Many religions center around the idea that there are certain rules that must be adhered to, and certain deities to worship. Depending on your actions, you might be the lucky recipient of divine punishment or rewards. It’s the reason why many people make offerings, go to church—and ideally try to live a life filled with good deeds and moral judgement. If that’s not your bag, but you’re still searching for meaning, Taoism may offer what you need.
This ancient Chinese philosophy is less a religion and more a guide. There’s little to no dogma involved. At its core, Taoism asserts that humans and animals should live in harmony with the universe—and that’s it. This religion and philosophy explores the concept of dualities: “These ideas represent matching pairs, such as light and dark, hot and cold, action and inaction, which work together toward a universal whole. Yin and yang show that everything in the universe is connected and that nothing makes sense by itself.”
If your life has seemed too “full” lately, with increasing demands on your time, the concept of emptiness in Taoism may help you find balance.
A brief history and overview of Taoism
Taoism is thought to have originated with the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu. Written around 500 BCE, it’s a collection of poetry and thoughts that are meant to guide the practitioner into a balanced relationship with the universe.
In addition to embracing dualities, Taoists also believe that the universe is full of qi (also spelled “chi”), which is present in everything—living or inanimate. Practitioners might meditate, make offerings and perform rituals. However, the latter two aren’t necessary to form a harmonious relationship with the universe.
Taoism has a long history in China, but was banned during the communist takeover in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, the practice is once again allowed in China, and has spread across the globe.
Emptiness and fullness
The concept of duality can be a welcome contrast to dogmatic religions. For example, light and darkness are seen as two necessary forces, which ultimately should balance each other out. Similarly, the concept of emptiness versus fullness can help you find balance in your own life.
According to Elizabeth Renniger from Learn Religions, the concept of emptiness takes two different forms: first, as the opposite of fullness, and second, “an inner realization or state of mind characterized by simplicity, quietude, patience, frugality, and restraint.” In this mindset, you can fully embrace the Tao—by dropping your worldly desires, you become closer in alignment with the universe and its energy.
The empty mind is a recurring theme (and goal, of sorts) in Taoism. “When the mind is full, there is no room for what simply is to exist. A full mind cannot hear or see clearly…You seek more than what is actually there or what needs to be there, which leads you down a path away from truth.” Think of it as the difference between enjoying a piece of music for what it is, versus analyzing each layer and instrument to figure out how it’s done. Both are valid ways to experience music, but Taoism encourages the former to achieve universal wisdom.
Finding balance is key
Practically speaking, it would be hard in most modern Western societies to fully live according to Taoist principles. Most of us juggle jobs, family, social obligations and other often-chaotic facets of life. Few people are financially secure enough to cast off the trappings of modern society to live a life of quiet stillness. However, you can still take the lessons of Taoism and emptiness and apply them to your life.
Think of your life in terms of duality. For every activity that’s “full”—whether it’s full of grumpy bosses or happily shrieking children—try to schedule an equally “empty” time for yourself. Even a few minutes of silence or meditation per day can help you gain perspective. You might achieve this emptiness on a run, out on a nature walk or simply lying in bed for a half hour longer than usual.
When you empty your mind in a healthy way, you’ll be better able to focus on what is instead. It might be that you hear birds singing where you’d normally focus on chugging coffee, or the peace and quiet you get after a night out with friends helps you appreciate solitude more.
You don’t have to be a full-on Taoist to appreciate the concept of emptiness, and how it can—ironically—make your life seem much more full.