A long time ago I was very new to Taoism, and I’ve decided to share a set of practices for anyone new to it that really worked for me. Together they are simply a contemplative practice for beginners, in short.
This practice, and its components, aren’t meant to be an all-encompassing road to enlightenment or anything equally ludicrous. For my part, I’m not a spiritual giant by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have a list of credentials nine miles long detailing my utterly epic spiritual quest to share with you. What I have instead is some solid experience and some advice you may find useful.
Essentially, I’m presenting a simple set of things that anyone literate can engage in to set up a sort of daily (or at least, daily, most days) practice. To do this I need to explain a concept I learned about in a Unitarian Universalist Church sermon many years ago. That concept is called “sacred time.”
Sacred time is simply when you stop your life, put it on hold on a regular basis, and take some time out for spirituality. In Christianity, for instance, Saturday (or more often Sunday these days) is held to be the “Sabbath,” a holy day in which work stops. For Christians, they basically take time out, go to church, and are technically supposed to engage their spirituality for that day of rest of whatever. This is their sacred time, for practicing their way of life.
What you can do with sacred time is make your own regular schedule of it and use that time to engage in your Taoist practices, and your Taoist practices alone. My recommendation is pretty simple: to enter the Way in earnest, start by setting aside at least 30 minutes a day, five to seven days a week, and regularly drop everything to make time for practice. I’m going to suggest three contemplative activities: first reading, second journaling, and third, meditation.
We’ll start with the reading component first. There are two types of reading contemplation that I think are essential. The first is the reading of the sacred texts, of the Chinese classics, particularly the reading, studying, and contemplation of the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu’s work). I cannot emphasize the importance of doing this most days. It’s a fairly simple process; you read a few verses (I typically do three on days when I’m practicing), study them, think about them and your life or anything else on your mind, and try to comprehend and understand their meaning. What you’re doing is feeling around for the Tao, and for the insights you can find within it. So get a copy of the Tao Te Ching (I recommend an annotated one, and a physical non eBook at that; the one I use the most is Derek Lin’s annotated edition, but if you have internet access there’s some online), and make a little time for it most days to sit down, shut out the world and your concerns, and simply contemplate the Tao. Do this through any of the classic sacred texts, starting with the Tao Te Ching. Later, you can move on to Chaung Tzu, Lieh Tzu, the I Ching, or any of the others as your inspiration leads you to.
The second type of contemplation is reading not the Chinese classics but reading contemporary and relatively modern works on Taoism and Taoist spirituality. There’s a host of them put out by any of a number of publishers. Read these authors for an intellectual understanding of Taoism, and to look for ideas for further practices that you may wish to embrace along the Way. Reading should both inform you and inspire you to practice, as well as point you in the right direction of further appropriate actions and activities. Bloggers of Taoist spirituality can be useful to read here as well, if you hold to all the usual caveats about reading internet blogs; again, search around the internet for them. I believe reading the classics and just diving into them headfirst and attempting to restructure your behavior and beliefs along Taoist lines is the best way to get the spirit of the thing into your bones, so to speak, but it’s equally important to see what modern practitioners of the ancient Way have to say about it as well.
While you’re doing these readings, I recommend keeping a journal of your spiritual practice along with what you’re doing. Whether you do this by hand or by computer is up to you, but I recommend doing it by hand (a good discipline is cutting off all electronics during sacred time, to prevent interruptions, and you may want to journal without using a computer as a result of this). You can grab a binder and loose-leaf paper (which is what I do), or you can make use of spiral notebooks, or any old fancy journal you please. I’m of the school of thought that it’s best to have a simple and cheap journal, because the tendency with those pretty journals for some of us is to never use them for fear of ruining them. You want the thing to be used, daily, to write down insights and thoughts about your life and your path through it- and it’s hard to get worked up about ruining a sheet of paper or a cheap binder. Keep the journal somewhere safe, too, and go back over it every week or so to see where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. It’s most important to put stuff pertinent to your spirituality in it, but your life is part of your spirituality, and that should go in there too. Log your insights, intuitions, struggles, and experiences, and from time to time go back over them to see where you were and where you’ve gotten to.
Keeping a record of these things will enable you to have a sort of backup memory in case you forget important insights or just lose track of your life in general. The process of journaling can be very grounding and therapeutic; writing is a form of thinking, and it strengthens the mind to use it as such. So, the second part of the contemplative practice is to journal.
The third and final component that I recommend, is some form of meditation. I recommend Zen sitting or walking meditation, and to just take a few minutes a day aside to really dive into these; ten minutes a day might be a good amount of time to start. Lengthy books have been written on how to do so (which I won’t cover here) and why to do so, but as applies to a contemplative practice you’re searching for insight- into yourself, into your thoughts, into your emotions, and in general, into your life. You can just sit and observe for the sake of sitting and observing, which allows your brain a sort of strange downtime to process things (from which insights can arise naturally), or you can adopt a focus or theme to ponder while you’re following your breath, and enjoy any insights that arise from this. Both are useful.
Meditation, I will point out, is not easy to practice. Especially when you’re young. Five minutes solid can be excruciating, which again, the host of books on meditation discuss and address, but in my experience (and I’ve read this in numerous other places), meditating in your thirties is way easier than doing so in your twenties. If you’re a teenager struggling with meditation or sitting still, or whatever, and haven’t become a de facto monastic yet, I’d like to point out you shouldn’t be worried excessively about it. Doing a small amount regularly, however pathetic the actual duration sounds to you, is better than not doing it at all. The only things I recommend for meditation are a cell phone app or a timer, and a place to sit or walk. Meditation times are expensive, cell phone apps are cheap or free, and kitchen timers are about $10-20 a pop and work just as well as the fancy things spiritual kit vendors churn out. For sitting, you need the ground you’re standing on to walk or sit on, but you can get (and I use) a small meditation bench. The ones with folding legs go away neatly. It’s worth noting you technically need none of the above here. If you’re sitting somewhere or standing somewhere you can meditate by shifting your awareness to your breathing. I’d recommend, for those new to meditation, getting a book on Zen practice that explains meditation (Thich Nhat Hanh is an excellent monk and author to start with, but he’s far from the only one) as well.
So, those are my suggestions for a basic contemplative practice. The core is reading the Chinese classics, and the Tao Te Ching to begin with. If you scrap the other components, for any reason, I would really recommend consistently taking some time in your day, and turning the electronics off (unless they have to be on for some reason) in order to tune out of ordinary life and into a more spiritually charged period of time- and I cannot underemphasize going over the Tao Te Ching over and over and over again in depth until it really sinks in. The other components- reading about the Way, journaling, and meditation- are all important and useful, but my parting advice is to at least set aside some time in which you cannot be disturbed, and to tune into the Tao Te Ching. That alone, practiced consistently, will cause other things to start falling into place.
All three practices are a bit of work, but they work together well to propel you into and along the Way and will enrich your life. You will get out of it as much as you put into it, for that matter. As a core beginner’s practice, this is what I recommend for beginners. Later, you can deepen your practice with an array of other Taoist arts and traditions, but to start with, I’d say dive into the Classics, read contemporary thought, journal your insights, and start meditating regularly. Start small, with thirty minutes or so, and then go ahead and increase that time as you find it prudent to do so.
Try it out; you may find your life transforming in unexpected and wonderful ways.