Updated: May 20
Part 1: The Great Duality
Daoism shapes my work with artists so much that I’ve always found it disappointing that Buddhism is the more popular eastern philosophy in America.
That's probably because the definition of Daoism is blurry at best, defined only through personal translation. It's why I couldn’t write this blog without first exploring identity. If Finding Identity is a life-long journey, Daoism is merely a compass.
I re-connected with Daoism after a transformative visit to Peru, just by recalling some vague teachings from a religion class in college. I started speaking and living it before I could even put a label on it.
The ambiguity around Daoism sprouts out of its inconclusive origins. Lao Tzu is only the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching because the original writings cannot be traced to any single person. All we know conclusively is that it emerged around the 4th century BCE, in part, as a rebellion to the rigid, explicitly defined structure of Confucianism.
Even the spelling is left to interpretation. The Chinese language is written in characters so there is no literal translation of ‘T’ or ‘D.’ I’ve always written it with a D because that is how I pronounce it. If you really want to geek out you can read about a perceived nuance between Daoism Vs. Taoism.
One day post-Peru I found myself at a hipster Art party….I mean, you look up the definition of hipster and you’ll find a picture of this house in Brooklyn, with abstract artists wearing TOMS, thick glasses, and wild clothing.
Amongst a bunch of abstract artists, I overheard a discussion around Daoism. It was a debate between an American who had studied Daoism in China and a native Chinese girl recently acclimated to America. She wasn't sold on some of the Daoist practices.
This was the first time I was hearing about these exercises, but I jumped right in, making an argument on behalf of the Daoist tradition. (This was very ballsy for someone wearing generic high-top sneakers, loose-fitting pants on my hips, and a plain hoodie. I didn’t even have glasses on!)
The American asked me my perspective on a specific interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. I had never heard of this interpretation. I explained that I identified with Daoism, but was not studied on it. He was surprised because of my deep understanding of the philosophy. But I could sense his disappointment that I couldn’t partake in an intellectual dialog around Daoism’s history. He was a hipster after all…
But that is what I love about Daoism - it is accessible to everyone, no matter who you are, what your experience is, or how much education you’ve had. The fact that I could understand and embody Daoism like I do, having never formally studied it, is incredibly refreshing to me!
And ultimately, our human connection far outweighs any cultural threads we share anyway. This hipster helped me realize (by engaging in The Mirror Effect) that I am a living demonstration of what Daoism represents.
So in preparation for this blog I searched for other Daoists in NYC. All I found was some tantric Meetup groups and a couple Taoist temples. One had a Yelp review from a tourist:
“I walked into the temple just out of curiosity … I was pretty much invisible and no one even glanced my way. I walked around a bit… I must admit I don't know much about the Taoist belief… I still have no clue after my visit...”
Daoists aren't very social apparently. It’s not like Christianity which will dictate how to live your life down to every detail, including who you sleep with. You get to decide your relationship with Daoism and how you receive its teachings.
What attracts me is how the philosophy personalizes around the individual...on a universal level. It’s easier to talk around it than to explain outright. Benjamin Hoff writes in The Tao of Pooh:
"A basic principle of Lao-tse's [sic] teaching was that this Way of the Universe could not be adequately described in words, and that it would be insulting both to its unlimited power and to the intelligent human mind to attempt to do so. Still, its nature could be understood, and those who cared the most about it, and the life from which it was inseparable, understood it best."
Following the Dao, or the "Way” means tapping into your own truth. Daoism recognizes that every belief, every reality, can actually co-exist in harmony, together in the Dao. How can that be, you ask, how can left and right both be straight? Because they simply are. That is Daoism in a nutshell!
This duality proliferates in the Tao Te Ching. The classic text could be summarized as a series of extreme statements laid side by side. If you meditate on these extremes or study them closely, you will find the middle.
It helps to release judgment because that delineator causes more grief than it does understanding. It is only our egos, not a universal truth, assigning right or wrong and those judgments are only further dividing our species. There only is.
Have you ever noticed that you hate most the people that are connected to things you love? If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t hate. You might hate the president because he threatens things you love. It’s because both emotions are actually the same. And they are both within the Dao.
We are also all the same, even as we subscribe to different religions and follow different paths. We are all in search of meaning for our lives, for identity. This is what unites us.
So if I am a real-life example of Daoism in practice, it is only because I am a representation of everyone else. And everyone else represents me. The Dalai Lama himself recently tweeted: “The many factors which divide us are actually much more superficial than those we share.” I call this Inclusion, the second step of The Sustainability Cycle.
My Daoist leanings have led me to the segment of society that is often trapped between dualities. Most people will appreciate the Arts are an invaluable and evolutionary propellant of humanity...and yet, we find artists in the most impoverished conditions, on the outskirts of everyday business. We are bombarded by messaging that tells us to suppress our artistic selves. “What’s your real job?”
Exploited artists are navigating life with a compass forged from deception, greed, and ego. The result of which looks something like addiction, depression, and/or delinquency. Just because the artistic brain is often misunderstood, (e.g. Lady Gaga’s meat dress), doesn’t mean it should be treated differently. People just are.
Today’s socio-economic and cultural environment is increasingly calling for a common middle ground, where #ArtsMeetsBiz. On the individual level, this all boils down to identity...the journey, not the destination.
Continue to Part 2: Nature Is.
Emileena is writing a book on artist development called ANOTHER WAY, the Dao of Artist Development. If you are an artist looking for development, consider Emileena's E-Velop program.
Original Artwork by Dave Law, freelance visual artist and illustrator. www.davelawart.com.