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Set Down the Burden - Taoism Shows How

Jan 5, 2023
Doug Fraley
Core Spirit member since May 7, 2021
Reading time 5 min.

Trade struggle for flow.
We carry unnecessary emotional backpacks through life. The more we see them in their proper context, the more frequently we can set them aside. They may always accompany us, but we needn’t bear their weight.

Reality’s quality check
Life sometimes rejects our demands. Although we want things one way, they turn out another. Other people’s words and actions hurt us, while we let them and ourselves down in speech and deed. We face troubling decisions as we look to an uncertain future.

Taoism sees all of these instances (along with their positive counterparts) as part of a single flow based on the principle, Tao.* Everything that happens, happens necessarily. Taoism is a light-hearted philosophy, but it takes the word ‘everything’ seriously. ‘Everything’ includes every being’s thoughts, feelings, words and actions alongside the universe’s inanimate events.

The Tao is not something we choose to follow or not. We are part of the stream, not swimmers in it. We are special parts of it, though, because we experience the flow. What does Tao’s role imply?

Anything that has happened did so in keeping with this principle. It was wholly legitimate. Yes, we may wish it had been different, but our preferences don’t invalidate life’s seal of approval. Tao’s blessing doesn’t mean past occurrences were just or morally right, only that they were necessary consequences of nature’s consistency. This line of reasoning applies equally to natural events and to human action. Remember, nothing is outside reality’s single flow, deaf to the Tao. Realising this allows us to re-frame blame, resentment and guilt.

Anything that is happening is doing so in keeping with Tao. An event right now is a done deal, signed off and made real. If we are aware of it, then it is already ‘out there’. This includes our interpretation and degree of satisfaction with immediate events. Understanding this softens *discontent *and judgement.

Finally, whatever does happen in the future will do so based on Tao. Any decisions we make will be part of reality’s singular unfolding. How and to what extent we live up to our promises and intentions will be aspects of the same whole. Any victory or loss we have will fit within the larger truth.

None of this changes the fact that we are uncertain what the future holds. We do make decisions, choosing from among options. Just because we see a choice as part of nature’s flow doesn’t mean we know which option is the best one. We’re human, so we have to decide. Each of us will choose based on who we are and what the world is in that moment, and all of that derives from Tao. Recognising this re-contextualises anxiety.

These bold emotions, negative and often intense, are part of nature’s one stream. Our seeing this doesn’t erase them or make us less sensitive to them. As long as we are to enjoy the pleasure in life, we must be equally exposed to pain. No, the opportunity is to discover that our true relationship with these emotions is different to what we’ve assumed it to be.

Life as fight; life as flow
Few grow up seeing themselves as a part of nature’s flow. We seem to be at least partially free of it, even though our bodies are subject to the same forces that govern falling rocks and decaying trees. The world seems to confirm that we are separate from and battling within our environment. So when someone first intellectually agrees with Taoism’s core tenet, they don’t automatically feel as if it’s true. To realise the truth, to understand in real time Tao’s role, to recognise the necessity of every detail of this moment — these are counterintuitive.

But we can question our habitual interpretations and feelings, experimenting with different ‘lenses’. The key is to allow ourselves the possibility that there is an alternative to struggle. Where might we find the necessary courage? Doris Day sang Que Sera Sera (What will be, will be.) The Christian mystic incants Thy will be done. For those in recovery, the Serenity Prayer opens the door:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
-Reinhold Niebuhr

Sometimes our reminders work. We relax! Then, we don’t see the past as a cosmic injustice or shameful sin. The present is not an illegitimate imposition. Our future is a no longer a problem to be solved, so the pressure to ‘get it right’ diminishes. In such instants, discontent dissipates, fear dissolves, resentment washes away. We might call this magical relaxation surrender, a different way of experiencing life.

To our past thinking, lacking control meant losing freedom. But in these moments of clarity, the recognition that we are part of the great flow frees us. It liberates us from the sense of isolated responsibility that constitutes such a burden.

Each time we move from the way of independence and control to the way of surrender and freedom, it is as if we slip that large rucksack from our shoulders and allow life to carry it.

These free moments pass, and others arise, ones in which old habits overpower our self-reminders. With our nervous systems tensed, we don’t see things clearly enough to remember how everything happens — according to Tao. We return to experiencing life as struggle, for some period.

So, we learn through experience that there are two principal ways to participate in life:

  • As if we are independent of the wider world and in control of life, or
  • As if we are undivided from and floating freely in it.

Taoist teaching helps us question the first path and opens our minds to the availability of the second. The writings also suggest a way of thinking, speaking and acting in daily life, behaving as if we were on the second path, not out of moral duty but as a beneficial practice of reorientation. Some might call this a ‘fake it till you make it’ strategy. It promotes the relaxation through which we drop the backpack. The bag doesn’t disappear; it floats beside us, its weight born by the same stream of which we are a part.

Each time we move from the way of independence and control to the way of surrender and freedom, it is as if we slip that large rucksack from our shoulders and allow life to carry it. After some moments of explicit bliss, the burdenless sense becomes ‘normal’, no longer exceptional. The absence of a load feels natural.

But inevitably, we again detect our backs aching, and we notice the bag’s weight. The more we manage to recognise that relapse itself as part of the great flow rather than judging ourselves for it, the lighter any burden is.

  • Physics views all that happens as part of a single flow based on the initial conditions of the universe and the laws that govern how it evolves moment-by-moment. Although Taoism and physics don’t always say the same things, for the purposes of this article’s content, you can replace Tao with ‘the laws of physics’.
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