When I first read about Taoism in my early twenties it struck a chord within me that changed my pathway. Which is fitting because Taoism may be translated as ‘the Way’. And it was
English writer, speaker and rascal Alan Watts who first turned me onto the concepts of ‘the Way’ and Taoism. But, Taoism, in its essence -which is up for everyone’s individual interpretation- is about beyond all concept. It is easier to speak about Taoism in the negative, and say that it is not a doctrine, or religion, and there is no book you can read for which you can write down its precepts. One of the forefathers of what we call Taoism was Lao Tzu, and his famous quote from the Tao Te Ching expresses this perfectly, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” What Taoism is, Is a finger pointing at the moon, to use a common Zen saying which carries the spirit of Taoism.
The essence of Taoism is that it is that which cannot be known. By never saying what the Tao is, it never becomes weighed down by any concept or limited in any way. To explore Taoism is not to understand some philosophy, but rather, it is to find one’s own way. So then, when I first read about Taoism, it struck a cord not because it taught me something I did not already know, rather, it reminded me of the deepest truth of my own being.
The writings on Taoism is more closely related to poetry than prose. Prose says one things as a direct pointing. Poetry says one thing, but is open to interpretation and emotion. Understanding the polarity here is important, and is also why Taoism is associated with the well-known symbol yin-yang.
Yang deals with the known. It is associated with light, form, masculine energy, out-ward movement, and linearity.
Yin deals with the unknown. It is associated with darkness, formlessness, feminine energy, in-ward movement, and spontaneity.
And our entire world is a dynamic dance of yin and yang forces combining in different ways. Individuals, societies and religions can either be towards the polarity or more towards a harmony in the middle. Life is energy is motion, and this dynamic dance between yin and yang is always playing out as time expands and contracts.
Why is this important for the modern mind?
I’m speaking most directly to Western Culture as I write this article. Western Culture has developed in such a way over the last few hundred years so as to be dominant yang. The dominant religion has been Christianity, which is a yang dominant religion, it speaks of the positive, it deals with light, and the known, the head figure is masculine, it’s teachings and work is about action and spreading the word (out-ward moving more so than inward moving (meditation)). There is much more I could explore on why Christianity is yang dominant, though I hope the reader can make this connection for themselves. It’s best to understand what a yang religion is by contrasting yin dominant religion. And it’s kind of confusing because yin religions, are not ‘true’ religions. Taoism or Zen is a yin dominant ‘religion’. They represent the opposite polarity, they often don’t have a central ‘god or supreme ruler of the universe’, they typically deal more with the great mystery and not trying to understand it’s laws, are more connected with the earth rather than heaven (heaven is yang, earth is yin), and their practices are often inward – such as meditation or contemplation. Also, there is much more humour, dancing, and sex in yin religions, whereas the more dominant the yang is in the religion, the more serious and sexless it becomes.
I mention they typically don’t have certain qualities because like the yin and yang symbol, most religions unless they are their most fundamental and in their polarity are a mix of yin and yang. Understanding dominance is important, just as we have a right and left brain which analyse and interpret data different, but yet functions we perform are a synthesis of both brain hemispheres depending on how balanced we are between our hemispheres.
Brain hemispheres are important so let’s explore that next. Your left brain hemisphere is more highly correlated with logic, reasoning, rule, prose language, and linearity. Whereas the right brain is more highly associated with art, metaphor, feeling and body sense, and non-linearity. Once again, we find this polarity between yin (right brain) and yang (left brain).
So then, I have thus established the roots of our religious background is yang dominant. But, it’s not just the underlying theological beliefs of the dominant majority is yang. Goal orientation and work over the care freedom to play is yang. Square buildings and concrete in cities are yang over the natural and curvy spaces and integration of the natural world intermixed in a city which is yin. Yang is doing, yin is just being. Yang is hierarchical systems (governments and corporations), yin is ‘ruled’ as nature is ruled, as a ecosystem where all parts are playing a role in the whole. Once more I could develop this division of polarities further, but I feel that suffices.
The modern West is yang dominant and this is represented both in our society and culture, and in our brains + nervous system and how most people interphase with reality. Just to offer an example of a more yin dominant place on our planet, I think of Bali. Cars don’t travel in straight lines on the road, art and culture everywhere, with the integration of nature and wild animals in the streets are abudnant. Though Bali is a changing landscape as more expats come in, often with more yang ways…which is no surprise because historically and commonly yang people are the doers, and they are the go-getters who will find opportunities in other countries move in and accomplish goals.
Yin and yang is not about which is better or worse. In many ways it asks we rise above duality itself and see beyond right and wrong, better or worse. The way of Taoism offers an antidote to the modern mind by encouraging authenticity. It is through allowing naturalness that Taoism is good medicine. Because our global situation, namely, our poor relationship with mother earth and her resources, our over-packed cities, our corrupt governments and certain corporations, our constant anxiety and need to achieve and expand faster and move faster, and learn faster, Is all yang energy in action. So then, the natural balance is to develop a more yin way of being in the world.
Now then, becoming more yin is actually easy, because it involves letting go and surrendering into what is. And…..yet, if your reading this and you’ve tried meditation or someone has ever told you to just ‘take a deep breath’ while your angry, you know that surrendering is not always easy. So there is a paradox here, and Taoism loves paradox because it is the way of the great mystery.
The mind of Tao, is the mind of nature. To learn the Tao, we learn not from nature, but we remember that we are nature.
When I first heard about Taoism I was in my early twenties studying in university. No joke, I was so inspired by the ideas of Taoism I went to my university dean and dropped out. I told him and my parents I was going to find my own way! They weren’t so inspired. And neither was the woman I was dating. She showed up at my place and my heart didn’t want to leave her. So between her, my parents, and the dean and many teachers protesting, I stayed. Which I could view as a failed attempt at following my higher calling (because I would go on to struggle with my university debt and leaving the career I spent years studying for). But, that would be a yang response, when life has no goal, there is no right or wrong way to go about it. And yet, what was evolving was my capacity to learn to listen to my intuitive guidance (yin). I did not, at the time, have enough confidence to follow it then, but years later I would, which has led me to become the breathworker, shamanic qigong, and yoga teacher I am today. But, honestly, it does not matter what I do, those who understand the way, can find the truth of existence in all things, be in the Bible, or Alice in Wonderland to paraphrase Alan Watts.
My way involved a period of remembering my true nature. Let me explain true nature this way, it is the naturalness and spontaneity of a child. Now I know some children have early childhood trauma and loose this purity quite quickly. Yet, we all come into this world with a naturalness. This is our True Nature, and what develops is layers of acquired personality and conditioning. The faulty masking and developing of conditioning runs deep in the neural circuitry on the bodymind. Nature, dance, qigong, and yoga are excellent tools to releasing this karmic burdening. Though I should mention, yoga and dance can be quite yang depending on how one practices. Yin styles of yoga are one’s that focus more on feeling and fluidity, rather than form and goals. The yin is feminine, in its polarity the body has a capacity to soften and flow. And when there is a beautiful marriage within an individual, they can become soft and hard, like a martial artist who is both flexible and strong.
How to create the perfect marriage of yin and yang? Explore the polarities! Which is to know life in its fullness. Neither excessively resisting or choosing, being open to move with the wind and allow life to guide. This softening of the will and desire for achievement creates a inner state of harmony within the individual is medicine for the modern mind. It’s an internal revolution of in-action that leads to harmonious action. It is a civil uprising that happens within the individual without war or protest. This way of Tao is not for everyone, but the spirit of yin has much medicine to offer our society, which if we persist on our current trajectory is headed for burn out.
How to live with greater ease and grace? Learn to balance your breathing, which is the primary driver of your body’s yin and yang rhythms of harmony. And learn to balance your body with Qigong and Yoga, martial arts, and dance. Remember, the way of Tao is the way of nature, be outside and learn to listen. The Tao teaches intuitively and without words. It is the sound of one hand clapping, and there is no right or wrong way. The Tao offers us a chance to live our life in the great mystery, instead of in control. And in giving up control, one realizes they never had it anyway, as with security! The Tao teaches surrender, and I’ll share a little secret…we all die. And death is the great mystery, so then, want to prepare for death? Live life in the face of the great mystery, and you will meet her well.
The way of the Tao cannot be known. And yet, like love, which also cannot be comprehended, it is available for us to explore and dissolve into. For you can only know the Tao and love if your willing to fully surrender. It is a jump…into the beyond, it is not for the hesitant, it is for the bold who wish to live totally.
See you on the other side wild ones.