The Way is the flow of the universe, and Daoism teaches us to go with the flow, to be in harmony with nature.
But how could we not do that? How could we ever fail to be in accordance with nature—are we not a part of it? And if we can’t paddle against the stream of Life, doesn’t this make Daoism meaningless? What’s the point of a philosophy telling us to move along the Way if there is no way that opposes the Way anyway?1
Funnily enough, this apparent pointlessness of Daoism is actually its deepest feature. Because what the Way brings about, upon meditating on it, is not primarily a change in our doing, but a change in our perception of doing: how we view what we do; that is, a change in our thinking.2
Think about it: if there is no escaping the Way, if there is no swimming against the current of Life, then what grounds do you have to worry or to ruminate, to hope or to regret? None, and this is what makes Daoism such a liberating philosophy.
It plunges your mind in cold water so that you see: there is no reason to compound your sadness by adding depressive thoughts to it, there is no reason to compound your fear by adding anxious thoughts to it, there is no reason to compound your anger by adding hateful thoughts to it.3 The best you can do in any situation is to move on with your life, move along the path of Life, while keeping your mind as cool as it gets in the moment where you know that all is as it must be.
In a similar vein, Spinoza wrote in Ethica, pars V prop. XLII schol.:
Sapiens quatenus ut talis consideratur, vix animo movetur sed sui et Dei et rerum æterna quadam necessitate conscius, […] semper vera animi acquiescentia potitur.
which translates into:
The wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, is scarcely troubled in spirit, but being conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, he […] always possesses true peace of mind.
- An alternative understanding of Daoism suggests that there are indeed ways that oppose the Way, namely, through egoic, societal, and cultural forces that may be regarded as ‘unnatural’. However, I see such an interpretation of Daoism as a philosophically dull appeal to nature. For example, is cooking an unnatural way of preparing food because it is a cultural invention, and if not, where would we draw the line? I find all such line drawing to be idle.
- More precisely, it’s an emptying of the mind, a cessation of self-conscious thought, called xu/hsu.
- In reality, of course, thoughts and emotions always come hand in hand. It’s not as if we made the conscious decision to add negative thoughts to a bad emotion, so it can’t be our task to prevent such thoughts from arising. Rather, our task is to notice them when they arise and to be aware of how they spread in our minds, patiently learning to free ourselves from them.