There are hundreds of religions around the world today, and although they may have different approaches or methods, many of the teachings or lessons are universal. Due to the popularity of my Everyday Buddhism, I decided to continue the thread and highlight another religion and message.
Today’s musing is based on the teachings of Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion and philosophy heavily influenced by the teachings of Lao Tzu. As he writes,
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
Life is change. Anyone who argues this point need look no farther than the sun above their head or the flower at their feet. We are all part of this constant ebb and flow of the universe, which extends from the changing of the seasons to the orbit of the galaxies to the activity of molecules and atoms.
Change is everywhere around us
Change can be hard. It’s definitely not easy to move across the country for a new job, quit a bad habit, or even go on a diet. It’s stressful when a big unexpected change occurs without our wanting, like getting laid off or hearing that a loved one has cancer. There’s no denying that we naturally want to resist change because it makes us uncomfortable.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Taoism embraces this idea of change as a fundamental concept, symbolized by the duality of the Yin and Yang. The two aspects represent the balancing forces that make up one united whole.
The Yang is characterized as active, positive, creative, masculine, and light, whereas the Yin is characterized as passive, negative, destructive, feminine, and dark.
It’s important to note here that there is no moral connotation associated with the two sides, and that both are seen as equally important to a balanced life. Just as the flower springs from the ground in a time of growth, it must also die and return to the ground to provide nourishment to the next flowers.
Where there is Yang, there must also be Yin
Now if we look around us at nature, we see this cyclical motion to be present everywhere. The tides are always changing, but continue in a cycle, as do the seasons, the planets, and pretty much everything. To take a line out of The Lion King, it’s all part of the Circle of Life. There’s a reason it’s not called the Square or the Triangle of Life.
Everything is in constant motion.
Although they are seen as being opposite in characteristic, these two sides are considered to be in harmony, complementary to each other and forever interdependent. They are both contained within the same circle, so as one increases the other must decrease, and vice versa.
This is also the reason for the small circle on opposing sides of the Taijitu (or Yin-Yang symbol); just as one reaches its largest potential it already contains the seeds for the other. It also reminds us that no situation is completely Yin or Yang; there is always some quality of the other involved.
For that reason, one of the major goals of Taoism is embracing the idea of change, the back and forth of Yin and Yang, which is something like the modern idea of going with the flow.
It’s not really going with the flow in the sense of being passive to an extreme, but rather, it’s allowing one’s self to be in harmony with whatever changes occur, good or bad.
Our view of the world is based on the idea that these two opposite characteristics are different entities. In conventional thought, the Yin side implies something unwanted, inherently bad or wrong, and even evil in some extremes. When we are in a period of Yin, we tend to believe we are in a period of bad luck.
The most important concept of the Yin and Yang is that although they are opposite in nature, they both stem from a common source, which is the Tao.
Literally, the Tao means “the path” or “the way.” It is the universe, and is also the process or principle by which the universe exists. Everything is Tao, and everything is governed by Tao.
Taoism has no principle god, and instead the Tao is used to represent the creating, existing, and governing principle of everything. Everything is one; everything is Tao.
Therefore, both Yin and Yang are Tao. They are opposites, but made of the same material and follow the same laws.
This dualism must exist, because otherwise there is no definition. As Lao Tzu said, “under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness. All can know good as good only because there is evil.”
This is the idea of contrast. We only know happiness because one time we were sad; if we were happy all the time without fail, we wouldn’t really recognize it as happiness because we would have nothing to compare it to. This explains why a small act of kindness can be so meaningful on an extremely stressful day, or how one mistake can ruin a perfect moment.
Without contrast, there is no definition
In this way Taoism breaks from the moral code of many religions, because although Yang has the quality of light, positive, and “good” and Yang has the quality of dark, negative, and “bad,” they are both, essentially, the same. They are both Tao, and they are always changing.
This presents a controversial idea, which Lao Tzu poses in his writing: “Is there a difference between yes and no? Is there a difference between good and evil?”
In Taoist thought, everything in the universe is both Yin and Yang, so nothing can be inherently good or inherently evil. As Chuang Tzu, another Taoist sage, states,
All existing things are really one. We regard those that are beautiful and rare as valuable, and those that are ugly as foul and rotten. The foul and rotten may come to be transformed into what is rare and valuable, and the rare and valuable into what is foul and rotten.
Instead of trying to choose a side, or fighting the battle of good versus evil like many other religions, Taoism focuses on embracing the tide of the Tao, being in peace with both the Yin and the Yang.
The quality of our lives is dependent upon how we react to the ebb and flow of these energies
Once we truly accept this, we can begin to notice the pattern in our day to day lives. Just as it is said in the cherished passage from Ecclesiastes that is often recited at funerals, there is a time for everything.
Look at the events that are passing through your life right now. Do they represent a time of speeding up, activity, and expansion or slowing down, passivity and reflection? Is it a period of Yang or Yin?
If we can recognize these times for what they are, we can better align our attitudes and our behaviors to match. If you are getting a lot of criticism at work lately, it’s not a good time to start an ambitious new project. On the other hand, if your job is going really well you should take advantage instead of quietly sitting back and doing nothing.
Lao Tzu said, “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” If we let ourselves change and adapt to the current situation, we will find ourselves more powerful and more at peace.
Instead of seeking for a life of extremes, such as one with “no fear,” “great financial wealth” or “pure happiness,” we should look for peace and harmony in a life of balanced change.
We then learn to embrace all stages of life as the natural way of the universe, being all one and the same. When we truly recognize these two complementary aspects to be without separation, it is called becoming one with the Tao.