Daoism, also known as Taoism, is an ancient Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-Tzu that advocates simple living and harmony with nature. Dao is the process of reality itself, the way things come together, while still transforming. All this reflects the deep-seated Chinese belief that change is the most basic character of things. Due to its focus on harmony, Daoism is often referred to as simply ‘The Way’.
The roots of Daoism go back at least to the 4th century BCE. The Tao Te Ching, a compact book containing teachings attributed to Laozi, is widely considered the keystone work of the Daoist tradition, together with the later writings of Zhuangzi.
Some of the best known principles of Daoism include the:
Sometimes translated as ‘Oneness,’ the First Principle states that everything in nature is part of the same whole. We are intricately linked to it and created by it through a sort of existential force. The central teaching of Daoism is that humans can fulfil their highest goal by achieving integration with nature, thereby becoming one with the dao and contributing to cosmic harmony.
In Daoism, the yin-yang classification suggests the idea that opposites are needed in order for harmony to exist. Correlatives in Chinese philosophy are not opposites, mutually excluding each other. They represent the ebb and flow of the forces of reality: yin/yang, male/female; excess/defect; leading/following; active/passive. As one approaches the fullness of yin, yang begins to horizon and emerge and vice versa.
Wu wei is often considered the most important of all the Daoist beliefs. Often translated as ‘non-action,’ wu wei is the idea that one should not overreact or over-plan in any situation. It’s the idea that actions should come naturally, that we should be spontaneous, taking life as it comes to us, doing only what is necessary in the moment. Water exemplifies the philosophy of Wu Wei. Water doesn’t resist, but by the same token, water can be a powerful mighty force that carries away life in its current, in other words action without action.
In his book, The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke writes that the dao can be construed as a feminine reality, a maternal life-producing energy. Daoism along with other Asian systems represents an enlightened alternative to Western patriarchal attitudes or to its antagonistic dualisms. It is philosophy that helps conceptualise the human self and human relationships in ways which honour holistic integration, interrelatedness, caring and love. The Laozi is a politically driven text but its aim is not to substitute the feminine for the masculine, but to restore the equilibrium, which is the natural way of the dao. This harmony and integration is necessarily one of balance between forces that are in tension yet mutually complementary, and from this point of view it would clearly be a mistake to value one side over the other, the yin over the yang, the female over the male.
Daoism represents an image of human connectedness and non-aggressive harmony that contrasts with the masculine values of assertive independence and competitiveness that have typified modern Western cultural attitudes. The privileging of non-violent activities and attitudes in Daoist traditions is not based on a high estimation of the virtues of meekness and humility, but rather on the belief that violence is a form of weakness, not of strength, and that the yin power of passivity is more enduring than the yang force of direct action.
Daoism is emerging as a reticent yet increasingly visible player in contemporary culture, and has become a site of cultural transformation and spiritual creativity that is beginning to operate globally at many levels. Daoism in some of its manifestations can already be observed alongside other intellectual and religious products as a fashion icon, the vogue for feng-shui and the popularity of the taiji symbol providing obvious examples of this phenomenon.
The task that we face as a global civilisation is to create a framework of ideas and values, in order to facilitate the harmonious co-existence of different beliefs and to encourage the flourishing of divergent ways of thinking and being. The spirit of the Zhuangzi is ‘You can’t discuss the Way with a cramped scholar – he’s shackled by his doctrines’ builds on Laozi’s admonition ‘Those who know, do not speak: those who speak, do not know’. We can learn from Daoism to back away from confrontation and to prefer accommodation and mutual harmony over self-assertiveness and aggressive contentiousness. The objective of this way of thinking is to bring about a change of attitude to free us from the confines of our cramped and narrow perspective, and to engender a kind of open-mindedness that consists in putting less faith than is standard in one’s own and others’ beliefs.
The study of Daoism can provide us with the potential for unlearning our own conceptual habits, to recover important things lost in the progress of civilisation. With these lessons in hand, it is possible that Daoism is helping to shape the future of work through:
Instead of showing only their narrow “professional” selves, organisations of the future will invite people to reclaim their inner wholeness. They will create an environment wherein people feel free to fully express themselves, bringing unprecedented levels of energy, passion, and creativity to work.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be”
In the future of work, organisations will operate effectively, even at a large scale, with a system based on peer relationships. They will set up structures and practices in which people have high autonomy in their domain, and are accountable for coordinating with others. Power and control will no longer tied to the specific positions of a few top leaders.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, they will say: we did it ourselves”
Organisations will base their strategies on what they sense the world is asking from them. Agile practices that sense and respond replace the machinery of plans, budgets, targets, and incentives. Paradoxically, by focusing less on the bottom line and shareholder value, they generate financial results that outpace those of competitors.
In the new paradigm, founders and leaders view the organisation as a living entity, with its own energy, sense of direction, and calling to manifest something in the world. They don’t force a course of action; they try to listen to where the organisation is naturally called to go. Gone will be the dreaded strategy formulation exercises, and much of the machinery of midterm plans, yearly budgets, cascaded KPIs, and individual targets. Instead of trying to predict and control, they will aim to sense and respond.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”
In a self-managing, purpose-driven organisation, change can come from any person who senses that change is needed. This is how change has occurred in nature for millions of years. Innovation doesn’t happen centrally, according to plan, but at the edges, when some organism senses a change in the environment and experiments to find an appropriate response. Some attempts fail to catch on; others rapidly spread to all corners of the ecosystem. It is nearer to what Martin Heidegger calls ‘releasement’, a letting go of things rather than always seeking to transform them and to impose intellectual conformity on nature, or lapsing into despair if this proves impossible. A ‘being towards stillness’ that embraces and celebrates rather than evades the world: this may be the wisest lesson that we can learn from Daoism’s Journey to the West.