Being A Taoist in the Modern World

I have to fill in a lot of forms in my daily life. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in a position of power. I’m unemployed. Most job applications in the UK (especially the ones for jobs you want) have a similar structure. Name & DOB. Qualifications, entered individually on a web form that will randomly time out, deleting half an hours painstaking work. Employment history, giving precise details of every job you’ve had in the last five years, including up-to-date contact details of your employers (if you’re like me, most of your previous employers are ham-fisted maniacs who left the country under a haze of bad debt and tax evasion, making getting references difficult). And right at the end a little extra form to fill in, where you put your nationality, religion, gender identity and sexual preferences so that employers can’t discriminate against you, while simultaneously providing all the information they need to do exactly that.
I’m not a religious person. I honestly believe that God is a product of right-brain cross-chatter in susceptible individuals. I don’t follow a moral code any more than, say, Dexter Morgan does. But whenever I’m asked to provide my religious affiliation, I scroll right down to the bottom and click “other”, bypassing “not religious” entirely.
Why? Because I guess I do belong to one of the world religions. I belong to the one that has no god, no codified system of beliefs, no moral prerequisites, no bans against libidinous behaviour and has never caused a single war in its 2500 year history.
I’m a Taoist, and that term by itself requires a little untangling. Taoism belongs to the broad spectrum of Chinese folk religions and, like Confucianism or Mohism, is based around one central text. In stark contrast to other folk religions (and other religions in general) it doesn’t attempt to enforce a narrative on the world. There’s no creation myth in Taoism, or central cosmological theme. There is no “divine purpose” to the universe. The central text of Taoism is a short, unbelievably cryptic work by the philosopher Lao-Tzu. You may have heard of him; new-age hippies like to quote chance utterances of his like “a thousand mile journey starts with a single step” or “if you seek to lead people, walk behind them”. These are probably the simplest things he said: his principle work is the Tao Te Ching, the defining work of Taoism. In it he said things like,
Attain complete emptiness,
hold fast to stillness.
The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.
Things grow and grow,
but each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
this means returning to what is.
Yeah, exactly. Philosophers have spent the last twenty-five hundred years trying to work out what Lao Tzu meant: he was, by way of westernization, an inspiration on Hegel, Schopenhauer and Heidegger. The Tao (trans. “the way”) is something to be aware of in life. It’s not a thing per se, but rather an awareness of the thing that is the world. That’s a bit of a confusing statement. What I mean is that stuff exists and following the Tao means being aware of the stuff that exists. In fact, I’ll summarise what I think following the Tao in the modern world requires.
Awareness Of The World (道)
This is the central concept embodied in Taoism. Awareness of the world means accepting the world as it is, without any particular judgement. I’ll give you a counter-example. Christians believe that man is created in God’s image, which sort of requires that people behave better than they are. So when the world goes to hell, and people are killing and fighting and drinking and fucking, Christians are shocked and horrified (unless it’s them doing the fighting and killing, in which case it’s God’s will). “Why are people so naughty?” they moan, and get all weird and oppressive, creating rules and stuff and bullying people who don’t obey. As a consequence they have this weird suffering thing built in to their worldview.
Taoists, on the other hand, give the whole thing a big shrug. Being Taoist means being aware of the world, and being aware of the world means being aware that people don’t always act as nice as they can. More importantly, it means not judging them for it. Taoists understand that people are basically noble, but sometimes they do some really nasty shit.
In the Taoist concept of the world, all kinds of bad shit happens all the time, and people do terrible things, but sometimes really cool things happen too. If you’re a Taoist you can’t bemoan the state of the world because the world’s sort of always been like this. What, did you think genocide was a modern invention? Taoism requires having a realistic understanding of people and nature.
Heaven and Earth are not kind
The ten thousand things are straw dogs to them.
The Sage is not kind:
People are straw dogs to him. 
On a personal level, I feel that “awareness of the world” means taking a healthy interest in science. Science, after all, is just a technical description, without judgement, of the world as it is. Therefore, Taoism is the only world religion that doesn’t feel that Science is encroaching on its territory.
Living with Purpose (三宝)
This is easy. Judaism says you should follow the Ten Commandments. Christianity says you should redeem yourself in the eyes of the lord. Islam says you should follow the laws of Allah. Buddhism says you should reject the world. Taoism says you should find what makes you happy and fulfilled and go and do it. It’s probably the right thing to do. But I mean, who knows? It’s a big mystery, really. Why worry? Things will pan out.
The greatest modern example of Taoism is The Dude in The Big Lebowski, a sort of Lao Tzu figure who other people would describe as a purposeless character (or a total bum). But The Dude has purpose. His purpose is to drink as many White Russians as possible and bowl. Basically he’s a guy who lives in touch with his inner nature. That’s good enough.
Wu Wei (无为)
Look at plain silk; 
hold uncarved wood.
The self dwindles; 
desires fade.
Taoism can be said to have had a nugatory influence on Western culture, but one thing it has definitely influenced is design. The idea that form follows function is pretty much as Taoist as you can get. The primary design emphasis of the last sixty years is towards simplicity, and simplicity in both a material and a philosophical sense is kind of central to Taoism. The theory of “Wu Wei”, or form without form, is a central part of the philosophy. The Bauhaus movement, or abstract painting, or Braun’s products, right down to modern smartphone development, shows a trend of removing superfluity and emphasizing pure function. Buttons, for example, are on their way out. Hinges too. Modern phones look more and more like slivers of volcanic glass. Every iteration of technological development has a burgeoning purity of line and simplicity of design. For example:
Wu Wei is a sort of design ethos: rather than emphasize an anti-materialist philosophy, Taoism sort of asks that you own things that have a purity of design and function that gives you spiritual satisfaction. And, I mean, that can come from anything. I get a big kick out of well-designed technology, but it could be a chair or an ornament or anything capable of being aesthetically pleasing. Contemplation of the raw thing, devoid of clutter, leads to a very Zen state of mind.
Taking a Moment (自然)
Fans Queue to buy tickets for David Tennant's Hamlet Performance
So you’re rushing for the commuter train to go to the job you hate to make money in order to eat in order to continue to do a job you hate while your life thunders towards its inevitable conclusion. Oblivion awaits. Take a moment.
Tao endures. Your body dies. There is no danger.
When you’re standing in a queue to use the cash machines in the bank, and you’re jiggling from foot to foot, take a moment. Realize that of all the possible combinations of molecules that exist in the immense span of reality, you are an extremely unlikely coincidence. You exist by chance. Revel in your perception of the universe as an essentially random collection of matter and energy, ungoverned by any cosmic deity or set design.
I used to hate queuing, waiting and impatiently anticipating. then I realized that a big part of my life was moving past while I waited for other things to happen. So take a moment. Take a breath. Realize that everything is ridiculous, meaningless and arbitrary, and then go back to what you were doing.
There’s a lot more to Taoism than that, but I just wanted to concentrate on the main parts. It’s an appealing religion because it’s so morally undemanding and doesn’t ask you kill nonbelievers. What I don’t get is why a religion that doesn’t make you all stressed out and afraid of death isn’t such a big seller. I’m not attempting to convert you, because that would go against what I believe in.  But I will say this: more than any other religion, Taoism is compatible with modern life and, I would argue, necessary to deal with the stress of modern living. We have to deal with a lot of things to deal with in the course of our daily lives. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that
Trying to control the world? I see you won’t succeed.
The world is a spiritual vessel and cannot be controlled.
Those who control, fail. Those who grasp, lose.
Some go forth, some are led, Some weep, some blow flutes,
Some become strong, some superfluous, Some oppress, some are destroyed.
Therefore the Sage Casts off extremes, Casts off excess, Casts off Extravagance.

2 responses to “Being A Taoist in the Modern World

  1. Pingback: Being A Taoist in the Modern World | Death and Life, for Helen·

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