I wrote the following several years ago. While I might express things a bit differently now, I stand by it.
Guide to Practical Daoism
By Rick Matz
A lot of people seem look to Daoism for a justification for their “doing what they want.” That’s probably not what Daoism is about at all. Daoism has everything to do with order. "The way things work."
Philosophy isn’t about idle speculation over a cup of tea. It has to do with real life. These ideas aren’t airy concepts, but are rooted in our lives. The Daoist isn’t blown about by the random forces of life. He makes choices, with a clear idea of the consequences. He understands the order in nature, especially human nature. Order, choice, and responsibility for those choices.
There is much talk in Daoism about Yin and Yang, and that they must be kept in balance. It’s a dynamic balance, however. The world is forever changing, and today’s formula for putting our lives in balance doesn’t necessarily apply to tomorrow. There is no magic bullet. Once you “get it,” that doesn’t mean that you’ll always have green lights, or, that you won’t have to rotate your tires. “Getting it” doesn’t mean you can kick back and goof off because everything is going to to your way from now on. The Taoist is constantly observing and adjusting.
“Your way.” That’s the flaw in thinking. That’s an erroneous idea people have about religions and philosophies. Some people feel that a religion or philosophy should adapt to whatever it is that the individual wants to do. This is backwards. To be an effective philosophy, a person should manage their life according the the precepts of that philosophy. We may each be the center of our own universe, but we are not the center of THE universe.
Daoism is an alternative scientific method. It is a scientific method that is meant to deal with the whole of things, and not just their physics. Nature, as well as human nature is included as well. It must be included, because human nature colors every aspect of our lives. A science of how to prepare strategies to live our lives.
A Daoist does everything with a purpose. Even their stillness and quietness is purposeful.
Basically, Daoism deals with ends and means. We are asked to look to nature when considering these ends and means. What is meant by 'nature'? How things grow and wither. Cause and effect. Succession. And, as the Dao De Ching teaches, "reversion".
The Four Seasons gently succeed each other. A rapid change is a storm, and is often violent and destructive. But, extremes tend to balance out over time.
The I Ching, which is supposed to be an oracle, really has little to do with divination/fortune telling. It can be a very sophisticated system of analysis and evaluation.
When considering a question, a hexagram is thrown. This hexagram has to be considered line by line. Starting at the bottom line, how does this Yin, Yang, moving Yin, or moving Yang line apply to the problem? After all six lines are considered, they have to be taken in pairs. How do the Earth, Man, and Heaven pairs reflect on the question? Then the upper and lower trigrams have to be compared and reconciled to the problem. Finally, the whole hexagram itself.
By the time this exercise has been completed, it doesn’t matter what the book says, the analyst has turned the problem over and over again. If there are moving lines, this can be repeated with the resultant hexagram. The book is just a strawman for the analyst to use as a starting point in the evaluation.
Finally the hexagrams should be considered with respect to the four seasons - what is the nature of how things change?
By the time the analyst has completed all of this, he thoroughly understands the problem, and answers should start suggesting themselves.
The ends we wish to attain should be tempered by the advice we receive from nature as well. What is high will become low. What is new, ages. You can desire to attain anything you want, but be aware of the consequences.
It’s OK to choose to “live large.” It’s OK, but there are costs and obligations. Do you want these obligations? The Daoist doesn’t just look at the first order effects; he looks at the second and third order effects as well.
In the classic, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the help Liu Pei entreats the Taoist Wizard Chuku Liang (Zhuge Liang) three times to join his group, and advise him. Why is ZL reluctant? He was content to live a quiet life on his farm. He really had to consider what he was about to embark upon. He had to be convinced of Liu PEI’s sincerity, and there was also a psychological strategy involved, as there always is - every time ZL said ‘no’ he became more important in LP’s eyes.
The Tao Te Ching, the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu, and the I Ching are not the only Daoist texts. There are many other famous and important ones we tend to overlook - The Art of War, and the other strategy books of that genre are all deeply rooted in Daoism.
The Four Seasons change, but who can say when Spring becomes Summer (ignoring the Solstice)? The changes are gradual, and there is a lesson there. A sudden change is a storm, and is often violent and destructive (however, Yin contains within it, the seed of Yang - the destruction of a forest fire brings along with it the conditions for new growth). This Winter was like the previous Winters, but it was also a unique instance. We can look to the past for lessons, but we must live each unique moment.
Each season must be experienced in turn. Without Winter, there would be no Spring.
What is meant by the Three Essentials: Earth, Man, and Heaven? Here’s an example:
You are in a situation in a bar that might turn ugly.
First, Earth. Is the place brightly lit, or is it dark? Is it crowded, and tightly packed, or is it pretty open? Is the floor covered with peanut shells, or would you have good footing? Further - in the sense of prepositioning, are you seated where you can see the exits? Are you in the main traffic area, or out of the way, where no on can see you?
Man - is your assailant drunk or high (remember, a drunk can sober up quickly sometimes)? Does he seem fit? Does he have friends around? Do you? What is your condition?
Heaven - mostly psychology. Is he showing off for friends? Did he break up with a girl friend? What’s the reason?
The Earth concept above is about positioning. Actually, the Taoist takes it a step further, and considers the pre-positioning aspect; do I even want to go into that place in the first place? The Taoist plays the percentages.
You can apply the concepts of the Three Essentials to everyday life. The Taoist is forever positioning, and pre-positioning; doing things that give them the greatest number of options, and the greatest leverage.
This is about order; but order without rigidity. Think guidelines, and flexible bounds. If order leads to rigidity, that is a trap; a trap to be avoided. Planning is essential, but so is the understanding that no amount of planning is perfect or complete. There will always be unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and one must be flexible enough to allow for that. While the Taoist may play the percentages, that doesn’t mean the calculated risk or gambit is ruled out.
There is a famous episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where ZL has occupied a city, and has only a very small force with him. He is surprised to learn that an opponent is nearby with a huge army, and is headed his way. What ZL does, is to throw open the city gates, and make certain he is seen on the city walls, relaxing and playing his lute. The opposing general sees this, and is shaken. ZL is always thoroughly prepared. This must be a trap, he thinks. He takes his army and leaves the scene immediately.
A Daoist finds freedom in order, as Mozart was able to express freedom in the established 'sense' or forms of music he wrote. An 'order' without sense is of as much use as chaos. It might even be more harmful. . Randomness is entropy, hence death. Daoism is about life.
Spontaneity only makes sense in the context of order. To be spontaneous is to step outside of order. To have nothing to step outside of, is chaos. The Taoist uses order, but is not confined by it; and, because he is not confined by it, he has the ability to be spontaneous.
The Daoist seeks to understand the first principles, and extrapolate them to accommodate any situation. The Daoist prefers simplicity to complexity, because it is easier to manage. If the Daoist must choose complexity, it is with both eyes open, and understanding that the greater the complexity, the farther reaching the unintended consequences. The Daoist prefers relaxation, because unnecessary tension is inefficient and wasteful. The Daoist believes in preparation, because to be prepared is both efficient and gives one the ability to handle affairs when they are small; before they get out of hand.
The Daoist looks for the greatest leverage and options. This is true in the questions he asks and how he approaches them. When considering a career, a Daoist might ask themselves: "where do I want to live? What sort of lifestyle do I want to have? What would it take to support that?" Of course there is a most telling question as well - "Why do I want this?"
We all find ourselves running faster and faster to keep up. A very good book on time is - 'The Art of Time' by Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber. It is mercifully a slim book. You can easily read easily in an afternoon, between all of your obligations. In it, he touches the secret of time management - you have time for what you love. You have to love everything that you do, and that is exactly what a Daoist does. You don’t have the time to do everything, so you must choose wisely.
Daoist attempts to do what is achievable, and doesn’t expend energy on what is not.
The Daoist and technology? The Daoist is happy to use technology, where it is appropriate, but doesn’t allow the technology to become a crutch. We know how easily it is to become addicted to one’s email, or to surfing the internet. The Daoist will happily use any tool at hand, but will not become dependent upon it.
Wu Wei - Doing nothing. Action through Inaction. More like doing nothing which is of no use. There is also the idea from Sun Tzu - the highest victory is to defeat the opponents plans before they are formed. In the Dao De Ching it is to solve problems while they are small and manageable. I think “Doing Nothing” is more a metaphor - doing the right things early, to apply the greatest leverage.
Of course “Doing nothing” can be applied literally as well. How many times is it better to let an event run its course, and resolve itself, rather than be engaged? Willfully doing nothing is a choice as well, together with responsibilities.
I had an episode at home recently which serves as a counter example. We decided to do some landscaping at the spur of the moment. What we had in mind turned out to be a much bigger job that we first thought. Because it wasn’t planned, I found that there was a lot of extra shuffling around that needed to be done.
If I had planned, I would have realized the enormity of the job I was taking on. I would have planned the steps that needed to be done, and the job would have gone much smoother, with less effort, in less time.
The Daoist can lead a life that can seem effortless because it is well ordered. He can appear to be spontaneous because he has a solid framework in which to live.
De - Virtue. The virtue of something is what it is, and what it does. The Daoist sees things and people for what they are, and doesn’t attribute to them any extra good (or bad) features. A person of virtue is simply himself, without affectation. This is counter to those who thinkDTaoism or Zen is being eccentric. (Or worse yet, those who adopt either to 'be' eccentric.) There is nothing eccentric about being one’s authentic self. To be without affectation is to be the “uncarved block.”