A Lesson from the Tao Te Ching on the Duality of Life

The Tao Te Ching is an ancient, holy and paramount piece of writing that has stood the test of time.
2nd Verse of the Tao Te Ching –
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty,

only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Being and nonbeing produce each other.

The difficult is born in the easy.

Long is defined by short, the high by the low.

Before and after go along with each other.

So the sage lives openly with apparent duality

and paradoxical unity.

The sage can act without effort

and teach without words.

Nurturing things without possessing them,

he works, but not for rewards;

he competes, but not for results.

When the work is done, it is forgotten.

That is why it lasts forever.

-Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching
Have you ever stopped to ponder the paradoxical world that we live in? Do you know what Lao Tzu is referring to when he speaks of “paradoxical unity” in the Tao Te Ching?
Let’s start by introducing the paradoxical world in terms that we understand on a day-to-day basis: life sucks sometimes. The pitfalls of reality can pull us into the thresholds of suffering, depression, delusion and sometimes feelings of guilt and failure. This is a really negative way to start an article, but it’s the truth. We’ve all been there. We’ve all felt the hurt, the ache, the headache, the dull pain of unfortunate events, or even worse, the lack of events – boredom.
The point being, we have all, in one way or another, been uncomfortable and experienced something that didn’t feel so good in the mind and/or the body. Here is the upside, the other side, the alternative thought: we live in a paradoxical reality. There are two sides to every coin. Every failure exists as the counter of success, every pain counters the great feeling of comfort in the body.

“Dark would not exist without the light”

On those dark days, we sometimes forget that the dark would not exist without the light. That deathly hangover came from a wild night of endorphin-raging inhibition; the dark and stormy skies precede a heavy rain that makes the greens greener and the harvests plenty.

“Beauty exists only because there is ugliness.”

The Tao Te Ching offers another perspective of this duality that we are constantly experiencing but often fail to see. He brings to light the paradoxical unity that exists right beneath our noses. He notes that, “beauty exists only because there is ugliness.” We create these judgements and duality belief systems without even knowing it. We love to label and categorize things as negative vs. positive, or right vs. wrong. It’s part of our nature.
What the Tao suggests is that we find oneness and unity within these paradoxes, within the ugly and the beautiful, the happy and the sad, the negative and the positive. This is a ‘big picture’ perspective, often hard to truly incorporate into the perception of your day-to-day life, but I encourage you to try it.
This unity is the understanding and acceptance of both sides. The Tao tells us to live “openly with the apparent duality and paradoxical unity.” This suggestion, translated into our modern day world, is: JUST BE, ACT WITHOUT EFFORT, ACCEPT WHAT IS. Accept the good and the bad, appreciate that every emotion and every feeling has two sides. Be aware of the dualities in your daily life and give thanks for the bad, because it would not exist without the good.

In Dr. Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao’s paradoxical unity, he says “surely the daffodil doesn’t think that the daisy is prettier or uglier than it is, and the eagle and the mouse have no sense of the opposites we call life and death. The trees, flowers, and animals know not of ugliness or beauty; they simply ARE… in harmony with the eternal Tao, devoid of judgment.”
Applying this perspective of paradoxical unity to your daily life can be challenging at first. Yet I implore you to practice this as often as possible. “Live a unified life…Enter the world of oneness with an awareness of the propensity to compartmentalize everything as good or bad, right or wrong” (Dr. Wayne Dyer). Labeling things as “good” or “bad” are standards of a superficial world.

“The Tao challenges us to observe these dualities, to not react, but just be.”

The Tao challenges us to observe these dualities, to not react, but just be. Challenge yourself and work this into your day today. When you start to experience a negative feeling or an irritation, notice it. Become aware of the paradoxical unity that exists within the situation and its opposite. Practice the Tao. Don’t put a negative or positive label on it; just experience it and accept it.
Bear witness to the beauty of the paradoxical unity and the force of the dualities that exist in our world. Remind yourself often. Challenge yourself to start thinking about your life within the framework of the Tao’s paradoxical unity theory. Start to recognize these dualities in your life and before reacting to them, reflect upon them and have gratitude for them.
Trust the wisdom of the Tao and teach yourself to incorporate its guidance into your modern day world. We promise you won’t regret it; the Tao does not disappoint.

This article has been read 10K+ times. Bada bing!


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Danielle McKee

Danielle is a Northern California girl from the Sacramento area. She works at a Legislative Advocacy firm, enjoys yoga, meditation, writing, drinking wine and cooking for the ones she loves. Her yoga ventures have taught her to live more mindfully on and off her mat.

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