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Daoism as paradox

As I sit down to think of how to describe what I know of Daoism, I see a complex and confusing tapestry open up before me – a fabric with rich hues, subtle textures and fascinating spaces that enfold and expand in mysterious dimensions. This tapestry is so clear and alive; however, each attempt to describe it in clear statements on the nature of Daoism seems to muddy that mysterious aliveness. Daoism is elusive in its simplicity: the moment you think you know exactly what it is, that very experience leads farther away from the actual nature of Daoism.

Daoism itself seems wrapped in such paradoxes. The famous first line of the Dao De Jing itself states: ‘The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.’[1] This makes it difficult to understand Daoism fully on an intellectual level, much less to write about it. It is imperative that Daoist practitioners understand the concepts and theories behind the practice; however, and in order to really grasp the nature of dao, we must experience it. The more we can embody the apparent paradoxes of Daoism, the more we can transcend them, and recognise them as actually indicative of the nature of existence. Strikingly, the more we are able to shed our own blockages to an experience of wholeness, the more we can begin to recognise that, ultimately, there is no paradox. These things only appear as paradoxes as a result of our separateness from dao.

Dao exists prior to form and directionality. It exists prior to duality or even oneness. It simply is. Humans tend to seek to name or solidify the mysteries around them in order to feel a sense of control and order; this is the nature of the world of form. However, this sense of order is superficial; in the face of that which exists beyond time and space, the kind of order we can rationally name is an illusion. Daoists seek to notice the paradoxes that exist so that they may be transcended. It is fitting that even Laozi, the supposed author of the Dao De Jing, has a seemingly paradoxical name – his name translates as ‘old boy’.

As the following verse illustrates, the Dao De Jing offers insight into a state beyond such contradictions:

Beneath Heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.

Yet for attacking the solid and strong,

Nothing can take its place.

Therefore, the soft can overcome the hard,

The weak can overcome the strong,

Under Heaven everyone knows this,

Yet no one puts it into practice.

Therefore, Sages say:

The person who takes upon themselves the humiliation of the whole country is fit to be the sovereign.

The person who takes upon themselves the country’s disasters deserves to be king.

The truth often seems paradoxical.[2]

However, Daoist practice is also grounded in the firm understanding that we still currently live in the world of form. Where to begin then? We must begin where we are – with form.

Tantric Daoism: resolving the paradox

In order to study that which is beyond all form, we start with the level of greatest form: the physical body.

The way to resolve paradox experientially is alchemical transmutation – the process by which we transform our bodies and entire system to experience dao. To resolve paradox means to take things that seem to be opposed and put them in relationship, in such a way that a higher order emerges that can harmoniously contain that which used to be in opposition. Tantric (or esoteric) Daoism does this by training the body’s energetic substances so they can learn to interact harmoniously.

Daoists recognise that all things originate from oneness – or, more accurately, that all things originate prior to oneness – and that this origin is dao. Every aspect of Daoism can be seen through the lens of being in the service of returning to dao. Here is the primordial paradox: that every thing is one thing.

In the Daoist process of creation, the first state after dao is taiji, which is the spiral that sets things in motion from ultimate emptiness. From taiji springs the division of yin and yang; at this point, we begin to experience duality and the paradoxical nature of life. Yin cannot exist without yang, nor yang without yin; and each are contained within one another. In the depths of winter, when the still, dark, cold yin days have reached their peak, this is when yang has already begun to take root, as we begin the return to the warmth, movement, and light of summer. Each extreme contains the beginnings of its counterpart.

Overall, Taoism uses the idea of balanced integration of yin and yang in the sense of fulfillment of the complete or whole human potential, living in the world and fulfilling worldly tasks, yet maintaining inner contact with a greater dimension, referred to as ‘celestial’, which interpenetrates the worldly plane in some way.[3]

While training the body and its energetic substances, we engage yin and yang and also the other forces that grew out of oneness in the original Daoist process of creation, such as the four directions, the five elements, etc. Through that engagement, we begin to feel hints of an integration beyond the duality of two (or three, four, five, etc.). The experiential cultivation and integration of seemingly opposing forces within the body begins to reverse the course of the Daoist process of creation.

Thus, the energetic practices that are inherent to tantric Daoism (such as qigong) help individuals remove blockages that stand between them and dao. These practices engage seemingly opposing forces such as yin and yang through stillness and movement. In doing so, they help us to transcend the layers that have developed between our current state and the original source of dao. It is only when viewing the world from a place of separation from dao that there is paradox. From dao itself, the illusion of paradox is dispelled and returns to eternal wholeness.

Harmonising opposing forces in myself

I did not intend to become a Daoist. I really had no idea what Daoism was. I had identified that energetic opposition – in the sense of different layers of my body conflicting with one another – was a key part of my past severe Lyme disease, and I had found healing by harmonizing some of these opposing forces. So, I knew that engaging forces of opposition was vital for me, both for my health and also in connecting with more of my true self.

However, my path in healing my system in this way had felt somewhat haphazard – a bit like a preschooler doing university-level chemistry. I felt the need for a structure to help me learn how to harmonise the remaining imbalanced forces in my body. It is from this place of need that I began Daoist practice.

This first year of my practice was spent building foundations—physical strength, flexibility, stillness of mind, harmony of breath, freedom of energy, etc. These practices, while seeming simple and contained, have steadily impacted every aspect of my life and ‘self’. Extending beyond the changes I had expected in my physical body and mental state, as my body gains strength and flexibility, so my self becomes stronger and more fluid. I start to become aware of a larger consciousness, giving me a sense of spiritual connection with something greater than ‘individual Abigail’.

I have found that dissolving, purging and releasing  tension and habitual patterns is a crucial part of this process—that letting go is just as important (if not more so) as building. But, simultaneously, it is also true that it is often through the building that release is possible. As I grow stronger, my tissues and bones shift and align more harmoniously. Through this process, some of the blockages that had created a sense of separation within my system begin to dissolve; the paradoxes and conflicts within my body and mind, while still quite evident in certain regards, start to have hints of falling away.

The various energetic substances of my system have developed through this training and have begun to transform me. Thus, and while this was not my original intention, I have somehow become a tantric Daoist! Restoring my health and seeking Daoist transformation have become one and the same.

Restoring relationship with the core and lower dantian

One central energy centre we begin to work with in tantric Daoism is the lower dantian, which is found at the centre of the lower abdomen. Thus, the dantian is ‘the first main focus of all Chi Gung and Taoist alchemical practices. Taoist practices all begin from the premise that physical health is the foundation upon which spiritual development is built, and it is in the lower [dantian] that all energy that affects the physical body is processed, purified, and generated.’[4]

I have found in my own neigong process that, while I seemed to develop an energetic waking of this region fairly early, the more physical relationship with this region has been a challenging one for me, which has been tied to some mental/emotional blockages to engaging my lower body. Thus strengthening on the physical level through core strength exercises and engaging my kua has been paired with mental observation of where I am less comfortable engaging my total system. Even when I find that certain energetic aspects of my training have flourished, without the grounding in the form of the physical body, I will not be able to progress through the total system of alchemical transformation. Thus, the process of total transformation towards dao begins at times with the apparent grunt work of simple leg raises.

Releasing the acquired self

In addition to releasing the body, a main emphasis of Daoism is on releasing the acquired mind—all those aspects of our nature that have led us away from the stillness of our original or congenital state. The acquired state has been built through various forms of programming during our lifetimes—trauma, family history, emotional ways of reacting, etc. Examining myself and beginning to purge negative patterns in my acquired self has been a large focus alongside my own neigong process. I find that releasing the layers of tension in my body through physical and energetic training naturally shifts the vibrational pattern through my system; this also challenges the aspects of my acquired nature that have formed a symbiotic relationship with those vibrations in my system. Through such experiences, I start seeing contradictions resolve.

This makes the neigong process multi-layered, as any one aspect of training contains other layers of meaning. For example, as I’ve mentioned, the training requires me to push myself physically harder than I have done before, while at the same time learning to relax and release. I have had a similar dilemma working with my acquired self. Before beginning my training, I believed that I must make myself mentally strong enough in order to ‘push through’ distasteful aspects of my acquired nature. I wanted to ‘do’ everything that was possible to feel better. Throughout my training, I have started to release and soften my physical body and to develop acceptance. This has allowed me to start moving closer to my true nature, closer to the person I would like to be. It has been through less ‘doing’, rather than more, that real changes have taken place.

Ultimately, doing (both physical and mental) is a means to an end, aiming at non-doing. We strengthen, lengthen and move the physical form so that we can truly soften and flow into stillness.

Qigong and Daoism

Neigong is the energetic process we go through as we shed these layers, transform and return closer to an original state of body, mind and spirit. Qigong is one of the main tools we utilise within this process. There are many approaches and purposes to qigong. However, from the perspective of tantric Daoism, qigong exercises, which engage and circulate energetic substances using specific movements, are oriented towards the neigong process rather than other goals such as improved health or mental clarity – although these can be benefits, this is not the larger aim. Daoists utilise qigong to help remove the layers that impede direct oneness with dao.

I have noticed this experience recently in my attempt to engage more fully with the ‘soaring-dragon’ daoyin. Recently, I found that there was lack of life in my lower dantian during this exercise. That energetic awareness had not been something I could perceive until my physical core strength had developed to a large-enough degree. Once this became apparent, however, I worked to sink into my kua and I began to find that the practice of this sequence revealed a more direct experience of yin and yang. As my forward leg sinks down through the earth yin, the power of yang moves up through the ball of my back foot. These meet through my spine, where the yin and yang coil around and through one another.

When I am most fully able to engage that sense of aliveness coiling through the moving practice of the ‘soaring-dragon’ sequence, I feel more harmonised into a deepened stillness during my closing posture. The movement and activity of my mind deepen and drop down until all that exists is alive stillness. While these moments are not regular for me yet, I begin to have impressions of the ways that qigong sheds superfluous layers that have isolated me from direct perceptions of original truth. In this way, qigong is utilised as a tool within tantric Daoism to further the return to dao.

Daoism: the experience

Tantric Daoism is an experiential tradition that works with energetic substances. Qigong is a key tool Daoists utilise as part of the neigong process of cultivating and conditioning the body, mind and consciousness towards dao. However, and as internal power is built through qigong, aspects of our acquired nature must also be considered and released – for the path of the powerful arsehole qigong master is not the way of dao!

I have already referred to the healing I found with regard to a severe case of Lyme disease through the process of harmonising opposing energies. In the depths of that illness, I spent hours daily in violent convulsions. I was bed-bound with extreme fatigue and I could hardly walk. It was an incredibly painful paradox at the time that my body had such vast amounts of energy available for violent contortions and seizures and yet simultaneously all energy and organised movement were completely unavailable for even such normal daily functions as going to the bathroom.

The only way I was able to bring healing to these opposing forces was by identifying the blockages that were maintaining this pattern and releasing them. I had to bring harmony to what seemed opposed and reintegrate the energy that was causing such havoc in my system.

Thankfully, my illness has resolved – but there are still discontinuities in the flow of energy. I still experience storms in my body – energy moving violently emotionally and mentally, with concurrent physical exhaustion; and when I do, it is clear that blockage in the flow of energy continues to be an avenue needing development.

Through targeted training of mind, body and spirit, tantric Daoism offers a pathway for shedding the layered blockages that maintain these paradoxes in myself. By following this path, I am developing health and harmony; however, I experience this as a means to an end. My ultimate goal is one that is in keeping with a main aim within Daoism: a return to dao.


[1] Xuezhi, Hu, Revealing the Tao Te Ching (Ageless Classics Press. Kindle Edition, 2014), Kindle Locations 629-630.

[2] Xuezhi, Hu, Revealing the Tao Te Ching (Ageless Classics Press. Kindle Edition, 2014), Kindle Locations 3708-3727.

[3] Cleary, Thomas, The Taoist I Ching. (London: Shambhala, 1987), pg. 26.

[4] Frantzis, Bruce, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1993), pg. 70.