The Trouble with Daoists
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
July was coming to a close,
opening into August. My 28th Birthday was only a few weeks away, the year of preparation for my Saturn Return - a major turning point in people’s lives. I was a fews days away from finishing my 35th week (give or take) in the field, approaching Senior 2 and about 2.5 years as a full-time wilderness therapy field guide.
It was mid-summer at Colorado Base Camp. My co-guide and I were working in an adolescent boys team - Kudu. We woke up early with the sun, taking our time to enjoy our breakfast, coffee, meditation, and some leisurely reading before waking up the students. A welcome reprieve after a particularly stressful shift working with a stuck student who hijacked the team by refusing to move, eat, drink, or talk for a few days.
We made it back to base. Everyone was safe. Everyone learned a little more about themselves that week. Mission accomplished. Then, I noted the title of a pocket-sized book my co-guide was reading: “Tao Te Ching.” I’d never heard of it, but I recognized “Ching” from the “I Ching,” another pocket-sized ancient Chinese oracle book I’d been toting around for years already.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s…the Tao Te Ching.” He struggled to explain more than that plain fact.
“Can I see it?”
I read through the intro and some of the first few poems before finally waking up the students. “Can I borrow this until we leave?”
“Sure.” He smiled, seemingly pleased that someone would be so interested.
I consumed it voraciously, gripped by its paradox, its wisdom, and the infinite provocation of thoughts expressed through such minimal words.
“This is incredible.” I returned the palm-sized document.
“Yeah, I like it. I read it from time to time, especially when I meditate.”
That was 2 years ago. I ordered my own copy online as soon as we left the field. It became my daily back pocket companion that I read to myself and my students. I eventually wrapped the spine in pink duct tape to keep it together. Its cover accrued a film of wilder-grime. I’m 30 now. No longer a field guide. Still yet bewitched by the incantations printed on those 3.5 x 5-inch pages.
Today, I write through the ethers, to you, about my inner-conflict concerning whether or not to call myself a Daoist.
But first, let’s clear a few things up:
What is Daoism?
As far as the word implies, Daoism is like any other “ism,” subscribing to a particular system of beliefs or values. Thus, “believing in Dao.” And herein lies the first problem. It’s not very clear. In fact, scholars debate this fundamental question to this very day. However, I see it as a belief in things like the pre-creationist force of Dao, allowing that pre-destined force to move through you, minimalism, inherent goodness, unlearning, and the paradox of existence.
As it stands today, most of us Westerners understand Daoism to be founded on the Dao De Jing and the Change Tzu as the definitive “bibles” of Daoism, and there are two branches: Contemplative Doaism (straight-up just thinking-or not thinking- about Dao) and Hsien Daoism (The Way to Immortality), which uses ritualized alchemy in the pursuit of immortality (in one sense of another) and perhaps gaining some extraordinary powers from the unseen beyond. Let me just say, Russel Kirkland has a big problem with this, explaining in excruciating detail the myriad traditions of antiquity and their importance. Either way, the organization of Daoism is nebulous at best and the views set-forth by the Dao De Jing are steeped in allegory and paradox.