By Matt Timlin, the American Taoist
To begin with I’d like to make one thing clear, for the purposes of this article I’m writing assuming that you, dear readers, already have a basic knowledge of some Taoist philosophies such as Yin, Yang, Wei Wu Wei, and the Three Treasures of Taoism.
If you aren’t familiar with any of these please, fear not, you’re already on a site that is loaded with articles and links to other sites that are really eager to tell you all about these! (If I can shamelessly promote myself, I might recommend an article I wrote accomplishing this very thing, it’s called Taoism: The Basics)
I would encourage you to first do a little reading if this is the case, how are you going to learn how to apply them to your daily life if you don’t know what “they” are, right?
Once you’ve done that then continue to read this article, eventually I will give two steps to take towards learning how to apply Taoist philosophies to your daily life.
They are pretty simple steps and they might even sound stupidly obvious when you first read them. All I can say is sometimes the obvious answer is the best and it’s how I learned through my own personal experience.
Why is applying concepts found in Taoist texts like the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-Tzu’s Inner Chapters something that modern folk like us concern ourselves with?
An excellent question, and the answer may vary between you all but I will offer my own opinions on the matter.
The philosophical aspects of Taoism mainly aim to allow people to live their lives in a way that puts them in harmony with Tao. Tao translates to “the Way” which can be a kind of obscure idea but the simplest way to interpret it might be “the Way of nature” or the natural order of things.
To put it another way, Taoist philosophies try to explain what it’s like to be naturally human.
I don’t really mean this in the hunter gatherer sense of the word but more like a human before our minds and lives become so overwhelmed with the complications, stresses, and challenges of every day modern living.
That’s really the best benefit of trying this, our lives become simpler. The things that complicate our lives might not necessarily change but instead we are armed with ways to deal with them.
Another way to say it would be you’re able to see a clear path through the tangle of modern living. You find yourself more content with life rather than sweating every little thing.
Big stresses and giant problems all of a sudden become just a series of small, manageable jobs that need to be done. Your attitude towards many things in life will begin to shift for the better and as a result your mental health will begin to shift for the better.
No No, I Meant Why Taoism Specifically?
Well unlike many philosophies that wax on endlessly about the meaning of life and such, interesting though they may be, they don’t really mean much to us in terms of day to day living.
My point with this article, and indeed with my entire site, is to show people that Taoist philosophy isn’t just some heady “whoa man…” school of thought. It’s a school of thought that is nothing if not practical with applications in everyday life.
It’s ancient wisdom, but it’s still applicable today with a little interpretation. The texts that people usually go by, the Tao Te Ching and Chuang-Tzu’s Inner Chapters, were both written for an ancient Chinese demographic. What I aim to do is to show that the core ideas still work, the context just needs a little updating to modern day living.
When we look at life through this lens we begin to see that it’s actually quite useful in most aspects of life.
First Recognize it in Daily Life
In my own personal experience, after you begin to learn what some different Taoist philosophies are, it doesn’t become so much a matter of consciously applying them to your daily life. Instead it becomes more about recognizing that they already are present, only now that you know what to look for you’re just now realizing it.
As an example I’ll use something that I never get tired of talking about, Wei Wu Wei, Action without Action. Though it sounds like an impossible paradox you begin to realize that it’s just what we might call muscle memory and practiced actions.
Stop for a second right now and think of anything, literally anything you can do thoughtlessly and effortlessly. Don’t worry, I can guarantee there’s something.
If you’re a martial artist maybe there’s a form you can completely zone out on while you’re doing it, or if you’re a golfer it might be your golf swing. If you’re not so athletic and the sport examples don’t do much for you maybe look at the more intellectual, think about the very act of typing or writing.
Even the act of driving or even walking is an example of Wei Wu Wei I have used on multiple occasions because it really gets the point across.
When you walk you don’t consciously think “lift my left foot then put it down then lift my right foot then put it down” ad nauseam. Instead you just stand up and walk to wherever you wanted to go, no thought given beyond the intention of moving somewhere.
The Next Step
Once you begin to understand a concept you can begin to recognize it in your daily life. I used the example of Wei Wu Wei but don’t be fooled, this applies to any and all of them.
After you can recognize them in your daily life, this is when you can begin to consciously analyze what’s happening here. How did it come to be that you do things this particular way?
How did you get it so your golf swing happens so thoughtlessly or, dare I say, naturally?
There are certain ideas in Taoist philosophy that people naturally gravitate towards, we strive for balance in our lives, we find things that we want or need to do and make them second nature to us, we never wish things were more complicated and seem to forever crave getting back to more simple times.
After you find instances of these ideas already occurring in your life you must then realize how you got there. Once you do that you’ll be able to spread that to anywhere else in your life.
Going back to the example of Wei Wu Wei and the golf swing, your swing is excellent and while it could always stand for more improvement you’re commonly recognized as talented in this area.
Let’s say for this example you’ve recently become fascinated with juggling after seeing a particularly skilled street performer. Sure your golf swing is great but your ability to juggle is non-existent.
Think back to when you were first learning golf, you didn’t know anything about it but you eventually learned the basics and practiced. You found weaknesses in your technique but you practiced those until they were gone.
You practiced whenever you got a chance and really before you even knew it when you’d pick up a golf club you’d practically black out with how little thought you’d need to hit the ball a couple hundred yards.
That’s it, you’ve realized that the key to Wei Wu Wei is practice, this isn’t anything new or insightful based on prior knowledge but what is new is that now you know how to apply Wei Wu Wei to juggling as well.
When someone juggles they’re not constantly calculating trajectories of each ball or following all of them with their eyes and then consciously deciding where to put their hand to catch them. If that was how it worked nobody would ever be able to do it!
The point is with enough practice you learn how to get your own mind out of the way and let your intentions naturally happen through you.
As I mentioned before, Wei Wu Wei is just one of many ideas that can be applied to your life, it just happens to also be the easiest for me to use as an example. What I am trying to show here isn’t how to juggle but rather how to recognize already existing examples in your life and how to spread them to anywhere else you’d like.
There are a lot of parts to the whole philosophy behind Taoism and their application to daily life isn’t always as straight forward as Wei Wu Wei is.
It’s not something you can really just fully comprehend and all of a sudden you’re some enlightened sage who’s right with Tao.
What I ideally would want people to take away from this, what I’m really trying to say is that there is a lot of ways you can improve your lives by applying Taoist philosophies to your daily life.
In order to do this though there is a good amount of introspection that needs to take place. There will be many times where you’ll be getting frustrated at life’s little hurdles without even realizing it until it is happening.
Those are the times when you need to have the ability to recognize what’s happening, step back, and think about what you’re trying to fight that’s causing so much anxiety for you. When you learn to do this you’ll begin to see significantly less stress in your life and you’ll find that things always have a way of working out in the end regardless.
About the Author
Matt Timlin has been studying Taoist Philosophies diligently since 2002. Writing about his own experiences, he tries to show that ancient Taoist teachings are still relevant in modern everyday life on his site, American Taoist. Matt’s biggest passions in life are Taoist philosophies and studying traditional Chinese martial arts and he seeks to live his life through what he has learned from both. He lives his life with one goal in mind, to continue learning and one day be able to teach what he knows of both for a living.