In the great global sharing of wisdom that the past few decades have brought, Westerners have been exposed to all sorts of Eastern jewels. One of my favorites is Daoism (you may know it by its older spelling, Taoism). Daoism is a philosophy based on aligning one’s life with the Dao or Way. Dao is the origin of all things, the thread that ties everything together, the natural way, the order of the universe. It is the flow of life which we can abide by for an easy ride, or resist for a less easy ride.
The first and most famous book on Daoism, the Dao De Jing (written about 500 BCE), starts with the line, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao.” The Dao De Jing (DDJ) emphasizes that when we speak of the Dao, when we reduce it to words, we lose something of its essence. Like all profound spiritual truths, its essence cannot be understood through mental analysis, it must be lived.
The simplicity of Daoist philosophy would be highly therapeutic for Westerners. If you already have a religion, or, in any case, have little interest in joining something else, it’s not a problem – we have the tremendous opportunity of being able to explore a variety of world cultures and practices, and to admire and/or adopt any practice that brings richness, clarity, or peace to our lives. Daoist philosophy does not contradict any religious practice – you could be a Jewish Daoist, a Christian Daoist, a Muslim Daoist, or just a person who likes Daoism, no label required.
If I could do Daoism the small disservice of compressing it into a tiny nutshell, the first bit of its wisdom I would convey is Jian (“jee-ehn”), one of the “three treasures” mentioned in the DDJ. Jian is translated as simplicity or frugality. Simplicity is kind of the antithesis of the trend in the West (and now the East also), where we have a strong drive toward complexity and the accumulation of stuff. We tend to believe we need special tools, scientific proof, and above all more – more of whatever we think we’re lacking – in order to be happy. Living with the Dao doesn’t mean you need to get rid of all your stuff, but if you’re juggling a lot of balls you’re in for a bigger challenge. Some unknown wise person said, “The Truth is simple! If it were complicated, everyone would get it.”
Chapter forty-eight of the DDJ starts, “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired. In the pursuit of the Dao, every day something is dropped.” Frugality isn’t just a matter of being economical with money. It means not seeking to acquire what we already have. It means curtailing useless expenditures of energy. It means not doing more than what is needed to make our lives work. Worry would be a good example of a useless expenditure of energy – it never yields a “return.”
We seek a lot of things: answers, peace, love, a connection to the Divine. Part of the practice of Jian is recognizing that it would not be frugal to look outside ourselves for these things if they are already within us. Dao, like water, takes the simplest path – the path of least resistance. Like water, “It is content with the low places.” Sometimes Jian means taking a break from focusing on all the junk we pile onto our natural state of consciousness: to-do lists, worries, desires, etc. In the quiet that is beneath this noise, we find that the answers, the love, the peace, and the Divine are already here. But don’t take my word for it. I am speaking of the Dao, so the truth of it has been colored by my interpretations. See for yourself.
Dr. Peter Borten