THE GENTLE pace of life in lockdown reminds me of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. The sacred Taoist text is essential reading for Shiatsu therapists – it also influences my yoga practice. Written in China in the sixth century BC, it gives the earliest account of meditation.
And yet, I must be honest, it is a puzzling book with riddles, contradictions and a topsy turvy take on life. Beneath soft sounding poetry lies a radical philosophy for rulers, kings and soldiers going to battle. It is guidance for the darkest hour, for those facing extinction, war and loss of empire.
The writer Lao Tzu cautions against force and instructs us to be ‘gentle and yielding’. He teaches about humanity by pointing to nature. Observing wood, water and the lie of the land, we are encouraged to return to the ‘ways of creation’.
The highest good is like water, water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive
Other manifestos call to arms – the Tao Te Ching appeals for stillness. It sees the ‘virtue of not striving’ and counsels us to embrace Oneness. The Tao is a cosmic order. The way of the Tao flows in harmony with this and avoids the separation of body and soul. Our tendency is to attach great importance to our ‘doing’, Lao Tzu reminds us of our great insignificance. We are to be as ‘newborn babes’.
If nothing is done, then all will be well
.This credo has much in common with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a self help book for ‘silencing the mind’ written in India around 500 BC. Patanjali calls for ‘non-violence’ and ‘non-grasping’. But this is not a high-minded moral instruction, simply a statement of how to be in harmony with the natural order.
Yoga is often associated with heated activity – warriors, sun salutations, breath of fire. It is also a practice in yielding. Body, mind and breath are mastered and surrendered. Surrender is the instruction most repeated in the sutras. This paradox of control and letting go is in the Tao Te Ching.
The softest thing in the universe over comes the hardest thing in the universe…..bend to become straight
The concept is is difficult to grasp with logic alone. The way of the Tao, like Yoga, is a sustained practice not an idea or a leap of faith. Feeling the Tao in the laboratory of the body and it makes sense. For example, practising a forward bend, we go deeper into tight hamstrings when relaxed and soft than when grasping. ‘Force is followed by loss of strength,’ warns Lao Tzu.
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for things
Yoga is an experiment with this principle. After the thrill of back bends, splits and curious balancing contortions, the ego faces its biggest challenge in the radical humility of Child or Corpse pose.
Now let’s be honest. Apply the philosophy of ‘not doing’ to a work deadline or a school exam and you risk being called a weirdo or a lazy bum. Can the way of the Tao work in the wider competitive world? Or is it a philosophy for Sundays or woolly idealists on retreat?
Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Lao Tzu was a member of the royal court and not a philosopher in a cave. He gave solutions to the social and political problems of his day. His ideas were influential for centuries – and today China has a huge resurgence in Taoist practice despite attempts to stamp it out in Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Taoism is a radical alternative to the principles of ‘no pain, no gain’ that operate in our modern competitive world, at home and at work. Parents tear out their hair getting kids to do homework, homeowners bust a gut with DIY improvements, sports fans submit to punishing exercise regimes, businesses violate the environment for profit.
Lao Tzu observes that ‘racing and hunting maddens the mind’ and proposes effortless doing – Wu Wei – as an alternative. This practice harnesses nature instead of triumphing against it. It flows around obstacles instead of obliterating them, it respects tides, gravity, seasons, circadian rhythms, the ebb and flow of energy.
It’s hard to make sense of this approach in a culture that makes a virtue of stress and striving. We squander the earth’s resources as we squander our energy – and lack reverence for both. When men lack awe – there will be disaster, warns Lao Tzu.
Lockdown turns these values on their head. We are told to ‘stay home’ and suspend all but essential activities, even the pursuit of profit. During this brief era of not doing, we spend more time in nature. We are deafened and astonished by bird song. Returning to the ‘ways of creation’, the way of the Tao, the earth is allowed to breathe again. Human activity declines and the result is the biggest drop in green house gases since records began.
We wait quietly while the mud settles and contemplate our extinction, if not from the deadly Covid virus then from climate change. The essential truths of the Tao is our ‘being unimportant’. This restores our sense of ‘awe’.
Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone
We seek complex solutions to problems at work, at home, in our bodies and the wider world. Usually we think we need to do more, buy more, work harder, devise more elaborate technology. In the stillness of lockdown we experiment with doing less. We sense new possibilities – a flavour of Wu Wei, being in harmony with nature rather than against it. ‘Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone,’ says Lao Tzu. There is no manifesto more radical – dare we embrace it?
Images by Heidi Dore, Balmerino, Scotland, 2020.
Tao Te Ching Translated by Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, Vintage Books, 1989