Meaning of Tao & The Tao of Habits

Zero Days Off, No Zero Days

At the time of writing this article, I’m 32 years old. Looking back on my 20s, the most magnificent gift I prepared for my then future-self was what I like to call “The Tao of Habits.”

Living in Chengdu all these years, it’s safe to say that Taoism has permeated its way into my day-to-day conscious experience. After all, Chengdu sits in the basin below the birthplace of Taoism, known as Qingcheng Mountain 青城山. That’s not to say I’ve become a Taoist. Still, much the same way that you’d be unable to avoid thinking influenced by Christianity in many western nations, so too would you be unable to prevent the residue of Taoist thought engrained in the minds of everyone around you.

What Do People Mean When They Say “The Tao of ______.”

In my experience, people tend to associate “The Way” or “The Tao” with ‘going with the flow.’ However, most westerners think of this process as passive. While that’s tempting to believe, I contend that “going with the flow” is activity and passivity in balance. After all, the YinYang ☯️ is two elements in balance for a reason. 

Let’s break down Yin & Yang to understand how they can help you build habits.

Yin Yang - Meaning of Tao

Why is “The Flow” ‘Yin’?

‘Yin’ is associated with a chaotic nature. It’s the unknown, the darkness where both threats and opportunities reside. The flow of nature is outside of your control. Even within your body, there’s a constant state of changing elements (temperature regulation, blood flow, respiration, hunger, thirst, energy & fatigue, etc.) that influence your experience of consciousness, and that’s to say nothing of the complexity in the external world.

As Alan Watts was fond of pointing out, the Chinese word for ‘nature’ is 自然 zìrán, which roughly translates as ‘that which happens of itself.’ That which happens of itself is incomprehensibly complex. From small quarks to the most massive structures of the cosmos, everything is ceaselessly flowing, and not only are YOU right in the middle of it, but you ARE it. Now THAT’s some chaotic nature for you.

We’ve Got the Yin, Where’s the Yang? 

‘Yang’ is the ‘order’ to the chaos of nature, and it’s that little light of consciousness that emerged from the chaos. You can pay attention to the flow of nature. Within you is something there to observe the flow and GO with it. There’s your Yang, the “going” part. ‘Go’ (Yang) with the ‘Flow’ (Yin). Something that lacks conscious awareness can’t ‘go’ with anything. 

The Tension Between ‘Going’ & ‘Flowing’

The Tao Of Habits

The ‘paying attention’ element ends up feeling like a contradictory brain bender. Both simple and complex, both effortful and effortless, both rewarding and taxing. What do I mean?

To pay attention, you must not be distracted. That implies that you must apply effort to avoid distractions. People will spend years on meditation retreats to build up that skill, so it sure does seem like a lot of work.

Then again, one could reasonably argue that staying focused on one path and not being distracted uses the least energy possible. Flitting back and forth between different points of focus is highly taxing. So is paying attention effortful or effortless? 

Oh, and what about which part of the flow deserves your attention? You wake up in the morning, and your conscious experience gives you many signals, some of which are contradictory:

“Drink something. Pee. Check your phone. Go back to sleep. Stand up. Lie down. Have a coffee. Check your email. Think about what you’re going to do later. Think about what happened yesterday. Go meditate. Call mom. Turn on YouTube. Start studying.” YIKES! What to do?

Relax Into Yourself

While it is true that you receive endless signals from nature (both internal and external), the way you “go” with it is to recognize which signals stand out to you. When you need to pee, it’s probably your bladder, but when you meet your basic needs, and you’re sitting alone in your room, what calls to you? Where does the unique set of natural elements that make up your consciousness lead you if you just relax? 

Just like nature itself, that which calls to you is also in a constant state of flux, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely random. If you have a calling to learn Chinese, daily exposure to the language may not ALWAYS call to you, but you’ll be nurturing something in you that’s *real*. 

The passion you feel for learning will return, and with higher frequency and deeper resonance, because you WENT WITH THE FLOW when it called to you.

If you want to learn more about The Tao of Habits and how to beat procrastination then you can read our series of articles on triggering yourself “Trigger Yourself – Study Chinese & Smash Procrastination” and how to beat procrastination.