I first read the Tao Te Ching in 1963. In one of life’s many “coincidences”, it was a translation by a Chinese scholar (D.C. Lau) who turned out to be the godfather of my future wife. Although it was years before I better understood the little book, I was immediately intrigued and attracted.
Like many people, I thought that the author was a man named Lao Tze. I later learned, when I was studying Chinese, that this just means “the old geezer”, and that no one knows who wrote book. The literal meaning of the three Chinese characters of the title is “Nature’s Way – Human Virtue – Book”. This is a very concise way of expressing an important topic: how best can human nature interact with Nature herself?
There are over 300 translations in English alone. My favourite is by Stephen Mitchell, who eloquently captures the essence of Taoism. So, what is the essence? A pure Taoist would probably not even ask this question, so it is just as well that I am a trainee Taoist!
Much has been said and written about this, and my thoughts are by no means the last word. This is because the book (and the Tao) are inexhaustible. There is always something more to be discovered. And this is because there is always something new to be discovered about our own nature and about Nature herself. I do think it helpful, however, to try to capture a few things.
First and foremost, being a Taoist is about being natural. In my view, all the other qualities of a Taoist can be traced back to this. Although it is difficult to define precisely what “natural” means, we know it when we see it. It could be the way a cat moves, or a leaf falls, or the clouds come and go. Artists and writers the world over have tried to depict this kind of “natural”, with varying degrees of success. An inverse law seems to operate – the more we try to capture Nature, the more it seems to elude us. Yes, Nature certainly wants to have a relationship with us, but not of the capturing, controlling kind! So, perhaps we cannot define “natural. But we can draw some useful analogies. The one I will draw today is the analogy of skiing.
I am fortunate to live in the Catalan Pyrenees, less than an hour from 10 ski stations. Because of my age, I can ski free of charge. On average I ski three times a week during the four-month season. This is not to suggest that I am an expert. I am not! But I do count myself as a natural skier, which seems to mean several things.
First, it is often effortless. I use the minimum input to achieve the optimum output. Alan Watts called this “the law of reverse effort”. I understand this to be a basic feature of the natural world. This is very evident when you watch how water behaves as it moves from high ground to lower ground. Being effortless is an important part of being a Taoist.
Second, I trust my skis and I trust the mountain. I trust them both to take me down safely and easily, and I allow them do to do this. In other words, I try not to think too much about what is happening. I realise that this may seem an odd thing to say in today’s world of science, reason, evidence, and specialised equipment. Yet it is what I do. I will say more in future about this feature of Taoism (trusting and allowing). Suffice to say for the moment that I experience Nature and the Cosmos as benign and intelligent. They are not out to get me. They are out to help me. It seems that the more accepting we are, the more giving they is. These themes – acceptance, and trust in the vast intelligence of Nature – keep recurring in the Tao Te Ching.
Third, there is my state of mind. Some call this “flow” or “being in the zone”. For me, it feels that I am totally connected to everything and everyone. It is a powerful experience, one which I value highly. There is much one could say about this, but just one thing for now…when I am in the zone, there are no such things as “coincidences” in the sense of being unusual or inexplicable. On the contrary, everything is coinciding all the time. I wish this experience for everyone!
I will stop now, because I have been told that blogs should not be too long. In fact, economy is another quality of a Taoist. More about this anon.
Chris is the author of Full Spectrum Intelligence: Changemakers Books, 2014