Do you wish you were better at dealing with the obstacles and frustrations of life? Do you long to find that healthy balance between productive work and self-care for your well-being? Help may be at hand from the ancient Chinese teachings in the Tao Te Ching.
Promising to teach us how to use integrity, here we have 81 chapters of claimed wisdom on navigating life. To fully understand the main takeaways from the Tao Te Ching, we need to read with an open mind. The book has been translated into many languages, but the original text is hard to translate word by word. It has been highly influential and could teach us a lot about living well.
Key lessons we can take from Tao Te Ching include how to respond constructively to our faults and mistakes, how to cope with obstacles in our way, and how to use competition with others as an opportunity for fruitful interactions that benefit everyone involved.
Lao Tzu promises to teach us the art of living well, sharing his ideal of how a ‘master’ of life should think and behave. He uses the term ‘master’ in its masculine form, but the teachings apply to everyone, male or female.
Here are the most significant takeaways from Tao Te Ching. Tag us on social media and let us know which ones you agree or disagree with.
The History of Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer, most noted for writing the Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu founded Taoism, a life philosophy that advocates humility and religious piety. Despite his role in Chinese beliefs, Lao Tzu remains a vague historical being. There is very limited information on his existence.
Lao Tzu was given the name Laozi, meaning the wise one or ‘old, venerable master’. The wisdom is well represented in his work, the Tao Te Ching. Written over two thousand years ago, it is a guide that remains relevant for all of us in our journeys of self-discovery.
Lao introduced simple concepts as the greatest treasures in life.
StoryShot #1: We Can Apply the Principles of Simplicity, Patience, and Compassion in Our Lives
Life can be complicated, but simplicity, patience, and compassion allow us to reset our distracted minds. Simplicity, patience, and compassion encourage us to do the following:
- Be patient with others and the environment
- Be compassionate to ourselves
- Feel empowered to maneuver all life hurdles with ease
StoryShot #2: The Concept of Tao Is Our Guide
‘Tao’ translates as the channel, path, or way and also represents a system of morality. Tao represents both the source of all things and their ideal state. Lao Tzu claims that because we have free will, we can easily deviate from this natural way of being, but we can also return to that state of harmony again. A master insists on the virtue and power of attunement with the Tao and strives to live in line with nature.
“The Tao produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces
them and does not claim them as its own; it does all and yet
does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control
them. This is what is called ‘The mysterious quality
of the Tao.” – Lao Tzu
The master also puts effort into realizing what is best for him. However, the master stops when he has done enough and lets nature take control. It is imperative for every master to know their limits and not overreach themselves. Our efforts and achievements should not boost our egos, but help us live with wholesome humility.
“Be really whole and all things will come to you…
He who stands on tiptoe is not steady.
He who strides cannot maintain the pace” – Lao Tzu
StoryShot #3: Jing, Qi, and Shen Should Be in Balance
Jing, Qi, and Shen are the main treasures the master should own. A balance in the three treasures brings physical and spiritual harmony. This harmony and balance also contribute to well-being.
“Jing” translates to a set of guidelines or the essence. We can only harmonize with others and nature through a deep connection with ourselves. Jing also protects our bodies from external factors and regulates internal growth and development.
Essence is the core of our growth, development, and reproduction. Jing is inside us when we are born and has remained in our bodies ever since. To stay healthy, we must not let the Jing deplete.
“Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.” – Lao Tzu
Refrain from all that is against nature to maintain the Jing. If the Jing dies, we die. We should aim to attain our best selves but not overexert ourselves. Key principles that help us align with Tao and maintain Jing include being humble, taking care of others, avoiding violence, being responsible with power, and accepting that change is inevitable.
Image Alt-Text: Male professional in an office reflecting on his career goals – a self-awareness journey from Tao Te Ching.
Image Caption: The Tao Te Ching encourages you to put in an effort to show up every day and chase your dreams.
‘Qi’ or ‘Chi’ is the vital energy of our bodies. It is the air we breathe and the energy that keeps us alive. Not all Qi is good and constructive, but mindful living eliminates the bad Qi and amplifies the good.
Qi is also the life force surrounding us and both our internal and external environments alter it. When Qi gathers, a body is formed, and when Qi disperses, the body dies.
Balanced, free-flowing Qi promotes health and well-being. Stagnant, imbalanced Qi brings poor health and well-being, harming us and our environment.
“All things spring up and there is not one which declines to show
itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership;
they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a
reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is
no resting in it as an achievement.” – Lao Tzu
‘Shen’ is our spirit. The spirit is born when a drop of Shen unites with Jing and Qi. To become a master, we should each guard our Shen by maintaining authenticity and aligning with Tao.
Avoid information systems that focus too much on naming things and instances. Naming deprives things and instances of their natural state. This is because a name artificially discriminates between things and contains them within space and time. It can therefore make them feel more distant and different from ourselves than they truly are.
“Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Knowing when to stop averts trouble.” – Lao Tzu
As a pure spirit, Shen enables us to maintain high levels of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness helps us to stay connected with the universe. Cultivation of the Shen also sets us apart from the rest of the universe.
We can only nurture our Shen by being rich in Qi and Jing. A healthy Shen promotes the blossoming of the Qi and Jing.
Mastering Jing, Qi, and Shen strengthens our vitality. This keeps us well aligned with nature and assured of good well-being.
StoryShot #4: We Should Own All Our Faults And Mistakes
When a master makes a mistake, he looks within, then realizes, admits, and corrects the mistake. He does not get upset when someone else points out the mistake. Instead, the master treats the individual as a generous teacher. We should therefore aspire to these same constructive responses when we make mistakes.
Each fault we recognize in ourselves or our behavior is a great learning opportunity, if we do not dwell on our past. Consider your enemies to be your shadow and observe how they judge others. Do not let someone else’s behavior trigger you into an impulsive and angry response. Instead, recognize that behavior as a manifestation of their character and lead by example to help them change it.
Observing other people helps us keep ourselves in check. Through observation, we can evaluate our poor traits and work to eliminate them. Accepting faults might bruise your ego, but you can be wise enough to get over it.
“He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is
intelligent. He who overcomes others is strong; he who
overcomes himself, is mighty. He who is satisfied with his lot is rich;
he who goes on acting with energy has a (firm) will.” – Lao Tzu
Accepting faults and mistakes might take a toll on us, but we should focus on raising our consciousness and being a better version of ourselves.
StoryShot #5: Wu Wei Emphasizes the Value of Rest
Wu Wei is one of the key teachings of the Tao Te Ching. It is a response to the unhelpful effect of endurance and straining in life. Excessive straining to achieve something might be in vain. However, we should not give up and do nothing but identify what works for us and flow with the forces.
“Who can (make) the muddy water clear? Let it be still, and it
will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement
go on and the condition of rest will gradually arise.” – Lao Tzu
Wu Wei is the art of doing nothing, or as Lao Tzu puts it, it means that we should “Do that which consists of taking no action and order will prevail.” Aim to balance working hard with letting nature take its course, first putting in the effort needed, then resting and trusting nature to do the rest.
Master the art of letting go and letting things flow freely before setting out to practice. Mastering this art allows us to release ourselves into effortless competence.
“Therefore the sage, in the exercise of their government, empty
their minds, fill their bellies, weaken their wills, and
strengthen their bones.” – Lao Tzu
It is wise to let things flow naturally according to the concept of uncontrived action, also referred to as ‘natural non-intervention’. Do nothing when you are not sure of what to do, and jump onto opportunities you feel ready for.
“When you are content with what you have and don’t feel like anything is missing, the whole world belongs to you.” – Lao Tzu
We can only avoid despair and nonchalance if we stop desiring for much. We can only discover peace when we realize that everything we need is within our reach.
“”Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.” – Lao Tzu
How Can We Experience Wu Wei?
Nature is a strong force, and only a master knows they cannot fight the force. Lao Tzu says, “Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.”
We can only experience Wu Wei at its best by letting go and letting in. Being in the zone brings a state of profound concentration and flow, and natural results follow. If we can let go of ideas that try to govern nature, we can swim with the current and not against it. Nature in this context refers both to the natural environment and a sense of an essential natural order that should not be overridden.
“In dwelling, be close to the land… Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature. The way of nature is unchanging.” – Lao Tzu
Change and death are the only true constants in life. Understanding this frees us from suffering and brings freedom to our lives.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” – Lao Tzu
This is how we can master our life circumstances:
- Understand nature
- Shape our efforts appropriately
- Be spontaneous in our actions
- Mit der natürlichen Ordnung der Dinge fließen
Wu Wei allows us to respond to the actual demand of nature in its purest form. Loss of self-consciousness brings unity with the environment and ultimate awareness of self.
We should be like water—submissive and weak, because water “can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong.” Gentle compliance and dedication help us work around obstacles and overcome them.
Instead of imposing and sticking to a rigid frame, we should be fluid. We should allow nature to take its course and wait for the outcome.
StoryShot #6: Surrender Yourself to Life at Each Moment
To master life, we must surrender ourselves to the moment. We must also know what is within our control and what is beyond our power. This includes overcoming our fear of death, because we know we have no authority over it. Instead, we should surrender to life, accept its fatality, and prepare ourselves for death.
The Tao Te Ching brings a different perspective on life, encouraging us to spend more time understanding and less time analyzing and naming the moments. The more time we spend resisting what nature brings our way, the harder it will be for us to enjoy life.
Over-analyzing situations also sucks the joy out of life and makes us suffer. Instead, we should put all our effort into our daily activities and do our best. In the evening, we can go to bed satisfied that we held nothing back.
Going to sleep brings no guarantee of waking up. A master of life rejoices in waking up and owns the moment to make the most out of it. He lets go of the past and relishes the new chance life has given him.
“True wisdom is being ready to give up anything you may be holding on to and accepting the present as it is.” – Lao Tzu
The Need for Self-Awareness
The closing of the 13th chapter highlights the need for self-awareness in life: “Love the world as yourself; then you can care for all things.” A master cares for every aspect of life as much as they care about themselves.
Self-awareness also means living consciously in the moment. It is through patient observation of the flow of life that we can attune our awareness and understanding.
“Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment, they are not swayed by desire for change.” – Lao Tzu
Image Alt-Text: Silhouette of a woman meditating in nature – practicing self-awareness as taken from Tao Te Ching.
Image Caption: Cultivating self-awareness is a key practice advocated in the Tao Te Ching.
StoryShot #7: Yin and Yang Remind Us to Seek Balance
The art of doing nothing is the best way to achieve full potential and be happy in life. This does not mean we should be idle, but that we should know our limits and not exceed them.
The concept of the Yin and Yang reminds us to look for the balancing point between working hard and letting nature run its course. Just commit to doing your level best and be satisfied once you have delivered your best. Then you can only wait for nature to take its course.
Light and darkness, action and inaction, and hot and cold must coexist to create harmony in life. These concepts are all relevant to our journeys of self-discovery. Acknowledge your mistakes, then correct them.
Yin and Yang depict harmony in the universe. These two opposite forces govern nature and need to coexist to strike a balance in life. Let all the aspects of nature flow freely and avoid disrupting the balance in life. This means living in harmony with the environment and being self-aware, while abandoning systems meant to guide desires and action.
StoryShot #8: Competition Should Make You Creative and Help You Improve
The master does not wish ill on his opponents when competing. He wants every team player to bring their best game to challenge each other. Good skills elevate the quality of the game and bring out the play’s spirit.
Competition is not a measure of our opponent’s ego against our own. Instead, the game presents the opportunity to engage, play and sharpen our skills. At the end of the game, we should want everyone to gain something, regardless of who wins.
“When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them
safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, this brings its
evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is
becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of
Heaven.” – Lao Tzu
The Tao Te Ching teaches a paradox of competition: “It is easier to carry an empty cup than one that is filled to the brim.” The best way for us to gain respect from those above us is by refraining from competition and comparison: “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
Image Alt-Text: Group of business professionals playing tug-of-war – a concept of healthy competition taken from Tao Te Ching.
Image Caption: Competition presents an opportunity to engage, play and build our skills, regardless of who wins or loses.
Lao Tzu uses the metaphor of water to set an example for our behavior. Water does not compete, but flows at its own pace, benefitting all things and conquering obstacles in its way. Therefore it is so near to Tao. A true master carves his path and does not compete to prove his ability. Instead, people respect him for the products of his labor.
“The highest excellence is like [that of] water. The excellence of
water appears in its benefiting all things and in its occupying
without striving [to the contrary] the low place which all men
dislike. Hence [its way] is near to [that of] the Tao” – Lao Tzu
StoryShot #9: Man’s Will Must Align With the Universe
Man’s will is not the root of the universe’s problems. However, we must each align our will in harmony with the universe. If we decide to impose our will against nature, we will go “against the flow of life”.
We must also tune our will to Tao to attain completeness and perfection of nature. We have free will, but our freedom should not disrupt nature’s cause and cause havoc in the environment.
“The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue
this long is because they do not live of, or for themselves.” – Lao Tzu
It is unrealistic for us to ignore external constraints while pursuing our own activities, but we can destroy our freedom if we fight against the natural external constraints. As Lao Tzu puts it, “I freed myself by shifting my interest, not by repressing it.”
Abschließende Zusammenfassung und Bewertung des Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu’s philosophy advocates naturalness, spontaneity, and freedom. The master only realizes their true self by staying in harmony with nature. Tao and Wu Wei work together to reveal the soft, invisible power within all aspects of life.
Everything is interconnected, and the Jing, Qi, and Shen must coexist. The coexistence of the three brings a balance and makes for healthy beings. Each one of us has the opportunity to attain our best version and exercise power over our lives.
The Tao Te Ching is a wake-up call to everyone on a self-awareness journey. Mastering the art of balance and accepting the duality of life helps us understand life better.
Es ist die Aufgabe eines jeden, sich zu entfalten und die beste Version seiner selbst zu erreichen. Sie können dies erreichen, indem Sie bewusst und im Einklang mit der Natur leben.
Let’s recap the key ways the Tao Te Ching suggests we can improve our lives:
- By taking the key principles of simplicity, patience and compassion to heart, we can do more good for ourselves and the people and environment around us.
- Life has a natural order and flow, called the Tao, and we should strive to live in harmony with it.
- We should seek balance between our essence (Jing), energy (Qi) and spirit (Shen). This means trying our best but not overstretching our limits, while looking after our well-being and not imposing rigid thinking on the world.
- The fewer desires we have, the more content we can be. When we are sure of something we need to do, we should pursue it to the best of our abilities, but at other times, it is often best to leave things to the flow of the universe.
- We should spend more time in the present moment, going with the flow instead of resisting what life presents us with or dwelling on the past. Self-awareness helps us to live in the present moment.
- Competition should be friendly and sportsmanlike, and seen not as a battle of egos but as an opportunity for all involved to interact, play and improve themselves.
- The principles of Taoism are perhaps best summed up in Lao Tzu’s metaphor of water. We should aim to flow, overcoming obstacles with minimal resistance, nourishing the people and places around us as we go.
Tag us on social media and let us know which of these principles you think could be useful in your life.
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