What is the Tao? How to Understand and Master the Tao

Alasdair Forsythe
4 min readApr 27, 2020

The Tao, meaning way, from Taoism or Daoism (I’m pretty sure the correct pronunciation is in-between the ‘t’ and ‘d’ sound), is the background upon which everything else moves. And yet, the Tao itself moves.

The Tao is the way that things are going. The problem of pinpointing the Tao has always been that there are multiple layers of Tao, and then a theoretical eternal Tao — the way the universe is going. At any point in time you can witness multiple layers of natural flow moving, all of which are ‘ways’. Let’s call them taos with a small ‘t’. Then there is the eternal Tao (big ‘T’) which is the theoretical end of all of them.

Each tao is apparent and real as a way that something is going. For example, everyone is swimming left (tao level 1), but the current is pulling right (level 2) so everyone is actually going right and their swimming is pretty much redundant. However, the current is only following the tide (level 3), which is following the moon (level 4), and so on. It is a series of alternating cycles inside one another, each pulling in a different direction. Everyone is just being swept along inside these layers of currents, and going against it appears to be futile.

For another example, let’s take politics. At the time of writing the Tao of politics in the Western world is left-wing politics. It is the way that things are currently going, and so it is easier to move in that direction because you will be swimming with the current. You will receive more support and will not have to try so hard to win people over, if you make a statement that is left-wing rather than right-wing.

However, this surface-level, left-wing politics is itself within a deeper movement towards more centralized control coming from a desperate desire for security and stability — a right-wing movement. Insides tend to be the opposite of the outside, an observable feature of this universe that turns out to be an illusion. When I say its an illusion I mean that it only exists because of how we are looking at it: layers always appear to alternate in direction because if the next layer didn’t alternate you’d just consider it a part of the former layer — hence all observed ‘layers’ alternate. You are looking for the alternation points and defining these are separate layers, therefore all insides are the opposite of outsides.

The eternal Tao is the the way that is the final way that everything is going, the cycle above all cycles. The king of cycles, if you like. Or even, the way that God is going. Either you can never find it because there’s always a greater cycle, or you can find it, but it changes every now and again… these two descriptions being different metaphors for the same observation and hence it is both true and false that the Tao can and cannot be known.

In knowing the eternal Tao I can tell you that the Tao doesn’t exist at all. What you are witnessing is you changing against a backdrop of something that is staying the same. For example, if you get hot the background feels cold, and if you get cold the background feels hot. This gives you the illusion of being able to see and experience nothing, because nothing looks different to you as you change. Surprise! So there is no eternal Tao, or you are the eternal Tao and looking at your reflection.

Having shown that the eternal Tao both does exist and doesn’t, then doesn’t, it’s still observable, regardless of its theoretical existence and simultaneous non-existence. Essentially, if you do ‘good’, the universe is on your side. Or to put it another way, doing ‘good’ is aligning yourself with the eternal Tao. I’m saying that ‘good’ is defined as that which is in alignment with the Tao, and so the Tao does observably exist in this sense. Although one could easily argue that this is not the eternal Tao at all, but another one of the smaller taos.

This confuddlement of simultaneous existence and non-existence can be continued, alternating forever, or it can be broken out from entirely, and the way to do so is hidden in plain sight within the nature of the Tao itself.

You are traveling on a road, and the road is itself moving. Your destination is moving too. Perhaps your destination is moving toward you, perhaps away. Perhaps the road is helping you, perhaps taking you in the wrong direction. What do you do?

It is like the wind. It goes wherever it wants, for reasons that are its own, and obeys no one. You cannot fight the wind and expect to win. Stupid beings try to fight against the Tao. Smart beings surrender to the Tao and live their lives content with where the wind takes them. But there is another group: those who learn to sail can travel in any direction they choose, even into the wind. You always have a choice. Whose side is the wind on anyway?

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