What is Tao?

So what is the Tao? Lao Tzu warns us, in The Tao Te Ching, that “One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know” (1963, 63). And why is that? Because, as the Tao Te Ching explains, “The [Tao] that can be spoken of is not the constant” Tao (1963, 5).

The paradox here is that they are talking about the Tao that you can’t talk about. In fact, the Tao Te Ching is a whole book about the Tao, which again, you cannot speak of. So what are they really saying?

As Brandon Toropov and Chad Hansen explain, what it means is that “all language distorts the Tao” (2002, 6). That is because a word can never substitute for a reality. I am tempted to stop here and expound. So often when we have a word for something, we mistakenly think we have the reality to which it refers. Knowing about is not the same thing as knowing.

A Definition of Tao

The earliest Chinese character for Tao, explains Deng Ming-Dao, “is formed by combining the sign for ‘movement’ with the sign for ‘leg.’” So the Tao is a picture of a person moving along a path.

Tao is usually translated into English as “the Way.” But I agree with Alan Watts, “I prefer not to translate the word Tao at all because to us Tao is a sort of nonsense syllable, indicating the mystery that we can never understand – the unity that underlies the opposites” (2000, 38).

Mel Thompson gives us a simple definition Tao, saying that it “means ‘path’ or ‘way’, and it refers to the natural way things are. The aim of Taoism is to help individuals to be aware of and live in unity with the Tao, characterized by behavior that is natural, spontaneous and in a harmonious balance” (2003, 157).

Rhythm and Flow

Everything has a natural rhythm and flow. There are not only seasons in a year, there are seasons of life. There are lifecycles as we age, and women are acutely aware of their own monthly cycle. We all have cycles and rhythms in our lives, but we are generally unaware of most of them.

Taoism helps us to remember to reconnect with these cycles, dance to these rhythms, and work with rather than against the flow of change. We resist change, we fight nature, and are worse for the wear.

The Tao is that reality, that flow, that constant flux of change and adaption. Once we begin to learn the wisdom of water, we can begin to relax into reality as it is. For a reed that is easily bent, is not easily broken.

Out of Balance

We are so out of balance with the natural world, that it is hard to know where to start. We have wrongly seen ourselves as above nature, as nature’s master and lord. Such is a great delusion. We are nature.

The great lesson of Taoism is the call to return to nature, to the natural flow of things. We need to learn to live in harmony with nature, nurturing and healing the environment on which we depend. We also need to learn to return to our bodies, to reconnect to what they are telling us. Meditation is one of the best ways of doing this.

Taoist Meditation

Meditation is just as important in Taoism as it is in Buddhism. “Regular meditation,” explains Diane Dreher, “not only restores our inner harmony and vital energy, but provides us with an actual experience of the peace we seek” (1990, 41).

Like in Buddhist meditation, you want to find a quiet place to sit. You close your eyes and tune in to your body. “Breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling into your abdomen, the center of your being,” explains Diane Dreher (1990, 43). With each breath, you want to sense the energy flowing through the body. Beginning from the toes, to the legs, to the stomach, to the heart, and out through your arms and fingertips.

With each breath, explains Diane Dreher, you want to “breathe out conflict and breathe in peace” (1990, 43). Release worry, anxiety, and suffering. Let it go. And then breathe in warm and revitalizing energy. As distracting thoughts arise, say to yourself, “I am one with Tao” (Dreher, 1990, 43). And gently dismiss the thought, returning to your breath. “When you’re ready to come back,” instructs Diane Dreher, “affirm one final time, ‘I am one with Tao.’ Gradually open your eyes, stretch your muscles, and return from meditation refreshed, centered, and serene” (1990, 43).


• Dreher, Diane. 1990. The Tao of Peace. New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc.
• Ming-Dao, Deng. 1996. Everyday Tao: Living with Balance and Harmony. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
•Thompson, Mel. 2003. Teach Yourself Eastern Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill
•Toropov, Brandon and Chad Hansen. 2002. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism. New York: Alpha.
•Tzu, Lao. 1963. Tao Te Ching. Translated by D. C. Lau. New York: Penguin Books.
•Watts, Alan. 2000. What Is Tao? Novato, CA: New World Library.


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