3 Insights from Taoism for Modern Life

Taoism is an ancient East Asian philosophy that emphasizes living with the natural order of the universe. It is the road, or path, that cannot be grasped as a concept. It must be experienced intuitively as we live our daily lives. Taoism’s primary body of work is the Tao Te Ching, believed to have been written by Lao Tzu around 400 BC. According to Lao Tzu, the Tao isn’t a thing, it is the underlying natural order of the Universe, and as such is “eternally nameless”.

Other ancient works on Taoism, like the Zhuangzi and Liezi, offer insight on the philosophy through anecdotes, poetry, and parables. While hard to understand, these insights would seem diametrically opposed to the ‘hustle’ culture of the modern Western world.

Here are three insights that offer a glimpse into living in harmony with the Tao:

1. Go with the flow / Yield to the Universe

You may be familiar with the famous quote from Bruce Lee, “Be formless, shapeless like water. Now you put water into a cup and it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.” Lao Tzu says water is the softest and most yielding substance, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and rigid; because nothing can compete with it. Like water carving out a canyon, repeated acts of softness eventually overcome the hard. Patience, a form of softness, is key to the “slowness” of the natural process, which can result in achieving something great.

The ability to let go and yield to the universe is a form of flexibility. Things that are hard and brittle break easily. If we’re yielding, like water, we can adapt to any situation, because like water, we just find another way to flow.

2. Don’t stand on tiptoes

A modern interpretation you may relate to is “don’t get ahead of your skis”. Lao Tzu says those who stand on tiptoes do not stand firmly. Those who rush ahead don’t get very far. Those who try to outshine others dim their own light. Those who call themselves righteous can’t know how wrong they are. In today’s society that could mean biting off more than you can chew. Exaggerating our abilities and our accomplishments to compete can leave us vulnerable to falling flat on our face. This overextension can be true with material things as well. We shouldn’t buy things we can’t afford just to try and impress people we don’t like.

3. Embrace uselessness

In the Zhuangzi there’s a parable about a useless tree. While out harvesting timber, a logger decided to pass on a particular tree. The tree was crooked and grotesque. Not even one decent board could have been harvested from it. Cutting it down would be a waste of time and energy.

Master Zhuang noticed all the straight trees had been cut down because they were useful. Yet the uselessness of the crooked tree was the reason for its survival. Not only did the crooked tree survive, but others came to admire the tree, even believing its age and deformities made it special. Some began to worship the tree, believing it was holy.

We’re all expected to be useful in this day and age. Being useless is derided and ridiculed. The Taoists argue uselessness can be useful. The tree’s uselessness lead to its preservation. While we shouldn’t strive to be useless, usefulness shouldn’t be a primary goal either. In fact, being useful to others isn’t necessarily always good for us. We should reject the idea of categorizing things according to their usefulness or uselessness and realize neither makes us happier or more in tune with the universe. Enjoy your life on your own terms.

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