The Dao is beyond human convention

To understand Daoism we must understand the meaning of Dào (道), which can be translated roughly as “way” or “path”. The term can also be taken to mean “convey”. As soon as we start conveying the meaning of 道, however, we run into trouble.

道可道非常道 (Dào kĕ Dào fēi cháng Dào ; the Dao that can be conveyed is not the real Dao”)

This phrase offers a taste of Daoism. It comes from from 道德经 (dào dé jīng; “the way of virtue”), a text written some 2500 years ago by 老子 (lǎozǐ, “old master”).  Although the writing of this text marked the beginning of Daoism as we know it, its roots can be traced back to the prehistoric traditions of Chinese shamanism and naturalism(1).

Laozi was a contemporary with Confucius, and their schools of thought – Daoism and Confucianism – developed side by side. In a way, they complemented each other; Confucianism concerned with social conventions, Daoism with Nature beyond convention.

Since language is a social construct, words can never convey “truth” in any ultimate or universal sense, whether we call it Dao, god, enlightenment, moksha or something else. It is to be embodied and experienced directly. Despite the limitations of language, however, we can still do our best to understand the Daoist path(2) and how to follow it.

A holistic view

The Dao should not be viewed as a deity or creator of the universe. Nor does it share the newtonian view of a mechanistic universe consisting of independent parts. Daoists view reality as a fundamentally self-regulating system or self-governing organism. The Dao is the underlying order according to which all of reality unfolds. This view agrees with recent insights from quantum mechanics, demonstrating that parts of a system cannot be described independent from other parts. “Things” cannot be described without consideration to the system as a whole, nor can the observer be separated from the observed.

Unifying with the natural order

Like scientists, the Daoists carefully observed nature in order to gain a deep understanding of the patterns according to which reality unfolds. They saw that all things – including human beings – have their natural state and spontaneous way of unfoldment. Daoism is the method by which we return to this natural state, known as 自然 (zì rán; “self-such”; “self-organisation”).

In a sense, Daoism is the most basic and fundamental form of spirituality. It does not require sophisticated concepts or the adoption of certain beliefs. It is a method of learning to follow the natural flow of things. Like water, the Dao seeks the low places and illuminates the depths. By following this flow, we naturally return to our source – like a mountain stream returning to the valley lake.

“Rivers and streams are born of the ocean, and all creation is born of the Dao. Just as all water flows back to become the ocean, all creation flows back to become the Dao.

道德经; dào dé jīng

The Daoists were not so interested in intellectual understanding or explaining the metaphysics behind this natural order. Instead, they concerned themselves with understanding how to unify with it.  By following the Way, we come back into alignment with the natural order of things. This union (yoga) supports our original source to unfold without contrivance and enables us to live as natural, awake human beings with true spontaneity and balance.

How we stray from the path

As humans, we have largely deviated from the natural order. Rather than living in alignment with the Dao, we typically live from reactive personality patterns. Throughout our lives, we encounter situations that trigger reactions and condition the mind. This self-reinforcing conditioning creates strong patterns in our minds and leads to the formation of the ego and its persona (“mask”). In an attempt to protect itself, the ego works hard to keep away anything that it finds disagreeable. When we operate from the ego, we are in a constant state of tension. This tension creates blockages that prevents us from entering the path.

(A similar description of this fundamental insight can be found by the Buddhists(3).)

Non-striving and powerful action

As long as we act from personal intentions, no method can lead us toward unification with the Dao. Therefore, in order to enter the path, we must start a process of undoing – of deconditioning the mind and letting go of personal intentions. This is done by applying the principle of 無爲 (wú wéi, “non-doing”; “non-striving”, “non-governing”).

Listening is a key skill for entering the path because it enables us to free the mind from unconscious intentions and contrived reactions. Rather than applying personal will and striving for particular outcomes, we allow the mind to become quiet and turn to attentive awareness. This is the process that starts to dissolve layers of tension and reactivity.

Wu wei does not imply passivity. On the contrary, it enables swift, spontaneous and appropriate action. A person embodying wú wéi  does not interfere with the natural order and therefore expresses the virtue of 德 (, “power”; “virtue”; “integrity”; “the results of living in accordance with the Dao”). He allows life to flow freely, dissolving the separation between the doer the action, between the self and the Dao. Regardless of occupation or activity, he follows the path of least resistance. He swims with the current and cuts the wood along its fibres. He is one with the Dao in the same way that a wave is one with the ocean.

“The master does nothing, and yet nothing is left undone”.

Becoming depolarised

Judgement is inherent to the personality; labelling all things as good or bad. This natural faculty of the mind becomes problematic only when we no longer recognise opposites as part of one whole. Ignoring this truth leads to polarisation; the tendency to identify with one side and the urge to eradicate “the other”. This is to miss the mark; it is like trying to get rid of one pole of a magnet. Yin does not exist without yang; if the white fish eats the black, or vice versa, both disappear.

If we want to harmonise with the Dao, we must achieve balance. And in order to achieve balance, we must become depolarised by recognising the principle of 太极 (☯, tài jí; “great pole”; “supreme ultimate”). It points to the undifferentiated state of pure potentiality that gives birth to:

  • yin/yang (polarity and duality)
  • the 5 elements (the physical world), and
  • the ten thousand things (all of manifest reality).

To see man as different from nature is to ignore the whole. The Daoists understood that all opposites arise mutually and that we experience things in terms of their opposites. There can be no light without dark, no inside without outside, no up without down, no “us” without “them”. One who embodies the principles of wu wei and tai ji operates with the whole as one’s center of gravity.

As above, so below

Nature is constantly unfolding and evolving. Plants and animals evolve, grow and die; seasons come and go; solar and lunar cycles unfold in their orbits; galaxies engage in a cosmic spin. We are not separate from any of this. As humans, we are affected by the cycles of nature just as we are affected by the cycles within our physical and energetic bodies.

Just as there is a natural order to the unfoldment of the outer cosmos (“macrocosm”), there is a natural unfoldment within the human body/mind (“microcosm”). If we want to live in harmony within ourselves, we have to harmonise with nature. The Daoists therefore adhere to the principle “as above, so below; as below, so above”(4). By transforming ourselves, we transform the world – and by transforming the world, we transform ourselves.

Physical body as foundation for inner work

The body is the vehicle in which we travel on the path. Unless it is balanced, it cannot take us toward unification with the Dao. This is why Traditional Chinese Medicine puts a lot of emphasis on good health and longevity through various lifestyle improvements (such as medicine, acupuncture, martial arts, postures and breath work).

Once the body is fit, we shift from the outer vehicle (cultivating the physical body) to more subtle forms of practice. Just as there are practices for reorganising the posture and alignment of the physical body, there are practices that open up the energy system within the subtle body. This internal practice is known as 內功 (nèigōng; “inner work”, “internal arts”)

Breath work

A key aspect in this inner work is the cultivation of the breath because it serves as a bridge between our physical body and our energy body (Outer breath, inner breath).

气 (qì; “breath”; “energy”; “vitality”; “life force”) refers to the breath in its more subtle forms.

气功 (qìgōng; “energy work”; “breath work”) can therefore be seen as a system of practice designed to cultivate the subtle energy of the body for physical health, mental peace and spiritual freedom.

The key in the dāntián

This type of breath work typically focuses on identifying and nurturing specific energy centers in the body in order for the qi to flow more naturally. The most important of these energy centers is the lower dantian (丹田; dāntián; “elixir field”), located in front of the spine below the navel. It can be likened to a battery with the capacity to store energy and make it available for the promotion of health and various bodily functions. The cultivation of the lower dantian is the foundation in most neigong systems. This process not only balances the physical and energetic bodies – it also lays the groundwork for spiritual development.

A practical path

Whether we practice to develop an immortal spirit or to address some aspect of our physical health, the path is the same. Daoism does not require us to adopt high-minded, spiritual beliefs in order to benefit from the practice. If we are interested in the scientific aspects of the practice, research findings point to measurable effects taking place in the physiology of the body (e.g. within the nerves, glands and endocrine systems). Rather than clinging to beliefs or striving for spiritual goals, we stick to practical methods that allow us to experience tangible results firsthand. Once we feel the effects of the practice our trust in the process naturally deepens, which enables us to progress further.


(1) Such as 巫教; “wū jiào” and 方士; “fāngshì”

(2) There are many forms of Daoist practice, including religious and ritualistic paths. Here, we focus mainly on the practice of energetics and meditation such as 气功 (qìgōng; “energy work”; “breath work”), 內功 (nèigōng; “inner work”) and 內丹 (nèidān; “internal alchemy”).

(3) For example, the second foundation in the satipatthana (which illuminates how reactive patterns get in the way of mindfulness) and the 5 skandhas (providing an analyses of the building blocks of our ego image and how it gets in the way of waking up).

Further, Daoism and Buddhism both point to the ideal of living in accordance with the underlying order of reality (Dao or Dharma). A Daoist may say something like
“Act not with force, nor passivity. Instead, follow the path of wu wei (non-striving) and allow nature to unfold effortlessly through you. This way, you achieve union with nature, with Dao”.
A Buddhist may say:
“Do not act out of craving or aversion. Do not repress, nor act out. Instead, go the middle way, which is in accordance with nature. This way, you achieve union with the Dharma”.

(4) The second Hermetic principle is known as the principle of correspondence and states: “As above, so below; as below, so above”. This principle embodies the truth that there is always a correspondence between the laws and phenomena of the various planes of being and life. The inner and outer world are one and the same. “While all is in the all, it is equally true that the all is in all.”