Taoism – an ancient Chinese philosophy with a modern application

Tai Chi dance at the Summer Course in St Just

Tai Chi dance at the Summer Course in St Just

As China has opened to the West more and more people throughout the world are becoming familiar with Tai Chi, Chi Gung, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine but few realise that underlying all these is one important philosophy which has been central to Chinese culture for generations – Taoism.

The Tao is not a thing, it is more like a set of natural principles which govern the Universe and everything in it including ourselves. It is not a religion but a philosophy, however it is not an academic study. It is unique to every individual because it represents our path through life, the lessons and outcomes we learn through the practical trials and errors each of us makes on a daily basis.

The Tao is different to Western philosophies in that it is not based on the normal logic of good and bad, right and wrong, black and white but instead it admits these apparent contradictions as two sides of the same coin. Winter becomes summer, day turns into night, the cycle goes on, neither is right or wrong but are like the swings of the pendulum, when the extreme is reached the pendulum swings back the opposite way. In this way the Taoist sees that life is a process, these apparent extremes are really just two different aspects of the same thing which evolves one into the other and back again. Once we start to recognise the pattern around us we can start to relax with the flow of the current rather than fighting it.

1024px-Yin_yang.svgAs mankind has evolved into the technological and industrial age we have found enormous benefits though the development of machinery, labour saving devices and so forth, but on the other hand factory work is monotonous, factories create pollution, and the more we rely on machines the less able we become to do things for ourselves. Food is more plentiful than every now but in modern western countries health problems such as obesity, hypertension and heart disease have become prevalent. We either learn to work alongside nature or suffer the consequences, and this is not just something that applies on the macro level but to every one of us as individuals. After all despite our computers and mobile phones we only have to look up at the stars to see that the Universe is immense, and it is only through thousands upon thousands of years of natural development that we have become what we are today, natural creatures designed by nature and living in a natural world.

Well so much for the theory which makes perfect sense and we are all aware of it on some level or another, so what are we going to do about it? Although some of the problems of our society may seem overwhelming it is the opportunity and responsibility of each of us to become aware of these patterns in our own lives. The Tao principle is something which manifests around us but is also expressed though our own nature and so by understanding our selves we can learn to communicate with it, and interact with it. This is not something we can really learn through reading books, or obeying a set of laws but by a series of experiments of trail and error we can start to develop a closer relationship with the Universe and recognise the messages it is trying to bring us.

The Tai Chi exercise called Sticky hands has been developed as a way we can learn one of the basic Taoist principles which is yielding. As we navigate our lives we meet obstacles along the way just in the same way water flowing along a stream meets a rock and flows around it. The energy inside us is a precious commodity so why waste it by struggling through life when we can take advantage of the current flowing around us? In this exercise you make contact with a partner and gently test each other’s balance, with practise you can learn in a practical application how to maintain your equilibrium even when faced with stressful situations.

Chinese Taoist philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu were struggling with the same problems of society and civilization that we are today at a time when most western countries were still in a very primitive stage of development. Although many scholars have debated these ancient texts the true legacy of Taoism is the practical lessons of balance and moderation, sensitivity and awareness which can be cultivated not through discussion but by the practice of Taoist Arts such as Tai Chi, Chi Gung and Traditional Chinese medicine. By making us more reliant on labour saving machines, transport, technology, drugs and medicines there is one crucial natural principle that has been left behind which is very important and that is evolution. Making things easy for ourselves is actually making us weaker, not that the Taoist would advocate the opposite that life should be harsh, or that this is wrong, but that we must always bear in mind our roots and our origins and what has made us strong. After all we are the survivors, as were our ancestors, we are descended from the person who turned round and jumped off the trail when the Tiger came, some others did not. This enormous back catalogue of natural experiences has given us many dormant abilities which are no longer being developed in the modern age. For example many modern medicines are designed to eradicate the symptoms of disease and take away the pain. Now I am not advocating that we should relish pain, far from it, but it is pain that tells us not to put our hand into the fire, pain tells us when something is wrong, pain is bad, but pain is also good, and nature has evolved it for a reason. The reason is that Nature has found important lines of communication to warn us of danger and set us back on the path when we wander, and this is a natural and powerful process we can learn to understand and accept as a guiding principle within our lives, and it is not something that we necessarily need experts, specialists, or priests to translate for us but it is something every one of us experiences every day.