Close this search box.


Taoism and the art of balance

Link to the Episode

Anshu Bahanda: So once there was a wise old man. He was known for his balanced and wise nature. This young man from the village, who was stressed out with his everyday life, came to the old man and said, give me some advice, help me out. So the old man gave him a spoon with oil in it, took him to the top of the hill, showed him this tranquil lake, and said, “Walk around the lake with the spoon, but don’t spill any oil.” So the young man came back hours later, very excited that he hadn’t spilled any oil. The old man asked him, “Did you notice the sunset? Did you see the birds? Did you see the flowers blooming?” So the young man said, “No, I didn’t see any of that.” The old man was trying to teach him about Taoism and the art of balance. I’m Anshu Bahanda and this is Wellness Curated, and our new series is Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living. And we have with us a very special guest today. We have professor James Miller, who teaches at the Duke Kunshan University. He’s written six books on Taoism and he’s a leading interpreter of the subject. Welcome to the chat, James, and thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Professor James Miller: Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s a great privilege to be here and to talk about Taoism with you. Thank you.

AB: Before I carry on, can I please request you all to subscribe to this channel? Because we’re trying to get you better and better speakers and not charge you for it. So please do subscribe straight away. Thank you. So back to Taoism and the outer balance. So Taoism, or Daoism as it’s also called, is a philosophical and spiritual tradition out of ancient China. Tell us more about this philosophy, and tell us more about Wu Wei, which is effortless action. 

Prof JM: Sure. So I think the underlying principle of Taoism is that life is flourishing in the world today. And when we look all around us, we look at nature especially, we can see life is flourishing. Things are changing. Acorns grow into oak trees, tadpoles transform into frogs. We can see this abundance of flourishing and change and transformation in the world around us. And this really inspired ancient Chinese philosophers to think, where does this come from? Why is there this effervescence or this abundance of flourishing in the world? And they attributed this to a principle that they called Dao, which just means away, right? And we can see it in the transformation of things. And the Tao Te Ching says, we don’t really know what this is. We don’t have a name for it. We can’t call it a God or something like that. We can just see this principle emerging in the flourishing and transformation of things all around us. Do we have to make any effort to allow an acorn to grow into an oak tree? No, we don’t have to do anything to make this happen. This happens just effortlessly. It happens from the internal dynamics or the internal drive of the things itself. One of the things that comes from this is that if we pay attention to how things are flourishing in the world, maybe we don’t have to put in all of the effort to transform things according to our own will or intention. It’s much better to put things in a position where they can grow and flourish of their own accord. And maybe one metaphor for this is you can’t just make crops grow by just giving them too much water or pulling them up out of the ground. You have to let things take their own course. And the world is set up to allow things to grow and flourish. And if we’re smart about it, we can see how that works. And we can put ourselves in a position where we can benefit from the flow and the transformation that we see in the world around us. And that’s Wu Wei. It’s a kind of being effective in the world without forcing things to happen in a certain kind of way, or without making too much effort. And this is about being in a balance between yourself and the world around you.

AB: Tell me, how can we use that to change our lives? How can we use the principles of Taoism?

Prof JM: So when the ancient taoist philosophers looked at the world, they saw that, in principle, in the world there’s always the positive and the negative. So, for instance, we have summer and winter, we have daylight and nighttime. We have, you know… everything in the world can be divided. We get into these sorts of binary pairs. And what they realise is one of these things is not better than the other, right? We need both of these things for the world to exist. And they began to apply this principle more broadly. We can’t think about male being better than females, or the other way around. We can’t think about it. In a modern sense, we might say, we can’t think about work being better than leisure or the other way around. We need both of these things. And the optimal life comes from when we have these things in balance. And this comes from looking at the world, looking at our lives holistically, as a system, where things are always in a process of change. We’re going through the day, we wake up, we have this period of activity, and then we go into rest in the evening and we start again. And everything is a cycle like this. We can’t plot our lives around. Let us go in some linear direction to achieve some objective in the future in a single minded way. We have to allow for the fact that there are these rhythms and harmonies to our life. And if we overlook this, this produces ill health. It puts us out of balance, and this is unhealthy. So Daoism is also tied to the principles of Chinese medicine as well, which are also based on having a balance within the body. 

AB: So you’re talking about Chinese medicine and Taoism. And it reminds me so much of Hindu philosophy and Ayurveda, the fact that they work together, and it’s all about harmony and principle and cultivating it internally. 

Prof JM: I think so. I think where there’s an overlap is that Chinese philosophy has this idea of ‘qi’ or a kind of energy that flows in the body. And in Indian philosophy, we have this concept of ‘prana’ as well. It’s a kind of material force or energy in the body, and it’s something that’s quite absent from kind of western understandings of the body, where people didn’t really pay attention to any kind of experience of the sort of inner life of the body. So there are some differences between both, how Indian medicine came to think about it. But I think some of the underlying principles are definitely the same. So there is energy flowing in the body. It has to be in balance. If it’s not in balance, this produces what we, in a kind of western biomedical sense, would call diseases or symptoms of diseases. 

AB: I know that the Daoist had a very special way of tackling conflict. Can you tell us about that? How can we apply it to today?

Prof JM: So, obviously, Daoists living two and a half thousand years ago didn’t live in the same world that we do today. But perhaps it is possible to think about how we can apply some of their thinking to our world today. And in the early China was a very unstable place full of warfare. So I think one of the things that Taoists were very clear about is that warfare, or we might say direct conflict or aggressive action, is never helpful in solving a problem or a situation because this produces further destabilisation. And so that was beginning to think about, well, how do we respond to aggression? And I think the answer to this is not by responding in kind, but, if you like, by deflecting aggression in some way to try and create a new kind of harmony that comes from this. And I think this philosophy underlies a lot of East Asian martial arts as well. And Daoism also is connected to martial arts, where you try to use the strength of your opponent against them. And so I think one of the things that Daoists thought about was in responding to aggression. Can we respond in a smart way? Maybe there’s a way to deflect or divert the aggressiveness of your opponent in a way that doesn’t produce direct conflict, but produces a sort of optimal outcome from this situation. So this, I think, is a very counterintuitive sort of idea. I think often we’re sort of primed as human beings to respond aggressively to other people’s aggression. And I think this was something that the Daoist thought almost never, ever works as a strategy. And so I think Daoists became philosophers, became the forerunners of what we might think about as sort of strategic thinking, not thinking about what’s the next step, you know, but what’s the step after the next step, after the next step. And I think if you can put a conflict or an aggressive action into a bigger context, I think this will help you to respond to it in a more sort of intelligent way. And ultimately, I think Taoists think that our own flourishing as individuals can only take place in the context of the flourishing of the community as a whole. Right? We’re not isolated individuals. We depend on others and our own success. Our own flourishing can’t ever be achieved at the expense of other people. It’s never a zero sum, never a zero sum game.

AB: So, James, tell me, how did Taoism evolve over time, over the ages? And why has it found fewer followers than there was in ancient China?

Prof JM: It’s gone through many transformations. So Daoism began, I would say, as a kind of philosophy, perhaps tied to a meditation system as well. It became institutionalised as a religion in China. And there are still temples and monks and priests that you can find in China, and because of globalisation, you can find them in, you know, all across the world as well. But it’s quite small. And so I think one reason is that when Buddhism came to China, gradually Buddhism became the sort of dominant religion in China, and especially more recently, I mean, in the last dynasty of China, the Qing dynasty very much favoured relations with Tibet and Mongolia. And these were all very strongly Buddhist countries, so they very much favoured Buddhism as a religion. But this wasn’t always the case in Chinese history. And I think today Daoism became something that was very interesting to western philosophers as well, and in the 20th century it [transformed]. I think maybe people might be familiar with other kinds of concepts related or books related to Daoism, like the Tao Te Ching or the I Ching. These became very popular in the west and became emblematic of a certain kind of eastern thinking or a kind of eastern spirituality that seemed to be quite radically different from modern western individualism and had quite an impact on counterculture in the 1960s, the development of the new age. I think these are all inspired by these philosophies and spiritualities coming from different parts of Asia to the west in the 1960s and 70s. So I think Daoism is very much alive. It just has gone through many transformations over its history. 

AB: There’s a famous story of a Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, who dreamt that he had turned into a butterfly. But when he woke up, he wasn’t sure if he was a man who had dreamt of turning into a butterfly, or he was a butterfly that had dreamt of turning into a man. So the question is, what is reality and what is illusion, and how can we use this philosophy to navigate the uncertainties of life today? 

Prof JM: So this is one of the most famous stories in the book called Chuang Tzu, which is simply the name of this daoist philosopher. I think of this story as quite a sort of philosophical story, which is really about, how do we know that things are the way that they seem to be to us, right? And I think one of the things that this calls attention to is, as human beings, we have different states of consciousness of the world, right? So we can be asleep. We can be dreaming. We can be waking [up]. We can be aware of things. We can be focused on something. We can be concentrated on something, and maybe even we can be so in the moment concentrated on something, that we enter into a kind of different psychological state. Psychologists sometimes call this a flow state, where you’re so focused on and that you just sort of forget everything around you and you’re in this moment. So one of the things I think this calls attention to is our awareness of the world isn’t either. It’s not just on or off, right? There are different states of awareness. And the second thing is to say that things are always changing. If you think about butterflies, right? I mean, which have these four stages of life— eggs, larva and pupas and chrysalises— these kinds of things. And so when we look at the world, we think, oh, it’s like this, but it’s not. I mean, it’s like this now, right? But I think Daoists always want to pay attention to— it became like this, and it will become something else. And so we may get fixed on, oh, what is this problem that I’m dealing with right now? What is this thing that has got my attention here and now at this moment? And this causes us to forget that this came into our attention and will go out of our attention. But as human beings, we get so fixated on the thing that’s right in front of us right now, we sometimes forget that this is not the total picture. So I think if ever you get fixated on something that’s really working away at your mind, maybe it’s helpful just to take it, step back and say, you know, this came into being and it will go, and it will go away. So I think that maybe, it’s one way to think about this in terms of our sort of stressed, pressured modern lives.

AB: That’s actually very, very useful advice— to embrace change and to realise that things are temporary, and that they’re always changing. The other thing that was really interesting about Taoism was how they use humour in their stories and their anecdotes, and it also shows you that they’re trying to embrace joy in life. 

Prof JM: So it’s true that I think many Daoist texts have been noted for their humour. It’s not as though they’re full of jokes that people tell. But I think there’s two things. One is that the stories sometimes are light hearted. And so I think that there is a point to this, which is— everything can seem so, so serious. Right? But that’s not everything, right? You know, we, as human beings, should still be able to find a light hearted side to something. And often it seems impossible. But also, I think the Daoists were quite… They made fun of people who they thought were a bit pompous in the sense of taking things too seriously all the time. And usually the target for this sort of exaggerated satire or humour is Confucius, who they, who Chuang Tzu views as this person who’s very, very well minded, always trying to intervene in things to make the world better. And he’ll go and tell people, oh, why are you doing this? Something like this, you should be a better person, try and improve yourself. This will be better for society. And then whatever it is that he does fails. And I think what Chuang Tzu says is, the world doesn’t always work like that. No matter how good your intentions are or no matter how you want to, you don’t make somebody a better person by telling them, you must be a better person. And so I think we have to be a bit careful about trying to impose our own moral vision on other people. I think perhaps one of the messages of this story. We have to be a little bit deferential to other people and other people’s situations. And maybe humour is a way to resolve the tensions that come from the fact that I see the world in this way and you see the world in another way.

AB: Also, the book Tao Te Jing, which you’d mentioned earlier; it uses a lot of paradoxical wisdom. So they will talk about softness over hardness, or Wu Wei as action through inaction. Why do they do that? What is the learning there?

Prof JM: The Tao Te Ching is a very short book of 81 chapters. They’re like very sort of pithy aphorisms, like short statements that seem a little bit weird or paradoxical. And a paradox is something that, on the surface, appears to be self contradictory. But what it’s trying to do is point to a deeper meaning that, you know, resolves the conflict. So I think perhaps the most famous paradox in the Tao Te Ching is— do nothing and there is nothing that will not be done.  So on the face of it, this is nonsense, right? It’s self contradictory. But I think what it’s calling into account is maybe in certain situations, there’s a context in which non action, or non-aggressive action or non-intentional action produces a better outcome. And just to give you an example of this, I think there was a famous study done of, in football, goalkeepers who are trying to save penalties. So if you’re a goalkeeper and you’re trying to save a penalty, you know, in a, in a soccer match, and like, you know, the opponent kicks the ball at you, what do you want to do? You feel compelled to act. You have to try and guess, is the ball going to go to the right or is it going to go to the left? And you have to jump in one direction and not the other. Statistically, the best thing to do is to stay in the middle of the goal and not move at all. But nobody does that because you look a bit silly. If the goalkeeper just sort of stood in the middle of the net, he would look very silly. But actually, statistically, most of the balls go towards the centre of the net. And you want to stop the ball. But people feel compelled to act sometimes, right? And that’s a kind of a case where acting, doing something for the sake of appearing to do something is actually less effective than not doing something. So sometimes we have to be delicate, you know. The Tao Te Ching said that governing a kingdom is like boiling a small fish. You know, that’s to say it’s a task that seems to be very enormous— how to govern a kingdom. But it’s actually something that has to be done with great finesse. So I think there are many sorts of small paradoxes in the Tao Te Ching that are designed to call our attention to maybe the obvious way of acting or doing something in the world. And one way to think about Daoism as a whole is really it’s just a philosophy of action. You know, there are things happening in the world. We happen in the world. We intervene in the world. And we have to act in a kind of a smooth way to produce this sort of optimal outcome for everybody. 

AB: Also, they talk about Ziran, the naturalness or being your authentic self.

Prof JM: So, Ziran, it’s usually translated as natural or being. So perhaps there’s another way to translate this. We could say it’s a kind of a core value in Daoism. It describes how we should be in the world. And it’s certainly similar to the idea of being authentic. But I think it’s a little bit different. So often, if we have the idea of authentic, somebody might say, oh, that was the most authentic Thai restaurant that I went to yesterday. And so what does this mean? It means you have in your mind an image of what the most authentic Thai cuisine is, right? And that this restaurant that you went to, conformed to this ideal picture that you have in your mind. In the modern west, we have this idea that people should be authentic, or they should express their own true identity or something like this. So being authentic in that sense is conforming to some kind of ideal that you have about how things properly ought to be. And I think Ziran is a little bit different. So what Ziran means is things have their own internally driven tendencies to change. So the Ziran of an acorn is that it will become an oak tree. That’s its Ziran. It’s following its own nature. And so the authentic acorn doesn’t stay an acorn forever. Right? It grows into something else. And so I think what the Daoists want is for us to respect this internal dynamic that everything has, that we have as individuals as well. 

AB: Tell me, what is their guidance and leadership?

Prof JM: So the Tao Te Ching contains many verses and chapters that seem to be aimed at giving advice to a ruler. And I think this was in ancient China. We could think about this in terms of what are the best politics or policies or how should the ruler be? But I think we can translate this into a modern context. I think we can talk about leaders and teams and all of these kinds of things. So the most effective leader is one who gets his team to do whatever it is that they need to do without forcing them to do it. We should motivate people not by external punishments or carrots and sticks, right? That’s a common thing. Like, if you don’t do this task, we’re going to, you know, we’ll demote you, or if you do this task, we will put you in line for promotion. This is about providing external rewards for people. But I think the Daoist said the best way of leading people is so that they do the thing that you are wanting them to do without even realising that they’re doing it because they’re motivated by some external reward, that is, they internalise for themselves the thing that it is that you’re trying to do. So this is about appealing to people’s internal motivations or dynamics. I think if people in your team think that on their own, they’re doing this for their own interest and also for the team as a whole, and not because there’s a big boss with a big stick telling them to do this, this is going to be more effective in the long run. So the most effective leader actually is the one who doesn’t even seem to be leading, right? It’s not somebody who’s standing up in front wearing a suit and tie and saying, look at me, I’m the leader. It’s about being quietly effective. 

AB: You wrote this book, Daoism and Ecology within the cosmic landscape, and you talk a lot about the Taoist practises for ecological balance. So tell me, when we’re faced with so much challenge today, we’re faced with, you know, so much environmental challenge, how would you advise we tackle that based on taoist philosophy? 

Prof JM: I mean, that’s a huge issue. And, you know, I think the first thing I would say is that it’s definitely true that if we look in the history of what Daoists have done in ancient China, we can see that they definitely cared about their environment and this, and so the maintenance of their living environment, caring for the trees and marshlands and things like this was something that they considered to be definitely important for their communities. And I think this points to the fact that perhaps China has been going through, or people in China paid attention to environmental degradation for many, many hundreds of years. And this has been happening in different ways in, you know, in China for a long time. But Daoists certainly paid attention to this and their motivation, their motivating concern was that if something bad is happening in the environment, this is not good for me. This will not produce a flourishing human community if we don’t also have a flourishing environment. So we can’t… Human communities can’t exist completely isolated from a flourishing environment. That seems to be the underlying rationale of this. And I think this is something that is lacking, I would say, in a kind of debate about the environment today. So some people say, oh, we should save the planet or save the whales or whatever it is, and of course, we should be concerned about those things in the natural environment. But why, right? So the Daoists are very clear about this. The flourishing of the world around us is necessary for us as human beings to have a flourishing life as well. So I think what the Daoists would say is, don’t think about the environment as this thing that’s outside you, right? It’s also inside you.

AB: That is such a lovely note to end it on— that we are nature, we’re not separate. 

Before I leave you today, I want you to think about this visual. There’s a stream going through a forest and there’s rocks on the way. And it just goes around the rocks. It doesn’t push them. It’s not aggressive with conflict, it just manoeuvres around the rocks. And over time, even the edges of the rocks get soothed. That is Taoism. 

Thank you, James. That was absolutely spectacular. I’ve really enjoyed the chat. Thank you for your time and for adjusting your time from China to be here with us today. 

Prof JM: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it very much. 

AB: Thank you for being here. I hope you enjoyed our first episode for ‘Ancient wisdom for modern living’. In two weeks time, we’re going to talk to you about ‘Zen practises for daily living’. Please do join us for that. In that we will talk about presence, mindfulness, and how that can help you manage stress and live more fulfilling lives. Thank you.