You have been pursuing your goal for so long. You gave your 100% effort but alas you didn’t receive your intended result. You feel disappointed and ask what was all those efforts worth for? The gurus of our present times; who preach work hard, play hard philosophy; will tell that you haven’t been passionate enough or you haven’t tried enough or failed enough. But you know, you have tried and failed all that is within your limit, yet results were unsatisfactory.
Some of the ancient Chinese people were also troubled by this uncontrollable nature of the world. But they cared to look at things from a different perspective. They asked”,did we fail because we put in more effort than necessary?” The question feels absurd for us, because how can doing nothing be better than doing something? But those old Chinese were wise enough to understand that in the right circumstances passivity will yield greater results than activity. This realization was the birth of the philosophy known as “Taoism”.
One of the most influential literature of Taoism is “tao te Ching”. To add to your general knowledge, Tao Te Ching, like the Bible, is one of the most translated books of the world. Lao Tzu, traditionally regarded as the founder of Taoism, is considered as the author of this book, his authorship however is disputed among historians. But it is less of a concern for us because this astounding literature was devised to fill its readers with profound knowledge of Taoism. So today we are gonna learn about Taoism with reference to “Tao te Ching”.
Tao te Ching emphasizes us to live in harmony with “Tao” or “the way”. Tao is the fundamental and central concept in this school of thought. However, the proper definition of the Tao is impossible. In Taoism, Tao is “the one, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable.” It isn’t something; rather it is just there, being an omnipresent and fueling source, pattern and substance of everything that exists. The famous but paradoxical opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” I wouldn’t go any further to define the Tao because we humans neither can perceive it nor can we fully understand it. But we will have some idea of what the Tao means, when we talk about other aspects of Taoism.
Taoism values natural and spontaneous action where no effort is necessary. Dancing is an example of spontaneous action. I once asked a great, experienced dancer what he is thinking while giving such an amazing performance, he replied,” it takes no thinking. Thinking will only hinder the process. It must happen spontaneously and naturally with no conscious effort at all.” When you are absorbed with the task at hand, you forget the result, the failings of the past and the anxiety about the future. It’s just you and the task at hand. In Taoism this state is known as “Wu Wei” or “State of Flow”. In this state you are performing action that is consuming no effort, no thinking. You are in a state of golden mean between boredom and anxiety.
Wu Wei is associated with water through its yielding nature. Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. In today’s era, we are encouraged to be ambitious, to work harder, to take control, to compete and to strive. Passivity is looked down upon and mistakenly considered as laziness. But little do we care, by doing so we are exhausting ourselves. Even after accomplishing a lot of things we feel empty and worthless. We have become result oriented and tasks at our hand only bear either ennui or tension.
We are also taught to be very useful to society but Taoists think otherwise. They share a story of a ugly tree which was so crooked that the lumberjack refused to cut it down considering it as a waste of time. While all straight trees are cut down only that crooked tree stands. Long after, people considered that single standing tree to be unique and started praying it as a god. The ugliness of the tree became it’s very reason for survival.
A shocking example of a person whose usefulness became his sin is of a Korean child prodigy Kim Ung Yong. After ten years of working in NASA this is what he writes about his experience ,”At that time, I led my life like a machine―I woke up, solved the daily assigned equation, ate, slept, and so forth. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lonely and had no friends.” Anyone whom society considers as highly useful will be exploited until he is dried.
Now we are presented with another paradox: what is soft is strong. In the long run, what is bright, strong, fast, isn’t reliable; passive aspects like softness, dimness, slowness are winners in the end. Taoists consider Compassion, moderation and humility as the three virtues in mastery of oneself. As Lao Tzu wrote,” the supreme good is like water, which nourishes everything without trying to. It flows to low places loathed by all men. Therefore it is like Tao.”
High trees suffer the strongest wind, rigid rocks suffer greatest erosions and a lamp that shines twice as bright will last half as long. Your desire for being the best and greatest isn’t embellished in reality as you fantasize it to be. So don’t do any task for the sake of excelling at it or beating others at it, rather do what keeps you in harmony with the unplanned rhythms of the universe, the Tao. Do tasks which keeps you completely in the present moment and keeps you in a state of flow like a fluid.
Remember, the universe does things in its own accord. When someone tries to exert his will which is against the natural rhythms of the universe, he will produce collateral damage than intended. Taoism asserts that one must place their will in harmony with the great Tao of the universe and only in this way goals can be achieved effortlessly.
So let go of your labels; what you think you should be, what others prefer you to be. Life is like a river. You can either try to swim against it or catch a branch and hold on or you can just let go and flow along the river. While flowing you might find yourself in quick stream or slow stream, sometimes obstacles might hurt you, sometimes warm water will soothe you. You might even get to enjoy the scenery while flowing. If possible be like water, in unity with the stream. But no matter what path you choose to take, the stream is not in our control so whatever happens accept it with integrity and inner peace