The Way of Nature as a Healing Power: The Taoist Perspective

Handbook of Multicultural Perspectives on Stress and Coping
Paul Wong and Lilian Wong, ed.,
New York: Springer, 2006, Chapter 5, pp.91-103

Chen Yu-Hsi, Ph.D.

1. Introduction

The philosophy of Taoism is well known to have espoused a natural way of life. The Way of nature is defined as one of simplicity, authenticity and spontaneity. Throughout the Chinese history, “return to a genuine and simple way of life” has been held as an idealistic vision for those who are fed up with the vanity of worldly affairs and as a way of coping with the hardships in life. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, has remained an influential philosophy that enables the Chinese to bear the unbearable and attain a sense of well-being in the midst of suffering. The strength of Taoism is that it not only teaches a philosophy of life on how to live a contented, serene life regardless of circumstances, but also prescribes physical and breathing exercises that reduce stress and enhance physical and mental well-being. Therefore, Taoism has much to offer to psychologists in the West regarding the oriental wisdom of coping with stress.

1.1. Basic Concepts of Taoism

In identifying Taoism with “the Way of nature,” a word of clarification is needed. The Chinese word Tao literally means the “Way”— the ultimate creative principle that gives birth to the entire universe. According to Lao-tzu, the founding philosopher-sage of Taoism, Tao is beyond all thinking and description, without image or form, but he nevertheless identifies a number of the spiritual properties of Tao for the purpose of teaching. Among them are the qualities of being selfless, simple, authentic and spontaneous. As far as function is concerned, Tao creates and nourishes everything in the Cosmos, and yet It appears to “do nothing” (wu wei in Chinese), which means that Tao, being spontaneous, has no intent or impulse to strive, to act and to react as we humans do; It simply allows things to take their own courses. Paradoxically, because It takes no action, It is the source of all actions. And because It does nothing, there is nothing It cannot do. Rather than identifying Tao with God, Lao-tzu refers to It as “the Way of nature.” But here the concept of “nature” not only means the great Cosmos, but also includes our true nature – the Origin of our life. By letting go of our ego in a mental state of “do nothing,” Lao-tzu teaches, we can achieve perfect “tranquility” and access our Origin, thereby attaining serenity, wisdom and enlightenment (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 16).

Thus, the Way of nature as expounded by Taoism goes deeper and broader than a matter of life style. Among other things, it brings forth the insight that all things in the universe exist in polarity (or duality), with the two opposites in a polarity complementing each other and making the existence of each other possible. For example, goodness cannot exist without evil; and as Lao-tzu observes, “Fortune owes its existence to misfortune, and misfortune is hidden in fortune” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 58). With this insight one will not be overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life, the ups and downs of human affairs. As  psychologist Swami Ajaya (1997) says, “In Taoism it is believed that when one is unaware that the two sides of a polarity support one another to form a whole, he identifies with only one side of the polarity. This in turn leads to suffering and self-destruction. But understanding how the two poles support one another leads to a peaceful and integrated life” (p. 45).

In Tao Te Ching, the main text that embodies Lao-tzu’s teachings, it is explained that “when the world knows beauty as beauty, without knowing that it depends upon its opposite, i.e., ugliness, then beauty turns out to be ugly. Similarly, when people know goodness as goodness, without knowing that it co-exists with evil, goodness tends to become evil” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 2). This teaching has profound implications for both mundane affairs and psychotherapy. When psychologists talk about “unconditional acceptance” as a crucial approach to emotional disorders, it is necessary to recognize that the failure to accept oneself and others is at least partly rooted in a judgmental, discriminative mentality in connection with polarity. Just consider how many people are emotionally troubled by a negative self-image that they do not look good or pretty. This problem is epitomized by a girl student in Asia who committed suicide years ago because she had reportedly failed in her attempts to lose weight and to beautify her face. Other suicide cases can be traced to a similar root cause that the victims cannot accept their failures one way or another. How often everyone of us feels frustrated or distressed simply because we cling to our preconceptions of success, good fortune, etc while rejecting their opposites. If only we can accept the polarity of beauty and ugliness, success and failure, etc. as a unity, as Lao-tzu teaches, a lot of mental problems can be effectively avoided.

1.2 Following the Cosmic Pattern of Change

Taoism also explains this unified polarity as a dynamic of change. According to Lao-tzu, cosmic change takes place in a cyclical or circular pattern in which everything eventually reverts to its opposite. When misfortune reaches the limit, good fortune comes around, and the extreme of adversity ushers in prosperity in the same fashion as winter gives way to spring. So to live by the Way of nature means to understand and accept this pattern of circular change with equanimity in all circumstances. Thus, we choose not to be complacent over success, and not to lose heart over failure. As Alan Watts (1969) says of Taoism, “The sage no more seeks to obliterate the negative — darkness, death, etc. — than to get rid of autumn and winter from the cycle of the seasons. There emerges, then, a view of life which sees its worth and point not as a struggle for constant ascent but as a dance. Virtue and harmony consist, not in accentuating the positive, but in maintaining a dynamic balance” (p. 54). In contrast, Western thinking tends to favor a mechanical opposition of the positive against the negative. “By and large Western culture is the celebration of the illusion that good may exist without evil, light without darkness, and pleasure without pain, and this is true of both its Christian and secular, technological phases” (Ajaya, 1997, p. 48).

This Taoist concept of change is also seen as related to the post-modernist thinking in the West. Since cosmic things are constantly changing and related to one another, no truth can be considered as fixed or constant. What we see as true depends upon a particular frame of reference of time and space, and upon a specific perspective. When the frame of reference and the perspective shift, truth takes on a different face. This insight helps people to readjust their rigid ways of thinking, the stereotypes that see things in a self-righteous, uncompromising way and, as a result, brings on conflicts and suffering. How often we identify ourselves with a particular label or role, such as “I am a CEO”, and take pride in it. Certainly it gives us self-esteem that we so desperately need. But consider how many people suffer from depression — and even end up in suicide — just because the vicissitudes of life suddenly deprive them of a label or role with which they have so dearly identified. An American author calls this “King Lear syndrome” — a mental health problem resulting from the sudden loss of power, privileges or positions, or a fall from grace. (Remember that King Lear became crazy after giving up power to his daughters). Keeping the insights of Taoism in perspective, we can allow for change in personal fortune, thereby learning to take things in stride when the change takes place.

2. Contentment as a Way of Nature

The perspective of Taoism not only enables people to cope with change and negative events with equanimity, but also shows them the path to happiness even when things go bad. Different from Western psychologists who focus on reactive coping and stress reduction, Taoism focuses on proactive coping, transcendence, and stress transformation. By adopting the Taoist way of thinking, we become not only free from worries and anxieties, but also achieve serenity and contentment.

Contentment in the Taoist sense means to be satisfied with what we have and to refrain from excessive desires for fame, wealth, pleasure and other worldly possessions. From the psychological perspective, contentment refers to a state of mind in which the potential psychic energy known as libido in Western psychology is “transformed” to serve a higher purpose rather than actualized as a desire that needs to be “gratified” or repressed. In this way contentment is accompanied by a sense of fulfillment and abundance. That is probably why Lao-tzu says that “those who know contentment are enriched.” And he speaks of contentment on the same footing as self-knowledge and self-conquest: “Those who know themselves are enlightened” and “ those who conquer themselves are strong” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 33).  Furthermore, if contentment comes from the conquest of greed, craving and desire, it must also be present under adverse circumstances. Where contentment is, there cannot be hatred, anger, fear, aversion and other negativities. In this sense, contentment is close to the Buddhist concepts of sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Taoist sages Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu inculcate that craving for fame and wealth often results in moral depravity, and in many cases personal destruction. As Lao-tzu warns, “The greatest of woes comes from not knowing contentment; the greatest of faults comes from craving for gains” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 46). He argues that the nature of humanity and, for that matter, of all creatures, is to live in a simple and plain way, no more than what is needed to maintain the healthy growth of the organism. Beyond that limit one gets involved in “selfish craving” and “extravagance” that cause him to lose his genuine simplicity and spontaneity. Therefore, “A sage is free from excessive pursuit, extravagance and arrogance” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap.19 and 29). From Lao-tzu’s perspective, a sage is simply someone who lives according to his authentic nature — simplicity and spontaneity. This is an integral part of Tao — the great Way of nature. Alienation from Tao is seen as the root cause of all human problems.

Chuang-tzu picked up the same theme and uses a vivid analogy to get across the message that contentment is in the very nature of all living beings. “Amid the exuberance of woods, a bird needs only one branch to build its nest,” he wrote. “And from the broad expanse of a deep river, a mouse drinks only enough to fill its stomach” (Wang, 1998: 145). Therefore, Chuang-tzu suggested that a human being could be happy with just a minimum of material means.

What are the implications of this Taoist thinking for modern people? First of all, one may raise the question that, unlike animals, human needs to extend far beyond the physiological realm to cover psychological, emotive and spiritual needs. Even physical needs change as civilization progresses. For example, people in some Asian countries were content with riding on a bicycle several decades ago, but today driving a car has become a necessity. Does it make sense to compare human needs to the needs of a bird and a mouse? Do we have to give up the material amenities and comforts of modern civilization if we take the Taoist teaching seriously?

To be sure, ancient Taoists believed that simplicity of the mind could not be separated from simplicity of the life style. But the essence of the Taoist teaching is probably not that human needs are comparable to the needs of animals, but that we humans, like animals, can and should live a simple, spontaneous way of life by freeing ourselves from greed and craving for more than we need, regardless of how we define “need” in different social and cultural contexts. In their writings, the Taoist sages dwell upon the harmfulness of greed as it can impoverish people morally and spiritually. On the other hand, “those who know contentment are enriched,” and “a contented person always lives in abundance” (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap. 33 and 46).

While Buddhism also emphasizes contentment, it does not see material simplicity as a necessary condition. The Buddhist insight into simplicity and spontaneity centers around the transcendental quality of non-attachment and non-reactivity. Buddhist psychology has discovered a human potential for self-actualization neglected by Western psychology, that is, the potential to free the mind from its habitual pattern of grasping and rejecting, and of craving and aversion — a psychological mechanism seen as the root cause of mental suffering. A well-attained Buddhist can live in material abundance and yet keep his/her mind “detached,” i.e., free from craving for material possession. This means that he/she will be just as contented and happy if he/she has to live in poverty. From the Buddhist perspective, this insight of non-attachment and non-reactivity is the source of blissful contentment. It also suggests that the Western concept of “gratification of desires” can cover up the subtle psychological mechanism of attachment to what is desired, and as the Buddhist sees it, it is precisely this emotive attachment that causes mental suffering. If so, gratification of desires does not ensure happiness, but on the contrary, it can lead to unhappiness and suffering if attachment to desires becomes very strong. In Buddhism as in Taoism, the energy of desires can be “transformed” into a higher spiritual quality so that neither “gratification” nor repression is necessary.

The traditional Freudian psychology is not concerned with greed or desire as a morbidity that can lead to emotive disorders and mental suffering. Instead, it hypothesizes that the gratification of desires as a necessary condition for mental health and happiness. Viktor Frankl’s (2000) logotherapy has offered an insightful challenge to this Freudian view, arguing that the key to mental health and happiness lies discovering the meaning of life, not in the pursuit of gratification of desires. According to Frankl, what people really need is “the will to meaning” rather than “the will to pleasure.” Although logotherapy does not talk about contentment as Taoism does, it concurs with Taoism that the pursuit of pleasure or happiness can only result in unhappiness. This is so because the sensations of pleasure or happiness quickly diminish and revert to its opposites in accordance with the cosmic law of change, and also because such a pursuit inevitably gives rise to aversion and rejection to what is seen as unpleasant or unhappy. Logotherapy explains that happiness can only come as a by-product of working for a good cause that confers meaning. Taoism prescribes contentment as a reliable source of happiness.

3. “Do Nothing” as a Way of Coping

3.1  Integrating the Opposites

The art of “do nothing” as a way of coping stems from Taoist basic understanding of duality of nature. Starting from simplicity, the Way of nature embraces the entire cosmic complexity in great harmony — in the integrated whole. The two opposites of a dualistic pair are seen as balancing and complementing each other. Thus to the Taoist, the cycle of life and death is as natural as the cycle of day and night, and fortune and misfortune embrace each other. With this insight in view, contentment is possible even under extreme adverse circumstances. When Chuang-tzu’s wife died, for example, he was grieved at first, but then beat a drum in joyous celebration. When his friend criticized him for this bizarre behavior, he explained that death was merely an extension of life, with each complementing the other; and if life was worth celebrating, so was death.

3.2 The Importance of “Do Nothing”

When the negative and the positive are seen as an integrated whole in harmony, life has no problems at all. All problems are created by humans out of ignorance of the Way of nature. So Taoism teaches that we need not worry about anything. “Has a bird ever worried about its food for tomorrow?” the Taoist asks. Just relax and let go, and things will take care of themselves. Lao-tzu’s motto of “do nothing” (wu wei in Chinese) means that a wise person knows how to let go of his/her personal will and desires, to surrender his/her impulse to strive for gains, be it good health or good fortune, and allow nature to take its own course. In Tao Te Ching, “do nothing” is a recurring theme for self-cultivation. For example, in the chapter entitled “wu wei” (do nothing), Lao-tzu  teaches, “Tao is always doing nothing, and yet there is nothing It cannot do. If government leaders know how to grasp this principle, all things will take care of themselves” (Lao-tzu, trans., chap. 37). In Lao-tzu’s view, the virtue of “do nothing” is cultivated through learning the Tao, the Truth of life, thereby letting go of the ego’s will and impulse. Here is how he explains,

In pursuing academic knowledge, we gain something each day. What we gain is knowledge, and with it our ego’s desires. In pursuing the Tao, we lose something each day. What we lose is our ego’s desires. We lose and lose, until finally we learn the virtue of wu wei (do nothing). Do nothing, and there is nothing you cannot do. If you aspire to govern the country, you must learn the art of “no business,” namely, the principle of non-interference. If you interfere too much, there is no way you can govern (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chap.48; True Tao, trans., 2004, chap.48).

The importance of this teaching on “do nothing” for spiritual cultivation and personal development cannot be exaggerated. For what can spiritual liberation mean if not the liberation from our psychological impulse to strive to be different from what we are, or liberation from the aforesaid mechanism of craving and rejecting? Furthermore, it also has invaluable implications for modern psychotherapy, first because we know that emotive disorders are often closely related to the impulse of striving, and secondly because the art of “do nothing” has proved efficacious for the treatments of not only emotive disorders, but also physical illnesses.

There is a striking parallelism between Taoist teaching of “do nothing” with the Christian teaching on salvation through faith in Christ and William James’ (1999) description of cases in which illnesses were miraculously cured by “passive relaxation,” by letting go of “the tension of their personal will” and surrendering to a “greater Self”. As James (1999) explains,

Passivity, not activity; relaxation, not intentness, should be now the rule. Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. This is the salvation through self-despair, the dying to be truly born, of Lutheran theology, the passage into nothing of which Jacob Behman writes” (p.125).

Salvation is available to all who know how to surrender their personal will to a greater power, be it God or the Tao. It is in this connection that we discover that Taoism, for all its unique Oriental mysticism, shares a common basic belief with Western religion. “Salvation through faith” applies to Christianity as well as to Taoism, the crux being that faith in the Truth should inspire one to surrender himself/herself totally to the Truth. In Christianity, surrender to Christ by faith leads to rebirth by grace — a new life with new hope and meaning. In Taoism, surrender brings about serenity and contentment in accord with the cosmic Truth.

3.3 Taoism and Western Psychotherapy

Some Western psychologists and psychotherapists have drawn inspirations from the Taoist philosophy in innovating their therapeutic approaches. One example is the rational-emotive-behavioral therapy (REBT) developed by Albert Ellis, which focuses on the irrational, inflexible and self-defeating patterns of thinking as a major cause of emotional troubles. This approach to psychotherapy argues that it is not adverse circumstances, but rather people’s attitudes and reactions to these circumstances, that cause distress and suffering. Very often one is emotionally upset by the irrational preconception that if he/she fails to do something well, he/she will be disgraced, will become worthless, etc. Partly based on ancient wisdom, including that of Taoism, REBT teaches clients how to develop flexibility in thinking, and to look at their problems from a broader new angle. In short, all is in flux, so our thinking should be allowed to flow rather than stagnate. This is the Way of nature — and the Taoist secret to overcoming suffering.

As far as psychotherapy is concerned, the art of “do nothing” can prove to be extremely effective in treating stress-related disorders and is worth further exploration by Western psychology. This art is similar to the approach of “unconditional acceptance” being used by several schools of Western psychotherapy, including humanist psychology, existential psychology, REBT and yoga psychology. The concept of unconditional acceptance is based on the assumption that neurotic problems are often related to the patient’s refusal to accept certain aspects of himself/herself that he/she consciously or unconsciously regards as bad, unfortunate, ugly, inferior, etc. The therapist aims to help the patient understand that this negative self-image is not based on reality and that his/her problems will be relieved once he/she learns to accept the unwanted aspects of his/her experience. The point is to let go, to befriend oneself and to surrender the impulse to strive to be different from what one is. As Swami Ajaya (1997) aptly observes:

As with a Chinese finger lock, the more one struggles, the more he becomes entrapped. Paradoxically, when one accepts himself, he becomes more fluid, and begins to change. The way out of this client’s conflict is not to struggle to become a success, but to accept all aspects of himself. The ultimate goal in this case is to transcend the polarized conception of success and failure…The client comes to therapy disowning the parts of himself that he considers unacceptable. He believes that those unacceptable aspects of himself create his suffering, but it is actually his non-acceptance and disowning of aspects of himself that create all the melodramas and unhappiness in his life. When one accepts the unwanted parts of himself, they cease to dominate him. The yoga therapy, therefore, encourages the client to acknowledge all aspects of himself ( p. 230).

Ajaya (1997) is of the opinion that “all psychotherapeutic methods are insignificant in comparison with the expression of unconditional acceptance.” If we can befriend and accept ourselves unconditionally, pain and suffering will serve a useful function and lead to significant growth (p. 230, 233). Psychotherapeutic research has found that many mental and psychosomatic problems feed upon themselves through the patients’ rejection to these problems, and as a result bring on increasing pain and suffering. If a patient learns to let go and accept his own problems with equanimity, he will be relieved of his suffering, and in many cases the problems can also be alleviated or cured. One highly intriguing discovery in this regard is that self-esteem or self-worth, which psychologists in general consider as crucial for healing purpose, can turn out to be an illusory preoccupation that stands in the way of healing rather than facilitating it. By surrendering the preoccupation with self-esteem, the patient can feel a blissful relief and have his emotional troubles resolved. Ajaya, for example, has dramatically demonstrated in his clinic work that a neurotic client could be counseled to accept that it is okay to be “unworthy,” that one does not have to become “worthy.” In the end, the client felt he could relax and no longer had to defend himself. As one client put it, “If I accept my unworthiness, there won’t be anything to feel unworthy about, so I’ll feel worthy” (Ajaya, 1997:231-232).

Ajaya is not alone in challenging the Western value of self-esteem. Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis also makes the point that self-esteem based on personal success and accomplishments is dangerous and counterproductive, and that USA (unconditional self-acceptance) is the right way to change the patient’s problematic belief system that causes him emotional troubles. Ellis has even come up with the view that “self-esteem is a sickness” and that one can learn not to let self-esteem become a problem.* Of course, he does not mean that self-esteem is not important. He means that preoccupation with self-esteem causes trouble, and that one can get rid of the trouble by learning to accept oneself unconditionally. With unconditional self-acceptance, whether one is worthy or unworthy becomes an irrelevant question.

3.4 The Psychology of Self-Acceptance

The question is: how can unconditional self-acceptance be started when those who most need to practice it are people entrapped in low self-esteem that leaves no room for befriending and accepting themselves? Taoism has never answered this question, because  as it seems to assume that neuroses do not exist, and that human nature is in accord with the Tao which embraces and accepts everything. Unfortunately, human situations are far more complex than meets the eye. The Tao is not readily accessible to common people. Modern psychotherapy, starting with Carl Rogers, places the responsibility on the therapist for showing unconditional acceptance to the client. If the client feels he is being unconditionally accepted, he will learn to develop the capacity to accept himself too. As Ajaya observes, “To the extent that the therapist can express and the client can experience unconditional acceptance, growth and healing take place; to the extent that acceptance by the therapist is lacking, growth and healing are restricted” (Ajaya, 1997:230). Some Western psychologists with a larger spiritual perspective have developed unique clinic techniques, along with a personal commitment to unconditional acceptance of  clients, to help the clients learn to accept themselves. But the question remains as to how many therapists are prepared to accept unconditionally the neurotic patients with a  personality and character that are hardly acceptable to most people.

This was the dilemma that Buddhist psychologist John Welwood encountered when he was a graduate student in psychology. He says that he was intrigued and puzzled by Carl Rogers’s term “unconditional positive regard.” “Although it sounded appealing as an ideal therapeutic stance, I found it hard to put into practice. First of all, there was no specific training for it. And since Western psychology had not provided me any understanding of heart, or the intrinsic goodness underlying psychopathology, I was unclear just where unconditional positive regard should be directed.” Welwood explains that it was only after turning to the Oriental meditative traditions that “I came to appreciate the unconditional goodness at the core of being human, and this in turn helped me understand the possibility of unconditional love and its role in the healing process” (Welwood, 2000, p.165).

It is at this point that Welwood finds it of vital importance to integrate the meditative traditions with Western psychology. Through his own experience as a Buddhist meditative practitioner, he discovers the “unconditional presence” of a true being at the core of the human unconscious. The presence of this “true self beyond ego” is unconditional in the sense that it is unaffected by all adverse circumstances and all neurotic conditions, in the same fashion as the sun and the blue sky are never disturbed by the turmoil of dark clouds and storms. According to Welwood, the true self is the ultimate source of maitri (Sanskrit word for unconditional friendliness/ loving-kindness) that makes it possible for us to be unconditional with ourselves, no matter what we are going through. Cultivating maitri through meditation and other Buddhist practice shows us the way to befriend our emotions and the unwanted aspects of ourselves, to let them be as they are.

Paradoxically, without an awareness of maitri to begin with, the power of maitri cannot grow. Meditation is not a mechanical process through which something called maitri is produced; it is a dialectical process in which the practice of maitri feeds upon itself to reproduce more maitri. This means that in meditation we make an effortless effort to surrender ourselves, to let things be and to be non-judgmental about whatever is being experienced, be it pleasant sensations or unpleasant ones. In terms of Taoism, the art of “do nothing” does not come out of nothing, but is cultivated through practicing it in meditation and in everyday life, with the Tao, the Way of nature that includes our true nature, as our guide.

4. Taoist Meditation and Healing 

4.1  Mind-Body Integration

This leads us to examine the role that Taoist meditation plays in the healing process. Traditional Taoist masters have developed the techniques of meditation that are similar to the Buddhist meditation in style. In addition to sitting, Taoists also practice moving exercises such as Tai Chi Chuan and other kinds of vital energy exercises (chi kung or Qigong). Unlike Buddhism, which emphasizes cultivation of the mind to develop liberating insights, Taoism seeks to integrate the body and the mind in its spiritual practice, with the belief that the spiritual energy known as chi connects humans with the Tao, or the ultimate essence of the great Cosmos, and therefore the cultivation of chi through breathing exercise is the very first step on the path. Like some schools of Buddhist meditation, the Taoist approach emphasizes concentration of the mind, mostly on a spot about one or two inches below the navel. Known as tan tien (literally elixir field), this bodily spot is believed to be the energy center where the rudimentary energy of ching (literally sperm, which seems to refer to certain endocrinal secretions and other bio-chemicals that produce the sperm) can be “refined” into the vital energy called chi. The vital energy circulates through the “energy channels” (ching mai) of the body and can be further transmuted into the “divine energy” (shen) if meditation is practiced earnestly and properly. The “divine energy” brings the practitioner into spiritual union with the cosmic power and is therefore the source of psychic power, wisdom and longevity. Continuing “refinery” of the divine energy gives rise to the elixir of life (tan or yao) that transforms a human into a celestial immortal, according to the traditional Taoist literature.

While celestial immortal has largely remained a legend, the Taoist meditative practice has significant empirical relevance. First of all, it shows that spiritual attainments need a solid physical and physiological foundation — a point which Buddhism does not bother to explore probably for fear of becoming attached to the ego. The Tantric yoga tradition in India has concurred with Taoism in developing a sophisticated system of practice integrating mind and body, which fully recognizes the importance of endocrinal secretions, neurotransmitters and perhaps other types of bio-chemical energy for the purpose of spiritual transformation. Both the Taoist and the yoga traditions emphasize the fact that consuming the bio-chemical energy for sexual pleasure is devastating for spiritual practice, and that properly guided practice can channel internal secretions into spiritual energy for a higher purpose so that sexual impulse is automatically “transformed” without having to be gratified or suppressed. There is ample documented evidence that throughout the Chinese history, numerous Taoist and Buddhist masters successfully “transformed” their sexual energy while demonstrating great physical vigor. It is not uncommon that successful Taoist practitioners have their sexual organs shrink as a sure sign of energy transformation and transmutation.** The point here is that the Taoist practice, like its counterpart in the yoga tradition, seems to provide a scientific guidance that can assist practitioners in building physical health and mental serenity while avoiding sexual violations that are said to be widespread among religious celibates the world over.

According to the Taoist tradition, the first stage of successful practice is achieved when the vital energy of chi developed from the energy center begins to flow through the two major channels in the front and back of the body respectively. This flowing is not accomplished automatically, however. The practitioner needs to skillfully direct and guide the energy flow with his power of attention. This accomplishment, known as the “small heavenly cycle,” is said to ensure an automatic cure of old ailments as well as a marked improvement of general health conditions, both physical and mental. A higher stage of successful practice is achieved when the vital energy continues to flow into various minor channels throughout the body. This is called the completion of the “big heavenly cycle,” which reportedly makes the practitioner immune to all illnesses and capable of living a long and healthy life. Further advanced practice will lead to the formation of the radiant elixir of life, which are essential for the ultimate cosmic union and spiritual transmutation.

4.2 Tranquility as a Healing Force

In Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu reveals his spiritual realization that can be paraphrased as follows:

Attaining the ultimate Void and maintaining a state of the deepest tranquility, I observe the myriad things in the phenomenal world returning to their Origin. Complex and active as they are, eventually they all return to their Origin. Returning to the Origin brings about tranquility. In tranquility we access the Origin of our life, which is constant and immutable. Understanding this constant and immutable principle of the Cosmos, we attain serenity, illumination and enlightenment (Lao-tzu, trans., 2000, chp.16; True Tao, trans., 2004, chap. 16).

Although Lao-tzu did not discuss meditative techniques, the above statement was taken by latter-day Taoists as the theoretical foundation of the Taoist meditation. Without visualization and contemplation, which are commonly found in yoga and Buddhist meditation, the Taoist practitioner aims to attain utmost tranquility by training breathing and focusing attention on the body point below the navel. In order to attain this goal, it is essential for the practitioner to observe Lao-tzu’s teachings on simplicity and abstention from excessive desires and wants, especially sexual desire. Following this moral precept helps the practitioner embark on the path. If the meditative practice goes well, it succeeds in transforming the body energy for a higher purpose, and thus facilitates the observation of the precept. Furthermore, in meditation as well as in everyday life, the practitioner is expected to cultivate the mental attitude of “do-nothing” (wu wei), i.e., to let go the instinctual impulse to strive and to react. This attitude is cultivated in an effortless and spontaneous manner, so that the practitioner can relax his mind and body and to let go of all thoughts during meditation. The mental tranquility thus obtained helps bring about a balance in the internal secretions, and increase the level of endorphins, which are said to produce the feelings of love, joy and happiness. Consequently, the Taoist meditation is found to be efficacious for the treatments of neuroses and drug and alcohol addiction. It is particularly effective for the relief of stress and anxiety.

Because the Taoist meditation is relatively free of religious contents, it used to be practiced by religious and non-religious people in ethnic Chinese communities. In the early decades of the 20th century, meditation teachers in China and Japan had refined the Taoist techniques and come up with new meditative styles of their own to cater to the needs of the general public. Foremost among them were Yin Shih Tzu Meditative Method in China and Okata Meditative Method in Japan.

The fact that the refined Taoist meditative techniques are non-religious and are used primarily as a therapeutic exercise have made them popular for a while. But precisely because of this non-religious feature, their popularity has markedly declined in recent decades when different schools of Buddhist meditation find their way to the international and ethnic Chinese communities. The Taoist techniques as a therapeutic exercise have paled in significance when compared with the Buddhist practice that emphasizes spiritual awakening and liberation. Buddhist meditation has thrived as an integral part of the renaissance of contemporary Buddhism as a new religious movement. By contrast, Taoist meditation has become less attractive except among some New Age-styled religious-cultural groups in Taiwan, where meditative techniques are combined with Tai Chi exercise and /or some other forms of innovation to attract followers.  However, Tai Chi Chuan has become increasingly popular in both China and Western countries as a way of improving health and reducing tension. This form of exercise is especially appealing to older people, because its gentle movements and health benefits.

5. Conclusion

Taoism offers a unique perspective on stress and coping. In many ways, it is the forerunner of Western positive psychology, because its main message is that we can achieve contentment and health regardless of circumstances if we can understand and practice the Way of Nature and transcend the limiting factors in our daily lives. Instead of trying to confront problems and conquer nature, Taoism teaches that we need to transform our thinking and our way of life so that we can live in harmony with the Way of Nature. Taoism represents a philosophical and spiritual teaching with very practical implications for stress and coping. Different from the American psychology of coping, Taoism advocates a proactive and transformative approach to coping. By embracing the Taoist way of thinking and way of life, automatically we become free from all kinds of stressors and stress-related symptoms, such as anxieties and depression. By adopting the art of surrender and “do nothing”, we can overcome powerful negative forces without confronting them. Through the practice of Tai Chi and Qigong, we can maintain our physical and mental health even in very stressful and adverse environments.

Here is a summary of the main teachings of Taoism:

Taoism espouses a life style in accord with the Tao, the ultimate cosmic Truth, which is described as being selfless, simple, authentic and spontaneous. Following a life style of luxury and extravagance not only wastes money, but also can be harmful to our health and mental well-being.

The Way of nature not only refers to the great Cosmos; it also includes our true nature — the Origin of our life. Lao-tzu teaches that by surrendering our ego, we can achieve perfect “tranquility” and access the Origin, thereby attaining serenity, wisdom and enlightenment.

Craving for wealth and material possessions impoverishes us morally and spiritually,  while freedom from such craving enriches us by enhancing our capacity for love, serenity, good health and happiness.

All things in the universe exist in polarity (or duality), with the two opposites in a polarity complementing each other and making the existence of each other possible. Learning to develop a new insight that fortune and misfortune contain each other can help us avoid mental frustrations when misfortune strikes. The same insight applies to other dualities such as success and failure, health and illness, praise and blame, etc.

Taoism reveals that cosmic change takes place in a cyclical or circular pattern, in which everything reverts to its opposite when going to the extreme. With this insight, we learn to avoid excesses, and to remain equanimous in all circumstances. We do not become complacent over success or lose heart over failure.

The impulse of striving to be different from what we are causes tension and stress. Learning to master the art of “do nothing,” i.e., surrendering our instinctive impulse to strive and to react, has enormous benefits for our mental and physical health. The Taoist principle of “do nothing” is consistent with the psychotherapeutic approach of “unconditional self-acceptance,” which is considered by several schools of psychotherapy as crucial for the treatments of emotional disorders.

In the Taoist philosophy, “do nothing” also means that we take action in a spontaneous, effortless way, and avoid imposing our subjective thinking and beliefs on others, especially when we are in a leading position. A successful leader is someone who can keep his/her mind open to all ideas and delegate authority and duty properly to those working under him/her. According to Taoism, dictatorship is doomed to failure because the dictators, by interfering too much, violates the principle of “do nothing” and causes disharmony (though often disguised as “harmony”) within their society.

Taoist meditation in “passive relaxation” helps improve our physical and mental health. It is efficacious for the treatments of neuroses, especially stress and anxiety. Through Taoist meditation, one also learns to cultivate the art of “do nothing,” which is a secret to good health, self-culture and worldly success.

Taoism teaches that all is in flux, so our thinking should be allowed to flow rather than stagnate. We invite trouble if we act against this cosmic principle by sticking to a rigid, self-righteous way of thinking. Taoism and psychotherapy agree that flexibility in our way of thinking and outlook on life is important to avoid emotional troubles.

Taoism teaches that the Tao, the great Way of nature, has no selfish motives, that Mother Nature nurtures and nourishes without claiming anything in return. Learning from this cosmic virtue is the ultimate guarantee for a life of happiness and contentment. So, the Taoist message of contentment does not imply a passive resignation to fate, but rather a humble, selfless devotion to the well-being of humanity.

*Albert Ellis will discuss the idea that “self-esteem is a sickness” in a workshop scheduled for April, 2005. See the Workshops and Lectures section of the Albert Ellis Institute on website,

** In the 1960’s Taoist practitioner Li Le-chiu published a book in Taiwan entitled Fang Tao Yu Lu (Dialogues of Taoist Practitioners), in which the author documented the experience of scores of Taoist meditators, including a Catholic father. In that book, the interviewed meditatiors spoke of the transformation of sexual energy and the shrinking of sexual organ as an actual experience.


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