Solala Towler: Practicing the Tao Te Ching

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Solala Towler. Solala has taught and practiced Taoist meditation and qigong for more than 25 years. He’s the author of Tales from the Tao, Tao Paths to Love, and The Tao of Intimacy and Ecstasy. Solala is the editor of The Empty Vessel magazine, a widely respected journal of Taoist philosophy and practice. He teaches qigong and sound healing at conferences and workshops around the country, and is the author of a new book with Sounds True, Practicing the Tao Te Ching: 81 Steps on the Way. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Solala and I spoke about Lao Tzu and the original writing of the Tao Te Ching, and Lao Tzu’s description of the sage as the person who returns people to their childlike hearts. We talked about belly knowing versus intellectual knowing, and the importance of approaching the Tao Te Ching as a path of practice. Solala also led us in a practice that he called “Filling the Jade Pond,” as well as a second practice called “The Small Heavenly Orbit.” Here’s my conversation on Practicing the Tao Te Ching with Solala Towler:

Solala, to begin, I want to talk about your new book, Practicing the Tao Te Ching. I think many people are familiar with the Tao Te Ching as a collection of verses, but this idea of practicing the Tao Te Ching—you introduce 81 practices to go with each one of the verses of the text. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration and the vision for creating that kind of book?

Solala Towler: Yes. To my knowledge, this is the first time someone has done it this way. There are many, many, many translations of the Tao Te Ching, and most of the time, people think of the Tao Te Ching as a book of philosophy, and once you start studying Taoism for any length of time, you learn that the Tao Te Ching is actually a manual for self-cultivation, which is what we call spiritual work in Taoism.

So, I wanted to do my version—my interpretation of the Tao Te Ching—that would bring out the Taoist teachings. I was writing the commentary, and then the idea came along to actually write a practice for each one because in the Taoist world, there’s not—Lao-tse talks about the difference between head knowledge and belly knowledge. The idea is to not just read this book and understand this book intellectually, but to really live it and really make it real in your body, in your belly, or what we call the dantian.

TS: And yet, which practice goes with which verse? How did you figure that out?

ST: Well, a lot of them are really obvious, because they come right out of the text. Other ones—they all come from Taoist traditions, and some of them either came directly from the text or some of them were something that was inspired by the text—by Lao-tse’s text. So, some of them are meditation practices, some are qigong practices, some are lifestyle practices. I think it’s exciting that people don’t just sit and read the book, but you actually get to practice the book and have it make some real impact on your life.

TS: OK. Let’s talk a little bit about Lao Tzu—man, myth, legend.

ST: Yes.

TS: What do we actually know about him?

ST: Well, scholars argue about this all the time. I like to believe in the story, or at least I like to go along with the story. The interesting thing about Lao-tse—Lao-tse is not his name; he is not Mr. Tse. Lao-tse is more of a title—it means “old master.” Lao means “old” [and] tse means “master.”

The interesting thing about the word “tse” in Chinese—it kind of looks like a “3” with a line through it—the same character is used also for “child.” So it’s kind of become “a child [to] enter the kingdom.” Lao-tse is sometimes translated as “old child.” He talks about—at one point, he says, “The sage returns people to their childlike hearts.”

He was a great teacher in the Zhou Dynasty; he was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. He was extremely well-educated—he had studied with many teachers. He got older and the Zhou Dynasty was moving into what historians call the Warring States Period, much like our period or much like what’s going on in the Middle East right now. He realized things were getting really bad and he was afraid this knowledge would be lost. He decided to leave the city and leave his post, and strike out for the wilderness.

On his way out, he was stopped by one of his students at this pass just before the wilderness, who begged him to write something down of his teachings—because before this, these teachings were an oral tradition. Lao-tse, who wrote this 2500 years ago, refers to “the ancient teachings.” So, if these were ancient 2500 years ago, they go back many thousands of years. And the story is: he didn’t really want to write it down because he felt it would lose—the oral tradition would be lost by trying to write things down and fix them on—well, bamboo strips at the time—but fix them in people’s minds. So the first line he wrote was, “The Tao that can be written down or understood with the mind is not the real Tao.” Then he wrote a very short book—5,000 characters—and then he went off into the wilderness.

TS: Now, that’s interesting—2500 years ago, we have Lao Tzu; 2600 years ago, we have the Buddha. What do you think of the synchronicity there—that they were teaching in a similar time period?

ST: Yes. People refer to it as “the Axial Age.” The Buddha—Confucius also was going on then, and Lao-tse. It was an age of transformation, really, on the planet, is how we would say it in today’s vernacular. There are some wonderful books about that. It was a time—there was a lot of fermentation going on.

And Chuang-tse, [who] was another 100, 200 years after Lao-tse—he tells a story of Confucius going to meet Lao-tse. Confucius was very popular with the government because he was really about people knowing their place in the world and staying in it. And he met Lao-tse, who was really about personal freedom. When he left, he said, “Today, I have seen a dragon.”

TS: Hmm.

ST: And Chuang-tse makes fun of Confucius, by the way, all through his book.

TS: Mmm. Now, there’s a lot I want to talk with you about in terms of the major themes of Lao Tzu’s teaching, but before we get there, I’m going to circle back to this quote, “The sage returns people to their childlike hearts.” I noticed I was really moved when you said that, and I thought, “Oh, you know, so many of us—as we grow older—can become maybe not exactly embittered, but certainly not childlike.” Slightly taciturn—perhaps we’ve given up on certain dreams we had as children. We’re defeated in certain kinds of ways. So, what do you think is the key to returning to our childlike hearts?

ST: Well, Lao-tse has—one of the verses talks of what you were just referring to, saying when plants are young, they’re very soft and pliable and they bend, and they don’t break. But as they get old, they get dry and brittle, and break easily. That’s what happens to people, which is what you were just talking about. People start stiffening up in their bodies and in their minds and in their hearts, and they don’t have that childlike enthusiasm anymore. They decide they’re just going to watch one TV show and eat one kind of food, and that’s their life.

The Taoists were always—well, let me just backtrack for a second and say there are two streams of Taoism: the Taoism of Lao-tse and Chuang-tse, and then the religious form of Taoism, which came about 600 years later.

So, this kind of Taoism—for instance, Lao-tse was not a Taoist. There was nothing called “Taoist.” There was no organization. They were just the people who liked to learn from nature and tried to keep their childlike enthusiasm about the world and about the outer world as well as the inner world. They were magicians, they were musicians, they were artists, they were farmers. They were people that just felt like there was something, some—not a being, not a great being—but a state of being that’s behind all of this and through all of this. What Lao-tse says [at one verse]: “I don’t know what to call it, so I’ll call it Tao.” Almost like he had to pull that out of a hat. Tao means “a road away,” “a path,” and it also means walking on that path.

So, the whole idea of this—I don’t know if I’m getting off the point here—this is a journey. This book is a journey. As we take this journey, sometimes at the beginning of a journey, if it’s a spiritual journey, you end up being younger than when you started.

TS: Now, you’re making this important distinction between the religion of Taoism and this direct experience, if you will, that’s not necessarily in this formal religious framework. But then this return to our childlike heart—I can imagine people of another time as you’re describing them: magicians, people close to the earth. But what about us—people here in our contemporary, technological age—as you said quite beautifully, sadly—watching the same TV show and eating the same food?

ST: Yes, yes. Well, that’s why I have a lot of practices and meditations and lifestyle choices that I’ve written about in this book—so that you don’t lose that. So that not only do you not lose that childlike heart, but you’re able to rediscover it if you have lost it. To the Chinese, to the Taoists, our mind resides in our heart, and our heart is also where our shen, our spiritual nature, resides. So we work a lot with opening that center energetically with meditation, with qigong, so that your heart expands.

There’s a lot of information coming out now—in The HeartMath Solution and things like that—that we have a brain in our heart. That actually, our heart in Chinese medicine, is considered the emperor of the whole body. The heart is really where a lot of the spiritual work is done. And the Taoist thing is very interesting because, to do spiritual work, we do a lot of meditation, we do silent meditation—but we also do a lot of energetic meditations and qigong and internal alchemy. Internal Alchemy, called Neidan, is about transformation. You’re never too old to transform.

TS: So let’s get specific, Solala. You mentioned that in the book there are lifestyle suggestions and also energetic practices related to the heart. And I’m curious—let’s talk a little bit about both of those: some lifestyle suggestions, and maybe we can even do an energetic practice together to return to this childlike heart.

ST: Yes. [Lao-tse] says in chapter three—he says, “Sages empty their heart-minds and fill their bellies.” In parentheses, I wrote “dantian.” That’s one of those lines that’s often mistranslated, not understood. “The sage empties your mind and fills your bellies,” and people think this is about burning the books and not reading books but just eating a lot or eating all the time. Sometimes it’s mistranslated as, “The emperor empties the peoples’ minds and fills their bellies.” So, is this a way of controlling people?

Really, it’s about emptying the mind, the intellectual mind, and bringing the mind intent—which is the element of fire—down into the belly, into the dantian, which is water. Putting that fire under the water, and the fire—the water, rather—dampens down the fire of the intellect a little bit so that you move into that realm of what I love to call “belly knowledge,” instead of head knowledge.

In this culture in modern times, it’s all about head knowledge. At one point he says, “In the regular world, every day, more is taken on, more is crammed into our heads, more and more. But in the world of Tao, every day something is let go of.” And by emptying ourselves, that’s how we are able to receive.

You know: that old story of the guy who goes to see the teacher, and he’s so full of himself and he’s going on and on and on about all his things that he’s accomplished. The master is pouring the tea and it pours out of the teacup and across the table into his lap [and it’s] hot tea. And he jumps up and says, “What are you doing?” And the teacher says, “Your mind—your heart—is so full, it’s overflowing, and not only that but it’s too full. I cannot give you anything. You have no room for me to offer you anything.” So, by emptying our minds and filling our bellies, we become open vessels—or empty vessels, is the term that Lao-tse uses.

TS: I wonder: could we do a practice together, Solala, that helps us root more in this belly knowledge that you’re describing?

ST: Yes. Here’s one that goes with chapter three. Here he says, “Sages empty their heart minds and fill their bellies. They weaken their ambitions and strengthen their bodies. They are free of knowledge and desires. By practicing not doing, wu-wei, they live in peace and inner harmony.”
So, right before we do this, this term “wu-wei” is a very important term that’s used a lot in the Tao Te Ching and a lot in Taoism. It means not forcing, not overdoing, not trying to make something happen. It’s more about relaxing and allowing things to come about in their own time, in their own way.

TS: Let’s talk about that just for a moment, because I think a lot of people have confusion around this “not-doing” idea of Taoism. They think, “Oh great, the Taoists, they’re passive. They’re not the ones who are going to recreate society in a new way. They’re going to get run over by all the pushy people.” Really?

ST: It really doesn’t work that way. Let me just quote a couple paragraphs here. “Wu wei, often translated as ‘doing nothing,’ means not overdoing. It means not doing anything to an extreme such as overeating, over-exercising—which cause bellyache and exhaustion. It means doing just enough and no more. It means not doing anything against nature or against your own nature. It means using the least amount of energy to get the most done. It means not forcing, not exhausting yourself trying to make anything happen. Wu wei is learning to allow, letting things develop in their own way and in their own time. We are able to adapt and, like water, take the shape of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.”

And this one little quote from Chuang-tse: “Let things unfold naturally and let your mind be free. Accept what you can’t control and continue to nourish your internal spirit. That is best. You must be willing to act in accordance with your own destiny. Nothing is simpler than this, and nothing more difficult.”

So it’s a very deep practice, wu wei.

TS: Well, I certainly don’t want to say more than is needed here.

ST: [Laughs] And he refers to the Watercourse Way because that’s another of the main principles. Water—if you put water in a round vessel, it becomes round. If you put it in a square vessel, it becomes square. It’s imminently adaptable, and if we can become that adaptable, to find a way—whatever situation or environment we find ourselves in—we can find a way to fit ourselves in a really non-forcing, wu-wei kind of way. Then we’ll be so much healthier and so much happier and so much less afraid of the world and our place in it.

TS: So, share with me the practice that you matched with this verse.

ST: This is called “Filling the Jade Pond.” By working with energetic practices like this one, our energy becomes increasingly subtle, ultimately leading to union with the subtle source of all life, Tao. Although our minds reside in our hearts, many thought processes leave us stuck in our heads. Energetically, we end up with gigantic heads and no bottom. So, this is what we’re going to do: we’re going to balance that mind energy and put it into our dantian, [which] means “field of elixir” or “field of medicine.”

So, we begin: Sit quietly in the edge of a chair or on a cushion. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply through your nose. Your breathing should be so light that a feather held in front of your nose would not move. This will take some time, so go slowly, without worry. With each inhalation, feel your lower dantian—your lower abdomen—expand. On each exhalation, feel your lower abdomen contract. This is the type of breathing you did in the womb, when you were breathing through your navel.

Put your mind intent down into your lower abdomen. Put your focus of your intention down into your lower abdomen. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just let the energy flow downward naturally. Eventually, you may feel some heat or tingling in this area, although that may not happen for some time. Just stay with the practice and things will move when they’re ready.

For a healing effect, use your mind intent to breathe in healing light on each inhale. Feel it entering your whole body, burrowing down to the dark places in your energetic or physical body, or any disease, pain, or toxicity [that] exists. On each exhale, see all the disease, pain, or toxicity leaving your body through your nose as black smoke, dissipating into the air before you.

So, as we breathe in, we breathe in healing light—healing qi—and if you have a place that you have pain or disease or discomfort in your body, you can bring that light there, or you can just let the light find its own way. Then, as you exhale, you let all that pain, disease, toxic feelings, fear, emotions, unstable emotions—and you feel it—you see it, rather—leaving your body like black smoke.

Continue breathing in healing light or qi and exhaling black smoke. If you’re suffering from disease or pain, you can gently guide the healing light or qi to that area, or you can just relax and let it find its own way. After a while, you will see the energy coming in is healing light and the energy going out is healing light, so you’re breathing in healing light [and] exhaling healing light. All of your mind intent and focus is down in your lower abdomen. You feel your whole abdomen expanding from the front, from the back, out the two sides.

This part is not in the book—you feel the beginning of your focus of your groundedness, feeling down in your lower abdomen—or what the Japanese call the hara—what we call the dantian. This area gets filled up with life force, and this is the force you will use to live the rest of your life, to focus the rest of your life, to deal with the rest of your life.

When you’re done, to finish we bring our palms together and rub them briskly together 36 times, which is a magic number—we do everything in multiples of three or nine. [So] 36 times, and rub them up and down your face gently to bring yourself back out of this inner state that you may have gotten into, an inner trance state. Rub your fingertips gently across your closed eyelids and then open your eyes.

TS: So, Solala, in that practice we’re really starting to work with making our breath more subtle and then bringing the breath down into the belly bowl and then also expelling toxins in the body—bringing in fresh energy, expelling toxins, and then just being with this beautiful, slow breath in the belly. I’m wondering: when you reflect on this Taoist practices that are in the book, Practicing the Tao Te Ching, would you say there are certain core practice themes, if you will, that the practices draw on? Maybe aspects of our subtle anatomy that are emphasized again and again and again? What are those core themes?

ST: Well, this belly breathing is one—and of course when we breathe this way, expanding and contracting our abdomen, we also expand and contract our diaphragm muscle, which also massages all our internal organs down in that area. We get out of the fight-or-flight kind of breathing—many people breathe very shallowly. When we get a sudden fright or shock, we [gasps] we stop breathing. And for many people, they only breathe from the top third of their lungs, so their lungs never really empty. So, they don’t expel all the carbon dioxide, for one thing. They’re kind of always in this fight-or-flight mode. By doing this kind of breathing, you do it consciously at first, and eventually, it just takes over and you breathe this way all the time and your whole system calms down. You get a lot of this energy in your head out of your head and down into your belly.

We also do some grounding practices in this book. Before we to a T’ai Chi or a qigong practice, you stand on the earth or even on the floor, and you connect the energy of the bottom of your feet—you send energetic roots like you’re a tree. You send roots down into the earth so that you can draw yin energy of the earth up through the bottom of your feet into your body. Also you can feel rooted like a tree—when [you see] a big windstorm, many trees are swaying very [wildly]. But there’s something that keeps them up because they have a root system.

When people say, “Picture in your mind a tree,” we see a trunk, we see branches, we see leaves, and we see maybe fruit, but there’s a whole another aspect of the tree that’s underground—just like there’s a whole other aspect of ourselves that’s under—we can think of it as underground. It’s more in our subconscious level. And the more strongly we can introduce these ideas of being rooted into the earth, then when the winds of life come up, we don’t just get knocked over; we’re able to bend with the wind but come back up again.

So being rooted, getting out of your head, not forcing, wu wei, going with the flow, the Watercourse Way, and being natural is another big thing in Taoism. In Chinese, [it’s] called pu. And sometimes Lao-tse talks about “becoming like the uncarved block”—that idea that the artist, the true artist, the advanced artist, they see a piece of wood and they see the sculpture—they see it in their mind. It’s almost like they carve off the extraneous parts of the wood to reveal the statue or whatever it is they’re carving in there. But the uncarved block is who we are before society and culture and politics and religion have forced that shape on us.

Sometimes, our shapes are very twisted and unnatural. You can see it in people’s bodies, you can see it in people’s emotions. They work so hard to try to get themselves—to shape themselves—the way they think they need to be in the world that they end up crippling themselves—sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes psychologically. And the more we can return—you said earlier about “returning,” and that’s a big theme in Tao Te Ching about returning to the source—returning to that state of the uncarved block where we have so much potential and we’re not shaped by anyone else’s ideas of who we are. We’re ready to find who we are, really, ourselves.

TS: I want to talk a little bit more about this idea of not forcing, because I think that’s an idea that is possibly a little difficult or paradoxical for people to understand. I mean, more and more we’re hearing about the importance of perseverance and not giving up, and if you’re going to be successful at anything, the most successful athletes and business people, et cetera, are people who have grit, they stay engaged, they keep going. So, how do I make sense of that and not forcing at the same time?

ST: Well, all that is true. To write this book, I couldn’t just sit there and let it write itself. I couldn’t sit in front of the computer and wait for my fingers to start moving. I had to invest a lot of time and energy and focus and qi into it.

But at the same time, you can do that but you can do it in a way that you get tortured by it, or you get unhealthy by it. Or, you can find a way where it becomes less of a slog and more of a dance—less of a rut and more of a dance, really. A groove—less of a rut, more of a groove. There’s ways that you can do that where you’re not so attached to the outcome that you’ll be totally crushed if it doesn’t come out the way that you want it to happen. You have to let go of that.

You have to be willing to put in the time—I talk in here about this idea of gung fu. People think gung fu means martial arts, and gung fu actually means anything you put time and practice into. I do gung fu tea ceremonies, people do gung fu painting. It can be gung fu cooking—anything you devote some time and essence into.

But you do it in a way—like I say, it’s more of a dance and more of a groove. And that’s what people lose sight of—they want to achieve these goals and they’re willing to crush anyone who gets in their way, or they’re willing to crush their own selves, their own uncarved block, and to make it the shape they think it needs to be. Does that make sense?

TS: It does. I think that’s helpful. Now, Solala, tell me a little bit about you and about how you came to be in love with Taoist philosophy and practice.

ST: Let me just say one more thing about wu wei. For some people, going out and practicing really hard in sports is what they need to do. That’s their form of wu wei. Other people wouldn’t be able to handle that; they wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of stress. Wu wei is slightly different for each person, is what I’m trying to say. So you don’t make a blanket statement, “No one should ever try to achieve anything or really ask anything great of themselves.” Wu wei means asking something great of yourself, but doing it in a graceful way.

So, I’m a child of the ‘60s—I was born in 1950, I grew up in New England, and never felt at home in school, never felt at home in the world. The ‘60s came along, and suddenly people were talking about spirituality and mind expansion. I got interested in yoga and meditation in 1969. There was no Taoism going on—at least not in Boston in those days. But there was something about the Eastern path, the Eastern way, that I really loved and felt at home in. So I studied yoga. I was a young hippie vegetarian yoga meditation practitioner, and I stayed with that all along.

About 25, 30 years ago, I was studying Zen, and there was something for me—I felt there was a rigidity in Zen that I didn’t feel at home [with]. I became very ill, and was sick for 10 years with chronic fatigue syndrome, and ended up being totally bedridden. Chinese herbs are what got me out of bed and qigong is what cured me.
So, I started looking into the background of Chinese medicine—if it works so well, what’s the philosophy? And I discovered Taoism, discovered my teacher Hua-Ching Ni, and it was like coming home. I just felt really at home with it. It’s been a journey of over 25 years, and I still feel as excited and enthusiastic about these teachings and practices as I did when I first discovered them.

TS: Tell me a little bit about how it is that you feel qigong healed you.

ST: Chronic fatigue syndrome is—you know, Chinese medicine looks at the body in a whole different way. You may already have some background in this. Chronic fatigue syndrome, they think of it as some sort of autoimmune disease—this is in the West. It’s adrenal fatigue—adrenal burnout, basically. Chinese medicine looks at things a little differently. They look at it as an extreme kidney yin deficiency—which, because our body is a whole system and when one system breaks down—the kidney yin or adrenal system—it causes problems in other areas. So, it causes a thing called “disturbed shen” or disturbed spirit, which causes a lot of problems of short-term memory and extreme insomnia, and a lot of things in our minds that we can’t focus on anymore.

The qigong works with qi—it works with a catch of bringing earthly energy, earthly qi, into our body, which is yin energy [and] bringing heavenly energy, or yang energy, into our body, and accessing this qi. We live in a world of qi; we live in a world of energy, and what happens is our body and our qi streams in our body start getting clogged up and shut down, and things start shutting down in our body. If we do the movement, the breath, and the visualization practices, we start to open those areas back up again and then the energy starts flowing freely again. And that works on anything—it’s the same process used to treat heart problems, cancer, emotional problems, physical problems—it’s the same practice.

TS: The Tao Te Ching has 81 verses that you then have written commentary on and also offered a practice to help us embody and understand the verse. I’m wondering—are you ready for this?—do you have a favorite verse?

ST: Wow. Oh, wow. I didn’t think of that! I love the one about emptying the mind and filling the belly. That’s one of my favorites because I think that’s one that people really don’t get when they look at it. One of the things I mention in the book [that] I should mention here—this is also kind of unique—is that you can use the Tao Te Ching as a book of divination, like the I Ching. You’re feeling unclear about something [and] you want to make a decision or you would like some guidance from your higher self, your ancestral spirits, your guiding spirits—you can sit yourself down in front of this book, clear your mind, breathe quietly for a few moments, and then arbitrarily open the book and read the verse and do the practice. That’s one of the really interesting ways that you can use this book.

TS: Let’s just talk about that for a moment. Every single verse is filled with wisdom and every practice is going to be helpful and illuminating and connect us with our breath and our body. But does that really make it a divination tool? Meaning, I’m sure if I were befuddled and confused by something, it would be great for me to pick up the Tao Te Ching and read something because I’m sure it will help me but—

ST: This verse and this practice will specifically address what you’re asking for in this moment.

TS: So, help me believe that.

ST: [Laughs.] Well, have you worked with the I Ging at all? The I Ching or I Ging, or . . .

TS: Yes. We don’t know each other that well, Solala, but half of me believes it and half of me doesn’t, so it’s the half of me that doesn’t that’s asking you the question.

ST: [Laughs.] It’s really just a tool. It’s not really the book that’s giving us the information—either the I Ching or the Tao Te Ching. The Great Wheel of Life; we’re on this Wheel of Life. When I do I Ching readings, I tell people, “What we want to do is get information. Where are we on this wheel? Are we at a place where we have a lot of support from the spiritual realm so that we can move forward, take on new projects, travel, do something new? Or are we at a time where we don’t have that support and it’s a better time for us to be quiet, to be centered, to allow the energy to move and build on its own?

It’s kind of like tuning into that, and also tuning into what your higher self—or your inner self, your wisdom mind—everyone has a different name for it. In the Bible, they call it the “still, small voice within.” And that still, small voice within gets drowned out by the world, the outer world, and also by all the—in Buddhism we call it the “monkey mind,” in Taoism, we call it the “wild horse.” That mind that’s going 24 hours a day—going going going, especially those of us who tend to be kind of cerebral and we have our brains going all the time. How can we slow that down or how can we—it’s almost like jumping out of that merry-go-round that we’re on, and suddenly we just, “OK, I’m going to use this book, I’m going to use the I Ching or the Tao Te Ching.” Or some people can just meditate and they get this information, this illumination, or this inspiration. But this book is also a way.

Interestingly enough, I just opened it arbitrarily, and I did this this morning just to see what would happen. And I just opened it arbitrarily to the very same one. It has this beautiful little description of the sage: “The one who holds to the great image of Tao, all things, all beings under heaven will follow him. They will come to no harm; only peace and contentment. There is fine food and music, and travelers stop by and stop. Yet to speak the work ‘Tao’ is tasteless and has no flavor. If one tries to see it, it cannot be seen. If one listens for it, it cannot be heard. Yet it will never be exhausted.”

The Tao that can be written about in a book, the Tao that can be put into words or tattooed on your arm like I have, is really not the real Tao. But we use these words, we use these practices, to go beyond this world that we’re looking at now. In the very first verse, he says that the world that we see outside of us and the world that we see inside of us come from the same place. “[In] the realm of nonbeing, one can see the mysterious source of all things. And [in] the realm of being, one can see the manifestations of Tao, the world around us. These two have the same origin, but are called by different names. They are both mysterious and profound. Mystery within mystery, the gateway to all marvelous wonders.” That’s how he ends the very first verse.

TS: So, Solala, are you dodging my question about your favorite verse and relying on divination to deliver what is the verse of the moment?

ST: [Laughs.] I don’t think I have a favorite . . .

TS: OK, fair enough.

ST: OK, here’s one that I really like. This is one of my favorites, and George Harrison actually put this to music and wrote a song about it. “Without going out your door, you can know everything under heaven. Without looking out of the window, you can see the Tao of heaven. The farther one travels, the less one knows. The sage knows without traveling, sees without looking, and accomplishes all without striving.”

TS: That makes me want to talk more about this sage person. What [do] you think of the Tao teaching as a leadership manual, if you will? What [might] leaders of all kinds learn from practicing the Tao Te Ching?

ST: Well, here he says “The sage leads from behind.” It was interesting—at one point early on, when Obama first became president, he talked about [how] that was his style—of leading from behind. I don’t know if he studied Tao Te Ching; I think he’s just naturally that way. But in Taoism, the word “sage,” the term they use is zhenren, which means “an authentic person”—which I think is really beautiful. Their idea of an enlightened being is a person who is authentically themselves. They know who they are, they are able to do everything in their life from that point—that understanding, that deep inner knowing. That can take a while to learn how to do that. That can take a while for people to know who they are as an uncarved block, as an authentic person.

So, the sage leads from behind—he talks a lot about the sage leads by example. The sage sometimes acts silly, or—there’s actually a really beautiful one in here, hopefully I can find it, where he’s saying, “Everyone else seems to know what they’re doing. Everyone else seems to know where they’re going. I am like a child lost in a vast sea. I appear stupid, but I know that I am different because I am nurtured by the Great Mother.”

So sometimes, the spiritual person in the Western cultures—they call the Holy Fool—appears stupid. Or in the Taoist tradition, if you met a Taoist master, you would say to them, “Oh, I hear you are a great master of such and such and such and such.” If they really are a Taoist master, they will never say, “Oh yes, I am. I am a master. I am the Taoist master.” They will say, “Oh, I know a little.” They will not appear to be—they are not dressed in splendid robes and lights coming out of their head, and a lot of these teachers are very simple people that if you saw them walking down the street you would never realize the real depth of their understanding.

TS: What do you think, Solala, about Taoism in our time—meaning, I can imagine listeners who think, “You know, this particular spiritual path and spiritual tradition was kind of meant for a different culture at a different time. It hasn’t really kept up with the speed of innovation and the challenges we face today.”

ST: Well you know, I’ve been publishing at The Empty Vessel—it’s the only Taoist magazine in the West. I’ve been doing it for 23 years now. I often hear from people saying, “You know what? I was reading your magazine or reading one of your books and I’ve always been a great lover of nature. I’ve always adored watching the cycles of the seasons. I always feel like I’m the kind of person that doesn’t want to push themselves forward, but I’m happy to be in the back of the pack. I’m one of these people that feels like nature is the best healer, and I’ve never felt like I could join any organized religion and political party. You know what, I think I must be a Taoist!” I hear that a lot.

So for people who—Taoism is about learning that. The Taoist teachers say nature is the greatest teacher beyond any book that you could ever read, even mine. Nature, going out in nature—the ancient Taoists lived in the mountains. They lived in the forests. They watched how animals conducted themselves when they were sick or whenthey were injured, what plants they went and ate—what kind of practices, the way they would curl up and close off all their openings in a circle.

They were like inner astronauts. They started charting where in their body they felt their energy that was connected to, say, their adrenal kidney energy. Where did that come from? Where did that go? What if I press this point, how does that change that? What if I drink these herbs? What if I combine these other herbs?

And I think for people, especially people who are interested in philosophical or classical Taoism—not religious Taoism—you can do the practices, you can do the meditation and the qigong practices. You can still be a practicing Jew, a practicing Buddhist, a practicing Christian. You don’t have to change your religious affiliation to do these practices. Or you may be a person who feels like you never fit into any slot, but you felt like there’s some state of being—you could call it God, you could call it Allah, you could call it Jah, but you feel that it’s not—in Taoism we don’t think of it as a personalized godhead who punishes people and rewards people. It’s a natural force—you spit into the wind, you get it back in the face. You try to go against nature, things don’t turn out well. You try to go against your own nature, things don’t turn out well.

What for one person—in the very second verse he talks about [how] everything exists in relation to each other. What to some people is a huge job to another person is nothing. What to some people is a really deep practice and very difficult, other people find very easy. You can’t go through life comparing yourself to other people.

That’s the whole idea of yin/yang, which we haven’t gotten into too much, but we all have a little piece of yang in the yin and a little piece of yin in the yang. Yin and yang are constantly transforming. We are constantly transforming. Deepak Chopra talks about how every cell in our body is—over I can’t remember how many years, maybe it’s just one year—every cell in our body is transformed or breaks down and is rebuilt.

The more we can feel like we want to connect to that greater Source—the source where all of this comes from—how can we return ourselves to that life of simplicity, to that deep connection with nature, with Source? How can we feel that connection with others? How can we have a healthy body so that we can do spiritual practices? If you are in constant pain and in disease and in fear and in anger, it’s really hard to settle down into a deep meditation. So these practices, these qigong, these meditation practices, like yoga in India, is a practice so you can become strong enough in your body, psyche, mind, and spirit to be able to go deep into deep practices.

TS: You mentioned a bit about yin and yang, and that when we are very yin, there’s still that yang in us, or the other way around—that they go together. I’m curious what you think about, if you will, androgyny and masculine/feminine integration in people, and how that fits with Taoist philosophy.

ST: Well, in Tao Te Ching, he says, “Know the yang, but hold to the yin.” He talks a lot about [how] the yang already gets enough attention in the world. There’s already enough yang energy in the world. He talks a lot about the yin energy and being quiet, being soft, and nurturing yourself in the primal womb. He calls it “the primal mother, the valley spirit.” He talks a lot about those kinds of things. Even in his age, 2500 years ago—like I said he was entering the Warring States Period. He could see that yang was rampant in the world and intellect was rampant in the world, and he was trying to come up with something to balance that.

And it doesn’t mean—like wu wei, people don’t understand it—that we would get so yin that we become just passive, we never get anything done and we never push ourselves. It’s not about that. It’s just trying to find a little bit of balance in the world. Yang energy flares up very quickly, and also flares out very quickly. Yin energy takes longer to build, but it has more staying power.

TS: What I hear you saying is let’s emphasize the yin because our culture has so much yang in it. I’m sure you’ve met, Solala, people who have a lot of yin energy, and you think, “Oh, they could really develop their yang.” Don’t you think?

ST: Oh, yes, of course. The people who have not developed their yang energy and they emphasize the yin so much that they become these passive people that never really do anything in their life. So, there needs to be a balance, of course. And the balance shifts all the time—that’s the important thing. I talked a lot about that with my first book with you guys, The Tao of Intimacy and Ecstasy. The balance is shifting—emotionally, sexually, energetically—and we need to be able to get sensitive enough to slow down our process enough so that we know where we are in any situation. We know, “Is this a place where I really need to push forward? Is this a place where I need to pull back?”

This morning, I really needed to get things done, and I got up and I got a lot done, and that was great. Now this afternoon, I’m going to go into a little more meditative or listen to music or read a book or something. Sometimes in this one day, you can go through a number of cycles of yin and yang.

So, it’s about going slow enough, because some of us—I’m one of those people [whose] mind moves very quickly, and I can get ahead of myself. I need to slow my mind, myself, my breathing down so I don’t get defensive, I don’t feel attacked or afraid, so I feel like I can go into a situation in a really healthy, balanced, grounded way. To learn how to do that is just a wonderful gift, to be able to life your life that way.

TS: We started our conversation with a practice related to belly breathing, getting into our belly knowledge. I’m curious: do you return to having your breath focus in the belly throughout the day? Is that something you return to as your breath focus?

ST: I know that when I first started doing this kind of breathing, my wife told me that I was breathing differently, not only during the day, but I was breathing differently when I was sleeping. You train yourself so that that goes on all the time, and then when you need to calm down in a special situation, then you say, “OK, boom, you focus,” and you focus on that breathing. The more you practice that kind of breathing, the more it becomes second nature. It just becomes the way you breathe, and you get yourself out of that fight-or-flight feeling into a much more grounded, more centered, more calm state of mind and state of being.

Not to denigrate the mind completely—we use the mind. We use the mind to write the books. You’ve created this beautiful company with all these amazing people and you’ve been able to offer so much wisdom and knowledge and inspiration to the world. I’m sure that at the beginning you had to use your mind to figure out how you were going to do that, and how to put it together.

The mind and the heart—the mind, heart, and belly should work together. Sometimes we do meditations where we’re breathing into our third eye, our upper dantian. We have three: the upper dantian at the third eye center, middle dantian is the heart center, lower dantian is just below the navel. All these centers are inside your body, not on the surface. The very last practice in the book is “The Small Heavenly Orbit.” You’re guiding energy from your belly up your back, over your head, and then down the front of your body. You have this beautiful circulation of energy moving.

TS: Do you think we could end our conversation together, Solala, by actually doing that circulation practice? Could you lead us through it?

ST: Sure. This is kind of an advanced practice and it takes time to get really good at it, but we can at least begin it and give people an idea of what it is we’re doing. All these practices you can do standing—depending on your physical capability, standing, sitting, or even lying down. People can do these practices lying on their back if that’s the only way they can be. We can sit on a meditation cushion, you can sit on the edge of a chair—the idea is to be flexible. That’s one of the other big principles of Taoism: be flexible. Whatever state you’re in, you can do these practices. Don’t think you have to be some advanced yogi or something to do this.

So, there’s two—I talked about the qi energy pathways. For people who have done acupuncture, they know the qi moves in what they call meridians. Two of the major highways of energy are the dū mài up the back, and the rén mài, up the front. By running energy up the back and down the front, we are actually able to affect all the other meridians, all the other pathways, all the other rivers and streams of energy in our body. It’s a really powerful practice to do, and it can have all kinds of wonderful things. It can unblock areas that are blocked or stagnated.

We always begin these kinds of things where we’re sitting—we put the tip of our tongue to the roof of our mouth. The reason we do this is the energy comes up the back, over the top of our head, down to the third eye, down to our upper palate, and ends there. The rén mài begins at the lower palate, so by putting the tip of our tongue to the roof of our mouth, we make the connection like an electrical circuit, so that the energy can move all the way through our body. Actually, [for] all Taoist meditation or even qigong practices, it’s good to put your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It makes everything flow better. As a matter of fact, my teacher says if you can remember, just live your whole life that way—with the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth so that energy is always flowing and moving in your body.

What we’re doing is we’re starting by breathing into our lower dantian, then we’re going to send the energy down across our perineum, up to our backbone, and then all the way up our back, across the top of our head—the crown chakra; in Taoism, we call it the bai hui, “The Thousand Meeting Point.” And then, down the front.

It’s very important not to ever try to force anything. This is also one of our practices, we do wu wei. It’s not like you’re trying to ram the breath up—the energy up your back and down your front. It’s a very gentle, guiding energy. There are certain places in the body where energy tends to get stuck, like at the base of the skull or the tailbone, so sometimes we do practices where we breathe into those areas so that we can open them up.

To do a basic practice, we begin by doing the belly breathing. It’s important that we don’t just feel our abdomen pushing out from the front, but also to the back. We should actually be able—if someone put their hands on our lower back, they would feel that back move each time we breathe in. So, we’re breathing in the back, the front, and both sides are expanding. Breathing into the nose, abdomen expands, exhaling through the nose, abdomen contracts.

We do that for a few moments or more. Then we put our mind intent, our yi, into our lower dantian, into our field of elixir. We breathe into that field so that we can feel like we get a little energy moving, we get a little water moving, a little juice area there moving. Then slowly and gently, guide this qi down across your perineum, and up through your lower back. All the way up to your bai hui point at the top of your head.

There’s a saying in qigong, “The qi follows yi,” the qi goes where the mind flows. So we’re really using our mind, and in the beginning we’re using our imagination quite a bit, but after a while of practice, this becomes very real and you’ll start to feel sometimes tingles or heat or you might even twitch or jump a little bit. That’s when things really start moving. So we do it very gently to the top of our head and across the top of our head. Remember to do this very gently; it is very important that you do not try to force anything to happen. Forcing is against wu wei and can cause energetic problems.

There are nine points along the back and front of your body through which the qi needs to move. Some of them, such as the wei lu point on the tailbone, the ling tai or Spiritual Tower point located between the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae opposite the heart center, and yu gung, or Jade Pillow at the base of the skull are all places it can be difficult for the qi to pass through.

As we’re guiding the qi, we’re using our imagination at first. It’s almost like water going up to a thermometer, or a hose; it’s just gently flowing up the back and then down the front of our body. The tip of our tongue is up at our palate, which allows the energy to flow from the du mai to the ren mai, and we let it flow back to our lower dantian.

We would do this a number of times: 9 times, 36 times, depending on what you’re trying to do, how much time you have. As it says in the book here, “The ideal way to do this practice is set your mind intent. Begin to breathe deeply and slowly. Gather your qi or life force into your lower dantian and let it move from there slowly, naturally, in its own way and time. Only often after doing this practice for some time, you will feel a tingling or sense of warmth as the qi rises and descends. At the beginning you will be using your imagination to move the qi, but eventually, if you are constant with your practice, you will feel the qi moving on its own. To finish, put your mind intent back into your belly, your lower dantian, and relax into a state of mindfulness and gratitude.”

TS: Thank you so much for leading us through that. What is that practice called, that we just did?

ST: “Jiao Sho Chen” in Chinese, or “The Small Heavenly Orbit.” What some people are familiar with—the teaching of Mantek Chia, calls it “the Microcosmic Orbit.” It’s really a basic qigong practice and a spiritual practice. If people really work with that, over time it can make a lot of changes in your life.

TS: I’ve been speaking with Solala Towler. He’s the author of a new book, Practicing the Tao Te Ching: 81 Steps on the Way. It’s the 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching along with original commentary and then a practice, a practice from the Taoist tradition to go with each one of the verses. With Sounds True, Solala has also written the book The Tao of Intimacy and Ecstasy. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having a wu wei style conversation with me.

ST: Thank you Tami. Always a pleasure.

TS: many voices, one journey. Thanks for being with us.

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