Saturday, October 24, 2009

Real Life Tao - Nature and Path

Two concepts mentioned over and over again in Taoist texts are one's nature and one's path. For some people, these two words may appear to be restatements of the same basic idea, but, for me, they are complementary facets of the essence of Tao.

In trying to think of away to better explain the difference between the two, I've decided to use trees as my example. As this is not a science class, I will speak here in general terms. Deciduous trees shed their leaves, while evergreens do not. In most areas of the US, the former shed their leaves in autumn, while in other parts of the world, the leaves fall off entering the dry season.

This process represents part of the nature of deciduous trees, but it does not represent a specific path. It it did, then all trees of this kind would shed their leaves simultaneously and any casual observer will note that this does not happen.

Here in South Bend, autumn is underway. There are many deciduous trees in the forest behind my house. The leaves of one oak tree started to change color as early as mid-August, while most of the other deciduous trees' leaves remained green. As it now stands, some trees have almost shed all their leaves and some trees are just beginning the process. While each one shares the same nature, they exhibit this nature -- their own path -- in different ways.

Of course, we humans often have a great deal of trouble trying to ascertain what OUR nature is. Unlike plants and other animals, not as much is imprinted in our instincts and DNA. So, we must spend some time trying both to understand and to come to grips with our own individual natures.

Using myself as a prime example, I've spent a great deal of my 51+ years trying to figure out exactly who I am. I don't mean this in the way of trying to figure my philosophy on life or my bedrock ethical principles; that part was relatively easy! No, what I'm referring to is trying to understand the nature of my personality.

As I've recorded in great detail on this blog, I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome about one year ago. While this diagnosis simply is a label, it has helped me tremendously in finally figuring out several odd things about myself. It has helped me to understand better why I have always had such difficulty in social situations/relationships and I follow very routinized patterns in my everyday life.

After figuring much of this out, I realized the path I had been following for the past 15 years or so was flowing against my innate nature and, probably, has a lot to do with much of the stress and angst I felt. This explains why I've become something of a recluse as of late. I've simply decided to live a life more in keeping with my solitary nature and my stress level has dropped considerably since I moved away from my disharmonious path.

This process of figuring out one's innate nature is important for each of us. A gregarious and social gadfly would likely be miserable spending a summer alone as a lookout in forest service tower deep in the woods. Conversely, a shy person who likes nothing better than being alone with a good book would probably feel out of place working at a popular dance club.

When we don't spend the time to consider the most basic elements of our personality and emotional self, we will be far more apt to place ourselves in situations and circumstances that don't match up with our individual nature and, even worse, we will probably be absolutely clueless as to why we feel so miserable, out of balance and stressed.

Finally, some of you may ask: I thought one of the whole points of Taoism is to shed the self and yet here you are talking about understanding it instead! What's up with that?

As I've mentioned before, the idea of completely dissolving the self is an ideal. It's not something any of us will ever accomplish. However, even if it was possible, in order to shed something, you must first possess it. So, once you could come to grips with your self in all its grandeur, only then could you decide to give it up.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. Awesome example of applying the Tao to real life!

    I'm forced to spend more and more time at home as of late. This is never healthy for me as I need to be around people. I need to be outside to see things-everything.

    If I don't make myself take frequent walks outside I become more and more depressed. So today I'm going to think of you as I'm out walking.

  2. I don't think we give up our self as much as recognize that our self is a part of Tao. Our way of being is as legitimate as any other, so there is no need to meet the current society's way of being. We follow a more natural path, that becomes our nature, rather than a path dictated to us by society or those around us. So we become in touch even more with ourselves, as a true reflection of Tao.

  3. Zoe Right,
    That's really cool -- walking the path OF a path. Whatever helps you to be more centered is a worthwhile endeavor.

    I truly appreciate your continued analysis. Often times, you express concepts far better than me! Even on those few points in which we may not agree, you always cause me to want to look at the issue with new eyes.

  4. Your image of the shedding of leaves instantly made me think of the shedding of self, the "ideal" goal of some practitioners, and certainly what happens at death. Some might say that true nature --XIN, the congenital nature, true heart-- is found only after shedding the leaves. In fact, some practitioners make an effort to shake them off (the meditation practices, qigong, etc.). In the final analysis, you are not your Asperger's, I am not my plantar's fasciitis, arthritic wrist and skin complaints. When we shed those leaves, we will find our true heart.

    Does this sound "religious" to you? Not trying to nag you, just trying to understand you. (This IS an inspiring post.) My own approach to the tao, my own path, is a spiritual one, but I don't consider it "religious."

  5. While I agree that Asperger's, in and of itself, doesn't define the whole of me, it does to some degree. Many aspects of who and what I am are burned into my physiological wiring.

    It's just like someone who is born homosexual. He or she can't simply say one day, "I'm going to be heterosexual now". If they acted upon this statement, it would go against their nature.

    In this same vein, there are certain things about the nature of my Asperger's that I can't change. When I have tried in the past, all it leads to is imbalance and anxiety.

  6. Very nicely written. I think this may be my favorite series so far. And unlike your other book commentary series, it is virtually limitless, an ongoing project that needn't end anytime soon. Whether or not you choose to continue writing this series, applying the tao to real life is a lifetime project. I don't think you could write 100 posts, and say all done, mission accomplished, because this is an ongoing project that you must face anew each day you awaken.

  7. What I mean to say is, I can understand you not wanting to write about this all the time, but I would suggest this series be more open-ended than the others, not having a clear-cut end or conclusion, but something you may want to revisit and add to over the course of your life, so long as you have this blog. And it would be interesting to have a written record, to compare how your perspective may change over the course of your lifetime. Just as their are seasonal changes in nature, there are seasonal changes within yourself. Over the course of a lifetime, we each experience the changing seasons internally, just as there is a summer, a spring, a fall, and a winter, your perspective shifts according to the changing seasons as above so below, as within and so without.

  8. i agree with donna. one doesn't need to shed one's identity in order to be one with tao. one simply has to be at peace with one's identity in the here and now and realize that eventually (at death) one's identity will be shed. i wonder if the afterlife isn't something concocted so that people won't have to face the idea that they have to give up their individual identity at some point?
    anyway i am not nearly close to accepting or understanding my own identity. i contain too many paradoxes to understand myself. :P i like being a recluse, yet i like being around people. my limitations perplex me and sometimes lead me to hate myself and go into depression! yet my limitations also fascinate me and the sheer physical nature of my being is a wonderous thing when i can be truly "in my own skin."
    i don't know. if i had money, i would get myself psychoanalyzed but i might just confuse the psychiatrist! but i also don't think that a psychiatrist will tell me anything i don't already know. generally when other people try to define me i resist it or else can't see what they see when they look at me.
    sorry for the long post. my whole life it seems is one existential crisis. lol :D


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