A few thoughts on Taoism, for a friend

Recently, a friend of mine has expressed interest in learning more about Taoism, which is definitely my favorite religion. I mean the “philosophical Taoism” of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, as opposed to the Taoism known as “religious Taoism” which may involve rituals and spells and other supernatural elements. I do like to call the former a “religion,” however, since to me it seems to capture something that is common to each of the major world religions–that is, it is a way of transcending oneself in order to connect, somehow, with ultimate reality (whatever that is, the “Tao” or “God” or simply the universe/nature).

I wrote the following for my friend, intending it as just a few pointers that would, hopefully, help with some of the main ideas and avoid misunderstanding. This is just my interpretation, from what I have read/studied so far, and I am also drawing from my own experiences. It is also not systematic, so I flow organically from one topic to another. Hope you enjoy! And please do leave a comment, question or whatever else you would like, if you would like.

Without further ado, here it is:

Hey so here are a few pointers, if you ever get around to studying Taoism. It is simple but it can require some “thinking outside of the box,” as the expression goes.

Here’s one way to understand their view of language/conceptual thought: they view it as being a kind of “screen” between us and external reality. It’s like this: we view a table, for instance. You know, it has four legs and a top, maybe it’s made out of wood or whatever. Anyway, zoom in with a microscope and it starts to become a bit less clear what it is, exactly. Zoom in again and maybe you’re at the molecular level, and then again, and now you’re at atoms and just see a bunch of subatomic particles/fields (and actually at this point you wouldn’t be able to “see” at all, really). Or consider the wood with which the table was built: it was once part of a tree–or was once a tree, rather. If we “stepped back” and viewed it outside of the trappings of our particular time and place then we would see a seed being planted in soil and then we would see all of its development into a tree and, later, into a table. In the future, we might see the table decaying or maybe the wood will be used for different purposes. Anyway, is it accurate to say that this is a “table”? It may be more accurate–more reflective of the truth, of the reality–to say something like, “Right now, at this point in space/time, it is a “table”–which just means that it has been fashioned to serve a specific human purpose, according to a specifically human concept.”

Here’s another tip: in Taoism there is this ideal of equanimity–of regarding everything without interest/preference. First off, I think any Taoist would say, as Martin Buber does in I and Thou, that it is probably impossible for us to constantly live facing reality full on. That is, language/conceptual thought is a necessary part of life–and we will also naturally be drawn towards certain things and pushed away from others (so we will have interests/preferences, most of the time, and that’s OK). As far as language goes, think about what happens when we view a work of art, or listen to music: we may just enjoy a painting or a musical piece without having to name and label and explain each part. Instead, we may simply enjoy it for being what it is from start to finish. That is, you can experience reality without having to define it. It’s like the animals, who mostly live without language: they just live in the moment, more fully experiencing the world around them.

For us, it’s about trying to see reality without any of our usual categorizing getting in the way (the “screen” I mentioned before!). It’s about not judging, either. The ideal is to experience, for a moment, the complete, total reality around us. This state of equanimity is experientially similar to the Buddhist experience of Nirvana. It’s where everything becomes not only “equal,” but also “one.” That is, we start to see that we are like that table I spoke of earlier–we are also just one part of a larger process that is multidimensional and is spread out in time and space. The whole universe, in fact, is supposed to be such a process. This process, this whatever it is that truly exists, this ultimate reality beneath the appearances and beyond our usual mental processes–this is what they call the “Tao.” Functionally, it’s similar to the “God” concept in other religious traditions. Connecting to this ultimate reality is something that I consider to be essential in religion of whatever sort. That’s why I like the mystics so much. They aren’t into religious philosophizing/theology. For them all of this is either unintelligible at some point or it can simply go many ways. Again, there’s that admission of ignorance which I consider a very important part of understanding Taoism.

So the above state of equanimity implies, for one, that our moral concepts (and more particularly, moral judgments) can obstruct our view of reality. At first glance, it may appear as if Taoism would have us ignore or simply be OK with evil or with bad things happening in general. However, besides the fact that the dispassionate, non-preferential state of being described above is not meant to be lived all the time (so there is a time where moral judgments are absolutely necessary to make), there is also this idea of the “yin and yang,” which can help explain how a Taoist would explain their stance. The symbol for the yin yang shows a circle with two sides, a light and a dark, with a little of the dark in the light and a little of the light in the dark. It’s similar to the Star Wars notion of the “Force,” where there is a light side and a dark side (and in fact George Lucas borrowed heavily from Buddhism and Taoism, as he put together the mythology of Star Wars).

Anyway, the important notion here is duality and of opposites serving as two parts of a larger whole. It’s like “short” and “tall,” for example: without short there could be no tall, and without tall there could be no short. They think of “good” and “evil” in the same way. That is, without evil there could be no good, or without good there could be no evil. That is, we define “evil” in opposition to “good,” and vice versa. Now in practical terms all this means is that Taoists try to see the good in the bad, or the good in the evil. Again, this doesn’t mean they think evil is just to be accepted willy nilly. It just means that they think it is a necessary part of life–that in a way the entire universe is a giant yin yang.

So when something bad happens, the Taoist may step back into that state of equanimity, looking at things as wholly as possible, and find something good about it. Maybe, for example, there is a terrorist attack like what happened on 9/11. Definitely a bad thing! However, for a while at least it did seem to unify us and perhaps it also humbled us. Or maybe we can appreciate how courageous the firefighters were and that people would be willing to sacrifice themselves for their fellow human beings. That’s just an example. They also may view each of us as being individual yin yangs, where we have our own good sides/bad sides. It goes along well with that thing I explained before, how it’s about viewing human beings in all their reality, seeing them multidimensionally. So for example: I know a racist (also a Trump supporter!) who is also one of the kindest people I know. I don’t excuse the “bad side” of him–I do acknowledge it–but hey, I choose to focus on the other side. I think this attitude can help us forgive others who have wronged us or others. Again, not that we are OK with the bad–it’s just that we realize that in all reality there may be something good that can come of it, somehow, even if we can’t see it at the moment.

One last thing: you might see something in Taoism about “being thoughtless,” or something of that sort. It can look, at first, as if Taoists are supposed to just be going around not thinking all the time. For one, that is mostly referring to that state of being I keep bringing up, where you are simply experiencing reality without going through language/conceptual thought. Another thing is that Taoists place a big emphasis on naturalness and spontaneity. It’s actually really similar to improv, where the best improv happens precisely in those moments where we aren’t thinking. The human subconscious is always at work, noticing things and remembering things which may or may not reappear in consciousness. In fact, it’s plausible that most of what we are is subconscious–and that our conscious selves are like the tips of icebergs. In general, the less conscious thought we have to expend on a task, the better we are at it. Like with driving, where many of us can drive all the way home and then ask ourselves, “Huh, how did I get here?” We are letting the subconscious drive. So this emphasis on “being thoughtless” is more about trusting in the subconscious, which is ultimately a trust we’re placing in the “Tao”/”God.” It’s essentially faith, where you “let go” and “let be.”

The Taoists wouldn’t say that all conscious thought should be eliminated. It’s just that they think we humans tend to overthink and force things, and that that creates a lot of our problems individually and as societies. The Taoists believe in “going with the flow,” which means doing whatever it is natural for you to do in a given situation, as much as possible–and in some cases, the natural thing to do may be to simply do nothing. That’s where the principle of “wu wei” comes in, where the “action” is precisely not acting–an “action-less action.” The Taoists actually consider humans to be animals, except that we have the blessing and curse (yin yang!) of a highly developed consciousness. They think that that’s a compliment–since animals have attributes we may want to emulate. So that’s why Winnie the Pooh is the ideal Taoist: he’s a talking animal, which is what they think we all are already!


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