Daoist history begins with Laoziâs Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching), a classic Chinese text written around 500â400 B.C.E. The Daode Jing advocates living naturally and freely as you truly are, rather than as who you are supposed to be. We are all one with the Dao, so following the flow of the Dao entails being ânaturalâ (instead of acting out of ego and desire), observing simplicity, and non-action or non-interference.
Living in step with the Dao on a personal level ripples out into the world we live in, as everything between and including heaven and earth arises from and is a part of the Dao â a part of the same fabric of existence. The Dao is a symphony in which we are each an instrument, and being ânaturalâ means playing the notes that are in harmony with the music of the universe.
The Daode Jing does not present specific instructions or techniques for becoming what it calls a shengren, a sage who has realized the Dao. However, it does describe how a sage behaves. For example, it states that one should not force things â instead, one should be tranquil, have no desires, behave naturally, and live simply. This will in turn affect the sageâs social and political environment.
The words of the Daode Jing are as relevant today as they were over 2,000 years ago, and they can be put to practice in our modern lives. The following are tips from the great Daoist sage Laozi.
Breathing and Centering
Can you balance your life force
And embrace the One
Can you control your breath
Like a baby?
Can you clarify
Your dark vision
â Chapter 10, The Daode Jing
The Daode Jing states that self-cultivation will bring about inner peace and peace in society. Daoist self-cultivation techniques are based on the theories put forth in the Huang Di Nei Jing, the Yellow Emperorâs Inner Classic, which is the veritable bible of Chinese medicine. We first focus on physical health, which includes the practice of Qigong (chi kung) and living according to the flow of the seasons. Building physical strength will increase Qi (or energy). This living energy is transformed into shen (or spirit), which means achieving inner peace and eventually recognizing our oneness with the Dao.
You can begin to cultivate health by focusing on your breath. âEmbracing the one without separationâ means unifying and harmonizing your mind and body so that you can connect to your spirit, which is your direct connection to the Dao.
When you are in a stressful state, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and your heartbeat accelerates. Quick, shallow breathing makes it harder for your lungs to do their job, which is to supply your body with oxygen and to remove waste and toxins from your bloodstream. Oxygen deprivation allows wastes and toxins to build up in your body, straining your immune system. Poor oxygen supply can lead to premature aging and loss of vitality, and is connected to increased incidents of heart attack and stroke.
When you practice meditative breathing, visualize every muscle and cell of your body relaxing and releasing with each exhale (âoutâ breath). Each time you inhale, visualize your body being filled with vitality and energy. Research has confirmed that focusing the mind on positive images affects a wide variety of physiological functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory patterns, oxygen consumption, brain wave rhythms, gastrointestinal function, hormone and neurotransmitter levels in the blood, and the immune system. In fact, guided imagery, intention, and visualization therapy are used in hospitals and clinics worldwide to treat conditions ranging from headaches, nervous stomachs, and anxiety to cancer.
Meditative breathing, or breathing slowly and deeply with a relaxed mind, is the cheapest, easiest Daoist technique for cultivating health and longevity.
Less is More: the Simple Life
Pursue knowledge, gain daily.
Pursue Tao, lose daily.
Lose and again lose,
Arrive at non-doing.
â Chapter 48, The Daode JingSung ChâAng-Hsing, the seventh patriarch and leader of the Dragon Gate Daoist sect during the 16h century, wrote, âThose who seek the Dao donât use ears and eyes. They look within, not without.â In this way, the pursuit of loss is better than gain, as true knowledge has no connection to what you have learned about or achieved in the outside world.
True knowledge comes from sitting still (wuwei: doing nothing) and observing the self. The more we become attached to our belongings and achievements, the more removed we are from our true natures. We can counteract this by taking time each day to focus on our breath and quiet our minds. Even just five minutes of stillness meditation can help us achieve a greater sense of peace and calm.
Return to infancyâ¦
Return to the uncarved blockâ¦
Return to simplicityâ¦
â Chapter 28, The Daode Jing
An uncarved block of wood is filled with unlimited potential. But once it is carved, distinctions have been made and limits have been created. To return to your true nature is to be like an uncarved block, or like an infant; you are still not impacted and are unspoiled by socialization and arbitrary judgments. The Daode Jing says that we should begin to refine ourselves by practicing the art of simplicity. We should subtract from or reduce our worldly and intellectual pursuits and accumulations. Less, rather than more, connects us to the Dao and our true natures.
When is Enough Enough?
The Daoist masters valued inner wealth over outer wealth and
achievements. One can attain a high rank in a company or become rich and still
lack a calm heart and mind. For some, whatever they have or achieve is never
enough. This eternal search for more often distracts us from appreciation for
what we already have.
Conquering others takes force.
Conquering yourself is true strength.
Knowing what is enough is wealth.
â Chapter 33, The Daode Jing
There is no greater calamity
Than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater fault
Than desire for success.
Therefore, knowing that enough is enough
Is always enough
â Chapter 46, The Daode Jing
The lesson here is that if we focus on achieving more and more, we donât remember to appreciate what we already have and who we truly are. Thus, it is imperative that we take time to cultivate a sense of contentment with how things are right here, right now. The Yijing (I-Ching) teaches us to see situations for what they are, and then see what needs to be changed, if anything. If something that needs changing can be changed, it is worth taking action to do so. If it cannot be changed, the strategy is to learn how to adapt to that situation. In order to do so, conquer yourself by accepting yourself, and you will learn when enough is enough.
The softest thing in the world
Excels over the strongest
â Chapter 43, The Daode Jing
Must speak as if they are below.
Those who would lead
Must speak as if they are behindâ¦
Because the sage isnât contentious,
No one struggles against him.
â Chapter 66, The Daode Jing
Wang Tao (1476-1532) said, âEight feet of water can float a thousand-ton ship.â The Daoist masters often refer to waterâs ability to wear down even the hardest rocks. Water, being soft and flexible, excels over the strong. We can put this to use in our daily interactions. When someone looks for a fight, we can win by being flexible and soft and thus avoid conflict. Also, when we need something from someone, regardless of our rank in the organization, we must approach that person with humility and from a place of softness and appreciation.
Lessons from the Sages
Live in a good place.
Keep your mind deep.
Treat others well.
Stand by your word.
Make fair rules.
Do the right thing.
Work when itâs time.
â Chapter 8, The Daode Jing
In the search for a calmer spirit, we must still tend to the practicalities of daily life. The sage finds the balance between yin, which is quiescence, rest, and introversion; and yang, which is motion, interaction, and engagement in worldly affairs. âWork when itâs timeâ means equally that one should work when necessary, but also stop when the job is complete. Many of us work very long hoursâsome by choice, some not. In either case, there is a time for rest and the key to a healthy mind and body is finding the time to rest after working, and then resume work only after resting.
The second great Daoist sage, Zhuangzi (370â290 B.C.E.), wrote in his self-titled book that one should follow oneâs heart, and that acting in sync with oneâs nature will benefit society as a whole. We do this by being nothing more or less than ourselves â who we really are. Recognizing our position in the world, our abilities and limitations, and then acting accordingly, will bring happiness and peace.
The Daoist masters taught us that the first step towards a healthy spirit is a healthy body. Chinese medicine is an effective approach to health maintenance and offers many longevity tools and techniques. The practice of meditative breathing calms the mind, which calms the body, promotes the cultivation of an inner sense of tranquility. As chapter 55 of the Daode Jing notes, âMind controlling energy is called power.â
While one can spend a lifetime following the advice of the Daoist masters, the Daode Jing itself says that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (chapter 64). One way to become in tune with the Dao is to undo the social conditioning, striving, and yearning for more that ultimately leads to a disconnection from the purity of oneâs heart and mind. In other words, discard accumulations and simplify to get back in touch with your true nature. It is like polishing a mirror until it renders a clear reflection. There is nothing we are trying to âattainâ through Daoist practices. Instead, we rid ourselves of accumulated distractions so that we can see what has always been there.
Talking will not bring about inner peace, but following the way of the masters is as easy as taking the time to be still. Or, as Laozi said in Chapter 5 of the Daode Jing, âLong-winded speech is exhausting; better to stay centered.â
Suzanne Friedman is an acupuncturist, herbalist, and doctor of medical Qigong therapy. She is the Chair of the Medical Qigong Science Department at the Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, Calif., and runs Breath of the Dao Holistic Medicine in San Francisco (www.daoclinic.org).
To Learn More about Daoism
- Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching. Translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, Ind., 1993.
- Kohn, Livia, Daoism and Chinese Culture. Three Pines Press, Magdalena, N.M., 2001.
- Porter, Bill (Red Pine), Lao-Tzuâs Taoteching. Mercury House, San Francisco, Calif., 1996.