It’s difficult to know much for certain about the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Even his name can be a little confusing; it is also sometimes translated as Laozi or Lao Tze Lao Tzu is said to have been a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C., and an older contemporary of Confucius. He may also have been entirely mythical—much like Homer in Western culture. Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt. So he left and rode on a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire. Although he was dressed as a farmer, the border official recognised him and asked him to write down his wisdom. According to this legend, what Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred text known as the Tao Te Ching. After writing this piece, Lao Tzu is said to have crossed the border and disappeared from history, perhaps to become a hermit. In reality, the Tao Te Ching is likely to be the compilation of the works of many authors over time. But stories about Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching itself passed down through different Chinese philosophical schools for over two thousand years. Lao Tzu was the leading figure in the spiritual practice known as Daoism which is more than two thousand years old, and still popular today. There are at least twenty million Daoists, and perhaps even half a billion, living around the world now, especially in China and Taiwan. They practise meditation, chant scriptures, and worship a variety of gods and goddesses in temples. Daoists also make pilgrimages to five sacred mountains in eastern China in order to pray at the temples and absorb spiritual energy from these holy places, which are believed to be governed by immortals. Daoism is deeply intertwined with other branches of thought like Confucianism and Buddhism. There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. This is telling, because Lao Tzu’s philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and see an underlying harmony guided by something called the Dao 道 = the path The Tao Te Ching which describes the Dao, is somewhat like the Bible: it gives instructions (often vague and generally open to multiple interpretations) on how to live a good life. It discusses the “Dao” as the “way” of the world, which is also the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony. “The way” isn’t inherently confusing or difficult. But in order to follow the Dao, we need to go beyond simply reading and thinking about it. Instead we must learn flowing, or effortless action. It’s a sort of purposeful acceptance of the way of the Dao and living in harmony with it. This might seem lofty and bizarre, but most of Lao Tzu’s suggestions are actually very simple. First, we ought to take more time for stillness. “To the mind that is still,” Lao Tzu said, “the whole universe surrenders.” We need to let go of our schedules, worries and complex thoughts for a while and simply experience the world. We spend so much time rushing from one place to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us “nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It is particularly important that we remember that certain things—grieving, growing wiser, developing a new relationship—only happen on their own schedule, like the changing of leaves in the fall or the blossoming of the bulbs we planted months ago. When we are still and patient we also need to be open. “The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness.” Lao Tzu said. “Empty yourself of everything, let your mind become still.” If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss a thousand moments of the human experience that are our natural inheritance. We need to be awake to the way sounds of the birds in the morning, the way other people look when they are laughing, the feeling of wind against our face. These experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves. This is another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing: we need to be in touch with our real selves. We spend a great deal of time worrying about who we ought to become, but we should instead take time to be who we already are at heart. We might rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side we had forgotten, or simply an old affection for long walks. Our ego is often in the way of our true self, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on some critical, too-ambitious internal image. “When I let go of what I am,” Lao Tzu wrote, “I become what I might be.” Nature is particularly useful for finding ourselves. Lao Tzu liked to compare different parts of nature to different virtues. He said, “The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject. This is why it is so similar to the Dao.” Each part of nature can remind us of a quality we admire and should cultivate ourselves—the strength of the mountains, the resilience of trees, the cheerfulness of flowers. Of course, there are issues that must be addressed by action, and there are times for ambition. Yet Lao Tzu’s work is important for Daoists and non-Daoists alike, especially in a modern world distracted by technology and focused on what seem to be constant, sudden, and severe changes. His words serve as a reminder of the importance of stillness, openness, and discovering buried yet central parts of ourselves.