Relationships and the Tao


I have recently been reacquainted with the philosophy of Taoism. It is a difficult philosophy to concretely describe, mainly due to the fact that it isn’t quite a philosophy. Nor is it quite a religion, set of ethics, or spiritual teaching. Literally, Tao translates as “path” or “way” and this definition is intentionally vague, as is the practice. While Tao is often spoken of as something that is both the source of, and the force behind, everything that exists, Taoism is by nature an atheistic practice that recognizes no formal deity. As such, it is typically labelled in the West as a philosophical practice though not being quite so.

I have been spending my free time on public transit reading both the Tao Te Ching and The Tao of Pooh, the latter of which I highly recommend, as the history of the Tao Te Ching – An accordance of Tao according to Lao Tzu, translated from ancient Chinese, then to modern Chinese, and then again to English – makes it almost as enigmatic as Tao itself.

Taoist wisdom is inherently vague, constantly changing, and soft, as all wisdom should be. Nothing learned through Tao is hard and fast, nor fact, otherwise it would be nothing more than knowledge, which Tao transcends; in fact, it would perhaps be incorrect to use the word “learned” at all. However, there are certain lessons which can be gleaned from Tao and which can often be applied successfully to one’s relationships and life.

I do not pretend to be enlightened, a Taoist scholar (if there is such a thing), or by any means qualified to speak on this subject, so the majority of what follows – though in my own words – comes from (particularly the works of Derek Lin and Jos Slabbert), The Tao of Pooh, and my own observed casual links between the two.

Lesson 1: Softness

I highly recommend reading the story of the waterfall as attributed to Chuang Tzu before beginning this section. For those who choose not to read it, it can be summarized as follows:

Confucius and his students, while walking through the countryside, come across a large waterfall, deemed by all to be unsafe for swimming. They see a man being tossed about by the currents of the waterfall, and run to help him. By the time they reach the waterfall, however, the man is lazily floating on his back in the river, whistling to himself. The students are in awe, and Confucius asks the man how he was not injured or killed by the waterfall. He responds: “This is a recreational activity I enjoy from time to time … I simply follow the nature of the water. I don’t really think about it much. If I had to describe it, I would say that when the powerful torrents twist around me, I turn with them. If a strong current drives me down, I dive along with it.”

In this story, softness is taken to mean flexibility. In English, we might partially capture the idea of softness with the phrase go with the flow“to not attempt to exert a large amount of influence on the course of events” – though this phrase does not quite capture the full lesson. The story helps elucidate a common misconception about Tao. We should not confuse passivity with inaction. One might think that the man was simply giving in to the current, as opposed to fighting it. While the man certainly did not work against the current (and would have been wrong to do so) it is equally wrong to say he stayed passive and allowed the water to throw him about. It would be most correct to state that the man worked with the current; when it dove, he dove, when it pulled left, he pulled left.

With some thought, we can see how this wisdom applies to relationships. Perhaps an analogy that better fits would be that of a man caught in quicksand.

Just like fighting and flailing only quickens one’s sinking, fighting and lashing out at a partner or friend only quickens the relationship’s demise.

Just like standing motionless in quicksand does nothing to slow the pace at which you’ll drown, allowing others to manipulate and control you, or doing nothing to maintain the relationship, will leave you broken and drowning.

However, just as working with the quicksand and floating on one’s back can save one from utter demise, working with your friends and partners – communicating with them, accepting them, and following them through life through their ups and downs just as they follow you – leads to seemingly effortless success.

Softness also encompasses mindful awareness and open mindedness, both of which are crucial to the health of a relationship. One must be aware of one’s self and one’s limits, but one must also be flexible and willing to try new experiences for the sake of one’s relationships. As quoted by Derek Lin:

There is no dwelling in the past, regretting what could’ve been, nor is there dwelling in the future, fearing what may come to pass. Your focus is right here and now, where you are at peace with yourself.

When we look at a tree, we can see that living branches exhibit pliancy and flexibility, while dead branches are hardened and brittle. Take this as a cue from nature, and invite a new perspective into your consciousness as you transition into a new chapter of your life.

Lesson 2: Tolerance and Non-Discrimination

One of the most difficult aspects of Tao to accept, especially in the Western world, is the concept of non-discrimination, allied closely with the concept of non-duality. Non-discrimination is a view that wholly and completely rejects our tendency as human beings to categorize and distinguish. It does not disallow awareness and understanding; it only rejects compartmentalization and the act of setting things at odds. Though the principle of non-discrimination is more all-encompassing than a rejection of duality suggests, it is nevertheless a valuable exercise to attempt to explain the principle of non-discrimination by way of a rejection of duality.

Let us take, as an example, the story of the vinegar tasters as explained in The Tao of Pooh. The story is simple: 3 men stand around a vat of vinegar, and taste it with their fingers. The first man, representing Confucianism, wears a sour face. The second man, representing Buddhism, wears a bitter face. The third, Lao Tzu, representing Taoism, wears a happy expression.

From the Taoist point of view, sourness and bitterness come from the interfering and unappreciative mind. Life itself, when understood and utilized for what it is, is sweet. That is the message of “The Vinegar Tasters.”

By creating disharmony between sweet and bitter, our perceptions present to us a false duality: honey becomes good, vinegar bad. These are false judgments, however, created only by our categorization of our perceptions. We can say the same thing about judgments of our friends and partners.

One of the most obvious failures of discriminatory thinking is the common misguided distinction we often make between beautiful and ugly people. Women who are thin, tall, buxom, and blonde, for example, are often considered beautiful, and therefore “good,” whereas those who are short, fat, small-chested, and brunette might be considered ugly, and therefore “bad.” This might then cause us to treat those we label ugly with disrespect.

If we however instead look at all people with true awareness and understanding, without placing them into categories, we begin to understand them better. No more is there a wall between those who are beautiful and plain – indeed, beautiful and plain cease to exist as concepts – and all of them are as they are, with no categories or analysis attached. Indeed, many of the world’s greatest problems – racism, sexism, maltreatment, hatred, disgust – come from a false belief that things must be placed into categories and set at odds.

We can apply these principles to understand others’ behavior, as well. Often we judge our friends and partners for their shortcomings: you’re always late, you never listen to me, all you do is drink. We then set these at odds with things we like about them: you’re very smart, you have a way with words, you comfort me when i’m sad. Never mind the fact that these kinds of judgments are often self-serving, though they are. There is a more important lesson to learn here, and that is acceptance of people for who they are, as they are. You cannot categorize somebody with a Pro/Con list. Do not attach judgments to your awareness of others, simply accept and understand them as they are. As explained in the Tao Te Ching:

The Master doesn’t take sides;
She welcomes both saints and sinners.

True compassion and empathy can only be shown when they are wholly removed from judgment. Unconditional love requires more of us than to simply disregard what we perceive of as shortcomings. Unconditional love is not love in spite of. Love for someone is an awareness and acceptance of who they are, as they are. Acceptance through emptiness. Acceptance of the empty vessel. Non-judgment requires more than refusing to distinguish based on difference; it requires a rejection of difference altogether.

These concepts are often difficult to put into practice, but an awareness of them when confronting relationships will often make your dealings with others more effortless and graceful.


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