Contemporary Taoism and its Gesticulations – Written December 9, 2002

In the early morning of December fifth, 2002, the state of North Carolina had one of the most fantastic ice storms I have ever seen. Much of my life has been spent in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the autumn is cold and the winters could feel arctic. Even in all my days of blizzards and multiple feet of snowfall, I had never seen an ice storm do so much damage that millions were left without power – myself included. This situation prompted me to describe Taoism in a modern context: its applications, its practices, its affects, its triumphs, and its failures in the modern world, specifically The Unites States of America.

In the modern federalist, capitalist, semi-imperialistic, hypocritical Republic that is the United States, life moves pretty fast. Americans, especially the youth, expect everything as fast as they can click a mouse button. We have fast food, high-speed internet, high performance engines, Concorde jets, and high-resolution satellite video conferencing. My world is filled with people that need to feel as if they are moving fast and altering themselves to feel productive. Most people don’t even know what the Tao Te Ching is, let alone have ever read it.

I have been “practicing” Taoism for the last three years, and I still I do not consider myself a real Taoist. For a person trying to act out the concept of Taoism in this world it is extremely frustrating and difficult. It is rare that I find myself truly adhering to the rules of Taoism. There is no real question why this religion has been brought to near extinction – technology kills transcendence. Ever since the invention of the wheel to make moving easier up to the modern use of computer chips, technology has been eating away at religion.

It is easy to think that religion is simple thought and a progression. People see the advancement from animism and polytheism to monotheism in the West, and to this day most of the Western World holds a monotheistic belief structure. In the Eastern Hemisphere, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Islam, the most profound monotheistic religion in Asia, are most apparent. Taoism barely makes an appearance, except in such obscure areas like The Shao Lin Temple. Some people in this age believe that technology will kill God; that science will logically show that a deity does not exist. Some also believe that an afterlife will be disproved, and others believe that all religion will be wiped out and atheism will rule the land (such was the idea of Communism).

It is my belief that Taoism is the closest idea to what is true within the universe – while much of my “technical” Tao comes from the Tao Te Ching, Tao can not be found in a book. After studying this idea base, for that is all Taoism is – a system of ideas – I have theorized on many things about religion and the universe, which I will get into later. The most relevant discussion, at this point, is simple Taoist ideas and their practical application. For instance, my favorite stanza of the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tsu, Virtue 63:

Act without acting,

Serve without concern for affairs.

Find flavor in what has no flavor.

Regard the small as large and the few as many,

And repay resentment with kindness.

Most of these ideas are easy to grasp – most of the Tao Te Ching is not so simple. However, since the Tao Te Ching is the most vital collection of thoughts relevant to Taoism, it must be read and attempted to be understood. This passage has always struck me as being one of the most profound as far as its basic ideas, which are simple: just exist, serve others. These two things create the idea of what the Chinese call p’u, the uncarved block. Taoists believe that by serving others and being concerned with others’ wellbeing over one’s own, one will be fully satisfied by one’s work. P’u is the antithesis of U.S. modern culture. Every aspect of the world is based on competition, from sharks in corporations to academic mêlées at universities. No one serves others and no one attempts to simply exist without striving to further his/her own path towards bettering his/her self. In the end, society is so caught up in making themselves appear better by acquiring possessions and positions, they forget what is truly important.

Society may have killed the Tao, along with Zeus, Yahweh, God, Allah, and Buddha. What technology has done, however, is bring some scientific backing to the arguments about Chi, a base belief of Taoism. To be brief, Taoists believe that Chi is an energy that is present in everything in the universe, and that Chi has two parts, Yin and Yang. Yin is the negative energy, Yang is the positive. It exists in everything and connects everything, from grains of sand to stars in space. Taoists believe this energy can be harnessed and developed to evolve the mind and body.

It has been theorized, since Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, that the universe is made up of a set amount of energy that is present in many forms. The two most noticeable forms are kinetic and potential energy, which is basically Yin and Yang. Kinetic is energy that is observable – motion or transformation of some kind (Yang). Potential energy is what an object has the capacity to do – for example, a piece of paper does very little in the way of producing energy on its own (Yin). But if it is burned, kinetic energy is present in heat, light, and other forms. Granted, these are just ideas of visible objects. At an atomic level, things are constantly moving and in flux, even in the most solid-looking of objects. Therefore, there is constant of motion of energy throughout the universe, and there is only so much of it. This is imperative to the concept of Chi.

Taoists believe that by meditation, one can begin to understand and manipulate both one’s own Chi and the Chi around them. People can draw energy from objects, living or dead, plant or animal, to increase their own energy and awareness. I have practiced meditation and I can say that the cultivation of Chi is a very profound experience. It is best described as a mild electric shock that comes in waves throughout the body, which is followed by a period of extreme relaxation and “oneness” with the surrounding area. As I have progressed, I have found that cultivating my Chi (think of it as “pulling yourself together”) becomes more and more effective, easier, and speedier. This is the extent of my personal experience with Chi, but ancient Chinese scripts depict characters that had such great control over Chi that they became almost superhuman. Stories tell of people moving like blurs, jumping thirty feet in the air, and being impeccable martial artists.

Many people believe these stories are like any other religion’s stories – heroes make wonderful apostles. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Mahayana, and Moses are perfect examples. It could be said, looking through history, that each of these characters simply had a great connection to energy and therefore performed great acts while on the earth. It is interesting to look at the progression, especially in the West, as far as thought is concerned. The switch from polytheism to monotheism is the most interesting. People began believing that many gods ruled over all the environment, events, and energy that surrounded the world. Because people were elementary in thought, they had to believe that beings higher than themselves controlled the world because they themselves were too afraid to accept the responsibility. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are barely steps up from that, depicting a father-figure that constantly watches out for the well-being of his children. One of the things that separate humans from most other species is the idea of a family: something one is born into and remains in forever. Whenever a problem occurs, family will be there to support you. And the head of the family in the early days of monotheism was always the father. So God became the greatest father of all – one that would always love and always forgive.

The ideas of the East were much more profound than those of the West. The idea of a great energy being universal and able to be controlled by people is a concept that is still hard for Westerners to grasp to this day. Some people are still not secure enough with themselves to believe that the idea of a deity or universal energy is not a concept that is fully graspable by mortals, and here lies the biggest problem amongst religion today. Wars are fought over it, societies commit genocide over it, and people are ruled with it – this “it” is both an unwillingness to understand people who are different and an intolerance of people that disagree with the set beliefs that are held by another individual or group. Instead of listening to Lao-Tsu and looking at the good aspects of different religions, many people choose to shun all religions except one. A Roman Catholic friend of mine once told me, “Religion is not a smorgasbord. You don’t get to pick and choose what you believe.” But why not? Each day, I learn a new thing, and in doing so my perception of the world changes, hence my way of thought changes. Each day, I add and subtract from my religion. Many people frown upon this, but Taoism taught me one great truth: spirituality is not about religion, it is about belief.

Belief is a strong word. To believe simply means to accept, and yet it is often tied in with vulgarities like “structure.” Once a belief structure is formed and many people choose the exact same path within that belief structure, a collective entity is created. Depending on the religion and the time period, these belief structures can get very out-of-control. Take Middle Age Christianity in Europe, for example. Countless Crusades to The Holy Land and a number of Inquisitions showed how an idea that started out as an idea of loving everyone unconditionally could turn into a hypocritical version of itself by attacking and killing their supposed brothers and sisters. Modern Islam, another religion that preaches that our world’s brothers and sisters should live in peace, has dogma of war within its own Holy Scripture. One of the greatest things that I found within Taoism was the idea that everything is simply everything; it is not good or bad, it simply exists. A Taoist believes that everyone should be able to get along, even when it comes to such great differences like religion, by simply accepting everyone as being an individual and respecting the right to choose belief. To a pure-hearted Taoist, there is no war, there is no peace; there is no love, there is no hate.

I look around my world, and I see that Taoism is messed up (or, maybe it’s the world that’s messed up). Because there is hate, there is suffering, there is pain, there is decay. To exist in this type of society is difficult because it’s hard to understand why Chi would present itself in such negative forms. Perhaps it is just human nature to see the negative about society; each day I try to notice how beautiful the world is in some way. Some days are harder than others, and some days are easier than others. To sit and watch the news and see war, or to drive in traffic and get cut off, to lose all electricity during an ice storm, or sometimes just witnessing other people being unhappy will change my mood and consciousness entirely. And, at other times, I will notice that the iced-over ghetto I live in has transformed into a beautiful piece of frosted art, the sensation of how wonderfully soft a woman’s skin feels, or a wonderful conversation with someone can show me how fantastic the world is.

In the end, I am only beginning on my journey to discovering the Tao, and reading the Tao Te Ching was only the very beginning of what I would learn from its words. I recognize Yin and Yang, but it is hard to see how they can coexist and even go as far as to compliment each other. I do know that energy exists in the world, and this energy is Chi, Yin and Yang, and can utilized by people to manipulate other energies. Coincidence is not coincidence, fate is not fate. People know what they want, and the strong get what they want because they have a greater grasp on what is and who they are as a person, which makes it much easier to know what they want in the world and in people. Subconsciously, people attract each other to and from each other. Love and hate at first sight it totally logical based on the idea of Chi; I have walked into rooms and just known that I would get along with specific certain people and would have difficulties with certain others.

Many people talk down about my beliefs and my religion, most of which are Christians. It is difficult for a Taoist, one that is attempting to accept all things, to accept people that despise what he/she stands for. It is impossible to count how many times I have heard someone tell me, “I hope you believe in God by the time you die, for your sake,” as if one specific idea is correct simply because it has been accepted by a culture for slightly less than two-thousand years. This is the reason I have such a great problem with modern Christianity and Islam – they seem to have a great problem with me. There was a time when Christians were persecuted by Romans, even put to death by all sorts of vicious means, and yet modern Christians seem to forget this and ostracize those that have a belief that differs from the status quo. These are the same people that imprisoned Galileo until his death and then they banished him to Hell for eternity. This mistake has recently been corrected: Roman Catholicism decided perhaps Galileo was not a heretic, and just maybe had some good ideas, and maybe that “telescope” contraption was not really a tool of the devil, so they allowed him to leave Hell and go to Heaven 500 years after they sent him there in the first place.

I am literally hated by some ultra-fundamentalists that happen to be Christians, and they give many other “regular” Christians a bad name. It is not that I dislike Christianity; there are few better religions as far as teaching love and acceptance through a variety of philosophical perspectives within the Bible. However, some Christians choose to amend the idea of acceptance, saying that acceptance should only exist when similarities exist. This is nonsense that Taoists attempt to both change and also not alter at all. A Taoist exists merely to exist – to act according to the personal nature of one’s Tao. To affect culture, therefore, all a Taoist must do is act naturally and not be concerned with that culture. In this way, he/she is able to be detached from the culture and observe it, while at the same time affecting it by still being a part of society. One can choose one’s own contribution to society, and it can be done in many ways. Christianity and Islam are religions based on pilgrimages and professing faith, whereas some forms Hinduism and Buddhism are about personal reflection and asceticism. Taoism is easier than these, and yet it is so much harder. Asceticism and profession are relatively simple concepts in comparison to being true to one’s self.

It is not that I have any negative feelings towards other religions, it is simply that I have found that Taoism is a belief structure that holds more truths than any other religion I have found. It is a religion of growth because it is based on humans and nature and natural order, which is constantly in flux. Other religions are about waiting; waiting for the savior, waiting for the next prophet, waiting for divine intervention. Taoism is about being your own savior, being the next prophet, intervening in life before any idea of a deity is necessary. Taoists do not look at laws written by others and accept them, they take those laws and see if they apply to their own lives and then decide whether or not to believe them. Each day, I see people being led around like sheep either by a government that does not care or a religion that is out to gain complete control of the world and it makes me wonder if any of these people will ever realize that “fear is your only God,” as Rage Against the Machine once said.

In the end, though, it is all about faith. As long as the world believes in something, there is hope for religion. I look at everyone in the world, all the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Jainists, Satanists, et cetera, and wonder why they feel the need to fight and wage war to prove themselves right. To view it as ridiculous is easy, but one could also see it as a bunch of elementary people believing elementary religion and expressing their belief in elementary ways. Universal truth is not present on earth yet; what I have written here is not universal truth, it is simply what I have learned so far.

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