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Taoism and NLP

Part of a series of short articles focusing on NLP's relevance to each of the major world religions.


Let the wild swan singing go,
This is no bird to hold:
No clutch can check that flight
From cold to cold.

And let the wild swan come
In his fury and light.
The lift of his wing is Now;
The wing-dip, Night.

Elsa Gidlow


Not Fixing Perfection

At the heart of Taoist philosophy is the radical assertion that the entire Universe is in perfect order – in every way, from the smallest detail to the largest perspective, and everything that happens within it, at every moment in time – without exception.

Following on this principle, Taoism proposes that the natural order of things does not need to be helped, fixed or saved, and the way to be in harmony within oneself and with the external world is to welcome it and go with it, not against it.

If you fight the natural flow, Taoism asserts, you will only cause yourself and others trouble.

Yet there is an apparent contradiction here.

The Contradiction

If all is in perfect order and harmony, then fighting it would also be part of that perfection. How is this contradiction resolved?

The Taoist would answer that there is really no contradiction, in the first place: It's true that the troubles we cause ourselves are part of a larger perfect order; but it's also true that changing our responses so they no longer cause us trouble is also part of that perfect order. In the end there is simply no problem, and choices about your actions are left up to you.

The question, then, is: Do you want to cause yourself trouble? Or would you prefer not to? If you prefer not to, then Taoism advises you to seek to know and accord yourself with the Tao – the natural way of the Universe – so that you're in the flow instead of fighting it. You are perfectly free to fight it, or course, or perfectly free to go with it. Either way, all is in perfect order. So, considering the consequences, which would you rather do?

NLP Similarity

NLP asks a similar question. In contrast to traditional forms of psychology which concern themselves with "disorders" of the mind and seek to treat or cure them, NLP asserts that people are not broken and do not need to be fixed. Yet if this is true, how is it that people have problems and want to resolve them?

NLP's answer is that just because you have a problem, that does not mean you are broken. NLP asserts that you are working perfectly – to produce the results you are getting. Whether those results are misery, sorrow and pain; or whether those results are happiness, joy and ease, the question is not, "Are you broken?" but, "Which results do you prefer?"

Would you rather be happy or miserable?

If you want to be miserable, there are lots of things you can do to make and keep yourself unhappy. You might already be doing some of them. On the other hand, If you want to be happy, there are lots of things you can do to make your life better.

The focus of NLP is to provide you with better tools to have, and make, better choices.

Wu Wei

"Wu-wei, 'not doing,' does not mean 'doing nothing,' but 'not forcing.'

"Things will open up of themselves, according to their nature... The sin of inadvertence, not being alert, not quite awake, is the sin of missing the moment of life; whereas the whole of the art of the nonaction that is action (wu-wei) is unremitting alertness.

"One is then fully conscious all the time, and since life is an expression of consciousness, life is then lived, as it were, of itself.

"There is no need to instruct it or direct it. Of itself it moves. Of itself it lives. Of itself it speaks and acts."

Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

"The meaning of wu wei was, so far as the early proto-scientific Taoist philosophers were concerned, 'refraining from activity contrary to Nature', i.e. from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable, from exerting force in human affairs when the man of insight could see that it would be doomed to failure, and that subtler methods of persuasion, or simply letting things alone to take their own course, would bring about the desired result."

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Volume 2

So often we try to force change upon ourselves. When, for instance, a part of our body hurts we say to it, "Stop hurting!"  But that doesn't help. When we want to change a habit we try to force ourselves with "will power." But while that may work for a time, it is often short lived. Even when we want to influence someone we try to convince them by arguing. Yet they remain unconvinced.

NLP and Wu Wei

NLP uses the principle of "wu wei" in several ways.

Rapport is an essential pre-requisite to effective communication, whether you are communicating with your own mind, with your body, or with someone else. The process of establishing rapport is not one of forcing but of going-with; of meeting the other part or person in its world, moving with it, and applying only the slightest effort in a harmonious and ecological way.

In this way, the body will change itself in harmony with you; habits will change naturally and easily; and people will reach their own conclusions according to their nature and resources.

The Japanese martial art of Aikido uses the same principle – not opposing force, but going with it (and adding a little extra energy to its own direction).

When it comes to making important changes to resolve problems or achieve goals, NLP's applications are consistent with "wu wei" and Aikido, and more powerful, fast and effective than any amount of forcing.

The Means and The Ends

"Tao means Way, the significance of which is that the goal and the way to it are one and the same."

John Blofeld, Taoism

"Let the ends and the means be one."

– Swami Vivekananda, Karma Yoga

To the Western mind, accustomed as it is to linear logic, these statements make little sense. If the goal and the way to reaching it are the same, then there is neither goal nor way to reach it – and nothing to be done. Such a philosophy would seem to be a prescription for a life of passive idleness, apathy and lack of achievement.

However, linear logic takes place within a small subset of the context in which these words apply, so such logic cannot comprehend their point. A completely different context is needed to understand these words that of subjective experience, the mind, and the larger world of being.

Bringing oneself more into the flow of things (as a means) and being more in the flow of things (as an end) amount to the same thing. While you do the first, you are the second – simultaneously.

Changing Patterns

Many of NLP's process oriented change-patterns work in this way. For example, if you are tired of habitually looking on the dark side of life, but don't know how to change your habits of thinking, and you use guided NLP to learn how to change your pattern of what side of life you look on, the doing of the new "bright side of life" pattern is the same as not-doing the "dark side of life" pattern. The change is instantaneous by definition.

In much the same way, there is an old saying, "When the light is brought the darkness vanishes." The darkness vanishing (the end) and bringing the light (the means) are one and the same thing. There is no possibility of having the one without the other.

All of these contexts are those in which the ends and the means are mutually defined as gestalt pairs which are a common feature of subjective experience.

Analysis vs. Experience

"How does a man set himself in harmony with the Tao? I am already out of harmony!"

– Shih-t'ou, quoted by Aldous Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy"

"He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know."

– Lao Tzu

"A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker.
A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker."

– Chuang Tzu

Taoism proposes, as do Hinduism and Buddhism, that knowledge and language are not the same thing. That is, talking about something and experiencing it are fundamentally different. And particularly when one is speaking of the experience of the Absolute, as Taoism is, words begin to chase their own tails producing paradox and hopelessly circular meanings.

NLP is not, itself, a spiritual practice, and thus does not confine its focus to the Absolute. In fact, NLP does not propose that an Absolute either exists or does not exist. It is solely concerned with the structure of experience and how experience can be changed for the better.

Perceptual Positions

In NLP, the difference between experience and talking about experience might be described as a difference of perceptual positions. Since we have full access to our own subjective experience via NLP, we can easily access any perceptual position we like.

We can be in a train riding down the tracks, for example, looking out the window, feeling the bumps and jostles of the tracks as we ride along, hearing the commotion in the train car, smelling the recycled air in the car, etc.

Or we can be outside the same train, watching as it passes, seeing ourselves in the car as it rushes by, hearing the Doppler effect of the train whistle, and talking about what it must be like to be inside the train. We can even imagine ourselves traveling alongside the train as it speeds along its path.

These two subjective perceptual positions produce very different subjective experiences, and the meanings and interpretations we derive from them will be substantially different.

Knowing by Experience

Being able to change perceptual positions across many different points of view and at many different levels of experience is enormously helpful in guided self-therapy and healing.

Like the knowledge Lao Tzu spoke of, it is impossible to know what NLP can do for you by just reading words about it. To understand it, you must do it. To test it, you must conduct your own experiments with it – with or without the help of an experienced guide. And when an NLP process works, you know it by your own experience, not because you read a description of someone else's experience.

Letting Go the Moonlight

"My name is Marianne Keane. My stepfather Franco Lalama was an engineer for the Port Authority. He worked on the 64th floor of the World Trade Center. I'm reading this for his memorial. I don't remember the last time I told him that I loved him. I would give anything to go back to the morning of September 11 and tell him how much I appreciate everything he's done. But I think he knows that now. In my eyes, he died a hero. And how much more could you ask for?

"There's a quote that pretty much speaks for itself:

'You never lose anything, not really. Things, people... they go away, sooner or later. You can't hold them any more than you can hold the moonlight. But if they have touched you, if they are inside you, then they are still yours.'

"Frank, as I look back on these days, I realize how much I'll truly miss you and how much I truly love you. You were the best father I could ask for. I miss you and I hope you didn't hurt too much.

"Love, Marianne."

Marianne Keane, September 11, 2002, New York City commemoration of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack

I hope you have found these few quotes and comments helpful in considering NLP in the context of Taoism.

Please feel welcome to call me and discuss how NLP training, coaching and therapy can help you.

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Copyright © 2017 John David Hoag. All rights reserved.
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