Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Against the Current

Like any belief system, Taoism can't be boiled down into one word, phrase or principle. In reading the ancient words of sages, topics range from how to live to how to govern to how to wage war. That said, one of the central theses of the Taoist perspective is wu wei or, what I've been discussing for the last 24 hours or so, going with the flow.

In its simplest form, wu wei means not to force actions -- to move within the flow of life in natural ways. I find this to be great advice in terms of our individual lives, but, where I've struggled, is in trying to apply this suggestion to our collective lives -- society.

How does one go with the flow when said flow is the driver toward capricious misery and oppression? If we look at the current state of our planet and the beings who inhabit it, the flow of global capitalism is leading many to death and ruin.

In many ways, it seems that Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu would say to let the flow go where it may. But it's hard to adopt this kind of philosophy if one is a caring and compassionate person. If you see injustice before you, you will want to remedy it.

So, for many years I struggled with Taoist principles on one side versus my progressive activism on the other. The problem has been mitigated to a great extent due to my growing physical and psychological disabilities, yet the dichotomy itself still persists. Were it not for the fact of my chronic pain and severe social anxiety, I would probably still be out on the front lines.

I have resolved the issue a tad, but not in a way I can verbalize at this point. In the last few years, I've learned that there's more than one way -- formerly, in your face activism -- to try to broker a problem. So, from that standpoint alone, the message of going with the flow has some resonance.

I'm still struggling with the action/non-action perspective when it comes to many of our society's most vexing issues. If an individual or group wants to try to stop or avert war, doing nothing is not an option. If you want to save the planet from ecological ruin, you don't want to get into a flow that you believe is moving in the wrong direction.


  1. We flow with things, but we also must be aware when it is right to act, and then vigorously do so! Water represents Tao, but we will sandbag our homes to keep it from being destroyed. This is because it does us no good for us and others for all our food and shelter to be passively erased. The Tao is not just passive, in it is the Te, or De -- virtuous action. One must be careful to exercise this at the right time, with the right motivation, in the right way.

  2. Lau Tzu was also against the way the world was going.

    The flow is encouraging us to stand up for the oppresses and ourselves against oppression but the flow you most likely see is that manufactured by the very force that is opposition to Wu Wei.

    What is on the news and in government is not Wu Wei it is forced action, that is why we know it is wrong, the flow of course is counter and that is why they have to push so hard ;)

  3. Something I learned from Buddhism (which, as you well know, has some close affinities with aspects of Taoism):

    Non-doing (which I equate with wu-wei is not the same thing as doing nothing.

    Therein, I think, lies the answer to the "dilemma" that never seems to go away, of action versus non-action (or active versus contemplative, as some traditions would term it).

    I'm still unpacking, in my own life, what that looks like....

    Merry Quistmes (my verification word)

  4. Personally, I would take from Taoism what helps me only, and use other philosophies for everything else. I have no plans to ever follow anything 100% again. I want to use thought systems as if I was at the grocery store, filling up my cart with what I like from several sources.

    But Taoism is so vague, that it can be manipulated to mean whatever you like.

    For instance, you can say the Tao manifests on the way you feel about injustice, and that "going with the flow" means to peacefully act towards changing the source of your discontent.

  5. Thank you for your heartfelt comments to this post. I'm not going to write much of anything other than to say I'm mulling over and reflecting on the points of view offered.

  6. "But Taoism is so vague, that it can be manipulated to mean whatever you like.:

    I am a great fan of the Tao Te Ching. In fact, I think it's one of the "truest" books ever written. Nonetheless, I fully agree with Lorena's statement above.

    I would add, however--to be fair--, that anything, and especially any philosophy or religion, belief system, can be manipulated to mean whatever its adherents want it to mean. I mean c'mon, don't we see that all the time, especially, for example, with the more extreme incarnations of Christianity and Islam?

    Welcome to the human mind. It's quite good at manipulaton. :)


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