Tao for Troubled Times

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Illustration by Sarah Klockars-Clauser

Tao is about following ‘the Way’ – finding it, losing it, finding it again. The Tao is the way of balance and harmony, between male and female, masculine and feminine, between human kind and the rest of Nature, between life and death, between ancestors and those yet to be, between microcosm and macrocosm, and between the energies of Earth and stars. It is rooted in Nature and universe, and was experienced and perceived by ancient Chinese sages through passive-receptive and active-receptive meditations –  opening to oneness and avoiding the seeming dualities of body and mind.

Tao involves humility, discipline, wanting little, questioning assumptions of human self-importance, being participant – observers in Nature’s cycles, and delighting in the interplay of the Chinese elements – Earth at the centre, air/metal, fire, water and wood to the four cardinal directions. Being close to feminism and to shamanism, Tao has for long periods of time been persecuted and driven underground and then, for the exact same reasons, has bubbled up again.

Indeed, Tao in me has at times been driven underground and then bubbled up again. It has no immediate relevance to my work as a psychoanalyst and intellectual, so keeping alive such an ancient and ‘culturally other’ philosophy has at times been strange, impossible or disorienting – and I’m only a beginner. I ask myself, what is this oriental ‘call’, in languages I cannot understand, with myths more remote than those of the Greeks? After all, there is love of Nature in rich seams and running waters in my occidental roots. My answer is that it is the oriental disciplined use and appreciation of the physical body, as temple for the breath, and as giving ways to access Nature and Spirit in their own terms, with no ideological clothing or aversion, that draws me back, again and again, to Tao.

Ours is an increasingly secular, diverse, plural and slowly more pagan era, and urgent desires are emerging, wanting to connect directly with Nature and to know what that might mean.

Many, vaguely wanting to reduce their carbon and eco footprints, fear how empty their lives would be if they did. In Taoist perspectives, they fear the wrong kind of emptiness, but if they could bear it they would find sufficiency in emptiness beyond their present reach.

As an engaged citizen in a noisy, somewhat implausible ‘normal’ business of market-led social democracies, I do not find this path easy, yet disciplined participation in Taoist meditations helps me to undo the shackles of Western late-industrial intellectual arrogance. This essay is my attempt to delineate a stance by which to survive psychically in these times, which, I believe, are more troubling than collectively ‘we’ yet realize. It is not about the sublime reaches of mystical rapture, but about the rugged struggle to connect where we encounter limitation in the field of desire, and where we need to bow to greater forces.

We need to address the lack of balance where there is a cascade of dominance: male over female, human species over Nature, and the consequent ill effects. Sigmund Freud studying hysteria – a condition designated as being of the feminine – distinguished male-and-female as genders from masculine-and-feminine as psychical qualities. He considered the life force to be sexual in nature, named it the libido, and observed its course from the depths of the bodily unconscious. But he also considered libido to be masculine, in either gender, thus consigning women to a position of passivity.

Although Freud made an enormous contribution to rescuing women from the tyranny of the male gaze (and from being sexually dominated), he generated confusion as to the feminine position, which is not one of passivity but of receptivity. Ancient Tao, by contrast, distinguishes yang/masculine: hot, quick, bright, and expansive, from yin/ feminine: cool, slow, shadowy, and nourishing, and teaches that both are necessary and complementary aspects of chi, the life force.

There are many teachers and traditions of Taoist arts and practices available to us. One well-known is Master Mantak Chia, best known for his work with sexuality and for teaching practices to strengthen and clarify in the interests of enhancing balanced, loving intercourse between yin and yang energies of the body, rooted in Nature, with head in the stars.

Contemporary fast-moving, prurient excitement about all things sexual would misread Chia’s contributions as being confined to rather peculiar ways of achieving greater satisfaction. Instead, perusal of his many books leads to the realization that he is setting sexual experience, in the context of disciplined, detailed, shamanically informed practices to bring alive the relations between yin and yang in and between ourselves, and in Nature too.

The core practice is to generate the “micro-cosmic orbit”, or “small heavenly cycle”, a circling of energy from the perineum up the spine and down the front, round and round. It begins by being imagined, and becomes more and more real. This practice in “micro-ecology” – circling and conserving  energies within the body – encourages self – sufficiency, helping to defeat what Buddhists call craving and psychoanalysts call lack, which otherwise seems to be filled by spurious appetites. Chia himself comes across not as an “expert’ but as ‘master’ of his subject, deeply versed in chi kung and tai chi, a Taoist doctor with many specific techniques and meditations for various ailments which, in keeping with the traditions of Chinese acupunctural medicine, he perceives as due to imbalances in body’s energy systems. Born in Thailand to a family of Chinese origin, he is apparently from a long line of shamans broken only by his father who became a Christian priest.

Kris Deva North is Chia’s UK representative and founder of the London Healing Tao Centre, All Chia’s teachings are taught there, contextualized for Westerners, with links being made to the practices and medicine wheel of the Amerindian peoples, with whom Kris has lived and studied. The practices are energetic dynamic, and intended to open the participant to the inner energy body. They are also very safe, because all Taoist practices and meditations are to do with generating, conserving and deploying chi with love, in wisdom and for healing.

The practice of the inner smile, for example, may seem weird, but it becomes very invigorating and cleansing. Imagine the sun (yang) in your brow, flooding the inner body with warmth and light, and the moon (yin) in your kidneys. When we smile, gratefully, to each of the main internal organs (heart, kidneys, stomach/spleen/pancreas, liver and lungs), we are immediately confronted with what is our normal lack in our awareness in taking these organs for granted.

Tao is ancient China’s gift to the world, and the Tai Te Ching is its classic text – one of subtle nobility opening hearts to wanting less and realizing that less is more. It is said to have been composed 2,500 years ago by a Keeper of the Imperial Archives whose legendary name is Lao Tzu, meaning ‘old philosopher’. His job gave him the opportunity to reconstruct the paths of many sages who preceded him, until, retreating to a cave, he finally composed this luminous text, proposing a way of life in keeping with Nature.

With Confucianism it forms a double helix running through the diversity of Chinese cultures. Whereas Confucius sought an ethical philosophy by which to regulate relations between individual, family and State, Lao Tzu was ambivalent about and reflective upon all such regulations, acknowledging their necessity but also seeing through them to our roots in Nature and her celestial origins. The Tao Te Ching has generated scores of translations and libraries of commentary – yet do we know what it means? Not without our self that reads it being put to the sword.

“In gathering your vital energy to attain suppleness, have you reached the state of a new-born babe? In washing and clearing your inner vision, have you purified it of all dross? In loving your people and governing your state, are you able to dispense with cleverness? In the opening and shutting of heaven’s gate, are you able to play the feminine part?” Lao Tzu calls on us to find again the charmed timelessness of the new-born babe, without regressing from our adult capacities for concern and subtle action.

There is not the slightest hint in Lao Tzu of democracy as a concept or a desirable end in itself – there is the Sage, the Ruler and the people, and the best way of ruling is to keep the people happy, their bellies full and their minds uncluttered and without desire. He taught a way of life somewhat subversive of imperial and religious control, proposing for all – including future generations and their rulers – a walk on the wild side in communion with forces and presences that inspire creation. “See the simple, embrace the primal, diminish the self and curb the desires.”

Thus it links with the interests of the oppressed wand with ethnic diversity. The ‘noble man”, in Lao Tzu’s classic, is not only the nobleman by imperial reward or acquisiotion of power, but one who lives in harmony with the natural order, delighting in physical vitality, and resisting and bypassing the enormously disturbed appetites which has opened up in us between intellectual development and the basic needs of the physical body.

Do not fear, says Lao Tzu, to live quietly, achieving nothing, with your ear to chi, the life force, and your way of life true to basic requirements – because achievements leads to excess and destruction. “When the world is in possession of the Tao, the galloping horses are led to fertilize the fields with their droppings. When the world has become Taoless, war horses breed in the suburbs.”

As we advance and Nature recedes, we turn her into a kind of simulacrum, a simulated likeness, of herself – and end up as simulacra of ourselves. Satish kumar has pointed out that we are caught in the consequences of conflating ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’: ‘ecology’ referring to the interdependency of the whole web of life-systems; and ‘environment’, to the world around us seen from our human point of view. Extending our manicured environments at ecological cost, instead of the wild we will have specimens in parks, simulacra of what they were. Like vanished stars whose light only now reaches us, the film of the tiger reassures us because it seems she’s still there.

The human race has gone absolutely global. We are an incredibly successful species, brilliant in our exuberant creativity, but we have been caught in the shadows of our success. Working psychoanalytically, watching and reading ‘the news’, and listening to friends, I am aware how preoccupied we are with our own immediacies, relating to, with, or against each other, in pursuit of our needs, wants and desires, largely to the exclusion of Nature as a presence in herself. We relate ‘about’ Nature rather than ‘to’ Nature. We have largely lost the natural intelligence of Indigenous peoples who live close to the Earth, flexible in their turning from human-specific activity into communion with Nature, and back again.

This, for me, is where Tao comes in. When I listen to many who say we need to consume less, respect the Earth more, and realize that wanting less is desirable as an end in itself, I wonder how people are to achieve that state of grace. We don’t seem to have the cultural means. In my view, we need to engage with the split between our thinking and the rest of our physicality.

Once you have crossed the threshold into communion with Nature, there is no going back, and it is from there you witness our human condition, wondering at our dangerous absurdities. Listening to Nature whilst in the midst of this, the sixth great extinction of species, and knowing it has been caused by us, it is hard to bear the loss we hear. It is then that we need whatever practices we have found, earthy, invigorating and spiritual, to keep us grounded, informed by the courage of far-reaching breath.

Despite the fact that our best efforts towards sustainability may not make the crucial difference, Lao Tzu, Christ and Spinoza all say the same: once you see something truly, you are obliged to be true to it. That is the underlying ethic. And, in practice, we need to find enjoyment in the ways of the body attuned to and at one with Nature, for then it is easier to embody the low-carbon journey, consume less and establish our earthly integrity as a simple good in itself.

At the dawn of modern science, in the age of Descartes, stood Francis Bacon, Lord High Chancellor of England and amateur scientist. “We must put Nature to the rack and extort her secrets,” he wrote. As R.D.Laing subsequently and ironically observed, “That’s no way to treat a lady!” But her being racked and extorted still proceeds at full tilt, including in  our finding ever more ingenious and astounding ways to save us- or rather, our lifestyle – “because we’re worth it”.

It seems to me to be all about subjects and objects. By subjecting Nature to our will, we turn her into a set of malleable objects. Where subject dominates object, there is no balance. If we could make the natural turn from our species-specific self – absorption towards Nature and listen to her beauty, strengths, losses and fears, we would less want to do things to her and would become wiser in the ways of this Earth – and more sufficient precisely where we stand, going nowhere.

A soulless proliferation of wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and other technological fixes will not do the trick because they are all on the yang side of the equation and will merely lead to further implausible demands on natural resources. Whatever else, it is a change of orientation that is called for. Ask Lao Tzu: “The spirit of the fountain dies not. It is called the mysterious feminine. The doorway of the mysterious feminine is called the root of heaven-and-earth. Lingering like gossamer, it has only a hint of existence, and yet when you draw upon it, it is inexhaustible. If we would hold true to sufficiency in the moment, knowing that wanting less is more, and would diligently practise to generate and conserve chi, we would hold the whole world in our hands.

This article is published with permission from Resurgence Magazine, UK.

For Mantak Chia visit www.universal-tao.com, Quotations are from Tao Te Ching, trans. John Wu (1961)