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What is the tao? As in other mystical literature, the Tao Te Ching (the principal text of Taoism) claims that it's ideal is not definable or describable: "The tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name." Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, we might say that the tao is "spirit" or "the underlying principle of life" or "the way of the universe." Although we cannot define the tao intellectually, we can experience it intuitively.
We can study the tao. This is not a self-conscious type of practice with techniques and goals; instead, we learn to relax into the course of events, and we become more aware of our place in those events (while paradoxically becoming less aware of ourselves as being separate from the events themselves). As we discover ourselves within the tao, we find a type of inner guidance which presents us with an ever-changing role within the larger drama of life. Until we have an intuitive awareness of the tao, we can explore clues from the intellectual and metaphorical explanations:
- We follow the promptings of our natural self. Taoism honors simplicity, ordinariness, self-acceptance, humility, and unsophistication; it rejects the traditionally western values of logic, effort, ambition, goals, and self-improvement -- all of which are viewed as futile, self-conscious counterfeits of our innate qualities and activities: "Virtue comes after loss of the Way, humanity comes after loss of virtue, duty comes after loss of humanity, courtesy comes after loss of duty." In other words, when we lose contact with spirit, we try to prop up ourselves with concepts of spirituality, and then we manipulate our behavior to try to conform to those concepts; then, as we identify ourselves with this fabricated self, we become even farther removed from our true spiritual nature. Taoism offers relief from the pressures of society; we can be ourselves, instead of striving to be more than that. Further, Taoism offers a vision of a different kind of society in which people are at peace with themselves, and therefore they exhibit an organic morality because they do not fight to accumulate the goods and qualities which might otherwise be judged especially important: "Not exalting cleverness causes the people not to contend." Rather than being a passive viewpoint, this is a vibrant responsiveness to the impulses of life; if we look for passivity, we find it instead in the sluggish, encrusted intellectualizing which we employ in our mimicking of life through possessions, social positioning, and vain creations. Wu-wei, the Taoist doctrine of "non-doing," does not mean that we do not act, but rather that our actions are intuitive, wholistic outgrowths of the needs of the moment such that we have a sense that we are indeed "not doing" but instead that life is doing itself through us -- without our self-monitoring, personal exertion or pressure, or pre-planned scheme or intent.
- We study the example of nature. The Tao Te Ching uses many metaphors from nature; nature exemplifies a way of being which is not forced or externally regulated. Primarily, the book examines water, whose dynamic is analogous to that of the tao:
- Water moves in a non-linear fashion (in contrast to the course of the mind's logic, which can be viewed as a straight line on a predictable course).
- Water assures its forward motion by non-confrontationally seeking paths of least resistance; it is willing to go around or over or under its barriers (e.g., rocks and low-hanging tree-branches).
- Water has no objectives which could be crystallized into words; instead, it simply participates in a process in-the-moment (i.e., flowing).
- Water exemplifies humility as it allows gravity to draw it toward the lowest level, but it is not degraded by doing so.
- Water displays surrender as it generally concurs with the shape of the river and the stones. Having no rigid form of its own, water adapts itself to the contour of its container without betraying its nature.
- Despite all of these non-forceful qualities, water gradually wears down all blockages in its path, and it achieves its end.
The tao is not reducible to a formula. From those descriptions, we might believe that we can know the tao through (1) a psychological self-acceptance, (2) a behavioral imitation of nature, and (3) an amiable cooperation with the life around us. We might conclude that the tao is naturalness, and that we ought to discard that which is unnatural. However, a text titled the Chung Yung shatters these easy answers by saying, "The Tao is that from which one cannot deviate; that from which one can deviate is not the Tao." Alan Watts said, "This sentence ... suggests that there is no analogy between Tao and the Western ideas of God and of divine or natural law, which can be obeyed or disobeyed. The saying is a hard one, because both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu speak of forced actions which are at variance with the Tao. ... You may imagine that you are outside, or separate from, the Tao and thus able to follow it or not follow; but this very imagination is itself within the stream, for there is no way other than the way. Willy-nilly, we are it and go with it. From a strictly logical point of view, this means nothing and gives us no information. Tao is just a name for whatever happens, or, as Lao-tzu put it, 'The Tao in principle is what happens of itself [tzu-jan].'" (From Tao: The Watercourse Way. Copyright 1975 by Mary Jane Yates Watts.) In other words, sometimes it is natural for us to be unnatural; sometimes it is harmonious for us to be inharmonious; sometimes it is balanced for us to be unbalanced; it is all a part of life.