Linked with the unity of opposites are two symbols which recur constantly throughout the Tao te Ching:
the image of water as an indication of the way the Tao works, and
the rather perplexing image of the Uncarved Block.
When we think of the qualities of water - formlessness, pervasiveness, inertness, softness, and its ability to yield, the usefulness of the image is apparent.
If we model our behaviour on that of water instead of using force, then we can accomplish a task with the smallest amount of resistance.
The Uncarved Block is a more difficult image to understand, but it is no less vital. The Tao is like the Uncarved Block - it is the most natural of states. It contains the essence of everything and is the totality of all things.
It represents the unity of everything, and to take only one aspect of that unity is to deny its relationship to all others. The Tao is infinitely complex yet overwhelmingly simple, guided by the natural law from which humanity has increasingly departed.
On the surface, Taoist ideas may not appear to have much relevance to people today, because it seems such an antisocial philosophy.
This is only true if it is accepted that our society is the best place to live in. It can't be denied that modern society is very much out of balance. There are gross inequalities which result in plenty for some and very little for others. Those who have plenty are unhappy; those who do not have enough are also unhappy, because of the social and economic values that we hold. The ecology of the earth is in danger as humans plunder their environment.
What has gone wrong? The Taoist answer is clear. Humans are out of harmony with the universe the further from the natural order they depart. We have created technology that seeks to subdue the natural order, not to complement it. Nearly everything people do as social beings in a sophisticated society leads to frustration, tension, greed and violence.
Why has this occurred? Because people have chosen to live in a society, organised rigorously and with an abundance of rules and regulations. The more complex the society, the more rigorous the rules, and the more unnatural the environment. It is more impersonal, more selfish, more alienating.
What is the solution? The Tao te Ching has an answer, one few people accept. Reverse the process. Forget the technology where it inspires artificial wants and human greed, return to the dignity and security of village life, and live in peace and harmony with the environment. Learn to be natural again; better still, never learn to the unnatural:
This seems a good and infinitely sensible answer, but may have been much easier to apply to the society of China in the sixth century BCE than to our society of the present day. Most of us feel bound to this society by countless threads - not to mention a gigantic mortgage or two.
Yet there is much in the Tao te Ching for us. The notion of balance in our lives, for example, is a useful one, whether applied to diet, drinking, exercise or mental activity. In these very basic aspects of existence, we cause ourselves and others much unnecessary pain and frustration.
Lao Tzu saw that humans had departed from their 'animal nature' by binding themselves to society, and because of this, lost what could be termed their primary consciousness. The more civilised people became, the greater the divergence between this primary consciousness and their brain induced desires, compromising real happiness.
To give an example, take something as basic as eating. Animals tend to eat 'with their stomach' - not caring about tomorrow - while human beings eat 'with their brain'. Animals know when to stop eating - when their stomachs are full - but people do not, because they are always guarding against potential hunger which might happen later on. The result, more often than not, is over eating, with its attendant dangers.
Human desire generally tends to be insatiable. Pleasure is demanded, as the greater the pleasure, the more we stimulate the senses. This usually means that the same amount of pleasure requires ever larger doses of stimulant.
Even if it sickens the body, the brain continues its frantic search. It knows it has a finite existence, and all pleasure has to be crammed into that time.
Animals do not have this problem, because they are unaware of anything beyond what is immediate. Animals have no psychologically induced hangups in their natural state, but human existence is plagued by them.
Much of the illness of modern society is induced by worry, tension, repression and greed. We usually pay the price without even thinking about it, but there is certainly a strong appeal in the Taoist notion of making the brain serve the body rather than the reverse.
The Taoist does not worry too much about the future, and for a very good reason.
The future is not the present and cannot be experienced until it is. The future cannot be enjoyed physically although we may have pleasant anticipatory thoughts about it. But to try to pursue the future is like trying to find the end of the rainbow.
That is why present civilisation is rushed - people are not enjoying the present because they are too busy worrying about the future. The body has been made the slave of the brain, and so the natural harmony of mind and body is upset.
The brain nowadays is being used incorrectly, if we follow the Taoist logic. Thinking is a natural process and cannot be forced. The brain has wonderful powers, but it should not be allowed to make unreasonable demands upon the body. When body and brain are in focus, then the natural harmony is restored once again, and the Tao has been followed.
The Tao te Ching then, is an abundantly practical guide to life even in its esoteric complexity. The truth, as it says, often seems paradoxical. Its wisdom often eludes us, and it warns us of this:
Put it this way. We should accept what is in front of us without wanting the situation to be other than what it is. The best approach is to study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it. If you are swimming and are carried out in a rip, for example, you do not swim against it or you will drown. Understand the nature of the rip and swim across it, or let it take you out until it loses its strength.
Trying to change the natural order of things only sets up resistance. If we are really aware, we will see that work proceeds much more easily and quickly if we stop 'trying' - if we stop looking for results and if we stop putting in wasted effort. Truth becomes apparent to the still and open mind. That is what the Way means.