Reading the Tao Te Ching is the only way to begin to answer this question. I bought my first copy at age 22, and upon first reading, only a chapter or two rang true… no others were persuasive. Even so, the Tao Te Ching did gradually reveal itself over the ensuing decades… or did it? I found that the evolution in understanding actually hinges upon the self-understanding accumulated through a lifetime of experience, with the painful ones being the most revealing.
The legendary author of the Tao Te Ching was Lao Tzu, which translates as: 老 lăo = old; aged; old people; of long standing + 子 zĭ = son; child; person; virtuous man; seed. I see that as metaphorically saying that Taoist thought comes easier as we age.
Indeed, I suspect the ostensible author, ‘Lao Tzu’ is really a subtle way of saying that only as we age into an ‘old child’ are we able to reach within ourselves the depth of meaning portrayed by the words of the Tao Te Ching. In other words, the Tao Te Ching simply mirrors the depth of your own intuitive knowing. The deeper you know, the deeper the meaning you will perceive.
Perhaps it would help to keep this in mind if you are young and new to this. Plan on being bewildered. Indeed, the more comfortable you grow with uncertainty, the more your thoughts will become Taoist in nature.
Now I’ll briefly cover some of the main aspects of a Taoist point of view. Note, the Tao Te Ching excerpts I use in this “What is Taoist Thought?” section are from D.C. Lau’s translation, which is a less literal translation and thus somewhat easier to read and ponder.
Tao means way in Chinese. Anything said beyond that is tentative, for as the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching states: “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name.” So, consider this overview with that in mind.
We react to life according to how we perceive it. If a perception is out of touch with natural reality, we react in unbalanced ways that waste time, energy, and bring about unnecessary chaos and suffering. Taoist thought seeks to solve this problem at its perceptual source. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: “Woe to him who willfully innovates while ignorant of the constant…”
Taoist thought offers us a way to see through the chaos of life, and realize within ourselves this “constant”. How does Taoist thought do this?
Taoist thought rests on the view that reality is complementary; nature is inherently cooperative — not competitive. The Chinese yin-yang circle (太极图 taijitu) symbolizes this balancing principle. Consider the following excerpts from the Tao Te Ching that illustrate this circular relationship.
Knowing this circular relationship moderates extremes and allows us to look deeper. Referring to opposites, another verse states: “These two are the same, but diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, mystery upon mystery — the gateway of the manifold secrets.”
Easing the distinction between opposites helps us sense a deeper reality, as this excerpt reminds us: “…Untangle the knots; soften the glare; settle the dust. This is known as mysterious sameness.”
Even more challenging to our idealized view of life: “The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.”
There are a few verses in the Tao Te Ching which attempt to describe the “constant way” more directly. Here are some excerpts:
“The way is empty, yet use will not drain it. Deep, it is like the ancestor of the myriad creatures… Darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there. I know not whose son it is. It images the forefather of God.”
If you find this approach promising, examine CenterTao.org thoroughly for practical ways to implement the principles set forth here.