green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset

Lessons from Taoism: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

It was at a university book sale where I was first introduced to the ideas of Taoism. Hidden away deep in the philosophy section, I picked up what initially seemed like a strange esoteric book – the Tao Te Ching. It was a short text, under 100 pages, that was filled with often puzzling language and concepts which seemed contradictory at first.

As I dived deeper into the book exploring its key themes and lessons, I saw its potential to act as a roadmap for inner freedom and liberation.  Moreover, I understood the possibility for Taoist ideas to be used as a remedy for the anxiety of our current age. A period in which we have come to measure success in terms of status, wealth and power. Mass pop culture has propagated homogeneity and conformity, resulting in everyone feeling the need to be the same. This has detached us from our inherent spontaneity, creativity and uniqueness.  

Taoism invites us to live in harmony and balance with the natural world. To surrender and let go of our futile attempts of control. It opposes the cold, mechanical and alienating world view that has come to dominate our thought in the 21st century.

It claims that we should see ourselves as part of nature, not separate from it. Humans are both situated within and inseparable from the universe. Just as a single wave is a part of the ocean at large, we are deeply connected to the world around us.

As religious scholar Jacob Needleman writes in his introduction to the Tao Te Ching,

Man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe is and moves. 

Many of the core Taoist ideas can be summarized with the widely used cliché, ‘go with the flow.’ Just as it makes sense to swim with the current of the river than against it, we should aim to live as simply and effortlessly as possible. From this perspective, we realize that many of our struggles do in fact come from making things more complicated and difficult than they need to be.

The more we try to control things, the more uncontrollable they become.

One example of this phenomenon can be seen when dealing with stress or anxiety. In many cases it is usually unhelpful to try and control or get rid of anxiety when you are experiencing it. This approach will likely only heighten one’s stress levels. Rather, the trick is to learn to surrender to the present moment. To learn to ride the waves of anxiety and let is pass and flow through you.

Throughout this series I will argue that Taoist concepts and ideals offer a means to break through the rigidity of modern systems of thought, and lead us towards freedom and authenticity.

We can see the world as interconnected refraining from over analyzing and categorizing everything into neat little boxes, and come back to the wisdom of intuitive ways of knowing and understanding.

As we quickly progress towards an ever more technological society, I think Taoism offers us a reminder for us to not forget what it means to be human.

It provides us with a means to understand our proper place in the world.

The surest way to become tense, awkward and confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard – one that thinks too much

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

This article was originally posted on my personal blog

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15 thoughts on “Lessons from Taoism: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

  1. Wow! This was so timely, it makes me want to cry. I was just meditating and had very similar thoughts coming to me. What a great confirmation and feeling. This was the first thing I came to and didn’t even click on reader, nor know how I got here! ❤️🤗🙏

    1. It’s crazy, because as I was meditating/praying, I prayed that I don’t want to “box god in”. I come from a fundamentalist background that has been very hard on my mind. So this, and several other things I was just contemplating on, were mentioned. 😭 I rarely get up and meditate/pray first thing and have been feeling the nudge to practice more of my “preaching”(thinking, learning, speaking). I lack the practice, yet flood myself with the teachings…So this has made my day lol.

  2. “Go with the flow.”
    I love this. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what it means to live “in the flow”, so to speak. For myself that means getting out of the way of living in the flow of the Spirit. You reminded me of the forward by Tich Nhat Hanh in Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. Hahn says Merton was filled with human warmth. Conversation with him was so easy, he told him a few things and Merton understood things he didn’t tell him as well. He was open to everything, constantly asking questions, thinking deeply. He told him about his life as a Buddhist novice in Vietnam, and he wanted to know more.
    It’s a beautiful forward, two different faiths represented, connecting, and a beautiful book.
    Thank you for reminding me, and for your post!

  3. I did an extensive and intensive Taoism study about a decade or so ago. You’ve rekindled my interest. I think I need to revisit those great Taoist texts I read in the past. Thanks for the post.

  4. Loved the Benjamin Hoff quote. Sorry if this is a repeat comment but my first one went into outer space.

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