Last updated on September 22nd, 2023.
For those familiar with meditation and its techniques, you may have heard of Taoist meditation but aren’t sure where it comes from or what it entails. Rooted in the Chinese religious philosophy of Taoism, this meditation is a mystery to many as techniques are often complemented with many other Taoist bodily practices and are based on abstract concepts.
Here’s the simplified understanding of the mysteries of Taoist mediation:
- Taoists wish to achieve mental stillness and enhance mindfulness to circulate qi (energy flow)
- Considered “action without aim,” Taoist meditation has no set steps, rules, or techniques
- Tao meditative practices incorporate breathing, movement, introspection, and visualization for greater understanding of the self
Taoist philosophies and practices are some of the most difficult to grasp. Understanding the “self” and enhancing mindfulness are achieved through a variety of practices, yet there is no set guide to help you choose a specific practice.
The abstract beliefs of Taoism, its history, and meditation methods will be broken down here, revealing the mystery behind this specific meditative practice. We will talk about:
- What is Taoism?
- Taoist History
- Taoist Belief System
- Taoist Practices
- Taoism Meditation
Here we go!
What is Taoism?
Taoism is one of three major Chinese religions, alongside Confucianism and Buddhism. Taoism builds off many similar ideas from these religions. Taoism is seen both as a religion and a philosophical system to allow people to live their lives fully. Centered around ones place in nature, Taoism emphasizes contentment through ones harmony with the universe.
Taoism, also referred to as Daoism, is attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi, and his writings, Tao Te Ching, around 500 BCE. It is suspected that the teachings within his texts are much older. It is unclear if Laozi is a fictional character or not, but he is often attributed as the founder in Chinese folklore and history. It is more likely that these writing were developed by multiple philosophers and writers over time.
Laozi believed in creating harmony between people and became frustrated with the corruptions and self-interests among people and in the government. According to ancient historians, Laozi left China to go into exile but was asked to write down his wisdom before he left. He agreed, and this is considered the way in which his ideas were spread to the masses through the book, Tao Te Ching.
The book itself is a collection of poems and proverbs meant to describe following the Tao and living a peaceful life. Taoism was adopted by the Tang Dynasty as the national religion but later replaced by Confucianism, often referred to as the opposite philosophies of Taoism.
Taoism was considered to be more popular among rural Chinese populations but is considered one of the five religions recognized by the People’s Republic of China. Because Taoism can be practiced in conjunction with other Chinese religions and or as a separate religion, estimates of Taoist followers today are difficult to measure. Most Taoists live in China, but followers exist worldwide. There are around 30,000 Americans who identify as Taoist.
Taoist Belief System
Taoism and its beliefs can be fully encompassed by its root, “Tao.” Translated to “the path,” Taoism’s central idea is to find one’s way to this path, often interpreted as the natural world, and seamlessly coexist as an individual in the larger universe. Taoism emphasizes the natural world and that our existence should operate as “one” in harmony with nature.
Taoists follow a few core beliefs:
- Harmony-driven: Taoists’ goal is to live a harmonious and content life. They see the positives even in the worst situations and achieve a content-filled life with this outlook. People and nature are one harmonious unit.
- Balance yin and yang: Everything operates in opposition to another force, but they must exist as one system where they cannot operate without one another.
- Developing qi: qi is the energy force that flows through humans and allows our universe to move as it does. Preventing blockages of qi in our body to nature is a staple of Taoism.
- Make time for stillness: Busy schedules and lives prevent us from deeper awareness and the ability to empty ourselves from distractions. Stillness allows us to gain a greater appreciation and place more attention on the world around us. Constantly hurrying makes us feel less content and lost in our lives.
- Effortless action: Taoists must surrender themselves to the Tao and by doing so they are “acting through non-action” to live in harmony with nature. Accepting your place in the rhythm of nature and our universe is the only conscious action taken in living with effortlessness.
- Real selves: Nature gives us the ability to understand our true selves and live our lives through the person we are now versus who we want to be. Ego tends to get in the way of discovering and revealing our true selves.
These ideas may seem a little abstract, but they are all intended to maximize happiness by accepting that an individual is a small piece in a bigger puzzle. Making yourself fit into the puzzle seamlessly is of utmost importance. This can be achieved by accepting you are one with the larger puzzle (effortless action), making sure you always find better ways to fit (finding our real selves through reflection), and stepping back to see the joy in the finished product (stillness).
The specific details of Taoism can become lofty and complex, but these core beliefs set the stage for the rituals Taoists engage in to achieve contentment.
Now that you know what Taoists believe in, how do they set these beliefs into action, or should we say “effortless” action?
Reading Taoist Texts
The Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu are key texts that map out Taoist doctrine. Its advice on life and the universe is open to interpretation and may have unique meanings for different followers. The main message is connecting you with the universe, and it is your job to find the way in which to do this.
In addition to the traditional texts, there is a breadth of literature on Taoist philosophies for practitioners to explore. This allows followers to look at areas of interest in more detail.
Join a Taoist Temple
While not all Taoists attend a temple to practice, many will attend for special holidays, festivals, and events. This is also a great way for followers to gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs and clarify ideas found in these ancient texts.
Taoist temples are located all over the world, most heavily concentrated in China and Taiwan. There are a fair number of locations in the United States given the somewhat small number of followers.
Practice Tai Chi
Aimed at increasing your qi energy, this practice involves body movements that correspond with specific breathing practices. This gentle form of exercise incorporates stretching and mindfulness to achieve greater balance and centering.
The exercise has been studied and revealed positive health benefits. It has been shown to:
- Increase flexibility
- Reduce pain
- Relieve stress and anxiety
- Prevent falling in older adults
Aimed at eliminating excess, traditional Taoists will follow a fairly strict diet. These diets fluctuate based on your needs and belief system. Taoists are concerned with health and longevity, making foods choices important, especially as people age. Certain foods allow for maximal energy while others are excessive or do not hold strong nutritional value.
Foods to avoid:
- Red meat
- Heavily processed foods
- Highly acidic foods (such as tropical fruit)
Foods are heavily tied to seasons, and an emphasis is placed on locally grown fruits and vegetables. Taoists depend on whole grains for their diet, and warm food is preferred over cold. Strict Taoist diets are generally vegetarian.
Meditation is a staple of Taoist practices. Similar to Buddhist practices centered around reflection, Taoist meditation places a strong focus on breathing, stillness, self-reflection, and grounding oneself with the universe. Keep reading to see how Taoist meditation works and its benefits to your health and life!
There are many forms that Taoist meditation takes on, all with the intention of following Tao and abiding by Taoist philosophies. Taoist meditation can be difficult to grasp because of the “effortless action” philosophy. Popular Taoist meditations are focused on simply existing and submitting yourself to the larger flow of the universe. The lack of direction and abstract nature can be difficult to practice.
These meditations are often divided into three categories:
We will then dive into the popular Qigong method that incorporates meditation and movement.
The simplest Taoist meditation practice is very similar to popular meditations you see based in Buddhism. While maintaining stillness, deep breathing helps you relax and reach an enhanced state of inner calm. You are attempting to breathe in positive energy and release stress and pain on the exhale. Focusing on your breath can prevent you from getting distracted by your own thoughts, which prevents quieting of the mind.
The physical practice may not be unique to Taoism, but the intent is. Other meditative practices use this quieting of the mind to reach greater peace and calm exclusively. Taoism attempts to clear the mind for the purpose of allowing qi to freely flow from body to nature, eliminating blockages caused by our inner thoughts.
(If you want to learn more about how meditation originated and what religions it came from, check out that incredible article!)
Meditations aimed at insight allow us to look within ourselves to find our true selves. Taoists do this by examining their body and mind, looking at all the organs and thought processes. By understanding the nature of our body and how we think, we understand that these thoughts and emotions are what get in the way of achieving stillness.
How to perform insight meditation:
- Find a quiet environment with a place to sit, no specific posture is required
- Keep eyes closed or open slightly to prevent distractions
- Examine the thoughts and emotions that race through your brain
- Knowing the patterns of thoughts in our mind, we anticipate and block new ones from occurring to reach stillness
- No attention needs to be focused on anything; you are simply mindful of your thoughts and their patterns
- A clear and “empty” mind allows humans to live in accordance with the Tao
Insight meditation is simply a heightened sense of awareness of our body and mind. Understanding how thoughts and emotions enter our brain and the patterns in which this happens help us to predict and prevent new ones from interfering with stillness — a key Taoist principle.
The most difficult insight meditation is alchemical meditation because it requires zero technique or posturing. You simply notice the thoughts as they enter your mind, accepting them all as positive and whole. You do not interact with these thoughts, and the entire meditation is simply your existence. This may be easy to understand but difficult in practice as it provides no steps or guidance in order to achieve harmony with oneself and the outside world.
This is the simplest form of Taoist meditation because it can be practiced by almost anyone and is not as demanding as other forms.
Unlike insight meditation, concentrative meditation requires you to focus on something specific to block out the outside world. The goal of this practice is to center yourself and achieve stillness by eliminating the distractions of the mind that are caused by outside influences.
There is no set thing you need to focus on, and no required posturing needed to practice. This makes it another useful meditation practice for almost anyone.
There are multiple forms of Taoist meditation that use concentrative principles. For optimal meditation, the focus can be placed on:
- Internal images
- Visual marker in the room
This meditation may be slightly easier than insight as it gives you something to focus your attention on rather than having to work through, and either block or let thoughts pass effortlessly.
Some forms of Taoist meditation incorporate visualization to achieve “oneness” with the Tao.
In finding our real selves, some meditations will examine your organs and mind through visualization to understand the inner workings. This practice can be done alongside the insight meditations listed above.
Another traditional form of meditation uses specific images and visions of Chinese deities as a focal point. Traditional Taoists believe that spirits are helpful guides in their journey in becoming one with the Tao. This helps to allow guidance from these deities and successfully channel qi through the body.
This form of meditation is the most conscious as you are thinking of specific images to encourage energy flow. This practice may be a little more difficult for those not familiar with Tao philosophies and history.
Insight, concentrative, and visualization meditations are typically practiced in a still and quiet environment to promote overall inner stillness.
Qigong is the acquiring of qi energy through movement, breathing, and meditative practices. It’s one of many movement meditation practices. You follow key steps in achieving high levels of qi that can bring greater awareness and connection to one’s body. Your action through movements eventually brings you to stillness.
Qigong in Practice:
- Unblock qi through mindful breathing and posturing to open body
- Generate qi by coinciding deep breathing with movements
- Achieving stillness by training the mind to block out fleeting thoughts
Movements, breathing, and meditation are being used to gain a greater sense of control over the energy in your body, and you can channel this to different regions for healing effects. These movements often look similar to tai chi or yoga. Promoting this energy flow with meditation and breathing allows for mental clarity and stillness to be achieved.
Sleeping Qigong, also known as Taoist sleeping meditation, is a meditation method to accomplish more restful and deeper sleep. The combination of body positioning and a restful state of mind allow for increased health benefits as well as better sleeping abilities.
We find ourselves somewhere between the conscious and subconscious, thinking about energy flow and channeling it to our body as we rest.
Sleeping qigong is achieved by:
- Lying in a comfortable position or one desired to bring healing to a specific area of the body
- Deep breathing: using our stomach and lungs to maximize breaths by inhaling qi energy and exhaling it back out into the natural world
- Continued relaxation should bring you into a state of sleep and allow you to be well-rested regardless of sleep time
Taoist Meditation Benefits
- Regulated blood pressure
- Decreased stress
- Better sleep
- Greater focus and energy levels
- Increased relaxation
Taoist meditation is able to accomplish all of these, but also adds additional benefits. Taoist meditation often requires more commitment, discipline, and control than many other meditation techniques. Because of this, there are more specific mental benefits one can gain from this practice.
All meditation is beneficial, but specifically, Taoist meditation can:
- Improve your body control and physical strength through qigong practices
- Enhance self-awareness of your physical, mental, and emotional conditions
- Allow you to evaluate your thoughts and their patterns
- Make you more conscious of leading a healthy lifestyle
The ideals of Taoism aim to help the individual best understand themselves and their place within the larger universe. Using techniques to maximize the flow of energy from the body to nature helps Taoists live a more content and happy-filled life! Understanding the mysteries of Taoist meditation lie in gaining a true understanding of Taoism itself. Knowledge and acceptance of Taoist philosophies give direction and purpose in the meditative practices we attempt to accomplish.
If you would like to start teaching Taoist Meditation, then meditation coach training might be the best place to start.