When looking for ways to deal with physical or mental illness, it is good to keep an open mind. And this is especially true of something like Taoism. After all, such practices do not survive for 2,000 years unless they have something to offer.
Taoism is a blend of religion and philosophy. Indeed, some argue that it isn’t a religion at all. Lao Tzu is often cited as the founder, but this is incorrect. In fact, he refers to ancient Taoist masters in his writing. Lao Tzu himself is a semi-mythical figure, comparable to Homer, whose birthplace and dates are unknown. If he did exist, he was probably born somewhere in north-eastern China between 599 and 299 BC.
Lao’s philosophical work, the Tao-te Ching, lays out the basic Taoist worldview. At the center is the Tao itself. This, he stresses, is beyond human language and understanding. If you think you have grasped or captured it, you haven’t. Unfortunately, “The Tao” suggests an object or substance that can be observed and studied. It isn’t, which often frustrates those raised in a materialist culture.
So what is it? The Tao is best thought of as an experience. You don’t see or touch or analyze the Tao, you live in harmony with it. It is reality; or, to be more accurate, the indefinable something out of which reality emerges. It sustains and moves everything, and yet, though the Tao cannot be separated from the material world, the two are not synonymous.
Translators often use the word “way,” as in “the way things are,” “the way of nature,” or “the way of the Universe.” When you are caught in a snowstorm, for example, you are experiencing the way of nature. According to science, the trees outside your window are made of atoms, and so are you, your cat and your desk. But this solid, stable reality is an illusion. The atoms are not solid at all. A Taoist would agree, adding that primordial energy itself is a consequence of Tao. The Tao is the source, but also the pattern and substance, of all that exists.
Those raised in the monotheistic traditions often imagine God as a stern, male figure, somewhere between a powerful king and a loving father. They also think of him as an architect, creating the Universe according to inscrutable plans. To a Taoist, however, nature is not moulded from without but grown from within. The Tao is not the law of the Universe. It has no shape and follows no rules. And it isn’t a blind, irrational energy or will. We grasp it by feeling our way into the rhythms of nature. Think of flowing water. This is perhaps the best metaphor available. If you want to understand the river, climb in and allow yourself to be carried along.
The Modern Approach to Human Health
It would be absurd to claim that the Taoist approach is superior. A Taoist isn’t better at treating cancer or anxiety than an American or European doctor. He merely offers an interesting complement to the rational, scientific approach.
Since the 17th-century, Western culture has been shaped by science. The word “paradigm” is often used to describe such phases of history. In essence, a paradigm means the fundamental, core beliefs about how the world works and how we relate to it. In the 17th-century, individuals like Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton laid the foundations for a new, “mechanistic” paradigm.
Until the birth of modern science, most people had an animistic view of nature, assuming everything was alive and animated by hidden forces. Francis Bacon rejected this, arguing that nature is a vast machine best studied objectively. And human beings are not a part of it but detached observers. For Descartes, there were three distinct substances: God, human consciousness, and the material world. Newton would reveal the laws governing that material world.
In the mechanistic paradigm, the universe is reduced to individual atoms moved by laws and forces. In other words, separate parts that conflict. In the 20th-century, it was discovered that atoms are not like hard little pellets at all. On the contrary, they are mostly composed of empty space. According to quantum theory, even the subatomic particles are not solid but exhibit the properties of both particles and waves. And yet most people carry on as if this revolution never occurred. The average person in London or New York still thinks of himself as a separate little ego inside a solid, material body reducible to separate parts.
And this paradigm shapes our approach to everything from economics to health. The free market libertarian, for example, thinks of people as separate entities in competition with one another. The energy and innovation generated by these competing egos then drives growth. This outlook also shapes our approach to health and medicine. A modern consultant specializes in the workings of one part of the human machine. We live in an age of specialists. Indeed, a biologist can spend his entire career focussed on the reproductive cycle of one species of snail!
Taoism and Health
The essential problem is that Western medicine focusses not on healing but on repair. A true healer looks at the wider context. Obviously she examines the body and mends the broken bone or stitches up the wound, but she also recognizes that this is just the beginning. The idea of doctor as repairer rather than healer fits the mechanistic paradigm. According to Descartes, the body is a machine. Just as the mechanic fixes a car’s broken engine, or replaces the sparkplugs, so the doctor unblocks a vein or removes a tumor. During true healing, you consider the patient’s family life, mental health, and even spiritual beliefs. You also show kindness and love, really listening to their fears and worries.
The mechanistic paradigm also influences our approach to mental illness, which is separated from physical illness. Psychiatrists tend to reduce depression, for example, to low levels of serotonin, or to see the roots of schizophrenia in a diseased brain. In more traditional cultures, mental and physical illnesses were not separated, neither were they reduced to malfunctioning parts. Health once meant balance or harmony. Today it simply means the machine does not currently need repair.
To the Chinese, the body is made up of inter-related components. Illness occurs when there is an imbalance of the life energy, or “Chi.” To those raised in the Western tradition, this may seem like dangerous pseudo-science. No one but a fool would reject modern medicine, however. The point is not to replace but to expand and enrich it.
We need a more holistic approach, one that considers things like loneliness, or the loss of harmony with one’s family and society. We know from Psychoanalysis that anxious, depressed neurotics often suffer physical symptoms, which have no anatomical or physiological cause. In other words, the mind and body are one, and they affect each other. Any doctor will tell you that patients with a positive, upbeat attitude heal from an operation more quickly than the lonely and depressed.
One obvious way Taoism could help is by providing a spiritual meaning. Taoists do not demand faith in a single, monarch-like God. For them, the goal is to understand nature and live in harmony with it. Mental and physical illnesses occur, they argue, when this harmony is lost. Those sorts of beliefs are perfectly compatible with scientific materialism.
Both therapists and medics recognize stress as the great curse of modern life, responsible not only for mental illness but also physical illness. The reasons are obvious. As the world’s population grows, it is becoming harder and harder to find space and silence. Plus, 24 hour news pumps us full of fear from the moment we awake. Indeed, some people wake up, scroll through their phone and, before they’ve even go out of bed, read about an alarming new study on climate change, a report on overpopulation in Africa and news of a terrorist attack in Europe!
Many of the great modern cities are full of lonely, isolated individuals struggling with each other for money, status and power. We strain and yearn after things we cannot have, things that lie in the future, things we could have if only X or Y would fall into place. Taoism teaches a different approach. To a Taoist, the goal is not increase but harmony. Through following Taoist practice, the yearning, straining ego relaxes.
To the Taoist, life is ever moving and ever changing, and one can resist this or learn to accept it. The central Taoist practise of “wu-wei,” translated as “non-action,” “not-striving,” or “action without intention” offers an alternative. In essence, it mean keeping your will, or ego, in line with the natural order. For the Taoist, the goal is always peace and harmony.
Taoists drew upon an idea already embedded in Chinese culture, that of the yin and yang. According to this view, the world is moved by two conflicting forces or energies. The first, the yin, is receptive, calm and yielding. So, for example, the moon would be yin, so too water and clouds. The yang is all that is aggressive and hard: the sun, the rocks, the storms, etc. But, though they conflict, they also contain each other. The harsh storms of late winter give way to the softness of spring; a couple bitterly argue and then hug and kiss, and so on.
Balance, harmony, relaxation and moderation are the key words. Consider how alien such things are to the average office worker in London, New York or L.A! Their day-to-day life is frequently characterized by anger and stress. They sit in the rush hour, fight for a seat on the train, grab a sandwich and eat it at their desk, and so on. And people frequently either take no interest in diet and exercise, or too much, over-exercising and depriving themselves of occasional treats and pleasures. Taoism thus provides a helpful counterweight to our mechanistic approach. And this is especially true of our approach to human health.