Laozi and the Philosophy of Flow
Around 600 B.C.E. in Ancient China, there lived a mysterious man who grew up and served in the Zhou Dynasty. His name was Laozi. Laozi served as a keeper of archival records for the court of the Zhou dynasty, and a scholar who specialized in understanding astrology and divination, and maintaining sacred books.
Some legends even say that Laozi met and discussed with one of the most revolutionary thinkers of Ancient China, Confucius, at one point. Confucius was so impressed by the advice and thoughts Laozi had impressed on him, describing him as a ‘dragon that rides on the breath of the clouds, and feeds on the purest Yin and Yan’. Clearly, Laozi had made an impression on him.
As the Zhou Dynasty began to decline and become morally corrupt, he departed towards the northwest border of China on a water buffalo. When he reached the border, he met Yin Xi, the official in charge of the border crossing, who asked him to put his teachings into writings.
The result of that was a book, the Tao Te Ching, consisting of 5,000 Chinese characters, discussing the meaning of Dao and virtue. After Laozi created the book, he left; no one ever saw him again. Many now wonder if he was a conflation of different legends, brought together to form the central beliefs of Daoism.
Nevertheless, his school of thought became so powerful that the Tao Te Ching became the second most translated piece of text next to the bible. There are at least 20 million Daoists to this day, living across the world.
What is Daoism?
Daoism is religion that is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought, such as Confucianism and Buddhism. There’s a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders, Confucius, Buddha and Lao Zi that explains Daoism really well.
It is said that all three tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like how he found the world to be full of terrible people, while Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world to be sweet. This makes sense, since his philosophy revolves around looking at the discord in the world, and observing the underlying harmony guided by something called the Dao, known as the path.
The Tao Te Ching discusses the Dao as the way of the world, and the path to virtue, happiness and harmony. The way isn’t confusing, but in order to follow the Dao, we need to go above reading or thinking about it. Instead, we should learn more about Wu Wei. Wu wei is a sort of purposeful acceptance of the way of the Dao, and living in harmony with it.
This might seem very vague and hard to implement, but Lao Zi’s suggestions are in actuality, extremely simple.
1. Make more time for stillness.
‘To the mind that is still, the whole mind surrenders’, Lao Zi said. We need to start to let go of our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a bit, and simply ‘experience the world’. We spend so much of our lives hurrying from one thing to another.
While this may seem unpractical in our lives, we should remember that some of the most important parts of our lives, such as developing new relationships or becoming wiser, take time.
A way I’ve tried to do this is to have select time in a day where there’s less structure, and more time for exploring my interests, whatever they might be at that time. I’ve also taken time to reflect for 10–15 minutes a couple times a week on just observing what’s around me. This could be looking at nature on a walk. So far, it’s allowed me to clear my head, and develop my ability to observe specific things.
2. Always have unconditional kindness
Lao Zi often liked to find examples of his beliefs in nature. He often compared unconditional kindness to water. Water is a resource that helps all around it, refuses to compete with anyone, and never chooses to wait for praise, traveling back to the lowest point of the ground.
Lao Zi envisioned that human compassion should embody the story of water. As people, we should try to always help those around us, without expecting reciprocity. By practicing compassion, Lao Zi says we begin to understand suffering and most importantly, ourselves.
3. When we are still and patient, we should be open
‘Empty yourselves of everything, let your mind become still.’
By developing strong attachments and defining ourselves, we limit our personal growth. Most of us have some attachments we cling to, whether it’s attachment to security, recognition or power.
But by allowing ourselves to be defined by these attachments, especially recognition, our desires become toxic. We may even start to stop accepting other people or values which don’t coincide with our definitions and attachments. By letting these things go, we optimize for the possibility of new things that may make us far more happier in life.
Whether or not Lao Zi’s philosophies were from one man, or the teachings of several philosophers, there’s a lot to be said in his life and lessons. Hopefully, by following some the principles of Taoism, we can understand ourselves at a much more deeper level.
Thanks for taking the time to read through my thoughts on Lao Zi! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to chat with me on Twitter. Or if you would like to learn about any new content I put out, subscribe to my monthly newsletter to see new projects, conferences I go to, and articles I put out!