Daoist Self-Cultivation

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Daoist Self-Cultivation

Craig Mallett


One of the major attractions I had to Da Xuan Daoism as a system of self-cultivation is that there is not really any fixed idea of how a person should act or behave. Despite this lack of pre-determined behavioural ideas, there is still the idea that we can always evolve and improve the way we act in the world by identifying the unconscious tendencies that cause us to react rather than act. When we are stuck in predominantly reactive behaviour, we end up leading a life that is mechanical in nature, as if we were on autopilot the whole time. It is kind of like a script that says if ‘x’ happens, then I will always react to that situation by doing ‘y’. If we start with an ideal that says we should always be kind, or think of others, or never be judgmental or angry (or any other example you can think of), we are basically encouraging ourselves to follow a script once more. These kind of scripts can be super useful when we know they are operating, but they aren’t always appropriate in every single context, and can just as often as not lead to disaster if we aren’t aware that we are caught by them.

To improve this situation, we end up having two basic tasks. The first is to progressively reveal all of these unconscious tendencies to the best degree that we can, and the second is to get rid of/resolve all of the inappropriate ones. Less autopilot, and more real choice in the world. It’s more or less saying if you can change something and make it better, do so, and if you can’t, at least know about the fact that it’s there and you can’t change it. When we use all the practices we have at our disposal from the tradition as a tool to do this, we inevitably uncover an incredible potential to act in the world – often in ways we never thought were possible for us. Instead of being stuck reacting the same way over and over again, we feel progressively more free to act – which brings a huge feeling of contributing something meaningful to the world and is a source of incredibly deep relaxation.

So we have a yin aspect, which is the confrontation with the shadows, all of that which is hidden and stuck on loop in us, the unconscious tendencies I mentioned above. This part is not particularly fun, but it is really necessary for our personal evolution. We also have the yang aspect, which is the discovery of the immense potential we have as human beings, and as this particular individual human being living in this context (which has completely different potential to the next one). These days we are not so good at dealing with the Yin thing, we want to go straight to the Yang part.

In Daoism, it is very clear which way this must go. The world started from a singularity of perfect, unlimited potential (Yang) that splits itself into all the myriad of things until it arrives at this particular moment, imperfect due to it being limited and defined by time (Yin). The path of Dao is often described in the old texts as being a path of return. We start in the Yin and progressively work our way backwards to Yang. We see this very clearly in our tradition. In the beginning there are a myriad of exercises, all seemingly separate and quite distinct (Yin). When anyone starts training in the Da Xuan tradition, they pretty quickly have a great deal of confrontation with their shadows, sticking points, and unconscious tendencies. The more we confront and resolve these blockages, the more we discover our innate potential (Yang) that was being stifled by these blockages. At first we do it in separation; this exercise here really points out my weakness – I hate it! But this exercise here really emphasizes my potential and I love it! As we progress along our path of return, things start to come together and we realize that the confrontation with the blockage is directly related to the realization of potential – they are the same thing and all of the exercises accomplish both simultaneously. But we cannot start here or skip straight to this Yang point of union, we must start in the Yin, with everything separated, and clarify for ourselves that this is the case.

Returning to my original point, having progressed (regressed?) down this path of return and resolved a great deal of these blockages, there is still no singular way to express this. It will depend entirely on the individual’s potential, and this is the big reason we don’t want to copy or mimic the teacher, or have any pre-defined set of behaviours. But there are qualities that are common to all who follow this way: the paradoxically relaxed strength, the grounding, having an available mind, the awareness of all the changes happening in ourselves and in the world, and so on. Chapter 50 of one of the central Daoist texts, called the Dao De Jing,  goes to an effort to describe the qualities of the accomplished Sage:

The people who practice Daoism in old times were so incredible and deep, too deep to be understood.
It’s not really possible to understand by mind or mental mind,
We can try to describe some of the adepts of Daoism…
Cautious as if crossing a frozen river in winter,
The Daoist sage was vigilant as if they could be attacked on all sides,
Serious and reserved like a guest visiting people,
They were flexible and supple like ice ready to melt,
They were open and large as the sea where you see no limit, boundless,
They were strong like a strong wind,
They were simple and candid like the block of wood, uncarved,
They were open, very open like a great valley,
They were not involved,
Indifferent like muddy water,
Who could make mud gradually clear with tranquility?
Who could make stillness go into life with activity?
Nobody could but the Daoist sage. 

When we are filled with these qualities while we act in the world, there is a tendency for things to go better, much better, than they did when we were at the constant mercy of the unconscious. It doesn’t mean things will always go perfectly – this is impossible because the manifest world (including our personal manifestation) is by its nature imperfect, and even the seemingly greatest moments disappear in an instant and are quickly replaced with another moment that isn’t as nice. Our qualities, however, can always be improved upon; we can always be a little more relaxed, a little more grounded, a little stronger, have a little more vitality, and be able to find a little more clarity that we previously didn’t have. As a result, we will be a little less bound by our unconscious tendencies. With practice we can put ourselves on a trajectory that is constantly improving, always moving towards being a little better than before, being a little less stifled by our blockages and a expressing a little more of the perfect potential inside. When we meet new situations, regardless of if they are ‘good’ situations or ‘bad’ situations, if our qualities are better than before, then we will always have a better time meeting these situations.

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