Non-duality and Non-choosing: flowing with the Tao

The source of all our strife is the perception of duality. At its root, it is the mental act of separating ourselves from everything else. When we perceive ourselves as separate from others, those others get split into two distinct possibilities: good or bad. Once we see things as either good or bad, we are thrust into a state of categorizing and calculating, as we try to avoid the bad things and ensure the good things. We seek to control events and we become quite stressed when things don’t go our way. We seek a state in which we can experience constant winning without the possibility of losing. This is ultimately frustrating and hopeless. The Taoist solution to this is somewhat unique. They offer a path of non-choosing.

Non-choosing isn’t quite the same as saying not choosing. It isn’t an indifference to events or simple passivity. In part, it is an acceptance of the fact that there is no winning without losing, no light without dark, no yang without yin. It is also an understanding that what things seem to be at one moment may not be the way they turn out, and that there is ultimately no need to worry. In essence, non-choosing is the recognition that everything is connected and in process, and the renunciation of such distinctions as good and bad.

There is an old Chinese folk tale that illustrates the approach of Non-choosing:

One day, an old farmer’s only horse ran away. Now he must plow the fields by hand.
All the villagers say to him, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse returns with seven wild horses in tow.
All the villagers say to him, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Later, the farmer’s son, while trying to train one of the wild horses, is thrown and breaks his leg.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What bad luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”
Some weeks pass, and the military comes to the village, conscripting the young men to fight. They pass over the farmer’s son because he is lame.
All the villagers say to the farmer, “What good luck!”
The farmer replies, “Maybe.”

The farmer in this story seems to be the victim of constant ups and downs. Yet, he remains calm and continues his work. At first glance, he seems indifferent to the events directing his life, but a closer examination reveals a uniquely Taoist perspective. It may be no accident that the protagonist of this story is a farmer – someone whose life is lived by the cycles of the seasons, who knows that both light and dark, rain and shine are necessary conditions for crops to grow and animals to thrive. The farmer also knows that everything is connected: the wind, the soil, the plants, insects, and animals, and he too, all have their place in a harmonious system of interrelationships. This perspective grants the farmer a seemingly peculiar attitude toward life’s events. To him, rain isn’t good or bad, rain is just rain, and luck isn’t a factor in his thinking. Things are what they are. By not choosing between possibilities, he is able to take things as they come and do only what he must do, simply and wholly.

Another lesson from this story is presentness. The farmer doesn’t seem too concerned with what has happened or what’s coming next. This is interesting since farmers must plan ahead to plant crops before certain turns in weather and seasonal changes and that sort of thing. However, in the story, the farmer doesn’t dwell on his lost horse, or wonder about the possibility of his son being called off to war. He remains present, and allows circumstances to reveal themselves before concerning himself with them. He doesn’t worry. Worry is a product of looking ahead and behind, always concerned with avoiding the bad and obtaining the good. It’s a product of dualistic perception.

The Tao Te Ching, the classic of the Way and Virtue, is full of verses expounding on this point of non-dualistic perception and non-choosing.

“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

In this first chapter of the Tao Te Ching the true nature of reality is revealed, as well as what causes us to miss it. This poem shows that no idea, no image, no name can describe the true nature of anything. The true nature of a thing can only be grasped through direct perception of it. A thing is what it’s doing. We do not live in a frozen world. All things are part of a constant Now, forever unfolding and revealing its nature in a shifting matrix of interrelationships.

Somehow, we forget to be present; maybe we forget how. We feel the need to name things, to categorize them, to see one thing as separate from another; ultimately, to see all things as separate from ourselves. We do this so that we can make calculations. We feel the need to calculate because once things have names and definitions, they become either good or bad – threat or benefit. This is the core of our dualistic perception. When things are seen as good or bad, we begin to fear the bad and desire the good. Then we must calculate, make plans and strategies – trying to ensure the good and avoid the bad. This is the birth of anxiety, stress, anger, jealousy, cruelty, ambition, and every self-damning act such emotions inspire.

When you understand that names are illusions, ideas that we create and impose on reality, then you can let go of names and allow all particular things to melt and blend into oneness. This oneness is the same as saying Now, the present, the universe, reality. You will also know yourself as part of the oneness; you will sense its motion and your part in it. Then you will not be concerned with what may happen, because you know – through direct perception – what is happening. You will be free of good and bad and the fear and desire they create.

Of course, names exist and are useful. The Tao Te Ching addresses this in the next verse of the same poem:

“Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.”
– Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

This next line reveals an important point that is difficult to grasp in the beginning. Yes, all things are one. Yes, names cannot express true nature; but, all things are also “particular things” – parts of the whole – and names do exist and describe them. Think of different languages. What English speakers call “water,” Spanish speakers call “agua.” Yet no name, no description, no matter how detailed, can quench your thirst. None of them are the real thing. They are sounds when spoken, symbols when written, images when imagined. They are not reality. Yet they do describe something real. Because there can be any symbol or sound to describe a thing (such as water), and those sounds and symbols can change, they are not the true names. No name is the true name. Water is … ”gulp gulp gulp – Ahhh!”

What we must do to realize the Tao is to reconcile what we perceive as being dual into non-dual. This is the lesson of yin and yang.

Yin and yang represent the opposite aspects of the whole. By being aspects of the whole they are not true opposites. In truth, opposites, as such, only exist in our minds. They are actually complementary pairs. More than complementary, they require each other. They give rise to each other. They are part of each other. Think of a coin. Try to imagine a one sided coin. You can’t do it. No matter whether they’re stamped with different impressions, or one or both sides are blank; even if you cut it in half you can’t get rid of a side. It is the very fact that it has two sides that makes it a coin. The two sides don’t oppose each other, they create each other. Also, it is interesting that we feel compelled to flip the coin, and watch the two sides blur into one. We miss the point and lose the Tao when we cease seeing the coin and begin focusing on the sides.

“The Tao does not take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil.”
– Chapter 5, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The point of this passage is not that the Tao is indifferent, nor that we should be. The point is that the Tao doesn’t put things in terms of good and evil – it only sees action and events, simply what is. It does not make such distinctions. The distinctions of good and evil are created by people, they are names, they are the result of perceiving duality; but the truth of reality is non-dual.

So, the quote above is a bit of a riddle. It shows you the way of the Tao by showing that the Tao simultaneously is not good or evil (does not take sides) and is both good and evil (gives birth to both). The Tao is what simply is, before we impose our distinctions. Distinction gives birth to good and evil. Good and evil give birth to fear and desire. Fear and desire give birth codes of right and wrong, the mother of all the oppositions of mankind – all the conflict.

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

The above passage shows that we need not concern ourselves with contrived codes of morality. If we are present, mindful, and sincere we will be in step with the Tao, and right and wrong melt away in the light of clear perception. You see what must be done and you do it, just like the farmer.

Let go of impressions, both those you hold on to and those you project. Be unconcerned with how things seem to be. Only concern yourself with their substance. To know their substance, simply look, listen, feel, without bias or preconception. Do not want anything particular, do not reject anything offered. Accept what is and trust your heart – your deepest sense.

“Therefore the Master concerns himself with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality, and lets all illusions go.”
– Chapter 38, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell

So how does one dwell in reality and let all illusions go? Anything you try to do will be insufficient, because you try to do something particular – of course this is not the Way. That is based in your dualistic illusions and calculated using them. Of course, you can’t do absolutely nothing at all either. If you did, nothing would happen. Your avoidance of particular things is itself something particular. Be still. Look, listen, feel, smell, taste. Let names come to mind, but do not cling to them. Let your mind flow on in no particular way, and for no particular purpose. Accept all that you perceive. Don’t seek. Don’t deny. Be empty and let your self be filled. By doing nothing in particular and letting things go their way, you will be in accord with everything, and everything will do what it must, according to its true nature without contrivance (including yourself). There will be no fear and no desire, only certainty. Then you can move, and act, and think, and do – and there will be no conflict, only harmony – because you do not interfere, or impose.

Applying this non-dualistic thinking to your Tai Chi practice, you may be able to see that stillness and motion are one. In stillness, find perfect balance. Perfect balance is oneness. Wuji. In motion, maintain total harmony between complementary pairs. Taiji. Harmony is balance in motion. When your motion is such that perfect balance is maintained, your inner state is the same in motion as it is in stillness. Then it may not be clear whether you are moving through the world, or whether the world is moving around you.