Fragments of Taoist Therapy
The essence of Taoism is harmony. A harmonious existence for a Taoist, does not exclude the messy, the wild or the irrational. It makes space for them to dance and allows them to follow their course in the same way as water finds tributaries. Before we are born we are formless and undifferentiated from the Tao, the great chaos that creates all things, through the generative power of our parents, we come into form and thus are separated from the Tao, and our life-course is the opportunity to merge back with it.
We might begin by asking the question: Why is there no Taoist psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy was born in the enlightenment, though Freud was influenced by Post modern thinkers such as Nietzsche, it was quickly and almost wholly devoured by the myths and sentiments of the day. Even in Buddhist versions of psychotherapy, there are assumed structures of the psyche based on notions of health and wellness that are couched largely in the mores of our times and are embedded in structures, and structures are what the Tao is not. At its best psychotherapy seeks to liberate people from these structures and conventions. Yet its organizing structure often reifies capitalist subjectivity rather than accept and celebrate the human’s potential for chaos and irrationality.
In Jungian psychology there is a tendency to turn our attention to “the shadow” and learn ways to let it “out and play”. Psychotherapies that built on this notion have learned to accept human “flaws” as integral parts to our sense of self. But Taoist philosophies go further than this, they celebrate the irreverent and subversive to a degree that westerners might find unacceptable in their daily lives.
To begin to understand what a Taoist psychotherapy might mean would always begin with critically examining the forces that govern behavior, the overt and invisible ways modern society divorces us from our irrational side.
Taoism is a practice that always seeks to question societal structures. It naturally subverts them and even treats them with indifference and irony. When the oppressing powers of the state encroached upon Lao Tzu, it is said he defected and left the province which he called home. He made a radical shift to go it alone, as many Taoists do all along the course of their lives.
After all, notions of what constitutes “rationality” and “progress” are invented by beings that are well known for making irrational decisions. Taoism does not exclude ethics of personal convictions, but in addition, does confer a more charitable understanding of our irrational qualities. It even celebrates them and allows for more randomness, play and confusing in our lives.
We tend to believe that we are moving towards a more sane, and humanistic world, that the civilizing process makes life better. We also tend to believe that violence and destruction will be eradicated as history unfolds and our knowledge increases. Yet this resolve will never happen and that we are always in a state of tension between these two states. Again Taoism goes further and asks us to allow our animal nature to be accepted; to realize that all things spring from nature, and therefore are necessary. Violence will always be a apart of our world because natural processes are violent. Our task is not to eradicate violence but to find the difference between nature’s violence, which is sparing an minimal, taking only what it needs, and modern human violence which engenders excess.
In Taoist parables often nature has a voice, and often speaks to people. Rivers and mountains have strong articulated messages for individuals who see themselves as humble in the face of such knowledge and power.
Some psychotherapies have largely embraced Buddhism as a system to support its ideas because it can be intellectualized and somatically experienced. But psychology has largely stayed away from Taoism because it flirts pretty hard with anarchism.
Taoism is not concerned with making more well assimilated and conditioned workers, but people who rebel, become shaggy old cranks, rascals and rogue wanderers. And I am not sure the task of psychotherapy should be to shape people more into “well adjusted” individuals. As Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.
So what consolations to life’s problems might Taoism help us with? A surprising amount, actually! Let me mention just one.
So many of our problems ask us to constantly attend to them, and many are double binds. No matter what we try, the problem persists. The suffering the problem itself becomes secondary to the frustration of not being able to fix it. The concept of Wu-Wei is about doing more by doing less. Wu-Wei offers us a window out of our current frustrations by not trying. By lessening the grip of our ego on the need to solve something quickly (as our culture love’s quick fixes). Through Wu-Wei we get relief from being hard on ourselves, of carrying the expectation that we should be able to stop this or that.
Wu-Wei has us stand back from our lives, accept the current circumstances and create room for our souls to breathe once again. It is in this distance, this kind of equanimity can allow previously hidden solutions to come into view. As we switch our magnification we might see how seemingly unrelated dynamics might support the problem. By doing less, you recruit other parts of your being into action, like intuition or field consciousness. By standing back, space is created to search one’s memory and recall knowledges that would be helpful, perhaps practices you’ve lost the thread of. Wu-Wei also lets our emotional intelligence free, it creates space to accept and feel, to face the pain itself aside from our frustration at ourselves, this is when the density of the struggle can change.
Wu-Wei also teaches us something else profound. Most of your life is going well because nothing is happening. It is when you don’t feel things that they are working properly. We don’t feel our hair growing, or our nails lengthening, and if you do, then somethings likely going wrong.
So let us return to our first question: Why is there no Taoist psychotherapy? Possibly the answer is in the natural resistance to structured thinking in Taoism, its preference for subversion and resistance. Taoism asks us to do less in life. Philosophical Taoism resists being thrown into some codified structure. In this day and age where every ideology is devoured by capitalism then repackaged for us as an impotent version of itself…what does it say about Taoism that is resists this process?
Taoism says we are all crazy, just in different ways. Dominant culture says, “here are our values, here are the drugs you can take, here are the drugs you can’t. Here’s who you can marry, here’s who you cant’. Taoism responds: One should know nothing about loving life and hating death, we emerge as an expression of nature and should go back to it without a fuss. Walk briskly and that is all. Don’t forget where you began and don’t try to figure out where you will end. Receive pleasure, but forget about it and hand it back again.