re accustomed to.  We don’t have to do any manipulation in order for life to be peaceful and loving.  Unfortunately, despite how little doing is required, for most people this shift is quite difficult, because old habits die hard.  The way we get back to the uncarved state is an approach called Wu Wei.

Wu Wei means “without doing” or “without effort.”  It is also referred to as Wei Wu Wei – doing without doing, or acting without effort.  It is a hard concept for the mind to grasp.  The mind likes to chew on new ideas until it figures them out.  But practicing Wu Wei is not a mental exercise.  In fact, it is usually easiest to understand when the mind is out of the way.

Most people have had an experience of Wei Wu Wei while engaged in some athletic activity, playing music, dancing, or doing a project we enjoy.  We could be cycling up a mountain, sweating gallons, but we have the feeling we are not actually doing the action.  The pedaling is being done and we are just along for the ride.  We might feel music moving through us as our fingers glide over the keys of a piano, and it’s as if we’re just a conduit for a stream of creative energy.  Returning to our natural state means inviting this effortlessness into all areas of our lives.

In fact, work and relaxation are not mutually exclusive.  According to my teacher, Sifu Fong, this principle – to simultaneously work and relax – is the foundation of tai ji quan (tai chi).  Most people are familiar with tai ji quan’s serene and graceful movements.  But not everyone knows that accompanying this state of serenity is a great deal of internal work.  The most demanding workouts of my life have been tai ji quan classes.  Yet to an observer, this balance of work and relaxation, the embodiment of Wu Wei, is expressed as beautifully fluid movement.  Wu Wei is often described as being like water.  Living it is a matter of allowing ourselves, like a river, to be guided by the contours and trajectories of life with minimal resistance.  Water is formless and yielding, yet it has the power to cut canyons into rock.

“Without effort,” is essentially about relinquishing the habit of “efforting” and controlling our experience.  “Unclenching” around life.  Practicing Wu Wei does not mean we have to quit our job and sit around on the couch all day.  If Wu Wei prompts us to quit anything, it’s our attachment to being the center of our own attention.  Much of our stress comes from our focus on ourselves as the doer and controller of our life.  We tend to think, “I’m the one doing this.  I get credit if it’s good.  I get punished if it’s bad.  I carry the burden of it.  I need to live life the right way.  Me, me, me.”  In Wu Wei we let life live itself through us.

If you wish to try this practice, here is my recommendation.  Choose a short period of time at the beginning – one  to several hours.  During this period, your main task is see everything as an opportunity to let go.  While you go about your routine, see if you can broaden your perspective so that you witness how you interact with the world.  Imagine that, like water, you are able to soften yourself and choose the path of least resistance.


Copyright 2008 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.