Welcome to The Path of Water

This site is dedicated to exploring the Tao and Philosophical Taoism; and how it relates to everyday modern life in the 21st Century. It also includes posts relating to how I feel Taoism can provide insights for dealing with the problems of everyday living.

The process of writing out my thoughts helps me to explore what I believe and why, so these posts will probably develop over time. I hope that you'll find this site interesting and, for those of you new to the Tao and Taoism, I hope that it can provide you with a first step on the path to a rich spiritual life. If you want to post comments relating to a post or the site as a whole I'd be grateful as all feedback is helpful.

Enjoy your visit - In Tao - Woody

Who would follow the Way must go beyond words.
Who would know the world must go beyond names. *

No man ever steps in the same river twice,
for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. **

Monday, 20 December 2010

Taoism and renewal

At this time of the year I'm always reminded of the Taijitu symbol - or the Yin / Yang symbol as it is better known. Not just a pretty design, it symbolises something fundamental in the nature of reality and our experience of it. At the point of greatest Yin, Yang is born and at greatest Yang, Yin is born. Over time everything is born, grows, dies, and is then renewed starting the cycle all over again.

For those of us in the Northern hemisphere tomorrow is the Winter Solstice and we can see the relationship with the Taijitu because at the point of Solstice, our longest night, is born the start of the long journey to the Summer Solstice, our longest day. Indeed I've seen suggestions that the origins of the Taijitu is in observations of the Sun as it moves from Winter to Summer Solstice and back again.

So what does this tell us about our day to day lives? Possibly the best lessons are captured in the old sayings "nothing lasts forever" and "the darkest hour is before the dawn." If you are feeling sad, remember that over time this will pass. If you're feeling overwhelmed by everything, remember that the intensity will not persist and if you hang in there things will become easier. We should also remember however that the opposite is also true, there may be times when we feel sad and times when we feel overwhelmed. So when life is good and when you are enjoying yourself savour it - enjoy the moment - don't take it all for granted. These changes will happen whether or not we want them to. While me may be able to exert some influence upon them essentially we have to bend with the wind - to live in the moment experiencing things as they are, not raging and shouting about how we think they should be.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,

without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the centre of the circle.

TTC Ch. 29 (12)


Monday, 9 August 2010

Taoism and the Universe


The universe is the unity of all things. If one recognizes his identity with this unity, then the parts of his body mean no more to him than so much dirt, and death and life, end and beginning, disturb his tranquillity no more than the succession of day and night.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Taoism, forgiveness and anger management

On the Reform Taoism member forum there's been a really good discussion going regarding anger management and forgiveness. I'm reproducing here the essence of my posts in the thread in the hope that they may be of some wider use.

The original poster (OP)  initially asked for insights from members with regard to Taoism and anger management. This was my response...

For me anger is wrapped up with the ego and arises when my perception of how the world/things/life etc "should be" comes in conflict with how it actually "is." IMHO there's nothing wrong per se with feeling angry. If you feel angry then let it out, but try to direct it so that it causes minimal damage.

What I do once it's out is try to examine where the conflict is and how it arises. I don't try to "control" or "manage" my anger but I find that through understanding the nature of the source conflict, I gain perspective and the situation rarely arises again. Sometimes however it takes several goes before I really understand the source of the conflict.

The strange thing I find is that usually when I finally understand the root of my anger it's almost always something petty, small, and quite often embarrassingly childish. But then as Taoists we
shouldn't run away from our childishness - just not let it take over our lives.

...Following on from the anger management discussion the OP identified that some of their anger originated in unresolved feelings from events in past relationships. In an effort to resolve these the OP enquired about Taoist advice regarding forgiveness. The essence of my responses and resulting discussions are presented here...
  • Forgive or don't forgive. It doesn't matter. It won't change the past - that's been and gone. 
  • Forgiving or not forgiving maintains the illusion that events can in some way still be changed. 
  • Dwelling on past events will bring you no benefit, it won't change anything - it will only take you away from the present and hamper your ability to find harmony.
  • Everything "good" and "bad" has brought you to this point. Both are of equal value in making you who you are.
  • What to do? Give yourself a break. 
  • Accept the past for what it is - something that has been and gone. 
  • Make the decision to live the life you have now, not one that has ceased to be.

...the discussion proceeded onto the roots of the emotional pain from which the anger arises and the urge to forgive or not forgive. You may notice that these issues are closely tied with those of guilt and shame covered in my previous post. Here's what I had to say...

It is the ego that feels wronged. It's saying "Don't you know who I am? I'm too important to be treated like this!" It's all tied up in only "seeing the manifestations" as described in chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching.I believe that this is a good example of how Taoism can offer us better answers.

It all boils down to a conflict between what happens and what a person (specifically their ego) desires to happen. There is a vision projecting into the future of how things will be & when reality doesn't fit the illusion there is naturally conflict, pain, etc. This can be further amplified by past similar events reinforcing the sense of injustice or vulnerability. This is what the Tao Te Ching is talking about when it says things like...

When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

[The master] has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

...so both forgiving and not forgiving are just tricks of the ego making it seem as if you have some kind of power or control over past events. Don't fret over the past and how things didn't live up to your expectations, and don't build expectations of the future and how things are going to be. Give them both up and live in the now...

Living in the moment,
abandoning the baggage of past events,
abandoning the baggage of future expectations,
you become free.

Taoism and guilt or shame

Looking at some of the stats for visits to the site I saw that one issue that comes up repeatedly is how Taoism addresses issues such as shame and guilt. I think we all have an idea of what we mean by these terms  but I thought that I'd look up some dictionary definitions from www.thefreedictionary.com - these are the definitions I chose...

shame - A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.

guilt - Self-reproach for supposed inadequacy or wrongdoing.

Their origin is in how we have somehow failed to meet up to some standard of behaviour. This standard may be an external one imposed by others or society in general, or they may be internal ones which we have consciously or unconsciously imposed upon ourselves. Taoism can help a lot with these feelings. There are two things to examine - the standard and our actions.

Where has the standard come from? What is its purpose? There are obviously social standards of behaviour like laws and customs, but I'd argue that most are based on values we have acquired, normally without consciously analysing or deciding to adopt them. These standards, both social and acquired, are part of the value judgements that dominate our lives. While seeming to give order and structure they are actually a barrier to true enlightenment. The Tao Te Ching says...

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

 TTC Ch. 2 (12)

...so we have to get past these values to truly find our way. However this can be difficult because it's reassuring to have these standards, no matter the pain they give us, because without their guidance and limitations we have to trust ourselves - and that can be very scary.

The second issue is our behaviour. Taoism says that the reason we find conflict with these standards, even when we're trying to follow them, is because we're denying our true nature. This denial leads us to abnormal behaviour patterns induced by the conflict between what we are trying to be and what we truly are. The Tao Te Ching says...

Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

TTC Ch. 9 (12)


Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

TTC Ch. 20 (12)

...Shame and guilt are illusions that help to bind us to those standards. When we fail to meet them, guilt and shame are a system of punishment enacted to encourage us to "do better" next time. So let go of those standards. Let go of guilt and shame. Stop trying to be who and what you think you should be, or what others think you should be, and start being who and what you really are.

It's important however to realise this doesn't mean "Do whatever you want!" It means something deeper. Doing what you want often means indulging yourself by doing all the things these standards say you shouldn't. Taoism is about moving past them completely and starting a journey of discovery. Indulging yourself in breaking taboos for the sake of it gets you nowhere - it's just the other side of the coin from obeying them. You need to let them go completely.

So! Are you brave enough to abandon everything you "know" and embrace a life where there's no moral compass or arbitrary set of rules to follow? Are you brave enough to discover who you really are? Then maybe it's time to embrace Taoism.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Taoism, blocks, carving & sticking

There's a concept in Taoism called P'u, which translates roughly as the "uncarved block." Briefly, it is a metaphor that addresses the idea that when we are born we are in harmony with the Tao. Unburdened by values like right & wrong, the names of things, beauty & ugliness, we are free to fully experience existence. As we grow we develop more and more values and move further and further from harmony with the Tao. This is like a block of wood which uncarved has unlimited potential but which with each cut of the sculptors chisel becomes more restricted in the forms it can take. However Taoists are aware of the limitations this "carving" imposes and so seek to return to the "uncarved" state - and hence harmony.

It's a metaphor that I've never been really happy with and it's not what I believe happens. Once a block is carved, you can fill in the holes & artfully paint the surface to make it again look un-carved, but it's just a carved block pretending to be un-carved. I was walking into my daughter's school this morning and suddenly the thought occurred to me that I believe it is more a case of the "unadorned block." As we go through life things like ego, labels, limits etc get added to our original state, just like sticking things onto a block of wood - making us like an "adorned block." If the adornment makes the block look like a hammer it may seem as if it can only be used as a hammer. Take off all the adornment however and you'll find the original block still there unchanged and full of possibilities. So rather than trying to repair the "damage" life has done, we're just trying to get back to something that's always been there but has just become difficult to see.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Taoism and Universal Healthcare

I'm interested in what Taoism can tell us about living in the real world and the decisions we make. In recent times the issue of some form of universal healthcare system has been proposed for the United States. As a beneficiary of and contributor to the UK National Health Service (NHS) I think it's interesting to look at the debate and see if there's anything in Taoist teachings that can inform the decision.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of this issue I think I should first declare my personal viewpoint which obviously may colour my response. Like many Europeans I've grown up with state run universal healthcare and the idea that any country would not have such a scheme seems something medieval. I also believe that capitalism can be a crude but effective system for resource management but that in many areas it must be controlled and restricted to meet the greater needs of society as a whole.

To understand what Taoism has to say it is important to first understand the underlying issue. Normally the debate regarding the provision of universal healthcare starts with why should it be done? In this post however I'd like to look at the reasons why not to do it because they relate directly to what Taoism has to say on this issue. The biggest arguments against seem to be either directly or indirectly economic or political. There is the cost of provision, resistance to paying more taxes, suspicion that a state organisation will waste money or that costs will be inflated, and resentment about "subsidising" those who are poorer or perceived as less hard working or worthy. It is important to realise that regardless of the validity of any of these arguments or your personal political outlook, these are issues that relate to the impact that implementing such a scheme has upon you. For those that do not support universal healthcare I am not saying this as a criticism but because it relates to Taoism's teachings.

So what can Taoism tell us about the debate? I would argue that for a Taoist the answer is simple. In chapter 67 of the Tao Te Ching we are told of the Three Jewels or Three Treasures, namely Compassion, Simplicity, and Humility. Obviously introducing a universal healthcare provision is an act of compassion and putting the needs of others before your own involves humility, so I believe that for Taoists supporting such a scheme is consistent with the journey.

It is important however to understand why a Taoist would support such a scheme. I intend to discuss the Three Jewels in more detail in a later post but I feel some clarification at this point is important. The Tao Te Ching says....

When the great Way is forgotten,
the doctrines of humanity and morality arise

TTC Ch.18 (5)

...so compassion and humility are "jewels" of virtue for a Taoist but not for reasons of humanity and morality? Precisely so. Compassion, simplicity, and humility are "jewels" because by practising them it becomes easier to reach harmony with the Tao. A Taoist would not support such a scheme because it is "good" or "just" or "humane" but because it requires you to relinquish a bit of the personal, the "me," the ego - and that takes you a small step closer to harmony.