The Taoist Way

The Taoist way: Balancing work and life

In a previous blog post What is Yin yoga I mentioned that Yin yoga is inspired by ancient Chinese Taoist practices. In fact, Yin yoga is sometimes referred to as Taoist yoga, or Tao Yin, and these practices have been incorporated into Kung Fu training for thousands of years.

Taoist philosophy: Tao Te Ching

For many years I’ve been interested in Taoist philosophy and how to find balance in my own life by following the principles of Taoism. This interest started many years ago, when I came across a small book called the Tao Te Ching (‘The Way’) written by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

The Tao Te Ching is a book of 81 short verses on how to live in the world. I’ll often read verses from my old copy of the Tao Te Ching in a Yin class, to guide people into the more philosophical areas of their yoga practice. Some of the verses are particularly apt when we’re looking for ways of balancing work and life.

Balancing work and life

With the key theme being the importance of balance, whether looking to the cosmic order, to society, or to ourselves, the ancient text emphasises the need to find balance and harmony with nature. Whether you’re approaching the Tao Te Ching for its philosophy, its practical advice, or in a more spiritual sense, the need for balance is its pervading lesson in helping people find either their way or ‘The Way’.

Many of us struggle to find harmony between our work responsibilities and personal lives. The ancient wisdom of Taoism offers valuable insights on how to navigate this delicate balance with grace and mindfulness.

The Taoist Way: Navigating The Path

The legendary Lao Tzu

According to legend, in the sixth century BC, Lao Tzu served as the keeper of the imperial archives. Witnessing the decay and corruption of his society, he resolved to leave it behind and ride into the western desert. When he reached the Hangu Pass gate, he met a guard named Yinxi. Yinxi instantly recognized Lao Tsu’s wisdom and begged the sage to help society by writing down his teachings. Thus, the Tao Te Ching was born.

Scholars know little about the origins of the Tao Te Ching and even less about its author, Lao Tzu. His name translates literally to ‘Old Master’. For religious Taoists, he’s a divine figure who’s thought to personify the Tao itself. In philosophy, he’s the central figure in one of the three main schools of thought that shaped Chinese culture and society. However, many modern scholars argue that he’s pure legend and not a historical figure at all.

Wu wei: Effortless action

At the core of Taoist philosophy is the concept of wu wei, often translated as ‘non-action’ or ‘effortless action’. This principle emphasises the importance of letting go of excessive striving and instead aligning ourselves with the natural flow of life. In the context of balancing work and life, wu wei suggests that we should not force ourselves to constantly work harder but rather learn to work smarter and more effectively.

Trying not to try

Can you try not to try? It’s a difficult concept to comprehend but it might hold the key to cultivating your inner freedom and help you in balancing work and life. ‘Try not to try’ is a phrase that’s often used to describe the concept of wu wei in Taoist philosophy, and refers to the idea of letting go of the need to control every aspect of our lives but instead allowing things to unfold naturally.

The phrase ‘try not to try’ can be seen as a paradox because it seems to be saying that we should not try, but at the same time it’s impossible not to try. However, the idea behind the phrase is that when we try too hard to control and force outcomes, we can become anxious, stressed and unhappy. By letting go of the need to try and instead trusting in the natural flow of the universe, we can find inner peace and freedom.

According to the Tao Te Ching, “The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone.” This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t mean not acting, it means ‘effortless action’ without being attached to the outcome. It involves being present in the moment and not getting caught up in the past or the future. It also involves being open to new experiences and letting go of fixed beliefs and expectations.

The Taoist Way: Tao Te Ching

Getting in the zone

It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency. When we talk of being ‘in the zone’ – at one with what we’re doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow – we’re following the principles of the Tao.

Balancing work and life is not attained by wu wei alone, but this Taoist concept captures the wisdom we may be in desperate need of, to manage the demands of the world as it is today.

How to cultivate wu wei

By cultivating wu wei, we can find inner peace and freedom, and live in a state of harmony and balance with the natural flow of the universe. Here are some ways in which inner freedom can be achieved through the cultivation of wu wei:

  1. Letting go of the need to control: When we try to control everything in our lives, we can become anxious, stressed and unhappy. By letting go of the need to control and instead trusting in the natural flow of the universe, we can find inner peace and freedom.
  2. Accepting what is: Wu wei involves accepting things as they are, rather than trying to change or resist them. This can help us to let go of resistance and struggle, and to find freedom from suffering and inner conflict.
  3. Being present and mindful: Wu wei involves being present in the moment and not getting caught up in the past or the future. By practising mindfulness and living in the present, we can find freedom from worry and anxiety, and cultivate inner peace and contentment.
  4. Being open to new experiences: Wu wei involves letting go of fixed beliefs and expectations, and being open to new experiences and possibilities. This can help us to break free from limiting beliefs and to find freedom from self-imposed limitations.
  5. Letting go of attachment: Wu wei involves letting go of attachment to outcomes and instead focusing on the present moment. This can help us to find freedom from the need for external validation and to cultivate a sense of inner fulfilment.

The Taoist Way

The Taoist approach to balancing work and life

The Taoist approach to balancing work and life also involves paying attention to the rhythms of nature. Just as the seasons change and flow in a cyclical pattern, so too should our own lives ebb and flow between periods of activity and rest. By embracing this natural rhythm, we can avoid burnout and cultivate sustainable habits that support our overall wellbeing.

Practising mindfulness is another key aspect of the Taoist way of balancing work and life. By staying present and fully engaged in each moment, we can reduce stress and enhance our focus on the task at hand. This allows us to work more efficiently and with greater clarity, ultimately leading to a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in both our professional and personal lives.

Finding a sense of harmony can be difficult when facing the struggles of modern life. The Tao Te Ching shows us that the search for balance has challenged people across cultures for thousands of years. Instead of struggling, the Tao Te Ching recommends we flow with these challenges and embrace the contrasts within us.

Examples from the Tao for balancing work and life

Here are some of the verses from the Tao Te Ching to help guide you in finding that balance in work and life. They also offer insights into the important concepts of the Tao Te Ching.

Verse 8

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

While yin-yang is perhaps the best known of Taoist symbols, water is the principle theme of the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tzu teaches us to act in accordance with water.

Consider how water behaves. It can sit patiently in a pond or it can flow as a stream. It’s non-confrontational. It makes room for everything that enters it and accommodates any situation by assuming a new shape. It’s humble, always flowing down to the lowest level. It’s yielding and reticent. Maybe we can apply some of the flow that we see in water for balancing work and life.

The Taoist Way

Verse 78

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.

Stone represents people who are immovable, confrontational and overly assertive, and while it may seem like the stronger of the two substances, it’s water that carves through canyons to find its way.

Water’s characteristics aren’t just inwardly focused. Being humble, non-confrontational and accommodating can help us build cooperative partnerships and meaningful relationships in our private and work lives and, in doing so, helps us achieve balance with the world as much as within ourselves.

Verse 29

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength, and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

The wise avoid extremes and excess. Avoiding extremes and excesses is the very definition of balance. If we live a life of greed, we become unhealthy. If our diet is too strict, we become miserable. If we are always working, we drain the joy and meaning out of our lives. If we’re always being lazy, we miss out on the satisfaction of doing something well.

We’ll sometimes find ourselves leaning toward one extreme or the other. The challenge is to not grow complacent or give in to despair; to remember that difficult things will get easier one day but that the easy road cannot continue forever. The aim shouldn’t be to conquer the moment and to force it to fit our desires. It should be to fulfil our purpose and flow with the moment, to remain in an equanimous state at all times. What will be, will be.

The Taoist Way: Mount Laojun Pavilion

A pavilion on one of the Laojun mountain peaks which is believed to have been a retreat for Lao Tzu. Mount Laojun is sacred for religious Taoists. (Credit: Nyx Ning / Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 81

The wise never try to hold onto things.
The more you do for others, the more you have.
The more you give to others, the greater your abundance.
The Tao of heaven is sharp but does no harm.
The Tao of the wise is to work without effort.

As mentioned, the Tao Te Ching recognises that humans are social creatures. We have a powerful instinct to congregate and work together. The better the people around us do – whether that’s our families, our workplaces, or society at large – the better we do.

As such, the Tao Te Ching teaches that the wise don’t try to hoard things or moments or achievements, because it recognises that these things have no value in and of themselves. It’s only in relation to others that these things inherit value, and when we give or share them, we spread out their worth. That can be in the form of charity, assistance, social gatherings, the workplace, you name it.

Finding your own ‘way’

For all its paradoxical sayings, for all its mysticism and legend, the Tao Te Ching is also a really practical book. Its advice is applicable to anyone searching to bring balance and harmony to their lives. There are some wonderful recordings on YouTube by Alan Watts for those who want to explore Taoist philosophy in more depth.

If you’d like to dive deeper into Taoist philosophy at SPACE, why not sign up to a Yin class. You never know when you might hear a verse from the Tao Te Ching!

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