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Taoism Made Simple
C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D.
Annellen M. Simpkins Ph.D.

Yin and yang compound together
When accepted as both true
Dissolve into a synthesis
The infinite oneness: You!
--C. Alexander Simpkins

Taoism is an ancient philosophy whose wellspring is the unformed, unnameable, mystical source prior to all, the Tao. The harmony of Tao is prior, activated by passivity, by inactivity. But as Tao is expressed in Being, it generates an interchanging, dynamic play of opposites: yin and yang. Tao takes form as this duality of polar opposites. Yin and yang, in turn, weave together and interrelate to create the world of possibilities. Yin and yang are the manifestation of Tao in the world. They mutually produce each other as polarities that are part of the fabric of existence.
Yin refers to characteristics of softness, passivity, femininity, darkness, the valley, and the negative, Nonbeing. Yang refers to characteristics such as hardness, masculinity, brightness, the mountain, activity, Being.
All active energy is manifested as these yin-yang dualities. Nonbeing accompanies Being. The Tao manifests itself as change due to the flowing polar nature of energy. Energy is not static, not a fixed object. Newton’s second law of motion is that for every force, there is an equal and opposite counterforce. The Taoist Sage believes that every force acts with its opposite, as potential, and the opposite will act as well. Thus, if a government punishes a group severely, it may bring about its own punishment later, by that very group. The opposite, complementary force comes to be, in time, inevitably, as the night follows day, as winter follows summer. The Taoist Sage learns to be in harmony with these cycles of activity and inactivity.
Yin and Yang bring dynamic balance of forces of movement and rest, activity and passivity, so that the balance point returns to center. Tao, the unity of the opposites emerges. In many applications of Taoism, this unity is the source of guidance, the criterion, the standard by which correctness can be evaluated when reason is brought to bear on things.
Gestalt psychology formulated a general rule: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The tendency to form wholes, unities, predominates in perception. We see in unities, not in pieces. The Gestaltists believe that we perceive by contrast, in context. A figure is always in contrast to its background. A person exists in relation to the situation. We know our friends through our relationships, in terms of their lives, their backgrounds, their actions in the world. Our personal identity throughout our lives is deeply entwined with others who are meaningful to us.

Yin-yang in Perception

Yin and yang are built into our perceptual process. The contrast of yin and yang is absolutely essential in order for us to be able to notice things. We notice differences. There is good experimental evidence that when we are exposed to sameness, a constant or relatively unchanging stimulus over a span of time, we stop noticing it. We have all experienced this with background noise, such as the dull roar of an air conditioner or heater. At first we may feel bothered by the noise, but after awhile we do not quite notice it. If we leave the room and later return, we hear the sound again. We do not tend to perceive something, unless we have difference. Sameness leads to an empty perception. We stop noticing. This same phenomenon occurs with a constant sound, a constant color in the room, or a constant smell. It has to make a difference. Taoism predicts this, since everything comes into being in relation to its opposite.

The Taoist Law of Reversion

Yin and yang are so bound together that pure yin and pure yang ultimately reverse. Reversions of forces is a dynamic law of Tao, a mysterious property of the Yin-yang interaction. For example, if we stare at a red square of color on a white wall, after we close our eyes, we will see the opposite color, a green square floating in the darkness. Sharp outlines of the square begin to dull, and it becomes an amorphous shape. Finally, the square loses depth and breaks up. All these reversions and others are natural responses of the retinal pigment to stimulation.
Disorder eventually reverts to order again. Even random motion, from entropy, becomes orderly. Inevitably there comes a point when randomness is evenly distributed. As soon as the extreme is reached, the situation reverts to its opposite. The extreme, the ultimate, is individual and unique to each manifestation.
Carl Rogers, founder of nondirective psychotherapy, postulated that counterbalancing the negative destructive tendency to entropy that physicists see as a characteristic in the universe, is a positive creative tendency for order, evolution, and actualization. He called this the Formative Tendency. Taoism is optimistic about life’s potential, always pointing to the intrinsic, inherent dynamics of change. This positive tendency gives us hope--hope for change, for better times.

Yin-yang in Relationship: the Path to Intelligence

We can intuit these elemental forces when we cultivate correct sensitivity. Following the flow of the yin-yang, we will safely navigate the oceans of life. Trust in these forces and come to terms with life’s inevitable flow of vitality. Balance comes naturally, of itself. The relationship of yin and yang gives us an intelligent understanding of reality that can be applied to many areas of life, especially martial arts.

The Tao in Martial Arts

"In every movement the entire body should be light and agile and all of its parts connected like a string of pearls."
(Tai Chi Classics in Liang 1977, 17)

Many soft martial arts draw their general principles from these Taoist concepts of yin and yang, reversal, and harmony. The flowing wordless wisdom of Tao is communicated with flowing motions of hands and feet. Practitioners strive to move with grace and balance and guide the patterning movements by the principles of Tao. In the internal arts, meditative focus is primary: mind first. External form is always secondary to the internal focus. Some martial arts, such as T’ai Chi Chuan, Judo, Aikido, and Tae Chun Do follow Taoist principles.
Internal power guides action. Rather than external power, internal power is the basis for technique. Exert no unnecessary strength; be continuous. “To hold back is to release; continuity should not cease” (Wu in Lee 1968, 52). Not only are individual movements performed in continuous sequence, but the practitioner’s entire body is coordinated to move in unison: “Every joint of the entire body must be linked together so that there is not the least interruption” (Lee 1968, 59).
In Tai Chi Chuan technique, yin and yang are always kept in flowing harmony. Left is followed by right, upward by downward, in hand and foot patterns. Following the principles of yielding, noncontending, and oneness with the opponent and oneself, helps practitioners remain in balance. To accomplish this, practitioners learn to maintain what is called the solid and empty factors. “The solid and empty factors must be distinctly differentiated. In each and every phase there must be these two factors” (Lee 1968, 58).
A legendary story of the son of Yang, one of T’ai Chi style’s founders, demonstrated how the solid and empty factors work. He placed a bird on his open palm. Every time the bird tried to spread its wings and push off against his hand for flight, Yang yielded just the right amount, so that the bird could not fly away. The bird seemed stuck to Yang’s palm. Power in soft style martial arts is deceptive: muscles are relaxed, motion is formless and curved, yet, the practitioner is unstoppable when performing techniques correctly.
Taoism’s conception of yielding was incorporated by Jigaro Kano who systematized and codified Kodokan Judo. He adapted the principles in terms of actual physical forces interacting. Judo was subsequently widely taught throughout Japan and eventually worldwide, achieving Olympic event status.
The primary defensive principle of Judo is that a strong force should not be resisted. Instead, practitioners learn to yield and flow with it, so that the aggressor’s own force can be reversed--used against him. This principle was formulated succinctly by Kano as the Principle of Maximum Efficiency. Kano believed his principle was applicable universally.
If the opponent pushes and you push back, the stronger force wins, often at great cost. If instead, you pull as he pushes, you gain the advantage of the other’s force and can overcome with only a small force of your own. Throwing your opponent to the ground becomes possible when the imbalance of the opponent is used. Aggressive motion towards another requires energy and leads to an imbalance. Thus, paradoxically you gain by losing ground. You then use your force much more efficiently, and a smaller force may overcome a larger one. This principle can be applied in many of life’s situations, such as business, fixing things, and even interpersonally.
Aikido also draws from Taoist concepts and early Jiu-Jitsu techniques, combining and refining a distinctive style through the broad knowledge and sensitive spirituality of the founder Moreyu Uyeshiba. Uyeshiba organized his art around a spiritually symbolic principle that transcended the battle situation: keeping in the center, extending positive flowing energy, in harmony and calmness. When harmony is broken, the Aikidoist steps in to restore it. Opponents are sent spinning, often in flight, and taken down into locks that render them helpless. Uyeshiba demonstrated masterful control of four attackers rushing him simultaneously, well into his eighties.
The highest level of the Aikido art is to bring about defeat without harm to the practitioner or the attacker. The intent of practitioners is to be meditatively serene and maintain peace and harmony with the universe. Aggressive attacks by an opponent break harmony. The practitioner seeks to restore the harmony. The ideal response is graceful, yet devastating to the aggressor.
The Aikidoist sensitively contacts and follows the opponent’s attacking energy, referred to as ki (the Japanese translation of Chinese chi). The practitioner carefully joins with the force, finds a safe direction to lead the attack, and then flows into a series of graceful, dynamic movements that ultimately draw the opponent away from successful attack and into submission or neutrality. Flowing circular or spiraling motions are characteristic. Aikidoists sensitize themselves to the direction of energy and extend ki positively, whether toward an opponent or in the situations of everyday life. Techniques sometimes overlap with Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, but Aikido’s philosophical applications have a unique, unmistakable character.
Tae Chun Do, a contemporary martial art, harmonizes yin and yang, active and passive, offense and defense. Choice of application varies with the situation, the person, and the reaction. Practitioners create sensitive strategies to solve the problem of the situation as perceived. Each situation is unique, calling sometimes for yielding with a soft yin type response, sometimes for opposition from a dynamic, forceful yang response. The practitioner remains balanced, neutralizing the opponent’s attack in whatever way is necessary and natural. This approach accords with the Taoist way of being one with the true nature of circumstances, whatever they may be, and then responding harmoniously.

Taoist Meditation

When performed in accord with the Tao, any martial art can be a form of moving meditation that expresses the unity of yin and yang. The source for movement is not exertion of muscular strength. Energy directed by your mind is far more powerful. You move with tranquillity, as your internal power circulates through your body. This exercises shows you how to link mind and body, allowing natural movement to happen.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and close your eyes. Imagine one of the patterns from your martial art, such as a form or a series of techniques. Vividly picture yourself doing it, but do not move on purpose. Relax your body, and then allow yourself to move in the pattern you are imagining. Do not force it. Simply keep thinking of it as a free flow of movements. Can you let your body move effortlessly with your breathing, almost as if it is moving by itself?


With Tao as your inspiration and yin/yang as your expression, you can allow yourself to develop fully and become all that you hope to be! Find your balance in motion as you travel the Path, enjoying the Way.