Taoism is an ancient system of looking at the world that can bring more balance and harmony to our modern lives.
It is a way of applying basic principles to different areas of our life, to help create better outcomes and more contentment. There are many different interpretations of taoism, however, in this article, we are focusing on philosophical taoism.
The roots of this philosophy extend back beyond dogma and ritual, to one person observing, contemplating and making connections between what occurs in nature and the experience of human life. It is a natural empirical science in the sense that we are curious about finding the root cause of disease versus treating symptoms. It is an artistic way of approaching health and happiness that has helped many people. The basic framework encourages us to begin trusting the natural reflexes of our body.
Traditional taoist practitioners were looking for a way to be more in touch with the natural world, and its cycles. This approach emphasized witnessing, asking questions and listening to the state of a patient. They were aware that there could be a myriad of reasons for one particular symptom, that each of us is unique—why certain disease and conditions appear will be different for every person.
While 10 different people may present with a headache, there could be hundreds of different conditions that caused the headache.
The Taoists had a few guiding questions which they would use to help them inquire into the human experience:
What are the causes of human suffering? (It is important to note that this question was not intended in the slightly dogmatic heavy/savior sense. It was coming from a place of curiosity.)
What are the ways in which we are wasting our energy, time, and resources?
How can we use our life and energy efficiently and effectively?
How can we harmonize our thoughts and actions with the natural world?
After these questions, there are four guiding axioms that are based on our relationship with the natural world. Each one deserves considerable depth, and investigation. However, it helps to just be aware of them, familiarize ourselves with them and notice how they are working in our lives or if they are completely absent.
1. The space to trust nature and trust the body
This seems self-evident, however, are we really encouraged to trust and listen to our bodies through our educational and health system? Are the activities we learn helping us develop a deeper sense of the body/mind connection? Or are they taking us farther and farther away from our experience and instinct? Do the activities we practice and perform develop more questions, or do they solidify ways of doing things that are inflexible and possibly (over-time) damaging to our health?
2. The importance and practice of cultivating yin
So much in our culture is geared toward doing, succeeding, “killing it,” making more whether it is money or of ourselves. This from the taoist perspective, these actions are considered yang and are based on outwards and external movement.
How often do we really take the time to nourish the inner experience? How often do we slow down, reflect, and just enjoy “being” without having to do anything. Practices like meditation, qigong, and mindfulness can help us slow down, so that when we do need to act, move in the world, and create, we have a deeper and more valuable reservoir of energy and balance to draw from.
3. The process of unlearning to learn
Our education system tends to emphasis the absorption of facts and knowledge. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom, nor does it inherently lead one to introspection and understanding one’s self—the internalized mechanism that guides what we do. Learning to unlearn is basically having the ability to throw out what we think we know, in order to adopt a way of being that evolves us and creates different outcomes both in how we relate to others and in our habits and actions.
4. Being absent as a way to be present
The principle sounds like an escape at first, but it often referred to as developing “witness-consciousness.”
This means that, rather than trying to be something, we just notice how we are in the midst of meditation and our lives. When we can remove ourselves from drama, we can become more aware and simultaneously access intentionality.
Intentionality is a simple way to guide your consciousness in particular directions that serve one’s growth and purpose in any endeavor. Catalyzing intention in the midst of everything that appears outside of us, can help us stay grounded, clear, and much more present. We can utilize this internally and externally, being a witness to the madness inside our own heads, and similarly bringing presence to interpersonal or global chaos. No matter what arises, we are master at being in our own center.
These principles aren’t meant to be rigidly applied, or thought of as rules. They are simple ways to be more conscious and therefore more content with our lives. Health in the Taoist perspective, comes from embodying and being in touch with our true nature.
Conversely, disease, is thought to arise from not honoring who we are. Many TCM practitioners and even medical doctors acknowledge the psycho-somatic aspect to illness—we can make ourselves sick simply by not being aware of how we interact with the world.
When we can give ourselves the space and time for compassionate care as we navigate what is authentically correct for us, we can create lasting health, happiness, and vitality.
One simple way to embody this, is to slow down, and observe our cycles and the cycles within a month, season, or year. Try taking a few minutes out of your day to notice, notice the rising and falling of your breath, notice the world around you, and notice your relationship to the world around you. Does anything shift? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
It takes time to trust our inner guide. However, the more we attune ourselves to this rich resource, we build a stronger connection. All practices, questions and axioms are meant to help us get in touch with that part of us that already knows what we need, already knows so much more than we give ourselves credit for.
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Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: shawncampbell at Flickr