To many people, a confusing aspect of Taoism is its very definition. Many religions will happily teach a Philosophy/Dogma which in reflection defines a person. Taoism flips this around. It starts by teaching a truth; “The Tao” is indefinable. It then follows up by teaching that each person can discover the Tao in their own terms. A teaching like this can be very hard to grasp when most people desire very concrete definitions in their own life.
A simply way to start learning the definition of Taoism is to start within yourself. Here are three easy starting steps to learning Taoism:
- Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Tao (this will come later naturally)
- Understand what Taoism really is. Taoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Taoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
- The path of understanding Taoism is simply accepting yourself. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.
Taoism teaches a person to flow with life. Over the years Taoism has become many things to many people. Hundreds of variations in Taoist practice exist. Some of these practices are philosophical in nature, others are religious. Taoism makes no distinction in applying labels to its own nature. This is important since as a person, we are each a blend of many truths. The truth taught in Taoism is to embrace life in actions that support you as a person.
Taoism teaches a person to live to their heart.
Here are some simple starting tips to help a person live as a Taoist.
- Having a set of basic guidelines can be helpful. However realistically, guidelines don’t determine how to live; Instead Taoism teaches by living you will express your nature.
- Discover a set of practices to aid keeping the mind, body and spirit engaged and strong. Remember practices should support your essence with the activities fitting the needs of the moment. Which means this is a shifting balance of activities relative to your needs. For example I practice Tai Chi to keep my body strong and subtle, meditation to clear my mind, Kite board to simply fly and lift my spirit. Painting to enjoy creativity. All these and more are my shifting practices to support my essence and in doing each, each helps me learn more about myself and the world.
- Take time, relax and just explore and poke around. Taoism has no plans. Taoism is based upon following your gut feelings and trusting your instincts.
- It’s within the pause of a breath… that each step of living becomes visible for your larger life to improve and follow upon. Smile, when needing to pick a possible next step. To smile is to open possibilities. Breathe when needing a break. Since to breathe is to be at one with yourself. Alternate the two and your path will become free and clear for an entire lifetime of wonder to explore. This may sound simple, but you would be surprise how many people cannot embrace this most basic aspect of Taoist practice! People think it cannot be that simple! Taoism truly is this simple. However, most people need time letting go of expectations. So it’s also ok to dig deeper into Taoism. Taoism has many many levels of teachings on purpose to help people from all perspectives move smoothly in life.
I can summarise Taoism as simply as
Taoism is acceptance of your life.
Taoism is following your breath to find peace.
Taoism is opening up a smile to enable possibility.
If you embrace these three ideas, everything else follows in Taoism. Some people do start here. Others take a longer more colourful path. That’s fine also, since you get to experience more colour in your life. No wrong path exists at the end, since it’s about experiencing life.
If you need a guide to Taoism, then first start with these three books:
History of Taoism
Most sites will teach you the terms and history of Taoism. That might be nice for academics: but it really does nothing for teaching you how to live as a Taoist. Taoism is about embracing life in the now and not in being stuck in history or terms.
Originally Taoism can be considered to be a shamanic practice. However, Taoism is so old; the complete history of Taoism cannot be traced through written records. Taoism is very much a tradition that is transmitted verbally from master to student over the generations. Because of this, some of the shamanic roots of Taoism still survive today. Taoism historically is also a very flexible practice. Taoism is a practice of change and it always changes to meet the needs of the times. This is still happening today and even as we speak Taoism is evolving to keep pace with modern culture. This is one reason Taoism has survived for so long, it always adapts with the time while holding onto a few key concepts to keep the practice true to the Tao.
An early surviving text to describe the Tao is the Tao-Te Ching, written by Lao-Tzu (The old master). The Tao-Te Ching is a series of poems that can be considered to be a work of philosophy, a treatise on how to run a government, a how-to book for achieving a balanced life, or a sage’s reflection of humanity and the universe. It is known to have been written over 2400 years ago but not much else is retained about the origins. Many fun stories abound about these origins; however, these are just that, stories. What is important is that the Tao-Te Ching and its poetry survive, having had an impact on the course of human events over the past 2400 years. It’s an interesting book, worth skimming. I say “skim” because it is written in a light-hearted manner. If a reader stares too hard or takes the Tao-Te Ching too literally, the multiple intentions within the poetry will be lost.
Many many stories, and tales exist about the History of Taoism. Some of these stories could be true, and some could be fables. As a Taoist, the point is to learn from the mixing of our reactions to the tales. Veracity is best left to history; time will always change “truth” for each generation.