Friday, April 12, 2013

A "Pragmatic" (Strategic) View of Daoism

/// It is always a challenge for many people to apply the Daoist thought to the gritty realities of daily life, not in lofty philosophical discussions. 

This two-part article was originally published in April 2004  and Sept 2004, by one of our many associates.  After eight plus years, he has updated portions of it and asked us to published it.

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Playing with the Dao:
A "Pragmatic" Strategic View
The Dao gave birth to One. The One gave birth to Two. The Two gave birth to Three. The Three gave birth to all of creation. All things carry Yin yet embrace Yang. They blend their life breaths in order to produce harmony.
People despise being orphaned, widowed, and poor. But the noble ones take these as their titles. In losing, much is gained, and in gaining, much is lost.
What others teach I too will teach:   "The strong and violent will not die a natural death."   --- Chapter 42 of Laozi's Dao De Jing (also known as the Tao Te Ching)
We are currently living under a challenging macro scenario of rapid urgency, where uncertainties have become a regular commonality. Some of these uncertainties are driven by many global-sized, technologically driven velocities of change that unnerve the masses to ask the question "What are we going to do now?"

Someone recently asked me the following set of questions: "Since our world has gotten more chaotic than what we dreamed or believed in, what can we do about it? Can a person stay ahead of the curve of shifts and changes by understanding the Dao? Is there anything in the Dao that allows us to understand our world of uncertainty?"

After a moment of self-reflection on these questions, I realized that this person wanted a pragmatic "what-to-do" answer to our global setting of life-altering shifts and changes. Before those questions could be answered, we must first define the meaning of the Dao.

What is the Dao?

The word "Dao" (also written as "Tao") means road, path, or way (a way to follow, a way of thought, a method, or a principle). The Dao is seen as the everlasting principle at the origin of the universe. It permeates and transcends all beings; it is at the origin of all transformations. This belief system, originating in ancient China, is considered to the foremost, indigenous philosophical thought of China and is called Daoism. Fundamentally, the name Daoism refers to one central universal principle: "Everything in the universe is connected to the motion of continuous change."

This essayist re-interprets that same principle as "… an elegant, universal framework that loosely connects numerous components to a total flow of macro and micro cycles of continuous change." Everything about Daoism is connected to this perspective.
"The universe and I exist together and all things and I are one."   
--- Zhuang Zi's (translated by Lin Yutang)
Each component can possess a total force of positive or negative polarity. The Chinese referred to these forces as Yin and Yang. By viewing the internals of those components, an interplaying balance of opposite polarities that create and display the macro force can be seen.

Within this common setting, there's always a multiple of Yin and Yang forces evolving from a state of balance to a state of imbalance, then returning to its original state. Some of these actions have been explained with mathematics, numbers, and patterns. Nevertheless, it is always dynamic and continuous.

Pragmatic Definition of Yin and Yang forces

Yin and Yang
Yin:   Soft, dark, contract, zero, lightness (weight), extraordinary, earth, no, loss, water
Yang:   Hard, light, expand, one, heaviness (weight), normal, heaven, yes, gain, fire


A Daoist Viewpoint on Change

The impact of any Yin and Yang force is change. The Daoist's perspective on change emphasizes that time is cyclical—not linear or dynamic and never static. Change occurs continuously—not between events—and present events are determined by other present events, not by past events. To meet your objective, it is important to prevail in as many incrementally based contests as possible.

To view a change in term of Sunzi's strategic principles, this essayist recommends that you should perceive it in terms of patterns, strategic advantage(s), adaptability, and leverage(s).
"Thus, one able to gain victory by modifying his tactics in accordance with the enemy situation may be said to be divine. … Of the five elements, none is always predominant; of the four seasons, none lasts forever; of the days, some are long and some are short, and the moon waxes and wanes. …" --- Sunzi's Art of War (AoW), Chapter 6 (Griffith interpretation)


Reading, recognizing, and understanding the force of shifts and changes occurs when you learn how to stay still.
"In battle, there are only the normal and extraordinary forces, but their combinations are limitless; none can comprehend them all. … For these two forces are mutually reproductive; their interaction as endless as that of interlocked rings. Who can determine where one ends and the other begins. …"   --- Sunzi AoW, Chapter 5 (Griffith interpretation)


To understand the Dao, internal stillness is the first requirement. The first step of attaining this particular state is the "focused" act of emptying one's thoughts while maintaining no physical movement. This state of total "nothingness" is another important factor behind the essence of Daoism.

"Detach from emotions and desires; get rid of any fixations."   
--- Zhuge Liang
The focus of being still is to find the internal state of tranquility within your being.
"In motion be like water. At rest like a mirror. Respond like an echo.
Be subtle as though non-existent. Be still as though pure."   
--- Zhuangzi
Results from the Practice of Stillness
Life can be an incoming flow of random shift and changes when you are not familiar with the patterns. Proper practice of internal stillness allows you to understand the interlinking patterns of Yin and Yang forces while disbelieving in the attribute of chance.
"The stillness in stillness is not the true stillness; only when there is stillness in motion does the universal rhythm manifest."   
--- Old Daoist text
Once the basic state of stillness is attained, the next step is to focus your internal attention on recognizable things like time, climate, and terrain, then continue by noticing its order and how it corresponds to the large scheme of things—all while maintaining your eye on the target. This key step of focusing on the current moment is the basis of mastering the Daoist principle of "familiar."
"Never worry about yesterday or concern oneself with tomorrow. You have to stay in the moment. By focusing on today, that is how we get to tomorrow."   
--- A paraphrase from John Wooden, former UCLA coach
This "performance" state of internal stillness can attenuate the chaos of your surroundings into a transparent state of clarity. Old Daoist texts describe this transformation with the analogy of "muddy water settling down and becoming "clear and pristine."
"One should clean out a room in one's home and place only a tea table and a chair in the room with some boiled water and fragrant tea. Afterwards, sit solitarily and allow one's spirit to become tranquil, light, and natural."   
--- Li Ri Hua, a Ming Dynasty scholar
Through this constant practice of internal stillness, the novice strategist (of the Dao) slowly learns to appreciate the attribute of self-patience and delayed gratification, while subconsciously focusing on accomplishing your objective regardless of the internal and external pressure (from your surroundings that derives from the shifts and changes).
"The Master said, 'Even the world, its states, and its clans can be pacified; even ranks and emoluments can be declined, and even flashing blades can be trodden underfoot, but focusing on the familiar affairs of the day (zhongyong)—this is no easy matter."   
--- Zhongyong, Section 9
You can also advance to the mindset of prioritizing that understanding the state of how the world is is more significant than the act of determining what and why the world is.
"Be peaceful, easygoing, upright, and calm; then the measures you impose will be accommodating. If you are good at managing but are not calm, then empty your heart and even your mind, and wait for unease to fall away. This helps master rank."   
--- Guigu Zi (Master of the Ghost Valley)

Results from "Understanding the How"

Understanding how the world operates and its cyclical phase enhances your view of the large picture. This comprehension assists you in determining the "competitive advantage" within the situation, allowing you to focus on what to adopt and how to adjust to the current situation.

Proper understanding of the how allows the pragmatic strategist of the Dao to proactively view the Big Tangible Picture unemotionally while the practice of the what focuses the amateur strategist to be more tactically reactive. After a series of practice and perfecting, the budding strategist of the Dao learns to observe and understand how the micro-cycle of one event can fit into the large picture [the Greater Dao]. This action is the first step of "aligning with the Dao."
"What comes from the internal practice of stillness is the practice of field and focus. ... All this 'stuff' is happening all around me and I am the lens that brings it into perspective at this point in time and this location."   --- R. Matz (The Alpha Chef of Cook Ding's Kitchen and Xingyiquan player)
This proper practice allows you to become effective at whatever your focus is.


How to Read the Forces

"Study requires calm; talent requires study. Without study there is no way to expand talent; without calm there is no way to accomplish study."   
--- Zhuge Liang
Through the state of stillness, you could develop the ability to read the forces of Yin and Yang. When observing a specific force, focus only on the current moment of reading and recognizing the attributes of forces and its affect on the current settings. Is the force opposing? Is the force positioned in a scenario of confronting? Is the force fluid and constantly changing? Is the force a "head-on" scenario? Or is the force a macro combination of the four forces mentioned above?
"Therefore I say, know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril."   
--- Sunzi
When encountering any combination of those mentioned forces, the pragmatic strategist-Daoist decides on one of the following four strategic options:
  • Positioning in one's locale and countering with the opposite polarity of the oncoming force
  • Positioning in one's locale and yielding until the force is overextended
  • Countering the directness of the oncoming force with indirectness
  • Countering the "continuous change of opposing force" by following its direction
As a strategic rule, it is not a good idea to always counter a direct force with a direct force.
"For they end and recommence; cyclical, as are the movements of the sun and moon. They die away and are reborn; recurrent, as are the passing seasons. … "   
--- Sunzi (Sun Tzu) AoW, Chapter 5 (Griffith's interpretation)
By studying the following attributes of a force: direction, intensity, rhythm, balance and its origin, you might understand how it fits into the greater scheme of things.
"In dwelling, be close to the land; in meditation, go deep in the heart; in dealing with others, be gentle and kind; in speech, be true; in ruling, be just'; in business, be competent; in action, watch the timing."   
--- Dao De Jing, Chapter 8
Understanding the Dao
To understand the basic interaction of the Dao, reading and recognizing the "Yin and Yang" forces becomes the immediate priority. The first step is mastering the action of stillness.
"To overcome the intelligent by intelligence, however, is a matter of opportunity. There are three avenues of opportunity: events, trends, and conditions."   --- Zhuge Liang
The Dao is about continuous change and that there is no approach to completely control the Dao. You can only read, recognize, and synchronize with it for a chosen seasonal cycle. Through a constant and conscious interplay with the Dao, you learn how to achieve the "right feel for the right time at the right place" while determining the critical path for completing that venture.

Comprehending the process regarding the settings that are around you and their relationship to the macro picture is what counts. The acceptance of these macro principles of the Dao will allow you to operate and complete your venture with maximum efficiency regardless of the influence(s) around you.

When you can focus on the current affairs of the moment, only then can you concentrate on what matters most.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."   
--- F. Scott Fitzgerald
When dealing with scenarios of uncertainty, the pragmatic strategist of the Dao focuses only on the cyclical analysis and recognition while comprehending how things operate and not what the results of the thing. Through cyclical recognition, you understand the importance of the timing and the momentum within various shifts and changes.


The following is a partial listing of the heuristic principles for aligning with the Dao:

  • The Dao is a macro space consisting of numerous loosely connected components: Strategy is the Dao. Boxing (martial arts) is the Dao. Everything is the Dao
  • The "Seasonal" Cycle: During good times, you must be conservative, totally focused, and not expand beyond your means. Good and bad times can never last forever.   /// Things always come in cycles. Understanding and following the significant macro cycle properly allows you to master the attribute of momentum and timing for that macro scenario
  • "Focus on the Familiar" #1: Proper establishment of internal stillness allows you to pay attention to the familiar
  • "Focus on the Familiar" #2: "Focus solely on how the world works as opposed to what is the world about before executing any strategic move"
  • The Integration of Yin and Yang: The forces of Yin and Yang complement each other. For every Yang-driven scenario, there's a Yin-driven scenario hidden behind it and vice-versa
  • Opposite Polarity: You should always effortlessly counter an opposing force with a force of opposite polarity (either directly or indirectly)
  • Existing with the Dao: Logic is a tool that justifies your existence
  • Playing with the Dao #1: Playing with the Dao allows you to align with it for a particular season that gives you a momentary advantage. Concurrently, also focus on securing the maximum results that would give you the best position for the next cycle
  • Playing with the Dao #2: Dissolving, deflecting, and absorbing the forces of Yin and Yang is the trademark of someone who comprehend the approach for playing with the Dao. That action derives from your approach of adopting, adjusting, and aligning with the Dao. Those who do not align with the Dao pay the conclusive price of failure. In the long run, the forces of the Dao always prevail over the abilities of animals, machines, and man
  • Playing with the Dao #3: Always regard the macro (and micro) cause-and-effect process within each continuous cycle
  • Aligning with the Dao #1: There is a great difference between knowing the Dao and aligning with the Dao

"Before the engagement, one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will be victorious has found that the majority of factors are in his favor. Before the engagement one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will not be victorious has found few factors are in his favor. If one who finds that the majority of factors favor him will be victorious, while one who has found few factors favor him will be defeated, what about someone who finds no factors in his favor? Observing it from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent. " 
 --- Sunzi (Sun Tzu) AoW, Chapter 1 (Sawyer's interpretation)

Through the practice of mindful stillness and the understanding of the Dao, you gradually learn and understand the importance of constant self-improvement and living our lives intelligently with a great degree of significance. The maintaining of this self-optimizing state while wandering at ease is always a lifetime challenge for those who wish to align themselves with the Dao.
"Your experience is never the same as the next person." --- A paraphrased quote from Sun Lu Tang (Sun's Internal Martial Art System Founder)

The experience of each person is always different from the practice of stillness. The only commonalities are the focus on the familiar and the practice of aligning with the Dao.
"In every landscape, the point of astonishment is the meeting of the sky and the earth." --- Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Transcendental Sage of Concord


"When people of great wisdom hear the Truth, they diligently practice it. When people of moderate wisdom hear the Truth, they practice it now and then. When people of lesser wisdom hear the Truth, they laugh at it. If there were no laughter, there would be no Truth."   --- Laozi
The Dao concepts mentioned above are a summation of my given answer to the questioner. After a long exchange of questions and answers, that person began to understand the importance of focusing on the familiar and how the world operates.

As a reminder, this essay only touches on a small component of what the Dao is.

After years of playing with the Dao, this pragmatic essayist learned that this philosophical mindset and practice is also efficient in determining the large picture while staying focused  on the target regardless of one's current scenario. There's no genuine set of strategic and tactical rules for playing with the Dao-just the heuristic principles of recognizing scenarios and its cycles that determine the strategy and tactics of your endeavor. 
"In the field of observation, fortune favors the prepared."   ---Louis Pasteur
Direct alignment with the Dao allows you to effectively complete any endeavors with the minimum effort. From a personal experience, it can be described as "water cascading down a mountainside taking the path of least resistance."
"It is the business of a general (or a strategist) to be serene and inscrutable, impartial, and self-controlled."   
--- Sunzi (Sun Tzu) AoW (Griffith interpretation)
Accomplishing this feat consistently is another story. If learning how to play the Dao were any simpler or difficult, it would not be the Dao.

To thrive in the current world of uncertain shifts and changes, the consummate strategists of the Dao pragmatically create their own opportunity first through their understanding of how the world operates instead of searching and waiting for a certain scenario to occur.
"He who has mastered this method knows the way of heaven and earth, has the support of the populace, and is fully aware of the opposing situation. … When he needs to determine his battle array, he knows how to prepare the formations. He combats when there is assurance of victory. He stops fighting when there isn't. … For one who has really mastered the method, his opposition can do nothing to escape their defeat."   
--- An updated paraphrase from Sun Bin (famous strategist from the Warring States era and the great grandson of Sunzi)
Regardless of your settings and your pursuits, always align with the Dao


Comments from the Compass Desk
To gain this state of stillness, our friends at Cook Ding's Kitchen recommended the practice of Yi Quan instead of yoga. The benefits is in its emphasis on an incremental balance of static and active motion exercises.  

To properly assess the Dao of one's strategic situation, one must understand the "Five Critical Strategic Factors" that are embedded within it.  ... You do know how to do that!?  Do you?

Learning the philosophy of Daoism is easy. Comprehending the psychology and the physics behind the Dao is the challenge.  ... It is not in your copy of the Art of War.

Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out the window
One can see the way of heaven.
The further one goes
The less one knows.
Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,
Identifies without having to see,
Accomplishes without having to act.

DDJ , 47 

By seeing the connectivity of their grand setting, the successful strategist stays focused on his endeavors. 

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