The Tao of Walking

101by Gregory Bassham

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” – Walt Whitman

Walkers are a motley tribe. People walk for all sorts of reasons. Sociable walkers walk for the pleasures of good talk. Fitness walkers walk to stay in shape. Nature walkers walk to enjoy nature. Dog walkers walk to enjoy the company of a companionable dog. Beach walkers (a tribe of their own) walk to enjoy sun and sand and a glittering shoreline,

where a confident sea
is ever breaking, never spent.

As G. M. Trevelyan says: “There is no orthodoxy in walking. It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where everyone goes his own way and is right.” [1]

I wish to say a word about the special pleasures of long-distance walking. I am thinking about two kinds of walks in particular: the all-day “tramp” and the multi-day walking holiday. Although the notion of “the Tao [or Zen] of X” is greatly overworked, there are interesting tie-ins between Taoism and long-distance walking. Let me explain.


Taoism (pronounced dow-ism) is an ancient Chinese wisdom tradition that stresses harmony, balance, simplicity, naturalness, and intuitive insight. According to Chinese tradition, Taoism was founded by the sage Lao Tzu around 575 B.C.E. Lao Tzu is the reputed author of the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching (“The Book of the Way and Its Power”). The Tao Te Ching is a short book, full of memorable gnomic sayings and mellow wisdom, but not easy to understand. There is a point to this obscurity, for Taoists believe that life itself is inherently mysterious. Ultimate reality, they believe, cannot be grasped by words or concepts; it can only be felt in the pulse in moments of tranquility.

The central concept of Taoism is that of the Tao (“the Way”). The Tao means, at once, the way of ultimate reality, the way of the universe, and the way that humans should order their lives. Ungraspable by thought or language, the Tao is the ineffable and transcendent ground of all existence. Yet it is also immanent; it flows through all things, and is “the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life.” [2] To live well is to live in harmony with the Tao, and this means to live simply, naturally, and contentedly in a way attuned to the rhythms and harmonies of nature.

Like Buddhists, Taoists believe that much human unhappiness is rooted in self-centeredness and grasping, egocentric desires. To find lasting contentment, we must rid ourselves of egoistic attachments and strive to make our hearts “clear and calm like a still lake reflecting the light of the moon.” [3]

Another important Taoist concept is that of p’u, or the “uncarved block.” Taoists believe that humans are fundamentally good and that we need to recover our “original nature,” our inner natural self. To do this, we must shake off the sophistications and artificialities we’ve picked up from modern life and return to a simpler, more natural, and more intuitive way of living and thinking. This simpler, almost childlike state of mind is what Taoists call p’u. To recover our intuitively wise and naturally good original natures, we must recover our ability to see life elementally, as simple and whole. This can be done only by diving beneath the accretions of culture and education, radically simplifying our lives and our thoughts, and returning to a condition in which we “understand” life less and appreciate it more. [4]

The last Taoist concept I need to explain is that of wu-wei, or “effortless doing.” Wu-wei literally means “inaction” or “nondoing,” but it is not a recipe for do-nothing passivity. Rather, it is a counsel for letting things happen naturally and without meddlesome interference or unnecessary conflict. Taoists believe that people often screw things up when they try to “fix things” by passing all kinds of laws, micromanaging people’s lives, or engaging in aggressive results-oriented management. In most cases, they believe, more can be accomplished by means of a lighter, more yielding approach. Think of a waterfall at the end of a great canyon:

“On one level, nothing is weaker than water since it naturally yields and gives way to what it comes in contact with. Yet it is precisely this fluidity which transforms its weakness into its greatest strength. … The waterfall conveys a hidden message with profound moral overtones. It gives us a valuable lesson in what it takes to cultivate good character. We learn that soft overcomes hard, that passivity can be a form of action, that yielding conquers aggressiveness, that flexibility wins out over rigidity, and that constancy triumphs over impetuousness. … In like manner, the Tao is like water: It follows its natural course, and in doing so, it accomplishes all.” [5]

In short, Taoism emphasizes the values of simplicity, naturalness, freedom from attachments, effortless doing, and intuitive, holistic wisdom. With this quick backdrop, let’s now see how these values connect up with the many pleasures of walking.

The Joys of Long-Distance Walking

To fix ideas, suppose it’s fine weather and you’re about to embark on a six-day walking trip in central Italy, the Pyrenees, the Bernese Oberland, along Hadrian’s Wall, or wherever your favorite walking destination may be. Suppose, further, that you are accompanied by a well-matched boon companion [6] and plan to stop each evening at a comfortable, rustic inn. What Taoist pleasures might one look forward to?

First, of course, the pleasures of enjoying natural scenery. Beautiful vistas can be enjoyed through car windows, but the hidden beauties of nature are revealed only to the walker. As Trevelyan writes:

“[T]he sudden glory of a woodland glade; the open back-door of the old farmhouse sequestered deep in rural solitude; the cow routed up from meditation behind the stone wall as we scale it suddenly … the autumnal dew on the bracken and the blue straight smoke of the cottage in the still glen at dawn … These, and a thousand other blessed chances of the day, are the heart of Walking, and these are not of the road.” [7]

When we walk in beautiful surroundings, we slow down and take time to see things. We don’t watch nature through the movie screen of a car window; we are immersed in it, communing with first principles and fundamental realities. Then, as John Muir said of mountain-walking, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows through the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” [8]

There is a second way in which walking connects us with nature. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers on the African Savannah and are built for walking and running. Our long legs, upright carriage, piston-like arms, curved spine, springy joints, arched feet, ample buttocks, and ability to cool ourselves through perspiration give us a frame that is ideal for swinging along all day over hill and dale. [9] Because of our biomechanics, when we hit our ideal stride in walking:

“something miraculous happens. We become unconscious of weight, of locomotion; we are aware only of rhythm. It is a sensation akin to swimming, in which the water bears our weight. In the right rhythm of walking, the body’s weight does in fact float, borne along in a perfect balance between gravitational force and the momentum of forward motion. …  To hit your stride is to discover a new sensation, the sensation of moving as effortlessly as the deer bounds, the horse gallops, the fish swims and the bird flies.” [10]

Walking, for humans, is as natural as breathing. Walking also comports with the Taoist ideal of simplicity. In going for a long-distance walk, we free ourselves from the clutters and messiness of modern life. We say goodbye to the world of traffic, deadlines, meetings, and e-mails, and enter a stripped down, spare world of natural fundamentals: walking, communing with nature, eating, drinking, eliminating, and sleeping. There is freedom in this trade-off. As William Hazlitt said, “We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.” [11] Not the least pleasures of the open road is this freedom from restrictions and responsibilities — the freedom to do as we please.

By a magical but predictable alchemy, long-distance walking also amplifies enjoyment of simple pleasures. Robert Louis Stevenson said that, for him, the best part of a walking tour wasn’t the beautiful scenery, but “certain jolly humours,” including “the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest.” [12] “After a day’s walk,” G. M. Trevelyan notes, “everything has twice its usual value. Food and drink become subjects for epic celebration, worthy of the treatment Homer gave them.” [13] Pipes, pots of tea, armchairs, fireplaces, and books become things of rare quality and beauty. If you step outdoors at sunset, all nature seems appareled in celestial light. In these and in many other ways, “walking gives us back our senses.” [14]

Freedom from attachments and self-centeredness is a third Taoist value that walking can foster. The locus classicus of this sentiment is Thoreau’s famous paean to “sauntering” in his essay, “Walking.” Thoreau claimed that he had “met with but one or two persons in the course of [his] life who understood the art of Walking.” This isn’t surprising given Thoreau’s view about what is required for a proper walk. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk,” Thoreau said [15].

Thoreau liked to give his readers a jolt, so perhaps this is a tad over the top. But what he is driving at is the Transcendentalist idea of Nature. For Thoreau, nature is sacred, a temple of the divine. In cities we encounter ugliness, corruption, and greed; in wildness we encounter the divine. That is why Thoreau believed that “life consists in Wildness” and that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” [16] For him, a long walk in the woods wasn’t an escape from the “real world,” but a pilgrimage into reality.

This is a very much a Taoist idea. The spiritual benefits of communion with nature is a constant refrain in Taoist literature and art. Although it is everywhere, the Tao is more easily perceived in the mists of a mountain glen than it is in noise and fumes of modern factories.

Every member of the Order of Walkers can testify to the fact that walking relieves stress, promotes health, and gives a satisfying glow to the day. But what about this mystical-sounding idea of freeing us from “attachments”?

Here we touch on one of the high mysteries of long-distance walking. Animals don’t put loads on their backs and walk long distances for no apparent reason; only humans do that. Why? In large part, I believe, because humans have a need to connect with something grand and elemental. On long walks amidst beautiful surroundings we become absorbed in things larger than ourselves. Human problems are put to scale, daily stresses and strains are washed away, our sense of self expands, and we feel ourselves part of a larger Whole. This sense of absorption and communion satisfies something deep in human nature — as Taoists have long recognized.

The connection between the Taoist concept of wu-wei and long-distance walking is also something that all dedicated walkers can attest to. The sense of effortless motion one feels when swinging along a forest path in tip-top form is the very picture of doing through non-doing. And what is “accomplished” by means of such “recreation,” such idle “play”? Let G. M. Trevelyan speak for all walkers:

“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again. … On these occasions my recipe is to go for a long walk. My thoughts start out with me like blood-stained mutineers debauching themselves on board the ship they have captured, but bring them home at nightfall, larking and tumbling over each other like happy little boy-scouts at play … I have known the righteous forsaken and his seed begging their bread, but I never knew a man go for an honest day’s walk … and not have his reward in the repossession of his own soul.” [17]

In speaking of wu-wei, or effortless doing, we touch upon one of the great splits in walking, the eternal debate between “thinking walkers” and “not-thinking walkers.” [18]

Thinking walkers like to walk and think at the same time. They find that walking stimulates the mind and helps to organize one’s thoughts. When they go for walks, plans get made, books get written, retorts get formulated, and ideas fly like sparks off a generator.

Not-thinking walkers like to walk with their rational, calculative minds “turned inward, or turned off.” [19] Their goal is not to cogitate, but to be. By allowing their cogitative minds to take a nap as it were, they return refreshed. Frequently some kind of thinking is going on, but sub-consciously. It is common, in fact, for not-thinking walkers to return from a walk with some nagging problem — put aside and left to steep by the conscious mind — fully solved at some subterranean level. As Sussman and Goode note, this is a nice illustration of the Zen doctrine of no-mind. [20] But it is also a good example of the Taoist notion of wu-wei. Much gets accomplished, but without striving or conscious effort.

The last Taoist theme I wish to touch upon is the idea of intuitive, holistic insight. As we’ve seen, Taoists believe that ultimate reality cannot be grasped by means of words or the rational intellect. The deepest truths must be perceived by what Pascal called “the heart” — by feeling or intuition. Wordsworth, a patron saint of walkers as well as nature-mystics, spoke of

that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lighten’d: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things
. [21]

Walkers, too, know such a mood. Thus Trevelyan speaks of the rapture two silent walking companions feel when nothing

“disturbs the harmony of body, mind, and soul when they stride along no longer conscious of their separate, jarring entities, made one together in the mystic union with the earth, with the hills that still beckon, with the sunset that still shows the tufted moor under foot, with old darkness and its stars that take you to their breast with rapture … our minds become mere instruments to register the goodness and harmony of things, our bodies an animated part of the earth we trod.” [22]

Whether we think such moods put us in touch with a higher reality or not, they have special meaning. Like Wordsworth, “’mid the din of towns and cities … in hours of weariness,” we remember them as “sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; and passing even into [our] purer mind, with tranquil restoration.” [23] Such happy, restorative memories become treasured possessions, still fragrant with powers to refresh us, body and soul.


Gregory Bassham is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (Pennsylvania), where he specializes in philosophy of law and writes frequently on topics at the intersection of philosophy and popular culture. Bassham is the author of Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction. He and his family live in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania.

[1] George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking,” in Clio, A Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1913), p. 81.

[2] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 270. Originally published in 1957.

[3] Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China, trans. Eva Wong (Boston: Shambhala, 1990), p. 44. Quoted in Michael C. Brannigan, Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values, rev. ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), p. 146.

[4] A point nicely brought out in Benjamin Hoff’s classic The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin, 1983). Others have noted p’u-like themes in the film Forrest Gump (Paramount, 1994).

[5] Brannigan, Striking a Balance, p. 145.

[6] I say “well-matched” to forestall all objections from walking purists who embrace the “gospel of Silence” and insist that the “high, ultimate end” of walking can be achieved only by walking alone. (See, e.g., Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 60; William Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey,” in Aaron Sussman and Ruth Goode, eds., The Magic of Walking, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967, pp. 227-228; and Robert Louis Stevenson, “Walking Tours,” in Sussman and Goode, p. 235.) To head off all such cavils, let it be stipulated that this boon companion always walks at the desired pace, is not objectionably blabby, and would never think (as Emerson once said) of profaning river or forest by loud singing or vain talk.

[7] Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 70.

[8] Quoted in Edwin Way Teale, ed., The Wilderness World of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), p. 311. Originally published in 1954.

[9] Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, pp. 39-43.

[10] Ibid., p. 43.

[11] Hazlitt, “On Going a Journey,” p. 227.

[12] Stevenson, “Walking Tours,” p. 238.

[13] Trevelyan, “Walking,” p. 79. Another example of what Colin Fletcher calls “the small, amplified pleasures” of hiking: peeling your socks off at the end of a hard day. Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker III (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1984), pp. 6-7.

[14] Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, p. 90.

[15] Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Henry Seidel Canby, ed., The Selected Works of Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), p. 600.

[16] Ibid, p. 672.

[17] Trevelyan, “Walking,” pp. 56-58.

[18] See Sussman and Goode, The Magic of Walking, pp. 98-102, who have many wise things to say about this eternal divide.

[19] Ibid, p. 101.

[20] Ibid, p. 100.

[21] William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” in Ernest de Selincourt, ed., Wordsworth: Poetical Works (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. 164.

[22] Trevelyan, “Walking,” pp. 61-62.

[23] Wordsworth, “Lines,” p. 164.

55 thoughts on “The Tao of Walking

  1. Marvellous essay. I can do no better than quote Lewis Carroll approvingly:
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
    He chortled in his joy.

    You mention RL Stevenson. He also wrote a great little book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
    Another author worth reading is A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

    much human unhappiness is rooted in self-centeredness and grasping, egocentric desires
    Indeed. The beginnings of a remedy is to replace the selfie-stick with a walking stick.

    As you said, walking gives us back our senses. It allows us to experience joy in the simplicity of nature during the day and delight in relaxed companionship at the end of the day.

    Walking is meditation in motion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What I know of Taoism is about the subject of the yin and yang symbol, and not very much about that. (In computing, yin is the computer hardware, yang is the programming — though some oddly may take the opposite view.)

    As for talking walks, I can see walking as a way of combining stimulating the body (yin) and relaxing (yang). Or something like that.


  3. May one speculate on the cultural evolution of the type of walking described here? Surely it appears in force (along with its psychological benefits) only after mechanical modes of transportation eliminated the necessity of long walks simply to get places. This talk of taoism and walking paints a rosy new-agey picture of the activity. Not to discourage anyone from having a good walk, but can one assert that walking is intrinsically taoist? Was Trevelyan a taoist? Has there not also been fanatical manichean walking, authoritarian master/slave walking, the Crusades, grisly enforced caravans of fleeing outcasts, the terrible “Long March”, armed walking assemblies directed to massive bloody episodes of group selection? Is there an essence of walking?


  4. As a 20+ year practitioner and teacher of a gentle Taoist movement art ( Tai Chi ), as well as a current endurance athlete and marathon runner I found much to appreciate in this piece. I have no doubt that taking some time on a regular basis to commune with the natural patterns within ourselves and in our environment has great benefits. I think this especially true in our computer screen based culture so dependent on instant gratification and with so many barriers potentially isolating one nature.

    As a minor quibble it is my understanding that most scholars think Zhaungzi likely preceded Laozi as the original Taoist author, and that Laozi is mentioned only late in the book of Zhaungzi likely by disciples Zhaungzi many years later. These issues are not important to me as I don’t really care about authorship as it doesn’t change the wisdom in the concepts.

    I am very interested in the ways Taoism and Stoicism complement each other. While the Stoics emphasized rationality and the Taoists intuition, I think it is sometimes under-recognized how each tradition saw the value in the opposite of what was emphasized. Zhaungzi had a logician ( Huizi ) as his friend and mentor, and while some of his passages can seem to be mystical and anti-rationalist in others he has been interpreted as a philosopher of language. My understanding is also that as Stoicism moved to Rome the achievement of tranquility took on a greater role. Both philosophies strive to live in accord with nature although they certainly saw the fundamental way we could access human natures source differently.

    I am glad to see these concepts addressed here at Scientia.

    Many Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  5. This is a very beautifully written and expressed piece.

    With respect to the substance, I must say that I have never understood the Eastern idea that the elimination of attachments is somehow desirable. To the contrary, my attachments — in particularly, to those people with whom I share intimate connections — are at the heart of my conception of the intrinsic good.

    I wish someone would explain what strikes me as a very alien and counter-intuitive notion.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Hi Aravis,

    I think what some Eastern philosophies including Taoism point out is the human tendency to latch onto abstractions and then idealize them as truth. They recognized that the act of abstracting leaves something out from the ‘way’ things are, and I think this is an important and useful realization that we should not forget.

    I think the attribution of ‘elimination of attachments’ to eastern philosophies however is a similar misinterpretation (or at least simplification) similar to the attributing the elimination of emotions to the Stoics. For example, the Buddhists warn against becoming attached to the desire to remove desires. It is also just not an eastern idea as you know the Stoics practice the negative visualization of losing the those to whom we are intimately connected. This practice of letting go of the attachment does not imply the relationship is not valuable, and in fact has the goal of enhancing our gratitude for what he joys are afforded to us.


  7. One recent finding is the link between walking distances (>3km) and improved brain function. Our bodies gear up for an unknown environment when registering we are on a trek of some distance by increasing brain connectivity. Walking long distances 5 days a week may help stave off dementia.


  8. Why walk in the mountains? After one outing I wrote this.

    The answer seems too obvious. The answer – because it is there, or because I am here, is just another way of returning the question and saying – why ask the obvious.

    If pressed to think a little deeper I would say we all answer this question in our own way. Whatever the answer to the question, this is an important drive that plays itself out in every corner of the world, just as it did in our small corner of the world.

    It is a Saturday evening and our small group is crouched around a dancing fire in BBC Cave (the Bearded Bastards Cave) high up in the Tsitsikamma Mountains. As we look out of the cave, across a vast gorge, we can see Peak Formosa towering in the distance. Tomorrow we will climb that peak but for the moment we are engaged in friendly banter as we play off each other’s eccentricities. We are tired, our muscles are aching, we are dirty and uncomfortable but none of that matters as we are in the grip of a feeling of joyous anticipation.

    On the face of it we are a bunch of eccentrics united by a common love of the mountains. Look a little deeper and you find a group with invisible but strong bonds. It is the knowledge of shared danger and shared hardship. It is the knowledge that we like each other and that we can depend on each other. It is the knowledge that we enjoy understanding, respect and tolerance for each other. In short, it is a  special kind of camaraderie.

    As we enjoy our friendly banter, something else creeps into the conversation, it is a feeling of awe, of the numinous. Nature looms large in our consciousness in a way that is central to us. It is a feeling that we have come home, that nature is the anchor of our well being.

    Tomorrow we will hoist our heavy backpacks onto our shoulders and begin the final leg of an arduous climb. It is now that you will see the other common feature of this unlikely group – their resilience, their  hardiness. They are all consumed by the need to test their resilience. It is as if they need to discover their inner limits and so discover more about themselves.

    In short, they climb mountains because in the presence of mountains they discover a camaraderie unlike any other, because in the presence of mountains they feel the closest bonds with nature, because in the presence of mountains they can explore the limits of their resilience, learning more about themselves than in any other way.

    For it is in testing ourselves that we become open to experiencing other people in a deeper way and we become open to experiencing nature in a more intimate way. When we test ourselves to the limits of our resilience we strip away the barriers and become open to perception.


  9. Hi, Aravis. I’m sure the OP can weigh in on what is admittedly a problem that is shared by many, but I don’t see it as uniquely Oriental. What is sometimes described as attachment is at other times described as non-attachment or detachment. I prefer “cravings” or “obsessions” as in the elimination of such.

    I think the Zen story sometimes referred to as “Two Monks and a Woman” captures the spirit of both p’u and wu wei in Taoism. That is why some maintain that Zen without Buddhism is Taoism. 🙂 Here’s a link to the story and a fair, if brief, analysis of the viewpoint (there are others, of course):


  10. Aravis

    ‘So, I gather from the replies so far that it’s not attachment or connectedness, per se, but rather, obsessions or addictions?’

    I would say that the non-attachment Taoism of Zhuangzi applies to the judgment making process in general. This to help protect one from forming obsessions or addictions, but would apply at an early stage to reduce bias in making choices (or allowing correct choices to become apparent ). He calls this ‘the sorting out that equalizes things’ and devotes the second ‘inner chapter’ to the concept. Here is how A.C. Graham puts it.

    “Does Chuang-tzŭ’s rejection of disputation amount to a total dismissal of reason? In the first place, spontaneous behaviour as he conceives it is not ‘thoughtless’ in the sense of ‘heedless’, on the contrary it follows close attention to the situation. Nor is it implied that every relevant facet is perceived immediately in a moment of insight; when for example Cook Ting carving an ox arrives at an especially intricate knot of bone and sinew he pauses, concentrates until everything is clear to him, then slices through with a single deft stroke. Although Chuang-tzŭ rejects pien, ‘disputation’, the posing and arguing out of alternatives, he always speaks favourably of lun, ‘sorting, grading’, thought and discourse which orders things in their proper relations. In common usage this word tended to imply grading in terms of relative value, but Chuang-tzŭ’s kind of lun is, to quote the title attached to his second chapter, the ‘sorting which evens things out’. 42 It would cover all common-sense thinking about objective facts in order to arrive at a coherent picture of the conditions before responding.”

    Chuang-Tzu (2001-03-15). The Inner Chapters (Hackett Classics) (Kindle Locations 351-360). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


  11. Aravis,
    my (amateur)attempt at an answer.
    The goal is balance, achieved by:
    1. Attachment to the right things;
    2. To the right degree;
    3. Such that one is open to rich perception and harmony;
    4. Achieved by creating spaces in one’s life free from attachments;
    5. So that one is able to discern and discard harmful attachments;
    6. And thus restore balance in life.


  12. Seth and Labnut:

    It sounds to me like the relationships that we cherish the most and which hold the greatest value for us will be precisely the sort that the Taoist will want to discourage. The connection we have with close friends, lovers, and family are intense, unbalanced, most certainly shot through with bias, and have great potential to harm us. After all, nothing really worthwhile is free of risk.

    It just seems as if what the Taoist is saying –and to the degree that he says it too, the Buddhist — is either a truism (avoid harmful attachments), which is uninteresting — or else is something substantive (avoid attachments whose intensity makes them *potentially* harmful), but which I find objectionable. I wonder if this is part of the reason why Eastern philosophy/religion has never held any appeal or interest for me.

    Or am I still getting it wrong?


  13. Hi Gregory,

    I love this article, walking is one of the greatest pleasures there is, although I will jump at any kind of journey.

    From my earliest days I recall walks along the banks of the Clyde, along canal lanes and into Bowling Harbour, across locks, through old marinas with ancient boats quietly decaying and to docks with huge sunken and rotting ships and into old stone buildings with giant iron machinery which used to open some long gone bridge.

    I had never connected walking to Tao before but I find the connections you make apt. To set out and walk for many days with no purpose but the journey does indeed embody ” simplicity, naturalness, freedom from attachments, effortless doing, and intuitive, holistic wisdom. “. Unfortunately it is something I currently have little space for in my life.

    Aravis points out that attachments are at the heart of intrinsic good. I agree. But there are also useless damaging attachments. I think that a period putting all attachments to the side is, as Labnut pointed out, a good way of sorting out one from the other.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. A Husserlian perspective on the tao. Husserl observes that consciousness is necessarily intentional. Thought and awareness are of act-character and act-matter. The tao is associated with passivity.Taoism attempts to separate consciousness from intentionality. Attachment = Intentionality?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi Aravis,

    I couldn’t disagree more strongly with you last comment. There is nothing inherently unnatural or against the ‘tao’ or the ‘way’ when it comes to our shared connections with others. We often create unnecessary drama with the way we conceptualize those connections, and that is all the Taoist approach (as I understand it ) looks to avoid. It has nothing to do the intensity of the feeling unless you feel that intense feeling can only be driven by unbalanced emotions & abstracted drama. There are useful biases that help us engage directly in the world and unnecessary biases that remove us from it. Anyone who has cultivated skill in any art form has cultivated their biases so that they maintain a direct engagement with their craft in the medium in which they carry out the art form without unnecessary distraction.

    Of course we can’t be in a constant state of experiencing intense emotion, but that type of state can certainly be part of a balanced life process. There is no single emotion that is wrong, no single emotion that is right for all circumstances. There is only the circumstance of our engagement or absorption with the world, and there is no rigid code or abstracted set of rules that can best inform that engagement. I don’t think this insight is at all trivial as my own family currently has been completely driven apart based on what I feel is nothing more than a strict attachment to rigid belief systems which removes any chance of connecting to the person behind the ideology.

    Living brings forth risk. My interpretation of Taoism is not that one takes no risks, or one that makes no judgments. In fact Taoism is a philosophy of doing & ‘knowing how’, not one of disengagement. It may seem intellectually trivial to say don’t partake in harmful attachments, but in my view the practice of getting better at doing so is anything but trivial, and I find reading Zhaungzi helpful in that process. I don’t consider myself a Taoist, I don’t think they had all the answers, but I think there is much in the philosophy that would benefit our current culture.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Aravis,

    I must say that I have never understood the Eastern idea that the elimination of attachments is somehow desirable. To the contrary, my attachments — in particularly, to those people with whom I share intimate connections — are at the heart of my conception of the intrinsic good.

    Two men, two brothers, embark on a walk. One man takes the low road, along the beach, while the other takes the high road, up in the mountain. At some point, a sudden tsunami appears, hits the beach, and the first man drowns in agonizing death. The second man, up on the hill, watches the horrific scene and his brother dying, and… hmm… enjoys the Tao?

    I don’t think so.

    As for the philosophy — extending on Aravis, I can only understand these Eastern ideas of elimination of attachments as an expression of ultimate anti-social selfishness. I always wondered — isn’t the easiest way to eliminate all attachments to simply jump off a cliff? But oh, wait, these ideas come along with the reincarnation idea, so jumping off a cliff doesn’t resolve anything — since one will merely be reborn again and again. One is thus encouraged to commit intellectual and emotional suicide, as opposed to the physical one. Either that, or I am failing to understand something more profound (and less ridiculous) in such a philosophy.

    As for the essay, I have to say I didn’t like it at all. The text paints a too rosy picture of a person enjoying the walk in pure nice cosy nature, as opposed to an alienating hostile dirty greyness of a city. The author fails to investigate the idea of meditative relaxing walk along a long road from the perspective of a person who accidentally twisted their ankle midway through the walk and is in terrible pain if making even a single step. In such a situation, one would arguably be most relaxed in the knowledge that they have a cell phone to call up a taxi for a fast drive back to that hostile grey civilization. People didn’t build towns, factories, etc., because they wanted to ignore the pleasure of walking in the woods. They built them because they wanted to ignore the displeasure of meeting a pack of wolves, a bear or a snake in those woods while walking.

    In other words, people don’t live in cities because they are foolishly ignorant of nature, but because nature can sometimes be cruel. The essay completely fails to even acknowledge, let alone account for, this fact.


  17. Aravis, perhaps, it might be helpful for you to consider the notion of non-attachment or detachment along the lines of Stoic philosophy. Stoic resignation and control of emotion bear some resemblance to non-attachment in Taoism, though I wouldn’t press the point because of Stoic’s emphasis on the efficacy of reason in shaping one’s life. Detachment doesn’t entail a devaluation of life or a disengagement from it. You might find this more scholarly work more helpful:

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Seth: My last comment was “Or am I still getting it wrong?” So, I don’t see why you would disagree with it so strongly.

    I know nothing about Taoism. That’s why I’m asking the questions. My surmises are entirely based on what people have said, and they are hesitant, because I know I may be getting it wrong.

    In any event, your further elaboration was helpful and clarifying, so I thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. While I appreciate the meditative aspects of Taoism, even enough to own a book of daily reflections called “365 Tao,” and I like the idea of mindlessness walking, or whatever we might call it …

    I have to agree with Aravis on the big picture. Having desires, goals, foci, etc., is part of what makes us human. Or, as I put it to people regularly in terms of evolutionary biology, not only are we smarter than the cow chewing its cud, we are of much more emotional depth.

    Or, in terms of Eastern religions, as I put it, “The only good Buddha is a dead Buddha.” And, I don’t mean that totally in a “snark” way. Of course, Mahayana would disagree with me.

    So, no, Aravis, I don’t think you’re getting it wrong.

    This gets back to “self-centeredness.” Not meaning to sound anything like Ayn Rand, or even Nathaniel Branden, but a certain amount of this isn’t bad.

    Now, a good Skeptic might hold things in “suspension,” but that’s not exactly the same as detachment. Or a Stoic might note that other people are outside our control, without recommending attachment or detachment. A Cynic, per my essay here, might say that we examine ourselves, and we ground any attachments we form based on our own desires, and not internalized familial or social drives. But, those aren’t exactly the same, either.

    And, all of them might recommend walking in the mountains.

    A Cynic might say walk in the Canadian Rockies in late August, even while it’s snowing, and even Canadians think you’re crazy. Because, if I feel like hiking in sub-freezing weather and snow flurries in shorts, why shouldn’t I?

    As for wu wei? Einstein recommended being in touch with one’s intuition. Of course, his thought on metaphysical issues is, IMO, muddled. He might have rejected the label “pantheist” even though he talked favorably about “Spinoza’s god.” But, he might also reject the label “atheist.”

    A couple of other thoughts.

    1. I don’t believe humans are naturally “good,” or naturally “evil.” I believe we naturally “are.”

    2. We were actually scavenger-gatherers long before we were hunter-gatherers to any significant degree. (Of course, this misconception is one of the major, and central, errors of Ev Psych, mainly because so much edifice is built on top of it.)

    3. Animals don’t put loads on their back because they don’t have opposable thumbs or, in general, primate-type arms. Nor have any of them reached a sufficient level of toolmaking. I wouldn’t read anything more into the bare fact of the matter than these other bare facts.


  20. I want to thank Professor Bassham and SciSal for this well-conceived and charming essay. I like his metaphoric use of long distance walking to introduce the reader, in a modest and unpretentious way, to Taoism and some of its concepts. This is not intended to be a treatise. And the author’s objective and intent could not be more clearly stated:

    “Although the notion of “the Tao [or Zen] of X” is greatly overworked, there are interesting tie-ins between Taoism and long-distance walking. Let me explain.”

    I think he succeeds, though I have one minor objection: “Dog walkers walk to enjoy the company of a companionable dog.”

    No, No, No. It may be that this is entirely due to my deficiencies as a dog owner, but stopping every three feet while my companionable dog intently sniffs at what to me is an undetectable scent is hardly a Taoistic experience, though admittedly it may be for him. At any rate, his pleasure is nearly palpable, and perhaps I should take it as an indirect lesson on the benefits of wu wei.


  21. My last comment (yippee 1st time I used all 5) :),

    Aravis – I should have prefaced my comment by saying that I have learned more from your comments here at scientia then I would ever expect to return.

    I think what elicited my ‘strong disagreement’ was the framing of the possible options into two pretty extreme dichotomies (either no desires – or trivial avoidance of unnecessary harm.). This is an example of exactly what Zhaungzi wants to avoid. Zhaungzi see our progressive learning taking place exactly where those dichotomies interact. The value is to be found in the blind spots we create when we define things into exlusive categories. So he says to ‘allow both alternatives to proceed’.

    Socratic – Zhaungzi definately takes the position of ‘suspension’ at the ‘center of the potters wheel’, ‘allowing both alternatives to proceed’, so I would have to disagree with you on that point as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Hi Marko,

    In other words, people don’t live in cities because they are foolishly ignorant of nature, but because nature can sometimes be cruel. The essay completely fails to even acknowledge, let alone account for, this fact.

    May I say that you have a tendency to read in things that people do not say or mean (for example when I recently said that mathematics can encapsulate meaning in the symbols you leap to the unsupported conclusion that I am saying mathematics is a universal language, something I explicitly avoided saying).

    I cannot see where the author has said or implied that people live in cities because they are foolishly ignorant of nature.

    The fact that he has not mentioned some fact does not mean that he is denying that fact, it may simply not be relevant to his present purpose.

    He has simply said (where he was not paraphrasing Thoreau) that the Tao, or whatever it represents, is clearer in nature than it is in the city. That is not inconsistent with a recognition that nature can be cruel (so can cities) and does not suggest in any way that people are ignorant of nature. We can recognise the amenities of civilisation and also value nature. It is not an either or situation.

    In any case if you twist your ankle walking in the country your cell phone would most likely be useless and you would be hoping for another walker or a local to pass by and help. If you twist your ankle in the wilderness where no one is passing by then you have not planned very well.

    In fact the pleasures of walking in the city are similar to those of walking in the country, as I indicated in my earlier post. It has long been my habit to spend days walking through the less well known parts of cities. There are a lot of places in Glasgow or London, for example, now gone (so much of the beautiful old industrial architecture demolished) that I am glad I have at least seen it.


  23. Beautiful essay, Thank you. =

    I walked into a forest once and came home and wrote this:


    Walk into a forest
    Let your mind become a tree
    When you are One
    Meditation is achieved.

    Oneness is
    The single truth.


    “Ultimate reality, they believe, cannot be grasped by words or concepts”

    I think truth simply cannot be heard!


  24. I liked the essay and found it invigorating. I think the world is big enough to allow both Marko’s evident love of city life, and Dr. Bassham’s wish to escape from it every now and then. Besides, although Bassham chooses to emphasize the value of walking in the wild, in fact much of what he remarks applies equally, although in a different way, to walking through at least certain neighborhoods in certain cities.

    I wish he hadn’t made a common Western mistake in confusing certain Taoist ideas with certain Buddhist ideas. They are similar, but not the same. Taoist non-attachment, as I understand it, originates from taking life on its own terms. The way is the everyday way; we eat, work, live with our families, all without much thought or analysis, and that’s how it should be; if we need to analyze this, then something has gone amiss, possibly because we have already begun analyzing it. Thus non-attachment is simply living without worrying too much about it; if there is depth to living, let that reveal itself.

    Non-attachment in Buddhism comes packed with considerable psychological insight, and there is more at stake. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is release from aggregates of self and desire, source of all suffering.

    Buddhism is best realized in a monastic practice; but the fundamental principles can have a wide appeal, and a beneficial influence on quite practical lived experience. I find it strange that some still believe that a philosophy, in some cultures a religion, with hundreds of millions of adherents is somehow only of interest to ascetic freaks. The Japanese do not love? The Chinese do not weep? The Thai do not laugh? The Burmese do not feel outrage? There are no close knit families in Korea? Not everyone in these cultures are Buddhists; but Buddhists in these cultures share the same pains, the same joys, the same closeness, the same confusions, the same hopes as their neighbors. They do not find Buddhism ‘life-denying;’ why should we?

    Marko Vojinovic,

    “Either that, or I am failing to understand something more profound (and less ridiculous) in such a philosophy.

    Yes, you have failed to understand just about everything in such philosophies (at least evidenced by this remark). Do you think that practicing the Tao suddenly turns one into a cold-hearted loon? Do you think that Buddhists are so concerned with some ineffable whatness that they have no feeling for their families or for others? There is a reason why we Buddhists speak about the *compassion* of the Buddha as his greatest gift.

    Socratic Gadfly.

    All Buddhas are dead and they are good. It is the Bodhisattvas you have to worry about, they tend to linger on. Some silly notion about helping others overcome pain….


    Much of your cultural identity seems bound to a 3000 year old tradition; I’m disappointed you don’t recognize the value other 3000 year old traditions can have for others.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Hi Aravis, Marko,

    It only makes sense to leave attachment behind if you have something to do that attachments would make impossible. My take on it is this. A human being has, I believe, three principal dispositions; the individual, the relational and the unitive. Attachments, whether beneficial or not, belong to the relational disposition and we fear their loss because it would cause us to fall back into our individual selves and the ensuing physical and mental isolation would be unpleasant, if not disastrous, for us. However, the attachments that “lift” us from the individual to the relational state become a hindrance if we wish to progress to the unitive state. Attachment implies duality, no matter how close the attachment, and duality is by definition incompatible with unity.
    One of the characteristics of the unitive state is that the individual and his attachments are not lost in it but are instead fulfilled by it. Think of the individuals in a loving relationship or the members of a successful band, sports team, college or even a commercial company where it seems, at least for a while, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the group is in “flow”.
    Alongside these more mundane (and limited) applications, the idea of having to abandon attachment to achieve a greater unity is central to mystical traditions in the West as well as the East. In the West, mysticism has tended to be either a religion-based or an underground activity. In the East, particularly in China, mysticism has been a more open, secular philosophy with similar techniques being taught as general aids to healthy and virtuous living as well as being preliminaries to more esoteric pursuits for a minority.
    Because of their more secular formulations, Eastern mystical philosophies appear to be more amenable to “naturalisation” than those of the West, but the process (of naturalisation) can leave some of their techniques “orphaned” by the rejection of the transcendent element and consequently appearing incongruous or even “an expression of ultimate anti-social selfishness” to us.
    As for the other element (walking) in the enjoyable essay, I stick with daoism for my exercise. I regularly perform the “standing pole” exercises from that tradition and find them excellent. With my tongue only a little in my cheek, I say that since Mother Nature spent millions of years perfecting homo sedentarius, who am I to blow against the wind?

    Liked by 2 people

  26. All right, I’m forced to it – I admit it: like all Buddhists, I absolutely hate life. I aspire to the life-denial evident in the poetry of the great ascetic, Ikkyu. He spent the last 20 of his 80 years years having sex with a teen-aged girl, singer because he just hated life so much, as we Buddhists all do.

    ‘After they die’

    Why are people called Buddhas
    After they die?
    Because they don’t grumble any more,
    Because they don’t make a nuisance
    Of themselves any more. *

    ‘Exhausted with gay pleasures’

    Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife.
    The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
    My mind runs in the opposite direction.
    It is easy to be glib about Zen — I’ll just keep my mouth shut
    And rely on love play all the day long.

    ‘A Fisherman’

    Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
    A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
    Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
    Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

    ‘A Meal of Fresh Octopus’

    Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
    Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
    The taste of the sea, just divine!
    Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.

    ‘I Hate Incense’

    This old monk has never cared for false piety
    And my nose wrinkles at the dark smell of incense before the Buddha.
    A master’s handiwork cannot be measured
    But still priests wag their tongues explaining the “Way” and babbling about “Zen.”

    ‘To Lady Mori with Deepest Gratitude and Thanks’

    The tree was barren of leaves but you brought a new spring.
    Long green sprouts, verdant flowers, fresh promise.
    Mori, if I ever forget my profound gratitude to you,
    Let me burn in hell forever.

    (Mori was a blind minstrel, and Ikkyu’s young mistress.)

    From “Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu,” translated by John Stevens. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1995. :
    My hand, how it resembles Mori’s hand.
    I believe the lady is the master of loveplay;
    If I get ill, she can cure the jeweled stem. **
    And then they rejoice, the monks at my meeting.

    * ‘Buddha’ is an honorific that can only be said of someone who is dead. (This despite Beat efforts to christen Kerouac a ‘buddha’ while he was still alive.) There is only one ‘The Buddha’ (Siddharta Gautama); references to ‘Buddhas’ in various cultural texts are to those who were recognized as Bodhisattvas while alive, but who have since passed on. (Bodhisattvas have reached awareness of Nirvana, but who turn their back on it, to share the Four Noble Truths to alleviate the suffering of others.

    ** Not a reference to some ritualistic scepter of power… although it could be so conceived, I suppose….


  27. Great article. I like to hike in the mountains, but only shorter trips (4-6 days). But I’ve also made longer cycling trips (10-11 days, 60-100 miles per day) and after 4 or 5 days you enter a state of conciousness that I can only describe as “zen”. It’s a fabulous experience. Life becomes simple and rich at the same time. You suffer when you climb Galibier, but it’s the kind of suffering that makes you joyfully aware of the fact that you’re a human being, spirit and body at the same time.


  28. EJwinner:

    Much of your cultural identity seems bound to a 3000 year old tradition; I’m disappointed you don’t recognize the value other 3000 year old traditions can have for others.

    All I’ve done is asked questions about a tradition I know nothing about. I made hesitant surmises, based on what people told me, wondering all the time, whether I was getting it wrong. And when someone gave me a clearer explanation, I thanked him.

    I have no idea what your problem is.


  29. I don’t know much about Taoism but I am familiar with the English tradition of Romantic and post-Romantic nature mysticism and its philosophical roots in Plato, Spinoza, German Idealism etc.

    There are often connections, both thematic and historical, between disparate traditions but frankly I don’t think it’s that helpful to just bundle together ideas from different times and places as the OP tends to do. E.g.:

    “The last Taoist theme I wish to touch upon is the idea of intuitive, holistic insight. As we’ve seen, Taoists believe that ultimate reality cannot be grasped by means of words or the rational intellect. The deepest truths must be perceived by what Pascal called “the heart” — by feeling or intuition. Wordsworth, a patron saint of walkers as well as nature-mystics, spoke of:

    “… that blessed mood,
    In which the burthen of the mystery,
    In which the heavy and the weary weight
    Of all this unintelligible world
    Is lighten’d…” And so on — and on (as Wordsworth was wont to go).

    Jumping from ancient Chinese philosophy to Pascal to Wordsworth is just confusing in my view.

    I can see the point the author is trying to make (about intuitive insight which transcends reason and language — and so time and place and culture). But how can we know (except via this intuitive mode of understanding, which rather begs the question) that such insight is really insight, i.e. capable of delivering genuine knowledge? And, even if it does, by definition you can’t put into words (except perhaps via poetry or similar means) what the insight is. Certainly you can’t explain it. Whereof one cannot speak…

    We can know to a greater or lesser extent (and, of course, talk productively — and critically — about) the details of what the Taoists or Pascal or whoever practised or believed.

    Maybe all these traditions can be seen to boil down or point to some kind of universal transcendent or religious essence. But for someone of a skeptical (and historically-oriented) frame of mind, seeing such disparate sources thrown together, the differences ignored and an underlying compatibility simply being assumed is frustrating in the same way that so much popular New Age thinking is frustrating.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. There’s some pretty obvious irony surfacing in some of the commentary and exchanges here in light of the subject matter of the post. Time for me to take a walk. 🙂


  31. Aravis,

    I certainly didn’t mean to sound contentious. If I did, I’m sorry.

    Whenever we discuss older Western philosophies here at SciSal – Stoicism, Platonism, Medieval Scholasticism, whatever – it is clear from the kind of discussion we have that most of us understand these philosophies are integral to the history of philosophy that has brought us to the present, even where they have been displaced or replaced or simply left behind. We are comfortable discussing them as traditions, that elaborated themselves through that history, many still having adherents; and so we discuss their strengths and weaknesses within a culture where we recognize they still have a place.

    But when we discuss Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism (I don’t recall discussing Hinduism, but perhaps we should), one often reads responses that treat these philosophies as novelties coming out of some theoretical space, rather like Transcendental Meditation or Dianetics. Sometimes their cultural connections are remarked, but largely as something admittedly unknown and possibly ‘foreign,’ in the sense that these philosophies may be of value to other peoples to the East in a way we don’t understand or possibly cannot understand.

    I think, on the contrary, that those in the East are pretty much people like ourselves; and that consequently the philosophic and religious traditions they enjoy function pretty much for them as ours do for us. These traditions are very much a part of history; and included in that history are debates between various schools, syncretic mediations, open conflict, innovations, maneuvering for dominance, re-positioning, regression and revival, etc., etc., just as has happened in the West. Consequently, in approaching these philosophies, it might be a good idea to begin by asking what it is about these philosophies that millions of people, throughout history, have found beneficial, both at the level of theory among the scholars of these traditions, but also at the level of daily practice among people who are engaged in the same efforts to survive and live together as we are.

    So, when approaching these philosophies, it is possibly not helpful to begin by taking an idea out of a philosophy’s theoretical space and asking, say, ‘is this idea life-denying?’ Because if it were truly life-denying, it would not survive long as part of a tradition of millions of people finding satisfaction in it. Would it not be better to first recognize that these people have found something life-affirming in it, and ask after that?

    Both Dr. Bassham and Seth Leon have given good account of Taoist non-attachment. I interjected as I did, because Buddhism has a somewhat different understanding of non-attachment than Taoism, that is more radical and does implicate a monasticism in response. Yet millions have found it helpful and affirming. So, rather than approaching it suspiciously, can we not begin by asking, what about this non-attachment can be of beneficial use and why?

    I’m not trying to close down these discussions, I’m asking for a different beginning point for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. EJ, Aravis,
    I would like to suggest that the differences of opinion can be traced back to a very different tradition that has informed Aravis’ outlook. I want to start by pointing out that asceticism and non-attachment lie on the same scale where asceticism represents the extreme. For convenience the word ‘asceticism’ can be used to refer to the entire scale.

    The references below make it clear that modern day Judaism rejects asceticism and so the kind of non-attachment referred to in the essay is, in all likelihood, incomprehensible to Aravis. As Aravis has explained before, Judaism places a very strong premium on the attachments of family, group, belief and cultural practices, expressed and reinforced by their ritual experiences. These strong attachments account for the astounding survival of the Jewish people over a 3000 year period despite repeated dispersals and the worst persecutions that any group has ever endured. Not only have they survived but they have made astonishing contributions to science and culture, despite this history.

    While non-attachment may seem to us to have self-evident benefits there is no gainsaying the fact that the strong attachments in Judaic society have been extraordinarily successful.

    Given all this, I think it is natural that Aravis would ask for further clarification of a concept which is foreign to his culture.

    Aravis, please correct me if I have misunderstood the matter.
    ASCETICISM. Rigorous abstention from any form of self-indulgence which is based on the belief that renunciation of the desires of the flesh and self-mortification can bring man to a high spiritual state. Asceticism never occupied an important place in the Jewish religion. Judaism did not believe that the freedom of man’s soul could be won only by the subjugation of the flesh, a belief which was central in religions based upon anthropological dualism.
    Asceticism is rejected by modern day Judaism; it is considered contrary to God’s wishes for the world. God intended the world to be enjoyed, and people be in good spirits when praying.[26]
    At all events, Judaism is of a temper which is fatal to asceticism; and the history of both Judaism and the Jews is, on the whole, free from ascetic aberrations. Fundamental to the teachings of Judaism is the thought that the world is good. Pessimism has no standing-ground. Life is not under the curse. The doctrine of original sin, the depravity of man, has never had foothold within the theology of the synagogue. It never held sway over the mind and the religious imagination of the Jews. In consequence of this the body and the flesh were never regarded by them as contaminated, and the appetites and passions were not suspected of being rooted in evil. The appeal to mortify the flesh for the sake of pleasing Heaven could not find voice in the synagogue.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Aravis,

    Non-attachment, as I have understood it, is not an opaque Commandment from on high to be anti-social, non-materialistic, and so on. Rather it’s a cultivation of a deep awareness of certain truths about this life that if not understood lead to needless suffering and generally a less-wise life These truths include the fact that we will die, that loved ones can leave us at any time through death and other reasons, that material possessions can be lost, and are not the way to happiness anyway. Generally, it’s an awareness that avoids the illusions of eternity and permanence that tend to devastate people when the game is up, and less at peace in the interim. It’s not opposed to enjoying the company of people and things and life generally. On the contrary, the idea is that when such enjoyment is freed of illusions of permanence, it becomes truer and more profound.

    Liked by 2 people

  34. I agree with Thomas. Just go for a walk.

    Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.

    John Muir


  35. I do appreciate indeed haiku as part of Zen, and ultimately, its Taoist stepfather. Love writing it, myself, too.

    I often do extended haiku poetry, with multiple stanzas. I even did an editorial column in extended haiku. Why? It was about the Tokyo climate treaty:

    Or a riff on Shakespeare’s “sound and fury”:

    That said, let’s not forget the other parts of Taoism, such as its search for magical elixirs and such, and the fact that the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi are but parts of a much broader background.

    The magic elixir search, and the I Ching, both seem to cut against the grain of “naturalness” and spontaneous action. Elixirs to extend life, transmute metals to gold, etc., are very much attempts to “control” nature in a non-spontaneous way. Certainly, divination is usually done by most people in an attempt to consciously forestall the fate that is allegedly one’s allotment. I know that Wiki’s article on Taoism notes that it took study of the I Ching in a more meditative direction, so that thought of mine should be partiaally caveated, perhaps.

    At the same time, in the West, the modern Western Taoist movement has denatured its original background at least as much as has Westernizing Buddhism. And, that’s not to mention nonsense such as the “Tao of Pooh.”

    Per EJ back to Aravis, I agree that it’s a good chance to expand our horizons. That’s why, based on what I do know about Buddhism, I made my “only good Buddha” joke, added the caveat, and EJ then picked up on it!

    For instance, until I read “Doubt” by Jennifer Hecht, I was unaware of the Carvaka, a decidedly skeptical school or movement within pre-Hinduism.

    So, with EJ, although I don’t buy the metaphysics of Taoism, I can appreciate its meditative aspects, and the history and culture within which it arose.

    And, I’m throwing in a non-haiku poetry. Picture A.E. Houseman’s To an Athlete Dying Young:


  36. Fascinating discussion, all, and obviously one that isn’t just “academic,” but strikes close to the core of people’s beliefs.

    I don’t think anyone should feel that their approaches / beliefs / traditions are under attack. Taoism, like Buddhism, Stoicism, Judaism, and so forth, are all philosophical (in some cases philosophical-religious) traditions, and may speak to some and not others.

    But I do think we need to read others’ pronouncements with charity, avoiding trivializations or sarcasm.

    Aravis’ main point seems to think that he sees several Eastern traditions, as well as Stoicism and other Western ones, as somehow denying what he considers a basic component of the human condition: emotional attachment to the things we think are valuable.

    To some extent, I think, he is right. Those traditions do counsel different degrees of emotional detachment not only from objects, but even from people and events.

    Where he goes astray, in my opinion, is in thinking that this somehow dehumanizes us, or makes us not value things that we should value. In my Stoic practice I still very much value my friends, my family, my profession, my life in New York, and so forth. But I have also become much more conscious of the fact that these are things over which I have relatively little control, which could go any time. This engenders two reactions: on the one hand, I try to remind myself that they are externals that need to be considered with equanimity. On the other hand, I am just as forcefully reminded of how precious they are precisely because they are fleeting.

    This sort of approach may or may not be someone’s cup of tea, just like Aravis’ own tradition / approach may or may not be. But it doesn’t hurt to consider all such approaches, because they have evidently worked for many people for thousands of years.

    Liked by 3 people

  37. Massimo,

    I basically agree with all you said. A point of concern I have though is with the possible suggestion that “emotional attachment” is a kind of psychological primitive that we endorse or do not. On the contrary, I would say that the nature of emotional attachment is at least to a great extent a function of one’s philosophical outlook; that is, it’s to some extent necessarily framed within contingent or variable conceptual constructs. In this way, non-attachment doesn’t so much deny emotional attachment as transforms one’s emotional life away from it through a philosophical outlook that emphasizes certain truths.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. And, even if it does, by definition you can’t put into words (except perhaps via poetry or similar means) what the insight is. Certainly you can’t explain it. Whereof one cannot speak…

    Actually I would say that nearly everything we manage to communicate to each other are things we cannot possibly put into words.

    Try to remember some situation such as, say, a great meal you had at a restaurant with funny and intelligent companions and, perhaps, a really great band playing.

    So how would you describe this? ‘Yummy food, great convo, ripper tunes’ or something like that obviously would not cover it. And even if you summoned up your best possible literary effort you would have done little better.

    But would you then never talk of that night again? Or would you rely on the fact that others had eaten and enjoyed food, had stimulating conversations, had listened to music that moved them? If you did the latter do you not think that you would have shared something of that evening with them? Not everything, obviously there will remain something that is always private to you and something of the evening that, as time passes, will even be lost to you. Nevertheless you clearly could communicate quite a good deal that can’t be put into words.

    In fact ‘putting it into words’ is probably a misleading way of speaking of communication. There is nothing ‘in the words’ so to speak.

    Take the following stanza from a poem:

    “They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
    They brought me bitter news to read, and bitter tears to shed,
    I wept as I remembered how often you and I
    Had tired the sun with talking, sent it crawling down the sky”

    It is originally from Callimachus and rendered by William Johnson Cory. A fairly mediocre poem in the scheme of things but I would suggest that it communicates quite a bit, about friendship, loss and the remembrance of entire days spent in deep conversation. Reading that I know something real about what a scholar two thousand years ago working for a Pharoah in the Library of Alexandria felt, or what a nineteenth century Eton schoolmaster felt, even though that feeling cannot be put into words.

    No, not exactly what they felt. I am putting myself into it but I am the same kind of animal as they were with the same sort of brain and so I think that it is valid to say that I recognise what they also felt.

    So I cannot see that there is anything wrong, in principle, with the idea that we can share across time and across culture something that cannot be put into words but only felt.

    And, if you take an imaginary wide angle POV of the entire galaxy over billions of years, the Lao Tzu, Pascal and Wordsworth were really just three guys from the same time and neighborhood with different takes on the same issues and experiences.

    Liked by 3 people

  39. Massimo,

    First allow me to apologize for the irreverence of the remarks I wrote introducing Ikkyu’s poems. I was trying to be sardonic and self-effacing at the same time – unfortunately, the remarks were badly written, and sounded more contentious than intended. (I seem to be apologizing a lot lately, and should probably take a personal inventory….)

    Thank you, and labnut, for attempting to referee here. Actually, my issue was not so much with Aravis, as I hope he’ll recognize on reviewing the thread.

    In general, I suppose I was annoyed that, in discussing the specific issue of non-attachment, we were drawn off the layered thematic of Dr. Bassham’s article. Clearly, the article is attempting (in part) to elucidate certain principles in Taoism, and to find common ground between these and an important Western tradition of naturalist self-realization through experience. The common ground is there, and worthy of consideration.

    I’m not sorry for posting Ikkyu’s poems. Although a recognized iconoclast, he is well-admired within the Zen tradition. And though most of the poems are simply dismissive of ideological rigor and celebratory of sensuality, the poem “A Fisherman” fits quite well into the discussion Bassham’s article opens up: This is clearly non-attachment as openness to experience.

    Thomas Jones’ remark on irony, and reading Ikkyu’s poems after posting them, I admit that I’m occasionally too attached even to Buddhism itself. There are reasons for this, and I’d have liked to mention them; but certainly a little less attachment here would have helped.


    We’ve had this conversation before, and will probably do so again. I went into the ‘dead Buddha’ issue because, although you may have meant your remark at least partly in ‘snark,’ you actually hit the nail close to the head, and I thought it well to point that out. I do take your remarks in good humor, and hope you do mine. I posted Ikkyu’s poems partly because I thought they’d amuse you – no better Cynic in the Zen tradition!


    I think the Husserl/LaoTzu comparison interesting and will look into it.

    Paul Paolini,

    “Non-attachment, as I have understood it (etc.)” – I think this comment a fine thumb-nail summary of the issue, thank you.

    Mark English,

    I must concur with Robin Herbert’s response. One of the things I came to realize while studying Chinese philosophy (with Fred Gillette Sturm at U New Mexico), is that Chinese culture is actually profoundly Romantic (in the historic-cultural sense as we understand it). That there should be convergences between Chinese philosophic thought and the Romantic emphasis on experience is not really all that surprising. And Robin is also right to recognize that certain experiences, and certain emotional responses we have to these, resonate over time and across cultures. This may be due to cultural inheritance, but it may also be due to the fact that we all are, and have ever been, human – and loaded with all the capacity for experience and response that suggests.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. @Aravis and others

    I think the distinction to be drawn is between having and wanting. There is nothing wrong with having a father and loving him – that’s a natural part of the state of being human. But after your father dies, it would be unnatural – not in line with the dao – to want him. Therefore the early Daoists argued against excessive mourning.

    Similarly with other relationships: it is natural to have a loving, close relationship with your wife. But if there is a woman who doesn’t want you, to desire an intimate relationship with her would be pointless. And if your wife goes on a trip, to miss her terribly would be pointless. I don’t think the Daoists want to deny the reality or the intensity of human connections, they just want to say that we should not allow them to drive out other experiences, or to dominate our consciousness when the other person is not around.

    The same goes for things: food is to be enjoyed; but wanting food you don’t have is pointless. Beauty is to be enjoyed, but wanting to be beautiful if you are not is pointless.

    In fact, I think the English word “attachment” captures the notion quite well. It is not the having or the loving of a thing that is problematic, but the “sticking to it”, the refusal to let go.


  41. I should mention the restorative power of walking, especially when walking with my dogs. Their intense curiosity and uninhibited enjoyment restore a sense of innocence, enthusiasm and optimism.

    Then there is the reflective power of walking. In my walking I find a centre of calm, free from the storm of emotions. This opens up a space for reflection. It seems counterintuitive. Walking is busy, it claims one’s attention as one adjusts one’s gait and path to the circumstances. Then something quite magical happens. One’s body glides through the environment and the mind glides reflectively. The rhythmic movement of my limbs and relaxed contemplation of my environment seems to create a harmony in my mind. The harmony serves to enable reflective thought and it is at these times that my best insights seem to occur.

    Walking also has revelatory power. By this I mean that I see things in new ways. I think this is because walking is an act of varying one’s viewpoint, in a physical sense. Varying one’s physical viewpoint seems to encourage changes in mental viewpoint. The best example of this is when I take my dogs walking along our rugged trails at night. In the blackness of the night the sounds of the wild come to the fore as sound replaces vision as the dominant sense. The night is filled with shrieks, coos, calls, grunts, chuckles and howls. These were sounds I hardly noticed in the daytime. Multitudes of eyes glow in the dark, quickly scuttling across the trail in front of me. The darkness is alive. A new feeling creeps over me, a sense of the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. In the clarity of daylight I thought I had seen everything and felt everything, but I was wrong, there was so much more to see and feel. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life, that the inexpressible and the experiential also have something valuable to tell us.

    From The Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole approach Pan on the island(
    ‘”Rat,” he found breath to whisper, shaking, “Are you afraid?” “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid? of Him? O, never, never. And yet–and yet–O Mole, I am afraid.”‘
    See also

    Finally, walking has healing power, both physical and emotional. On the island of Sardinia extreme longevity was strongly correlated with hill walking – Sardinia has an exceptionally high concentration of centenarians.

    It gives us emotional healing. We are all subject to hurt, anger, resentment or disappointment. These emotions can possess us, consume us and damage us. There is something about walking that heals the emotions. With every step the emotion lessens, to be replaced by equilibrium. To continue the theme of the discussion, I suppose through walking we lose our attachments to these emotions.

    My dogs would tell you that the only thing better than walking is running. They bark at me if I stop running to rest. See and

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Phil H.

    Because I know so little about Taoism, I can only direct this response to what you have said — and partly to what Massimo has said as well.

    I find the “pragmatic” and somewhat “rationalistic” approach to emotions that both you and Massimo describe both artificial and unappealing. Obviously, this is not an “argument” against either of the views you’ve expressed, just an expression of a viewpoint of my own. This is not the sort of thing for which there can be a “correct” view.

    Regarding the “pointlessness” or “harmfulness” of the various emotions you and Massimo describe, whether they have a “point” or cause harm strikes me as irrelevant. They are a part of the real, meaningful experience of being human and thus, a part of what we are. Cut them out or suppress them and you lose whole dimensions of human experience and cut off the source of some of the highest forms of human expression. There is an entire literature and great swathes of music devoted to the subject of unrequited love. The same is true — even more so, perhaps — of mourning and lamentation. The Mourner’s Kaddish is probably the most familiar and powerful prayer in the Jewish liturgy. It’s repetition every week re-engages us with those we have lost and with the feelings that accompany such loss. Tonight is Yom Ha’Shoah, in which we collectively remember the catastrophic loss that our people suffered in the Holocaust, a loss that is all too personal for many of us. In our tradition, these communal excerises in mourning are a good, essential thing to do, not because they purge us of our “negative emotions” or somehow allow us to “manage” our grief, but because they enable us in giving them expression, in a way that deepens our understanding and our capacity to fee and reaffirms our connection to those who have gone.

    Beautiful and profound forms of expression arise from the intense feelings caused by these kinds of emotions. Even for those of us who are not great writers or composers, the passage through these sometimes dark, even desperate emotional currents may lead to forms of creative expression that might otherwise never arise. Not long ago, I read Joan Didion’s remarkable book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she works through her grief at the death of her husband. It was particularly potent, given my own increasing preoccupation with my parents’ mortality, their having reached the age at which such thoughts comprise a constant — often unconscious — backgdrop to daily life. I’m glad her book exists, and I wonder if it would — or any of the things I’ve discussed would — if we all adopted the attitudes that you and Massimo have suggested here…

    …as I understand them.* As before, I wonder if I am *still* getting it wrong, and look forward to any further clarification either of you would care to give.

    Liked by 2 people

  43. Aravis

    This is not the sort of thing for which there can be a “correct” view.

    Then why call the “eastern” view “artificial”? I can see how you could find it unappealing, but artificial? It depends on how much of an emotional roller coaster one wants to be on – really high highs coupled with really low lows or something much more level. As you say there is no correct view, some think the highs are worth the lows and others not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  44. Thanks, folks, for the generous, interesting, and instructive comments. I should perhaps make clear that I am not an unqualified admirer of Taoism or of “intuitive ways of knowing.” On the contrary, I am the lead author of a critical thinking text that stresses the importance of disciplined, rational thinking, and warns of the dangers of pseudo-science and wishful or emotion-driven thinking. My aims were two-fold: (a) to draw attention to some interesting tie-ins between Taoism and long-distance walking, and (b) to suggest that walking is ONE activity in which Taoist modes of thinking and feeling make some sense. Child of the Enlightenment though I am, I agree with Yogi Berra that “you can’t hit and think at the same time.” More generally, I agree with Wordsworth, Emerson, John Muir, and other “Romantics” that there are times when purely rational or analytical approaches are out of place, and “intuitive” responses are more appropriate. Responding to a child’s laugh or a lover’s gift of intimacy, reading a piece of Romantic poetry, or taking a long walk in beautiful surroundings might be good examples. As the young John Stuart Mill found, a purely rational life is not a fully human life.


  45. I don’t wish to distract from Dr. Bassham’s excellent article and fine comment. But it might be helpful to consider the issue of non-attachment from another, different perspective.

    I was raised in an unhappy family. The notions of closeness, legacy, community were not available to me in any practice my family engaged. Instead, it was quite an effort to survive emotionally. As I grew up and away from my family, I carried the wounds I received there throughout encounters with others, and my social history is thus something of a trail of tears. Most of my cherished goals remained out of reach; and I really don’t have any memory of a fulfilled desire that is not laced with considerable pain from loss. My experience of being human has been tragedy played out as farce – Ed Wood’s version of Hamlet.

    In a moment of crisis 25 years ago, I attained the liberating realization that this experience could only be lived through by accepting the Four Noble Truths. The pain was not inevitable, but a co-efficient of my own yearnings. The cherished goals and desires were functions of a self taking itself too seriously, in a world unable to be taken seriously. It took considerable time, effort, practice, to be able to suspend that self, release those goals and desires, and live through the consequences of a life poorly led. But what is this judgment, ‘poorly led’? Life just is. We want it to follow some narrative structure arriving at ‘happily ever after.’ But really it’s a drunken walk through a dark forest. Stuff happens. Some of this is ‘predictable,’ but only in hindsight. Some just happens.

    My family wasn’t close, but they were my family, after all. In the past decade, in a three year period, they all died from the result of poor health behaviors. I am the last of my breed, I leave no progeny. It has been this experience that has led me to realize the full value of what I have learned from the Four Noble Truths. The emotions are real, the loss is real; yet the attachment to them is simply more desperate clinging to the identity I developed as a child, and the unrealized desires that were bound up with that. Release from this clinging still requires practice; yet I am saner, with a greater sense of wholeness and engagement with the world than was ever true when I was young.

    We live in a fairly comfortable world. We forget that this was not always the case. When the Buddha first taught, the average life-expectancy was about 45 years; wars tore apart communities, droughts led to famine, diseases harvested hundreds of lives. Even among the well-to do, unhappiness was the order of the day. The Buddha began his journey horrified at the bloody caesarian birth of his son. He found a way to let go of that. It may not work for everyone; but it has taught many how to live.

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  46. EJ I am single and childless myself. I thought I might pass on my family problems (most of which were environmental-family system, but some of which were genetic), and, eventually, I “detached” in various ways and degrees from most my family, so I empathize.

    I, of course, eventually became a secularist. That said, I renewed and deepened a love for nature, which is why I appreciate experiencing nature as “meditation,” no matter any greater thought than that, as my Canadian Rockies hiking picture showed. Other than that, deepening and expanding my world of classical music was probably the other main way of detaching.

    I think one thing that secular psychology as well as religious traditions wisely teach is that “replacement” is part of mental growth. You can’t just abandon a negative easily without replacing it with something better.

    As I said in my first comment, that I see humans as neither “good” nor “evil,” I believe you’re right that “life just is.”

    Or, to riff on Aravis’ background and one of my favorite movies: “Oy, we muddle!” — Yenta the Matchmaker

    As for tragedy as farce? I refer to the one poem I linked.

    As for Aravis’ note about the Shoah? I know the Kol Nidre is actually for Yom Kippur, but its haunting melody is certainly appropriate for this. I offer this setting of Max Bruch’s version, for viola and piano:
    Or this, for viola and orchestra:

    (Per my comment above about deepening classical music, I’m exploring more and more, substitutions of viola for cello in modern and 19th century solo and concerto works.)


    On emotional management … I understand where Aravis is coming from, but is that any more “artificial” than intellectual management, done by taking a class on critical thinking, reading Daniel Kahnemann, or going through blog posts like this? I think not. To riff on us being both smarter and more emotionally deep than a cow, I don’t think that emotional management is “bad.” Emotional elimination, however, might be, or to bring Aristotle to the East: “Moderation in all thing.” (Including moderation, mayhaps?)

    However, too much attachment to emotion is itself both emotionally and intellectually harmful. Look at how many great works of literature —The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, others, have been written about revenge or similar — Coriolanus and Moby-Dick on obsession. Carlos Kleiber, Coriolan Overture:

    (We’re getting aesthetics into this particular essay, Massimo!)

    At times, we do need to perhaps say “Enough is enough.” To take this back to EJ, and myself, revenge on certain family members would be of little avail.

    Or, per the epigram, if “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” it’s usually cold in the mouth of the giver, too. After all, it takes even more emotional energy to keep the hot passion cold that long, as the Count knew.

    Or, to tie back to Massimo and his focus: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury” — Marcus Aurelius.


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