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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Walking with the flow of Tao in a modern world

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Walking with the flow of Tao in a modern world

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Read or download this essay as a PDF file at: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4eNv8KtePyKSVRLUURhMFdlWkE/edit?usp=sharing

Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters


Walking with the flow of Tao in a modern world


The Chinese character for Tao combines two signs: head and foot. It reflects the concept of walking consciously. It is simply “the way” and implies that the walker is in conscious harmony with the existing order of things. His/her actions are intentionally harmonious rather than in conflict or opposition to what is. The way of Tao tends to rely more on sensitized intuition rather than reasoning and logic.

The practical application of Tao-living leads to competences that Westerners would consider “giftedness.” For instance, an archer living with Tao would not attempt to mentally calculate trajectories and influences of a cross breeze, but would experience a sense of fullness with his environment, visualizing the arrow’s destination. He would release his arrow toward the target when the moment and position seemed right. Skilled basketball players (or golfers, etc.) can have the same reflexes for making good shots or right moves. Many of us feel the same sense of effortlessness while driving in traffic.

The research psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a similar state of mind that he calls “flow.” Flow may occur while
a person is fully engaged in a familiar but challenging activity. In this state, the person feels like they are functioning efficiently “on automatic.” They may lose their sense of elapsed time. They respond reflexively to what arises and perform at levels that would otherwise be unexpectedly high.

Emptiness (wu) is a state of mind that is clear of personal agendas and distracting thoughts. Like perfect silence allowing the perception of very slight sounds, a quiet mind allows perception of the nature and state of the universe and our environment. Emptiness also describes a freedom from desires, which are inherently limiting. The Tao-Te Ching gives an example of keeping to an unfavorable contract rather than insisting on changes that might produce hard feelings:
“Therefore the wise person keeps the left-hand portion (obligation) of a contract
And does not blame the other party.
Virtuous people attend to their left-hand portions,
While those without virtue attend to other people’s mistakes.”
Non-doing (wu-wei) was described by Alan Watts as “what we mean by going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer” (Watts 76). It is exemplified in the martial art of Aikido, where the practitioner moves with the energy of his attacker instead of forcibly resisting. As an example, driving in the oncoming lane of traffic opposes Tao.

Non-doing is actually a very powerful way of life. Moving water is often used to illustrate non-doing. Water will divert around obstacles, finding the easiest, most natural path available. At the same time, it consumes and moves the material in its path, making the way clearer as it goes. The Tao-Te Ching describes it this way:
“There is nothing softer and weaker than water,
And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things…
All the world knows that the weak overcomes the strong and the soft overcomes the hard.”
Non-being describes a perception that is free of subject/object judgments. It understands that everything exists as a unified whole. As the black and white swirls and dots of the yin/yang symbol illustrate, each extreme is intertwined with the other and, in fact, includes the other.  This is the Tao, the complete sameness of all things. The Tao-Te Ching seems to acknowledge that while experiencing non-being, we still live in the world and experience real outcomes:
“Therefore, let there always be non-being, so we may see their subtlety,
And let there always be being, so we may see their outcome.
The Two are the same,
But after they are produced, they have different names.”
For a Daoist, it is virtuous to live in harmony with Tao. This includes utilizing meditative techniques or controlled breathing to circulate energy in the body, or using herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine to keep the five elements in balance.

In the Tao-Te Ching, actions that are in harmony are often described as “virtuous.” On the other hand, virtue implies goodness, which, in Tao is balanced by and incorporated within non-goodness. This leads one to avoid judging whether specific actions are virtuous or not.

Tao is everything and nothing, it cannot be described. Every attempt to say that Tao is one thing requires that one also say that it is the opposite – and possibly follow up with the assertion that it is neither, just for good measure. For instance, Tao is beyond even permanence and impermanence. It seems simultaneously contradictory and complementary. No amount of explaining will describe Tao; you have to just “get it.” This conundrum is pointed out in the Tao-Te Ching by:
“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

References Cited

Note:   Quotations from the Tao-Te Ching are attributed to Lao-tzu and may be extracted from Tao-Te Ching, trans. Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1963

Watts, Alan. Tao: The Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, 1977