Taoism and Psychology
Taoist philosophy has much in common with the philosophy espoused by the great Greek philosopher Socrates.
The famous Socratic maxim, "Know thyself," is based on his belief that by searching inward, into the mind and its mysterious operations, the seeker will find a pure form of knowledge, untainted by outside influences. He theorized that an understanding and development of the psychological self would lead to a corresponding development of the soul.
As we have seen, a similar idea plays an important role in Taoist philosophy. Like modern day psychologists, the ancient Taoists came to realize that a set of deeply seated motivations underlie our daily actions. These motivating forces remain hidden, yet actively work to determine our behavior.
In the modern world, we use many different techniques to explore those human motivations. Through discussion and sometimes using supplementary techniques like hypnosis, dream analysis, or drugs, professional counselors attempt to uncover these forces.
As part of Taoist philosophy, Taoist teachers agree that as we age, we learn to accept certain ideas and beliefs about ourselves and others and about how the world works in general. Once we have accepted them, they become part of us, and we refuse to modify them even if they are absolutely wrong.
Over time, these ideas sink to the back of our minds, and while they still influence our thinking processes, we are no longer aware they even exist. In this way, our hidden human motivations can indeed determine our everyday patterns of thought and behavior.
The basic problem with these hidden values is that they are unnecessarily restricting and can even be dangerous. Eventually, they can manifest as a pathological condition.
Unlike the clients of psychologists, however, practicing Taoists do not wait for an actual problem to develop before attempting to discover and modify the roots of their behavior. As part of the Taoist discipline, they naturally become aware of their hidden motivations.
Taoists are also well-aware that their discipline ultimately leads to self-transformation; it is a type of spiritual alchemy that enables practitioners to progress from an ordinary life to one more refined with many more possibilities.
Taoist practices seek to reduce these potentially damaging limitations of human motivation in three realms of human concern: the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual. Interestingly, our limitations manifest in ways that correspond to these three realms.
In terms of the physical, we learn to be inflexible and awkward in our movements. Over time, this state negates the natural athletic abilities most of us possess as children.
Secondly, in terms of the psychological, we learn unhealthy and unproductive mental behaviors. For this reason, sloth is regarded in many cultures as a deadly sin.
Finally, in terms of our spirit, we adopt negative, even cynical attitudes that not only stifle our own creativity and joy, but can lead to self-destruction and even the ruination of others.
Taoism is a practice devoted to casting off these limitations, many of that are learned through our social interactions. It is a self-imposed discipline that involves many procedures including, among others, chanting, meditation, and the physical movements of tai chi chuan. Some styles use ritual and prayer as well.
While psychologists use language to talk out problems, Taoists are very aware of the limitations of language, as discussed on the next page.