What is Taoism?
What is ‘Taoism’?
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion… My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness”
The Dalai Lama
Taoism (usually pronounced as ‘Daoism’) is commonly translated as ‘the way’ or ‘the way of nature’ and is an ancient Chinese religious philosophy. Taoism is not really a ‘religion’ as we think of it in the West, more of a philosophy for life. In Taoism there is no God to be worshipped, no strict rules to be followed, and no divine punishments for bad behaviour. Taoism celebrates the individuality of all things, the power of nature and advocates ‘going with the flow’. Such phrases as “a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step” and “the soft will overcome the strong” both come from Taoism. The early Taoists were scientists. They carefully observed the nature of things and realised that to flow with the rules of the universe will make for an easier, more peaceful and happier existence.
Tai Chi and Chi Kung, as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture were all born out of ancient Taoist beliefs and principles.
Understanding Taoism is therefore crucial to a complete understanding of Tai Chi. A few of the most important points and principles of Taoism that I feel are most relevant to your Tai Chi practice are listed below. Tai Chi students are of course encouraged to research the subject further.
The Tai Chi symbol (Understanding The Concepts Of Yin and Yang)
An understanding of the ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ theory of Taoism is crucial to a good understanding of Tai Chi. The Tai Chi symbol consists of a ‘Yin’ or feminine, negative part (the black section) and a Yang part (the white section) representing masculine or positive energy. Taoists recognise that there are different combinations of these opposite forces making up everything in the universe. They understand that without a “down” there can be no concept of “up”. The two terms mean nothing unless the other exists, as it’s opposite. Without light how can you understand darkness? Without day how could night exist?
It is interesting to note that since atomic physics was created, modern science has now recognised that atoms are in fact made up of protons and electrons both of which contain electrical energy. Protons are positively charged, electrons negatively charged and everything in the known universe is made up of different combinations of these tiny sub-atomic particles.
The Tai Chi symbol has a tiny dot of Yang in the centre of the Yin part and a tiny dot of Yin in the Yang part. This symbolises that nothing in the universe can be entirely Yin or entirely Yang; everything is made up of a mixture of constantly changing negative and positive energies. If for example you might describe the clouds in terms of being ‘above’ or ‘up’. However when you are flying in a plane they then become ‘below’ or ‘down’. In the blackest of nights there is still a hint of moon and starlight and in the hottest, sunniest day there are always shadows and pockets of darkness.
It is useful to realise that the Tai Chi symbol is constantly revolving. If you trace your finger around the outside you can see that Yin is slowly turning into Yang and then when it is at it’s fullest part it will then return back to becoming Yin. This represents that everything in the universe is constantly changing between these two forces. The usual analogy for this is to take the example of water. Water at extreme high temperatures, as we all know is hot and will cause a burning sensation. When water is extremely cold it turns to ice and when we touch ice we also feel a burning sensation.
With all this in mind we can learn to realise that no one person or thing can ever be entirely masculine, boring, jealous, evil, clever, kind or angry. We are limiting ourselves by thinking of people and things in these terms and using such language as ‘always’ being one way or ‘never’ being another is not accurate. Learn to understand that in any given moment we are all capable of being any number of things and that this is constantly changing; any descriptions we use are just a tiny part of who and what we all are.
We can also remember to ask ourselves the question “compared to who or what?” when we are describing things. Descriptive terms such as tall, stupid, angry, poor, ill or tired are always going to be relative. If for example you feel that you are a slow learner, rest assured that there will always be someone slower who will think you pick things up quickly (and of course there will be those people who will pick things up quicker than you!).
In the Tai Chi form we first make a Yin posture (closing, yielding or moving inwards, downwards or backwards) and then we flow into a yang movement (opening, pushing or moving forwards, upwards or outwards). Understand that in your practice a Yang posture such as ‘Push’ must still have a small Yin quality. An experienced student pushes but also learns to stay sensitive and receptive to what their opponent is doing. No matter how strong your push is if it is missing the target because of a lack of sensitivity then it will be useless.
‘Chi’ or ‘Universal Biological Energy’
Taoists believe in a universal life energy known in English as “Chi” which flows through all living things. This is a similar concept to what the Japanese call ‘Ki’ and what Yoga students called ‘Prana’. Prana translates as ‘breath’ in Sanskrit and in Chinese thought breath and universal energy are also closely linked. Chi is a crucial concept not just in Tai Chi but also in other Chinese practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture. This ancient belief is now being confirmed by modern science. Biological, electrical energy has been shown to exist in all cells within the human body.
Understanding about energy is a key principle in Tai Chi. Chi energy is said to flow through the human body in channels called meridians. Each Tai Chi and Chi Kung posture is designed to stretch different these channels, manipulate the energy flowing through us and benefit our overall health. A basic knowledge of where these channels occur in your body is very useful to a beginner and will enable you to understand which movements are designed to heal which parts of your body. For example in the posture ‘White Crane spreads its wings’, a stretch is felt through the middle of your torso. This posture is therefore stimulating your spleen and stomach channels and is designed to be of particular benefit to these organs.
Constant Change and Flexibility
Another principle of Taoism is to recognise that change is the only constant factor in the universe. Everything in nature is constantly changing and is temporary. Everything that has a beginning must have an end. All things exist, grow, change and eventually die. The mountains around us are slowly crumbling into dust and even our sun will one day burn itself out and cease to exist. Trying to cling on to the past or to anything in life is futile, time moves on and nothing can or will ever stay the same. This theory not only applies to physical things but to everything in life. Seasons of the year, relationships, emotions and even pain all will change and pass in time.
Being willing to change and adapt with the natural order of things is crucial to good Tai Chi. A usual analogy is that of a willow tree which is young and flexible and that bends in a strong wind while the big, strong oak will be blown over. Being supple is part of remaining young and healthy. The word ‘stiff’ is even a slang term for a dead body in English. This flexibility not only refers to physical things but also applies to whatever life throws at us. Becoming stubborn and set in our ways is another way of becoming stiff. When you practice the two-person Tai Chi exercise of ‘pushing hands’, your aim should be to allow your opponent to move in whichever way they choose. If you can stick to them and be willing to change and follow their movements you will always be successful. You will only get pushed over when you fail to stick and follow or if you try to initiate a movement or technique of your own.
Taoists recognise the individuality of everything in the universe. In nature no two things are ever identical no matter how alike. Leaves on a tree, snowflakes, even ‘identical’ twins are just similar. We can learn to remember that no two days will ever be exactly the same. This means that you can open your eyes every morning and feel as though you are a small child again filled with wonder for what the day will hold for you rather than feeling stuck in the same routine. Remember that no matter how similar things may seem will always be differences in every situation, every relationship and each passing moment will be different from the last.
Through Taoism we can learn that everyone has his or her own individual destiny. If you practice quietening your busy mind quiet (meditating), you can begin to listen to your inner voice and realise your own individual path. Generally you will ‘know’ or ‘feel’ what you are meant to be doing or what choices to make. Remember that what is important to you will not necessarily be important to others. A wise Taoist learns to never enforce their ways upon others or to offer advice as if a problem were their own.
In Tai Chi practice no two students will ever be identical. Each student will need to learn at their own pace and make discoveries that are most relevant to them. Remember to not compare yourself with other students in your class as this is irrelevant and will only cause you stress. Even when you practice the same postures everyday you will notice that no two exercises will ever be exactly the same.
Circles and Spirals
Recognising the circular nature of all things in the universe is another crucial principle of Taoism. Modern science has shown that there are no straight lines in nature only curves, waves, circles and spirals. A few good examples are life cycles, DNA spirals, sound and light waves.
The Tai Chi form is also full of circles, rotations, waves and spirals, emulating the nature of things. Understanding that there are no straight lines anywhere in the Tai Chi form will greatly improve any student’s practice and understanding about spiralling through your limbs and your body is also crucial to your health and to good Tai Chi practice.
Counting Your Blessings
Taoist believe that you should think about and be grateful for all the wonderful things in your life and that in fact everything in life should be seen as a blessing. Taoism teaches that everything happens for a good reason and that there is always something positive to learn from all of life’s experiences.
If you feel pain in your ankle is this not a good thing? Does it not remind you to be gentle and prevent further damage occurring? Pain can teach you about moving mindfully and can help you to turn your attention inwards and gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of your ankle. Maybe it was time for you to slow down a bit and to learn how to use your ankle in a more relaxed and careful way?
You can see ‘people who push your buttons’ as a chance to learn more about your own psyche. Why do you allow people to ‘make you’ feel a certain way? Above all you can learn to look for the positive lessons to be gained from any situation and to learn and grow from every experience. Looking for the positive spin of things and accepting that there are wise lessons to be learnt from everything is very useful in Tai Chi practice and is also crucial to your health and happiness.
Learning to focus on the present (meditation) you will slowly learn how to leave your past behind you and have less regrets and old resentments. Everything that has happened to you has made you the person that you are today. Maybe your parents being ‘too hard’ on you is what made you so strong and independent. Maybe being ‘poor’ has made you appreciate being rich. Maybe everything that happens to you happens for a reason, perhaps because it puts you in the just the right place to discover what is important for you and your life.
In your Tai Chi practice remember that it is a blessing that you have learnt so much from all of your experiences and that you can remember any of the moves at all.
‘A Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with Just One Step’
Being patient is perhaps one of the most important lessons in life and is another key principle of Taoism. Through meditation practice, you learn to live more fully in the present, to appreciate each and every moment in your life and to truly live life to the full. Always rushing towards the next thing will always end up being disappointing and wishing away the hours at a ‘boring’ job is certainly not going to make you happy. Instead you can learn to stop and look for the positive things that you can achieve with all of your time. You can practice stillness and relaxation techniques, your ‘Inner Smile Mediation’, deep breathing or many other techniques whilst waiting, sitting, driving or even whilst listening to someone. (They will probably not even realise.) In the Western world we rush around and cause ourselves a lot of stress by leaving everything to the last minute. Try leaving 10 minutes early for your next appointment and feel the difference this makes to your mental state. Be patient, enjoy your journey and learn to enjoy each and every moment of your life.
The same is true of your Tai Chi ‘journey’. Enjoy your practice in the moment and be patient with your self and with other people. Remember there is no rush and the only deadlines are those that you set yourself. Professor Cheng Man Ching said that the most important aspects of any good Tai Chi student were firstly ‘Patience’; allowing yourself as much time as you need, second ‘Perseverance’; always continuing regardless of how you feel about your Tai Chi and lastly ‘Practice’.
‘Mea Culpa’ (Latin for ‘It Is My Fault’)
Studying Taoism will make you learn to take more responsibility for all that happens to you in your life and teaches you that you are in control of your own destiny.
Learn to recognise that you cannot truly control anything outside of your own mind and body. The only thing that you have control over is how you choose to feel about things. Any attempt to try to control anything outside of your self will usually end only in failure and frustration. A problem is only a problem if you choose to perceive it that way. Learn to take responsibility not just for how you think but also for how you feel.
Emotions are not an automatic reaction to a situation, even if it seems that way. Our brain perceives something first and then on some level we quickly decide what the appropriate emotion to assign to that situation is. As adults when we see the rain we tend to sigh but as children we put our wellies on and jumped in puddles with excitement. Do you choose to perceive your cup as half empty or half full?
In life when you meet someone and you do not warm to him or her instantly, as a result you will not usually give that person your full attention. Your attitude will not be open or welcoming towards him or her either. People are generally more sensitive than you realise and on some level most people will notice your closed, unfriendly attitude. If that person later describes you as arrogant, disinterested or rude, who is responsible for this? As the saying goes ‘the truth always hurts’. Taking full responsibility for your actions means accepting that in that moment, you were all of those things.
If you can learn how to be more patient and pay more attention when you listen to people, you will find that not only does it make that person happy by being listened to, but also that you will feel better about your self. If you find that a conversation is boring you, learn that it is your responsibility to steer the conversation around to something that you are both interested in. Everyone has interesting stories to tell you and it is your responsibility to learn to ask the right questions. As my mum often told me, “only boring people are ever bored”.
Through Taoism you will also learn to avoid blaming other people and things for how you feel or for that which happens to you. It is easy to blame the morning for making you feel tired or the lack of coffee but is it not your fault for going to bed too late? Did the bus make you late or was it your fault for not leaving earlier or catching an earlier bus? Was that joke a bit in poor taste or did you lose your sense of humour?
Your Inner Voice
Although there are no hard and fast rules in Taoism, students are encouraged to listen to their inner voice to tell them right from wrong. Students can begin to realise that decisions based on fear will always ‘feel’ like the wrong decision. Taoism believes that all negative behaviour is born from fear and that people are compassionate by nature.
Taoists believe that most (if not all) actions start from a positive intention. Often other people will misinterpret these actions. Was that person really being spiteful to you or were they just trying to be funny so others would like them more? Through Taoism you can learn to look for the true positive intentions in other people’s actions.
Through Tai Chi you can learn to recognise that everyone has moments of fear and that these moments will lead to subsequent bad behaviour. Feelings such as boredom, depression, anger and jealousy are all related to fear in some way when you break them down, and all can lead to negative behaviour patterns in us and in others.
Behaving kindly towards others not only encourages others to behave kindly to you but will also make you feel proud of your self. By always striving to be courageous and virtuous in your life, by always speaking out against wrongs you will discover that these things benefit the way you feel about your self and are in fact crucial to your own health and happiness.
In the simplest terms when you smile you change your whole world.