Eighth Taoist Contemplation: The Landscape of the Soul

One of the beauties of Taoist naturalism is that we encounter the meaning-endowing sacred within nature, which is of course rich in imagery. Lao-Tse fashions a meaning-endowing landscape of the soul and uses it to articulate his philosophical insights. In this manner, nature religion has always found itself at home in Taoism, which is a spirituality and philosophy of nature.

Within the contours of this spiritual unverse in harmony with nature, we find in Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching, the Spirit of the Valley, which is fluent, soft, gentle, and transforms itself according to need, changing with the tides, bending and not breaking. It’s watery, fluid and flexible, and represents the divine and mysterious feminine.

The Spirit of the Valley, like the Tao, reminds us of the void that plays and serves as context for the atoms: it’s a gap (between mountains). It’s still there when mountains are gone. When we die, the void, the space between the atoms that make up our body, remains and it was always there, before we came into being. AC Grayling’s Humanist Bible, in contemplating death, says that there is a “hole in the world” when someone dies.

There’s a watery aspect to the Tao, and to the Spirit of the Valley (after all, water always flows towards the bottom). It’s said that Tao “flows continously, barely perceptible. Use it, it’s never exhausted”. Like water, nature sustains, nurtures, and provides us our needs opulently. The womb is watery, and scientists believe that life on Earth originated in the waters. In Venus as Spiritual Guide, the association of water, and its quality of transparency, with the primal Goddess was explored.

There is more to Oshun, the Goddess of the sweet waters of the rivers.  Just as the waters provide, when calm, a clear (or agitated) mirror that we can find ourselves in, so She rules mirrors, and self-conception.

In chapter 8. of the Tao Te Ching, the Tao is again compared to water, which is passive, kind, generous, yielding, graceful, and moves with great timing, taking the path of least resistance and most efficiency. These are all Taoist virtues. In chapter 34, it is said that Tao is like flood.

It achieves its work, but does not take credit
It clothes and feeds myriad things, but does not rule over them

Notice how, by Tao, the nature of things is signified. It’s praised for its effortlessness, and retains its awe-inspiring beauty. Nature guides living beings via the pleasure and aversion faculties: in this way, it accomplishes the progress of life without effort and takes no credit. It has embedded in living beings the tendencies that lead to their completion, to their fulfilment, and all that living beings have to do is to follow their instinct.

Taoist naturalism is poetic, wordless, irrational, and people may be compelled to say it’s Dionysian or subjective. The thing about this is that the rational approach to naturalism is an attempt to control nature: this is not how Taoism works. Ideas, names, are our attempts to control and manage our way through our reality. They’re useful, but not in Taoism. Taoist naturalism is an existential state of flexibility, of being immersed fully in the experience of nature with appreciation and mindfulness, not necessarily with words. It’s what ancient Epicureans wuold have called enargeia: immediacy. It produces tranquility and effortless effectiveness.

This effectiveness is accentuated in Taoist scripture, where the void, fluidity and emptiness are not just qualities of the nature of things, but the most important and defining ones. There’s a relation between emptiness and function: we see it most obviously in a vessel or container, in a cart, in a room, house or door. Both being and non-being, both atoms and the void together produce reality and effectiveness. Without emptiness there is no function, usefulness, productivity.

Therefore, that which exists is used to create benefit
That which is empty is used to create functionality

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

Similarly with the Tao, the emptiness, the void is non-being yet paradoxically it’s quintessential to the nature of things, to their qualities, their identities, and their function.

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37

There is a feminine quality to this emptiness, and Lao-Tse invites the sovereign to use this wisdom: a wisdom of easy leadership through gentleness which is comparable to how mothers influence their children. Sages also, through humility and calm, can easily influence people (chapter 66), since by not being arrogant, they encounter no resistence.

The female always overcomes the male with serenity
Using serenity as the lower position

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 61

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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2 Responses to Eighth Taoist Contemplation: The Landscape of the Soul

  1. Pingback: Contemplations on the Tao Series | Epicurean Database

  2. Pingback: The Tao of Lucretius | The Autarkist

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