Taoism, pronounced and occasionally spelled Daoism, is a philosophy that evolved from the indigenous shamanism practiced thousands of years ago in China. Taoism always stressed a natural way of life without materialism and distraction, as a path towards spiritual fulfillment and living a good life.
Originally this meant appeasing the many spirits of nature in order to ensure a good relationship with them and cultivating harmony. This evolved in time to seeking one’s way or Tao by working with the cycles of nature as opposed to trying to force our will on it and disrupt this flow.
What makes Taoism such a relevant philosophy in the modern world is that humanity as a whole is slowly coming to realize the real damage that is being done to nature. Not to mention the dominance of the materialistic mindset that has us all scrambling for the next piece of new technology, the next toy, the next distraction.
Taoism beliefs include returning to simpler values and not falling into the pit of distractions and egotistical pride. Instead, as the saying goes, we live simply so that others may simply live. Another message Taoist belief can teach us today is how fruitless so much law and structure can be. Instead, people should be responsible for their own morality. It is believed that the more laws a society creates, the more laws exist to be broken. If the people are governed well, taken care of properly, and treated with respect, so many laws would not be necessary to control them..
Lao Tzu is the legendary/historical founder of Taoism as it is practiced today. It would be a mistake to assume he founded it completely since the roots of Daoism predated him by centuries. What he did do, however, was provide us with the guide to practicing the Way as the word Tao is often translated. He wrote the Tao Te Ching, a book that has been translated at least as much as the Bible and forms the basis for most people’s introduction to Taoist beliefs.
Another introduction to Taoism comes from the famous Yin/Yang symbol, the most well known of the Taoism symbols. Depicted as a circle with two swirling halves, one black and one white, yet each holding a dot of the opposite color, it illustrates one of the central Daoism facts. Modern thought has us believing in a dualistic view of the universe. Hard and soft, light and dark, up and down, all are in opposition in this mindset, creating adversity and struggle.
Taoism teaches a pluralistic view, however. These opposites are not in conflict, but rather support each other. There is light because we have dark to compare it to. The same way for hard and soft, up, and down, and any number of other things we perceive as opposites. In this way all things in the universe have their place. Their Tao.
Besides the rise of religious expressions of Taoism, alchemy was also practiced as part of the Taoist arts. At first, it was a physical expression a desire for immortality by creating and imbibing the ‘Elixir of Life’. Elaborate formulas were developed and experimented with, but many of the alchemists died because they ingested poisonous substances such as cinnabar (mercury). As a result, the External School of alchemy fell into disfavor.
The Internal School of alchemy, however, redefined the idea of immortality into practices for developing the spirit and reaching enlightenment. These led to the breathing and moving exercises that form the basis of Tai Chi and Qi Gong and other methods of cultivating chi.
Taoism’s core beliefs revolve around a harmonious life while evolving the spirit and seeking enlightenment. Similar to Zen Buddhism, it is an internal process that an individual follows to the best of their ability so that he or she may benefit all. Such a person becomes an inspiring example for all to follow on their own journey of the Tao.