Taoism: The Philosophy of Flow
Your alarm rings, waking you up from an unrestful sleep. You stretch across the bed and tap your phone to silence the disturbing noise. You’re tempted to pick it up and see what’s going on in the world, but you try really hard to stay away from it, reminded of all the videos you’ve watched and podcasts you’ve listened to that preach the importance of a healthy morning routine. Instead, you lay in bed, hoping for a few more minutes of bliss. You try to relax, to remember the strange dream you had and the fun evening the night before.
But instead of your eyes resting half-closed, your brain turns on. You may not be feeding your anxiety with social media or emails, but a different type of worry sets in. A worry far greater than a project update request from your boss or a vacation post from your friend that makes you jealous. It’s a feeling of unrest. A reminder that things aren’t quite right. Staring at the ceiling, you ask yourself: When will this feeling end? When will I finally have peace in my life?
Most of us on some level are chasing this feeling of peace. We seek out expensive therapists, read self-help books, listen to happiness and wellness gurus. We’re searching for answers that would hopefully help make us better, more connected, more tranquil human beings. But what if it’s simpler than all that? What if the endless availability of tools for self-improvement has taken us away from the greatest teacher of all? Nature. By nature, I don’t just mean trees, animals and oceans. I’m talking about flow, harmony and peace.
These are the principles of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism, also known as Taoism. Daoism views the ideal human existence as one that relates strictly to nature and the Universe. It stresses that to truly live well, we must be in harmony with nature, not fight it. Daoists strive to find the simplest form of all things. The natural clay that gathers on a cliffside rather than the sculpture it can be molded into, or the bark of a tree rather than the block of wood it becomes.
The origins of Daoism date back to 6th century BCE and began with a figure named Laozi. Laozi was a Chinese philosopher who, some believe, was one of Confucius’s early teachers - a name you’re perhaps more familiar with. Confucius founded the other reigning philosophical belief in China, Confucianism. But Laozi had a different approach than the morality and human connection-based ideas of Confucianism.
The story goes that Laozi decided to leave China because the Zhou dynasty was in decline. On his way out of the country, he was stopped by a guard who begged him to leave behind his teachings. And so the Laozi, the first Daoist text, was born. The caveat to all of this is there is no concrete proof that Laozi ever actually existed, but as with all ancient legends, the factuality of the story is less important than the lessons it teaches us. Because whether or not Laozi existed as a person, the lessons that Daoism teaches still leads many to a peaceful and meaningful life.
According to the Laozi, the Dao, or way of nature, refers to the energies and vibrations of natural matter. And how we connect to and are affected by those energies and vibrations is the practice of Daoism. So how do we find Dao? And, more importantly, is finding Dao the key to a peaceful life?
Let’s look at one of the main and perhaps most popularized symbols of Daoism, the yin yang. You’ve seen it on tapestries, in mediocre tattoos, in the doodles of middle school notebooks. Black and white teardrop shapes hugging each other, forming a simple, eternal circle.
The white teardrop represents the yang. Yang energy is associated with masculinity, activity, light and penetration. It is the jutting of mountains piercing high up into the clouds and exerting their dominance over the valleys below. It is the breath of a dragon, burning through everything in its path. The black teardrop represents the yin. In opposition to the yang, yin is feminine, passive, and dark. It absorbs the light that the yang gives off. It is the rivers and streams that run at the base of the mountain range, accepting the water that melts down the slopes. The slow, slinking movements of a tiger, much more patient and gentle.
These contrasting energies are present in us at all times. The yang helps us get us out of bed, craves the adrenaline of a hard workout and lights us up when we’re out to dinner with friends. Yin, on the other hand, isn’t quite as easy to detect, subtly guiding us inward, to the softer side of ourselves. It’s the relief of closing our eyes when we’re tired or the calm passivity of listening to our friend tell a story. But, look at this symbol closely and you would realize that the yin and yang are not wholly separate from one another. Each side is dotted with the opposite color, reminding us that everything contains the seed of its opposite. The crest of a wave – the yang – contains the calm energy of the water, while the crash of the wave – the yin – only exists in contrast to the crest that preceded it. The yang starts the action. The yin receives it.
This balance of energies is all around us, even in something as simple as throwing a ball. When you throw a ball, yang is the energy behind the ball traveling through the air. On the other hand, literally, the person receiving the ball expresses yin energy. The yang finds its completion in the yin energy. So when we ask, How can I find peace in my life?
According to Daoism, peace comes from accepting the harmony between the yin and the yang. Feeling your internal wave crest, and then your crash. Experiencing life as a ball thrown, and allowing yourself to be caught. In Daoism, the higher power is not an all-knowing, benevolent figure, but rather the yin and yang of nature that we should all strive to align with. In paying attention to the natural rhythms of our life, of the world around us and of the Universe we live in, we can learn to adhere to those rhythms. At least, that’s how Laozi wanted us to live. To be in harmony with the natural way of things in order to find the peace and meaning we are all so desperately seeking. To believe in the balancing forces of yin and yang and not fight against it.
In Daoism, fighting nature has consequences. Complications in life are a direct result of us not letting Dao guide us. If we attempt to contrive what nature is putting before us, we knock our rhythms off course. Our yin and yang lose their harmony and without that harmony, there is no outcome other than violence, aggression or struggle. And none of us want that, do we?
Maybe. But maybe not. Because while living a life according to Daoism might create the traditional sense of peace and tranquility, we cannot deny the fact that sometimes there are benefits to knocking the natural way of things off course, to breaking the status quo. Daoism thinks of the yin yang as an inherent balance that cannot be interrupted. And, if it is, all hell breaks loose. But is that always the case?
Let’s go back to our ball. It’s thrown – filled with yang energy – but this time, it’s intercepted and its yin energy diverted. Or perhaps it’s not caught at all and continues to ricochet off the bleachers and rafters of a stadium. In that moment, fans start yelling, the faces of kids light up, announcers go wild. As the natural harmony of the ball is interrupted, excitement ensues. Something new, something different. Yes, it might be dangerous and maybe even scary, but it is also what often leads to innovation and change. The struggle that comes from us rejecting the natural way of things, from stepping outside the boundaries of what nature has to offer, is what motivates giant leaps forward.
If humanity stayed content with the hands nature dealt us, we would have never planted a seed in the ground, and society as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. The truth is that the desire for more has given us gifts that Laozi and his peers could never dream of. We’ve gone to space, cured diseases, created art and built financial systems and governments out of nothing. While Daoism might advise us to steer clear of these advancements, very few of us could ever flat-out reject them. Can you imagine what our lives would look like if we did? If we truly lived by the yin yang, respecting the inherent balance of nature and not seeking out anything beyond it? We might enjoy the harmonious existence that Daoists strive for. We might slow down and feel a sense of relief that is seemingly impossible in our fast-paced world. But would we truly be happy? Would we thrive as a species?
But perhaps, there is a balance to be had. There is only so far a wave can go before it must come crashing down. And sadly, it seems our society keeps pushing that boundary forward. Today, we are taught to assert ourselves and take control of our own destiny. We learn the importance of rituals and routines like not looking at our phones in the morning. These repeated habits hold us accountable and offer structure to our lives. We think they’re going to help us attain that peace. We manufacture an environment in which we are led to believe we can thrive. But none of this is living our lives according to Dao.
All of these actions – ritual, structure, assertiveness – are yang energy without much balance. They define a life filled with action and agency. A wave that keeps cresting, growing larger and larger like the infamous 100-foot waves. But have you ever wondered why those waves are called rogue, freak or killer waves? It’s because they are dangerous, and only a handful of people on the planet can ride them without seriously harming themselves. When our waves start to become larger than we can control, perhaps it’s time to calm down. To find the yin. To respect Dao.
Maybe then we might finally be able to find peace. But what even is peace? For some like Laozi, peace meant accepting and conforming to the yin yang, the interdependence of nature. But for others, to lose that sense of agency feels like the least peaceful way to live. To give yourself wholly to the whims of nature can be terrifying. The reality is that we all experience harmony in different ways. In which case, we can all find our own definition of Dao. If constantly adhering to nature feels like overkill, what can we take away from Daoism that we can adapt to lead a more peaceful life?
In 1959 Daoism and other religions were banned in China during the communist takeover. But the philosophy has since seen a resurgence over the past two decades with many people taking aspects of it and incorporating it into their own worldview. Even native Chinese Daoists have since moved away from the texts in favor of more local traditions that express the philosophy. Like so many religions that have been repurposed over centuries – and in this case millennia – there is no singular way to express its ideas.
So many of us live our lives with a feeling of inadequacy about our accomplishments. We are constantly chasing and climbing the ladder of success that we never really take time to breathe and appreciate where we are right now. In times like this, it’s important to remember that we look to Daoism to remind us that there is a natural flow to our lives. That pushing too hard or forcing something that doesn’t feel right is not the answer.
Sometimes we struggle to feel at peace because the world around us is filled with negativity, crisis and hardship. And so we wake up with a feeling of dread. Daoism helps us see that there is beauty in even the smallest things around us. That there is an inherent balance we can all be a part of, even if it doesn’t seem obvious at the moment. Inevitably, we will reach for our phones, answer emails, hit the Like button on that vacation photograph we’re so jealous of. We will stand up and go back into our busy lives filled with short attention spans and the need for instant gratification. We will forget about balance.
We might gorge ourselves with unhealthy food because we have no time for lunch. Or snap at our coworker over the wording of an email. We work ourselves up because that’s what life demands of us. That’s what keeps us afloat. But then, we crash… like that 100-foot wave finally reaching its peak and barreling down on whoever and whatever lays in its path. Because, at some point, that balance has to be restored. The yang has to find its yin.
Dao must be restored, whether we want it to or not.