What is Daoism (Taoism)?

A personal reflection on the subject of  "What is Daoism, and who is a Daoist?

The first part of the question, i.e "What is Daoism?", is reasonably straightforward to answer. Here are two succinct ones:

(Note: "Daoism" and "Taoism" are the same thing. The old way of spelling it (Wade-Giles transcription system) is with a 'T'. The modern way (Pinyin transcription system) is with a 'D'.)

"Daoism, also known as Taoism, is a religious or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Dao (道, literally "Way", also romanized as Tao). The Dao is a fundamental idea in most Chinese philosophical schools; in Daoism, however, it denotes the principle that is both the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists." (extracted from the Wikipedia entry)

"Daoism is the native religion of China. Its most direct and universal functions for people in the ordinary world are recognition of natural laws, promoting of health, prevention of illness, prolongation of life, and stimulation of the development of culture and civilization based on successful cooperation between humanity and nature, and between individual and society as a whole." - Chen Kaiguo

The most important thing for me however is that Daoism is an ancient yet vibrant tradition and body of knowledge and practices that is remarkably coherent, and for me seems to be based on a deep understanding of who and what we are.

So who is a Daoist?

This question, on the other hand, may not be so easy to answer. I've been studying Daoism and some its related practices for over twenty years, and in my experience there are almost as many answers to this question as there are people who call themselves "Daoists".

However the following framework, from a book I highly recommend titled "Daoism, A Beginner's Guide" by James Miller, is as good as any I've found. The book commences as follows:

"What is Daoism? Who is a Daoist? The ways in which Daoist creativity is acknowledged and embodied in ritual and culture vary so widely that these questions are frustratingly difficult to settle. Nonetheless, Daoists and scholars of Daoism have historically sought to understand Daoism and Daoist identity in three main ways: 1) as the indigenous religion of China; 2) as a lineage of transmission; and 3) as universal path."

So where do I, as a westerner, fit into these identity categories?

I'm not Chinese. So definition 1 does not apply.

As for definition 2: I've not been accepted into a lineage, although I have been taught by teachers who have been. I certainly would not claim to be able to represent a traditional lineage however.

I have had some contact with definition 2 i.e. some of my teachers are "lineage keepers".

For me, Daoist thought and insights make deep sense. They are not the only truth, but I find they have been very helpful in my quest to understand more about what life is and how it works. (I know, 42 is the answer, but Daoism expands a bit on this!)

Definition 3 is what resonates with me.

Daverick Legget, a Qigong teacher and author, summarises this very well in the introduction to his excellent book Recipes for Self-Healing.

"As a westerner I have been drawn to an oriental philosophy and healing system because it offers something I have not found in my own back yard: a coherent, living vision of the world as energy, and a poetic and metaphorical language to express this perception."

 An insight from one of my teachers that was made during a workshop I attended has stuck with me over the years.

In the West, religion says "Just believe. We'll take care of the rest". In Daoism they say "you don't have to believe in anything. But without practice, waste of time" - Mantak Chia

And this is why I feel comfortable in calling myself a Daoist. Because it makes sense to me, and I practice. And this regular Daoist practice has had great benefits in my quest for better health, well-being and inner balance. To those men and women, no matter where they lived or what culture they came from, who discovered, developed and passed on these practices and insights over the millennia, I give heartfelt thanks.

What is Qigong?

Qigong is an ancient Chinese health care system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention.

The word Qigong (Chi Kung) is made up of two Chinese words. Qi is pronounced chee and is usually translated to mean the life force or vital-energy that flows through all things in the universe.

The second word, Gong, pronounced gung, means accomplishment, or skill that is cultivated through steady practice. Together, Qigong (Chi Kung) means cultivating energy, it is a system practiced for health maintenance, healing and increasing vitality.

Qigong is an integration of physical postures, breathing techniques, and focused intentions.

Qigong practices can be classified as martial, medical, or spiritual. All styles have three things in common: they all involve a posture (whether moving or stationary), breathing techniques and mental focus. Some practices increase the Qi; others circulate it, use it to cleanse and heal the body, store it or emit Qi to help heal others. Practices vary from the soft internal styles such as Tai Chi; to the external, vigorous styles such as Kung Fu. However, the slow gentle movements of most Qigong forms can be easily adapted, even for the physically challenged and can be practiced by all age groups.

Like any other system of health care, Qigong is not a panacea, but it is certainly a highly effective health care practice. Many health care professionals recommend Qigong as an important form of alternative complementary medicine.

Qigong creates an awareness of, and influences, dimensions of our being that are not part of traditional exercise programs. Most other forms of exercise do not involve the meridian system used in acupuncture nor do they emphasize the importance of adding mindful intent and breathing techniques to physical movements. When these dimensions are added, the benefits of exercise increase exponentially.

The gentle, rhythmic movements of Qigong reduce stress, build stamina, increase vitality, and enhance the immune system. It has also been found to improve cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic and digestive functions.

Those who maintain a consistent practice of Qigong find that it helps one regain a youthful vitality, maintain health even into old age and helps to speed recovery from illness. Western scientific research confirms that Qigong reduces hypertension and the incidence of falling in the aged population. One of the more important long-term effects is that Qigong re-establishes the body/mind/soul connection.

People practise Qigong to maintain health, heal their bodies, calm their minds, and reconnect with their spirit. 

When these three aspects of our being are integrated, it encourages a positive outlook on life and helps eliminate harmful attitudes and behaviors. It also creates a balanced life style, which brings greater harmony, stability, and enjoyment

There are a wide variety of Qigong practices. They vary from the simple, internal forms to the more complex and challenging external styles. They can interest and benefit everyone, from the most physically challenged to the super athlete. There are Qigong classes for children, senior citizens, and every age group in between. Since Qigong can be practiced anywhere or at any time, there is no need to buy special clothing or to join a health club.

Qigong's great appeal is that everyone can benefit, regardless of ability, age, belief system or life circumstances. 

Anyone can enrich their lives by adding Qigong to their daily routine. Children learning to channel their energy and develop increased concentration; office workers learning Qigong to reduce stress; seniors participating in gentle movements to enhance balance and their quality of life; caregivers embracing a practice to develop their ability to help others; prisons instituting Qigong programs to restore balance in inmates lives; midwives using Qigong techniques to ease child birth.

When beginners ask, "What is the most important aspect of practising Qigong?" The answer is always..."just do it."

(adapted from an original text at the National Qigong Association)

The Qigong State and Retreats

One of the benefits of Qigong practice is that it can help you to achieve theQigong state, a focused awareness of existing in the present moment. This Qigong state is also the goal of Zen Buddhism, which came from the Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, predominately native Chinese Daoism influenced by Buddhism imported from India.

From a physiological standpoint what happens when practicing Qigong is that the autonomic nervous system enters a state of relaxation and regeneration. Many people experience that their emotional body also calms down when this happens, and that their internal emotional processes slow down and come to a rest.

The Qigong state is crucial to healing and regeneration. Qigong helps our body/mind systems to move out of the stressful, adrenaline based “fight or flight” state and instead settle into the relaxed, dopamine based “rest and digest” state. This response allows our systems to relax while repairing and restoring balance to our bodies.

For many people achieving this Qigong state can be a challenge. The stress and pressures of daily life often leads to a state of adrenal fatigue and exhaustion. At the end of a long day working it can be difficult to find the energy and motivation to go out to a class to learn something new. Even with the best intentions it can be difficult to maintain a sustained practice.

There’s a reason gyms often do really well in January each year and then have a steady drop off as spring progresses – it’s simply hard to keep going when you don’t feel an immediate benefit. And just like going to the gym, Qigong also needs sustained practice before you begin to reap the rewards.

A Qigong retreat can provide an opportunity to get in touch with the Qigong state by providing a time of focus and relaxation without the distractions of a normal life. Once you have had an experience of the Qigong state it can be much easier to find the motivation to carry on your practice once you are back home again.