Taoism and Magic
The biggest philosophical and spiritual influence in my life is Taoism, and it has been for around seven or eight years now. I was introduced to it in an undergraduate humanities class, and it resonated with me immediately. The texts (primarily the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu) express a lot of the things I’d been thinking but had never seen anyone else say or write before, but they also introduced me to new ways of looking at the world and challenged me to rethink my perspectives and approaches. It has made me a more peaceful, open-minded, and rational individual.
What is Taoism?
Taoism is hard to describe succinctly, mostly because the Tao itself defies explanation. The best way I’ve found to describe the Tao is this: it’s the energy/force of the Universe, but also the absence of energy/force that preceded the universe; it’s also a path to a kind of enlightenment in which we don’t overcome existence but learn to live in harmony with it (which is one way in which it differs from Buddhism), but the path isn’t laid out step-by-step. It’s also just a way of being and perceiving.
Taoism focuses on deconstructing our sense of morality and ways of interacting with the world. It stresses balance above all: it cautions against being too active of a force, but also against being too inert. Self-preservation is key (why destroy yourself before your time?), but it’s also about accepting change as fate–e.g., everything waxes and wanes, lives and then dies. But Taoists don’t look at death as anything permanent because nothing is permanent; death is just another step in the process of change.
Taoism asserts that we are all interconnected, that we all rely on each other not just to thrive but to exist at all. This is where the yin/yang (taijitu) symbol comes into play – there is both light and darkness in everything, and each depends on the other, and each bears the potential to become the other, and each eventually transforms into the other. That includes things like right and wrong, power and weakness, energy and inertia, literal light and darkness, masculinity and femininity, life and death, and so on. And, like Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The Chuang Tzu states, “Things are so because they are called so.” That’s the power of words, isn’t it? Manifesting meaning. Imbuing things, people, ideas with real power. By themselves, the power of things is limited, and we give and take away power through our will and faith. If that’s not the essence of magic, I don’t know what is.
Of course, the above is a very rough synopsis that doesn’t even begin to cover the complexity of Taoist philosophy, or all of the ideas presented therein. In addition, there are different schools of Taoism and a continuum of applications, from a more agnostic, purely philosophical path to religious Taoism, with Taoist magic and mysticism being somewhere in between or present in either pole. Taoism is a living belief system, taking on many forms and roles throughout its history to the present time.
As for moral precepts, there’s basically this: be humble (but not ostentatiously so), be compassionate (and that means universal compassion, not having compassion for one person/thing and hating its opposite), and be frugal (not just because it allows you to share/give more to others but because it also unburdens you from having too much shit to carry and also keeps you from being a target for theft, envy, etc.; however, it doesn’t mean extreme asceticism, where you’re starving naked in the streets – it means having enough to be comfortable, and then having and wanting no more).
Taoism and Hedge Witchery
When I rediscovered my magical side (which I’d put on the back burner throughout high school and college), I wasn’t sure how that part of me would fit in with Taoism. Taoists are supposed to refrain from clinging to any one thing because, in doing that, you’re cutting yourself off from part of the whole; and acting on the world is presuming that we know what’s best and asserting that over everything else, when our viewpoint is so limited, and possibly throwing ourselves into the fire by taking that action. How could magic fit into this scheme?
I learned eventually that Taoism is often practiced in conjunction with Chinese folk magic, which I don’t practice but which gave me the confidence to say, “Hey, maybe there is a way to be both authentically – to be a hedge witch and a Taoist.” After all, flexibility is inherent to Taoism – it is literally universal, so it can jive with different practices as long as those practices philosophically adhere to Taoist principles. This isn’t to say that Taoism can be anything you want it to be (far from it). But it does mean that I can be a witch and a Taoist at the same time.
Once I realized this, I made a working list of Taoist principles and how they might find expression in my own path and for others searching for something similar:
1. Everything has a dark and a light side, and everything changes.
That means you, your spirits and deities, your practice, your magic. You have to be flexible, to be willing to change and learn and grow. Stagnation is an uphill battle not worth fighting. So do what is beneficial in the moment, and then do no more, and be open to the idea that what works once won’t necessarily work later.
The path of a Taoist witch is more about naturally wavering to maintain overall equilibrium and less about keeping to the straight-and-narrow.
2. Everything is both sacred and mundane, or has both sacred and mundane aspects, and perception is the only thing that divides the two.
This is why I have never really gotten into the habit of “consecrating” anything or drawing circles. I try to see the sacred in everything and not to get too hung up on “sacred” things that I don’t utilize for their mundane purpose. Maybe this is why I love cooking and sewing magic – both have a practical as well as magical use, often at the same time.
3. Spontaneity/naturalness in magical practice.
I do what feels right, and most often my work doesn’t involve the trappings of “high magick” — no preordained gestures or incantations. I work best in near-silence and minimalism, simple tools and whispered intent. Most of the rituals I write out are more sketches for this reason – it leaves the experience open to inspiration and intuition, which are key for me.
4. Action through non-action.
In other words, doing as little as possible to reap the greatest rewards, or taking the path of least resistance, and thinking before you act. Magic in itself kind of applies this principle, in that you’re working behind the scenes to make something happen, but another way of looking at it is: what is the best way to get what I want, causing the least amount of disturbance? Sometimes, doing nothing says more than acting (especially when people are looking for a reaction); other times, approaching something in an unexpected, subtle way makes the biggest impact; and still other times, making a lot of noise all at once and then following with silence is the most effective route. It’s cunning, which often has negative connotations these days, though it doesn’t have to be. It’s subtle and intelligent. Compromise is important, too.
Doing what’s truly best is complicated work, and it really requires an in-depth, impersonal look into a situation from various angles. While a little disruption and destruction can be very good medicine sometimes, I try to limit the scope as much as possible.
This coincides with the above – finding what’s lacking and providing that, or figuring out what there’s too damn much of and doing the opposite. Too much passion can lead to violence, for example, so you can try to cool it with rational thought. Or maybe there’s too much logic and the human element isn’t taken into consideration, so you throw in some warmth.
You can also implement balance literally in ritual – balancing heat with cold, or something hard with something soft, or something light with something dark. For example, for a spell to cool passion, you could boil water and then, at the right time, turn off the heat and add cold water so that it’s lukewarm. You can also implement balance in ritual/spellwork by allotting time for both silence and sound, and movement and stillness.
And then there’s the Wu Xing concept of the interactions between elements–each either overcomes or generates another, e.g. water overcomes fire but generates wood; fire overcomes metal but generates earth; earth overcomes water but generates metal; and so on.
Regularly. Empty your mind to a) open yourself up to the spiritual world to gain insight; b) reconnect with your whole self and the Tao; and c) consider a problem in depth and find the best solution before acting. There are a lot of still water analogies in Taoist texts because that’s where reflections become most clear–if you make your mind like still water, you can see and understand better. That idea extends to non-meditation, too: listen more than you speak, and withhold making decisions and judgments until you’ve considered every aspect and perspective. Tend more toward receptivity than activity, and then you’ll know when it’s time to act and how.
Also, meditation allows you to transform yourself, which is the most important thing in Taoism. Most of the time, we are (at least part of) the problem. So we have to deconstruct and neutralize our values and senses of self. It’s like internal bioremediation–you’re taking all of that noxious nuclear energy inside you and transforming it into something natural and non-toxic. (Side note: mushrooms are great teachers in this respect.)
7. Humble things are more powerful because they’re closer to the Tao.
The Tao is supremely natural–rugged, irregular, uncarved. So, stick with simple, natural objects (things found in nature or handmade tools) that aren’t “perfect” or super-ornate. The Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi and kintsugi are relevant – objects that bear little imperfections or quirks, that are beautiful and special because they’re idiosyncratic. Also, you don’t have to go out of your way to get special tools–if you really need it, it’ll come to you; just be creative and use what you have.
I look at magic as a process of aiding the Tao, rather than a tool with which to dominate it to suit my desires. The same goes for spirits, people, animals, etc. I find that a lot of my power lies in realizing that I’m part of a larger structure. Even so, it can be challenging to remember that I want in a given moment may not be in the best interest of the whole, and if it’s not in the best interest of the whole, it’s probably not in my best interest, either, since I’m an inextricable part of it.
I think that the greatest Taoist lesson for a witch is not to be too absolute. There’s power in being flexible enough to consider other ideas and routes. Chaos and destruction are sometimes necessary, and so are order and creation. It’s the cunning ones, the wise ones, who find that middle space and, within it, see which strings to pull and which to leave unplucked.