The universe is dynamic, every changing. How can we move with it, naturally, spontaneously? How can we prepare for the future or understand the past? How can we be calm in the midst of change?
Things are constantly forming and reforming and disappearing and reappearing. This is the Tao, this is reality: in movement, in process, dynamic.
However, practice of Wu Wei, the stillness in the midst of motion, allows one a certain advantage, achieved through observation, experience, and practice.
Te, and the stillness that engenders it, is something we cultivate–with diet, exercise, practices, etc. And, some Taoists say, we can store up Te, here in our midsection, our point of perfect balance in our body. Or, perhaps, I would say, in our minds, we store up an almost automatic response that has become imprinted on our consciousness, the response that is “mindless” willingness to be open, to perceive, to receive the present moment in all its uniqueness.
Through practice of Wu Wei, we store up stillness, or the ability to move easily into stillness. When we need it, when things are challenging, we have only to become still, even momentarily, to allow the Te to move, and to move when it is needed and how it is needed, of its own perfect accord.
Here is a quote by John Blofield:
“Whereas fallen autumn leaves never produce identical patterns on the earth, the comings and goings of autumn itself vary only within narrow limits. Such cycles are foreseeable, as for example the alternation of day and night and of the four seasons. Taoist adepts learn both to contemplate and investigate the various sequences of change; contemplation engenders the tranquility that arises when loss, decay and death are recognized as being no less essential to the whole than gain, growth, life; investigation permits one to foresee, within certain limits, what will inevitably occur.”
To have an internal peacefulness means to recognize that, willy-nilly, we affect what is happening in us and around us, and we take responsibility for whatever we do or don’t do. We can do this because we are good observers of ourselves and the rest of reality. Therefore, we can attempt to be true to ourselves, our own unique inner core, and attempt to maintain that in the midst of change, our own change and the changes in the world around us.
To do this, we must be great observers and contemplators. Taoist meditation is part of the practice to help us gain deep understanding. We must observe our own natures, our own triggers, our own behaviors that could bring about unwanted changes.
Taoists felt that if you can know about your own way of being and observe about the way of other things around you, you can activate your Te, flow with the current instead of fighting it.
One writer on Taoism has used a modern example about driving to describe Wu Wei and Te.
A skillful driver, he says, takes the action of using the brake and the clutch of his car, but always only by responding to what is immediately needed, never with any inclination to keep in mind later, “I braked back there,” or to plan ahead “I shall brake in exactly five minutes.” No, the driver is in the moment, keeping calmly and safely mobile, with attention of the immediacy of the situation. Suit the action to the moment.
To do this, one cannot be rigid, fixed in any one idea or action or habit. We might say, “Don’t be bull-headed, taking thing straight on. The Taoists spoke of “round-about persuasion,” or doing things by “indirection.” One Taoist writer said:
I would like to lead the ruler by straightforward advice, but the ruler would not follow. I would like to influence friends by frank criticism, but the friends would not listen. I tried to discipline my family by rigid rules but the family would not take it. I tried to live by stern principles, but society thought me lacking in tact. So I learned the round-about way. A man curves around the bank of the stream until he can find a place to ford. He doubles up on his sleep for rest, he bends his arms when carrying things, and crooks his legs when sitting on the ground. Looking up at the sky, he tilts his head. So then we do everything indirectly. We circumscribe an obstacle, go around a difficulty, answer by evasion. We have a round-about solution. If someone calls me a cow, I will roundly admit it. If they call me a horse, I will roundly admit that too. There are many applications of the principle of going around. Things that are curved are useful, like the plowshare, the hollowed chisel, the wicker basket made of bent vines. Well, then, I would like to be the plowshare, the hollowed chisel, and the wicker basket.
When I lived in California, where there were earthquakes, the engineers who built buildings did not fight the earthquakes by making rigid buildings, they made buildings with foundations in the earth that were flexible, that could move when the quake came without bringing the building down. Another example of moving stillness.
Taoism is all about non-rigid structures and about suiting the action to the moment, not the moment to the plan.
Don’t getting anxious, however things go. If you are in traffic and it’s slow, just slow down, don’t push the traffic, don’t get anxious and get in an uproar and get in a wreck.
If we are good practiced Taoists, we don’t push, things just naturally happen, and we naturally respond in the easiest, most effective way. The Taoists love the concept of spontaneity, and they say that doors open for us spontaneously if we are in the Tao, if we are in the natural flow of things, if we don’t push. Let things work their way around.
We are instructed to interfere as little as possible with our own natural way of being, and especially we are to interfere as little as possible with others by trying to control them or correct them or rule them.
Lao Tsu said that the best way to rule a country is the same way you cook a small fish, which is to say, you don’t fiddle around with it any more than you absolutely have to or it will fall apart.
Further, Taoists were singularly unattached to the outcome of things.
As Alan Watts loved to say, we don’t dance to get to the end of the dance, we dance for the joy of the dance itself. The purpose is to be with the dance while it’s happening, not to get to the conclusion. We may even perhaps improvise along the way if we are not attempting to get to some fore-ordained outcome.
Watts said once that if the goal of music was to get to the end, then the best orchestra would be the one that could play the fastest and the best composition would be the shortest one, which is nonsense, of course. Music is to be enjoyed, not concluded. And, Watts also pointed out, we speak of “playing music,” not “working music.” This is a thoroughly Taoist attitude.
Trust. When we follow the Tao, nothing is accidental or even wrong.
It is all part of a sublime balancing of the cycles of change.
Whatever comes to us is to be greeted calmly and dealt with honorably, even things we don’t like. For if it comes to us, somehow it is ours. I think of Jung’s concept of synchronicity, the notion that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to powerfully related.
The history of Taoism is full of stories of sages who lived lives according to the teaching of Tao, developed their Te, did seemingly miraculous things, and became “immortal.” By this they meant something other than what we might mean.
Chuang Tsu said it best, some 2500 years ago, when he was already speaking of the old ones, the Lao Tsu, who had come before him:
The true men of old did not know what it was to love life or to hate death. They did not rejoice in birth, nor strive to put off dissolution. Unconcerned they came and unconcerned they went. That was all. They did not forget when it was they had sprung, neither did they seek to inquire their return thither. Cheerfully they accepted life, waiting patiently for their restoration. This is what is called not lead the heart astray from Tao, and not to supplement the natural by human means. Such a one may be called a true human.
Such are free in mind and calm in demeanor…Sometimes disconsolate like autumn and sometimes warm like spring, their joys and sorrows are in direct touch with the four seasons, in harmony with all creation, and none know the limit thereof.
For what they cared for was One and what they did not care for was One also. That which they regarded as One was One, and that which they did not regard as One was One likewise. In that which as One, they were of God; in that which was not One, they were of man. And so between the human and the divine no conflict ensued. This was to be a true man…
To have been cast in this form is to us already a source of joy. How much greater joy beyond our conception to know that that which is now in human form may undergo countless transitions, with only the infinite to look forward to? Therefore it is that the sage rejoices in that which can never be lost, but endures always. For if we emulate those who can accept graciously long age or short life and the vicissitudes of events, how much more should we emulate that which informs all creation on which all changing phenomena depend…”
So it is possible to have peace in the reality that is ceaseless change.
In Brian Walker’s translation of the ancient Taoist teaching, the Hua Hu Ching, we read:
“Do you imagine the universe is agitated?
Go into the desert at night and look out at the stars.
This practice should answer the question.
The superior person settles her mind as the universe settles the stars in the sky.
By connecting her mind with the subtle origin, she calms it.
Once calmed, it naturally expands, and ultimately her mind becomes as vast and immeasurable as the night sky.”
Taoism says that a human can only go beyond the ever-changing, pulsating aspect of nature by becoming one with the pulsation itself.
This is to say that where we consciously place our identity determines our peace of mind. If we see ourselves as being part and parcel of the Wholeness that Taoists call the Great Tao (whose aspect is change, or Te), we can abide in trusting peacefulness.
That is the practice of the Taoist.
As John Blofeld wrote:
I met an old Taoist sage who said that he was talking to an Immortal who said that he was sick. He had said, “When were you sick? It is hard to image an Immortal with a cough or the hiccups. I should have thought…”
He chuckled heartily. “Worse than that, young sir, Immortals not only break wind or belch like other people, they even die. Can it ever have been otherwise? Becoming immortal has little to do with physical changes like the graying of a once glossy black beard. It means coming to know something. Realizing something, an experience that can happen in a flash. Ah, how precious is that knowledge. When it first strikes you, you want to sing and dance or you nearly die laughing. For suddenly you realize that nothing in the world can ever hurt you. Though thunder roar or torrents boil, though serpents hiss or arrows rain, you meet them laughing. You see your body as a flower, born to bloom, to give forth fragrance, to wither, and to die. Who would care for a peony that stayed as it was for a lifetime, for a thousand or ten thousand years; a mere cabbage would be worthy of more attention. It is well that things die when worn out and no loss at all. For life is immortal and never grows with the birth of things and never diminishes with their death. Now do you see? You cannot die because you never lived. Life cannot die because it has no beginning and no end.
“Becoming an Immortal just means ceasing to identify yourself with shadows and recognizing that the only you is everlasting life.”
The Taoist sage Chuang Tsu taught that the only way an individual can hope to attain to serenity and inner peace is to achieve this conscious union with the Tao. As D. Howard Smith writes in The Wisdom of the Taoists:
“As Chuang Tsu contemplated the world of nature in all its kaleidoscopic forms, and as he pondered on the varieties of human experience, he came to realize that the whole universe consists of a natural and spontaneous process of transition and change. Let one, therefore, attune oneself to the rhythm of life which goes on unceasingly. Rid self of all fretfulness, anxiety and conscious striving. Admit that all human experiences are fleeting and temporary and will only be resolved by learning conformity with the Tao of one’s own nature. Only thus can the individual find that peace and contentment which are indescribable.
Chung Tsu certainly believed that there is an eternal principle which lies within and beyond all that exists. What it is in itself remains a supreme mystery. But he believed that wisdom lay in seeking for it in the inmost of one’s own mind, in a quietude beyond conceptual thought or reasoning. In what he called ‘a fast of the mind’ it is possible to reach through to an ecstatic union, and allow Tao to exert unimpeded action within one’s own nature. This is, perhaps, what he means by ‘non-activity’ or ‘not-doing’ (Wu Wei), a spontaneous action without thought of result…The truly wise and great learn to rest themselves in Tao.”