Three men walked into a bar. They each sipped from a bowl of vinegar. One found it bitter, like the suffering in life that he seeks to avoid. One found it sour, like the people whose lives he needed to correct. One found it sweet (from personal experience, vinegar is not sweet), for the vinegar was merely embracing its nature.
Three philosophers walked out of the bar. Their names were Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi (or Lao Tzu).
No, that is not how they became philosophers. But it is an interesting story that explains their viewpoints. While Buddha sought to avoid suffering (and the taste of vinegar), Confucius compared it to the people whose lives needed his guidance and correction (totally different from Laozi’s).
Laozi found the vinegar sweet (I can’t say it enough, vinegar is not sweet!). While most of us think that vinegar is sour, Laozi knew that the vinegar was only embracing its true nature.
This interesting viewpoint/really cool philosophy is what makes Taoism followed by millions of people around the globe (yes, new word there, stay with me). In order to explain Taoism, let’s go to Laozi’s origin story.
It’s entirely possible that Laozi never existed. There is almost no documentation of his existence today. But for the sake of this article’s existence, let’s assume he did exist.
Laozi was a really wise person (which is why the only name we know him by is actually a title, meaning “Old Master”). He lived around the 6th century, and the fall of the Zhou Dynasty (more new words, think Chinese empire sinking like a block of cement). Before the fall, Laozi got really fed up (as an official in the imperial archives, basically a librarian, that’s understandable) and decided to leave China (not an overreaction). As he was about to leave, crossing the final bridge, the bridgekeeper recognized him (long gray beard falling out of fashion?). He couldn’t stop Laozi from leaving, so he asked Laozi to write down his wisdom before he left. Laozi sat down, wrote the Tao Te Ching, and left, likely to become a hermit and die a lonely death.
The Tao Te Ching is one of the most widely translated books ever (it’s right next to the Bible). It contains a ton of wisdom, and is an essential read for practitioners of Taoism. Considering Laozi was in the imperial archives, and had a long time to stew about it, you would think it would have a ton of wisdom in it. You’d be right.
The Tao Te Ching is so long that I’m not going to write about all of it (because if I do, you won’t read this article, and it will be a 10-hour read.). Instead, I’ll share a couple of key points regarding the Tao Te Ching and Taoism in general.
By the way, I did not get that out of my baby cousin’s mouth. It means flow (not like pipe flow, more like flow state). The flow state is one of the key ideals of Taoism. A quick example/legend of what it can actually do relates to a man named Cook Ting (worst name ever, but not even I could make this up).
Cook Ting was cutting oxen when someone came up to him and asked, “How do you it?”(Cook Ting is the best cook, by the way). Cook Ting told him, “All I care about is the way. At first, all I could see was the ox. After 3 years, I no longer saw the full ox. Now, I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.” A key point of this story revolves around knives(see what I did there?). It’s said that good cooks change knives every year, because they cut. Mediocre cooks change their knives every month, because they hack. Cook Ting used the same knife for nineteen years with skill and subtlety.
Remember, Cook Ting didn’t have Masterchef-friendly Miele or Viking (I can’t remember which) appliances, just one knife. And he was cutting oxen, for 19 years!
The point of this story is that Cook Ting was experiencing flow whenever he cut oxen. Flow is relatable to an athlete being “in the zone”. It’s when you’re not going against natural rhythms. It’s action without striving, no worries or ruminations, just going with the flow. Wu-wei literally means “without exertion”.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.
Go with the flow. It’s the key ideal of Taoism.
Not even joking. One of the many ideas of Taoism is really comparing life to a river. It’s surprisingly relatable.
The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject. This is why it is so similar to the Way.
Supreme good is like water. Water greatly benefits all things, without conflict. It flows through places that people loathe. Thereby it is close to the Way.
In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.
There’s also an interesting comparison in which you picture yourself in a river. According to Taoism, most people struggle around a lot, sometimes with the current, sometimes against. Some people grab on to a branch, and try to get out. The idea of Taoism is to simply let go, and do what feels right, going with the natural current.
This is really difficult, since at first, our mind believes it can control everything, including the environment, and it must in order to survive. The vast majority of processes are really outside our control. We can’t even control our own bodily processes, like digestion or blood flow! It’s honestly naive to think that we can control the environment, and once you get past that, you can go with the current, the natural order of things.
As usual, we have a force beyond our comprehension. In this case, it’s The Way. This is literally what Taoism revolves around. This is the whole idea. The idea of Taoism is to follow The Way. Because it’s beyond our comprehension, we don’t really know how to, so we follow the natural order, and kind of just hope we’re doing things right. This is one of the more unexplained parts of Taoism. Considering we can’t perceive or fully understand it, that does make sense.
Taoism and Laozi are really cool, and while there are some parts that really mystify me (one knife for 19 years?!), a lot of the principles really make sense, and are applicable in everyday life.
- Life is like a river — stop fighting the current so much and see what happens when you just act naturally.
- Feel the flow — through acting naturally, you can enter the flow state a lot like Cook Ting (but you’ll have to wait 3 years to get to his level).
- Following The Way — You can’t really perceive it, but it’s there, and the main idea of Taoism is to follow it by acting how you normally would.