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The Myths of Inner Peace (and Taoists)

January 10, 2011

This is a subject that has rattled around in my mind for a very long time and, after some interesting conversations over the past few weeks, I felt that it was finally time for me to sit down and share my perspectives on the matter.

I’ll begin by saying that I’ve read numerous books throughout the years regarding ‘inner peace,’ most of which were “how-to” guides aimed at helping people reduce stress by avoiding conflict, creating a harmonious ‘personal space,’ meditating, exercising or practicing ‘motion therapies,’ and offering a variety of ‘attitude adjustments.’ I found that some of the suggestions I’ve read were rather good and productive, others struck me as being in opposition of attaining any kind of personal serenity because they were simply unrealistic, and there were even a few that were simply incomprehensible because the author either lacked clarity or was sharing a “vision” of what they perceived personal tranquility to be. While I might not agree with some of the things I’ve read, I’ll maintain enough respect for those other writers and their points of view to not name them or identify their works either positively or negatively, as I strongly believe that my outlook on things will not be appropriate for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that it should be arbitrarily discredited by everyone.

The definitions of “inner peace” are varied – as they should be – because every individual will find their own version of what “inner peace” truly is to them. For the purpose of clarity in this writing, I’ll go with a very basic definition of “the lack of internal conflict,” because I believe it is probably the most consistent trait of a majority of people’s definitions. Recognizing that “inner peace” will have a different meaning for each person, it is perhaps easier to identify what inner peace isn’t.

Taoists, like many others that ascribe to similar philosophies, are often saddled with certain stereotypes about their convictions regarding inner peace and how they pursue it in their daily lives. The misconceptions are usually born of a lack of understanding, but these misnomers are sometimes what might steer some people away from Taoism altogether, so I’ve decided to address some of the more ‘popular’ fallacies about Taoists and inner peace.

People seeking inner peace avoid all conflicts. This might actually be true for some, but it’s an unrealistic approach for those seeking inner peace. Remembering that, for our purposes, inner peace is a ‘lack of internal conflict’ does not mean that conflict of any form should be avoided at any cost. Some might try to accomplish this, but that will only make the quest for inner peace more difficult. Conflict is inevitable in the modern world; it cannot be avoided altogether by any person that interacts with at least one other person. The Taoist knows this and accepts that some conflicts will arise throughout their journey in life. In fact, most Taoists would prefer to meet the conflict head-on, deal with it and resolve it (if possible), and proceed on with their journey.

Inner peace can only be accomplished under certain circumstances. This is both true and false. The circumstances for each person will be different, even if only minutely in some cases, so there is no definitive ‘standard’ that assures inner peace for any two people. Some find that inner peace is more easily maintained in an immaculately clean home while others enjoy a messy home that frees them from the stresses of having to clean all the time. Some prefer scented candles or incense while others might like the cleanest air possible. Some find peace in solitude and silence while others prefer certain sounds or the company of others. It changes from person-to-person, so establishing that there is a specific criterion of circumstance for everyone is impossible.

Taoists and those seeking inner peace listen only to relaxing music. Another misleading notion that unfortunately has permeated the collective perception of Taoists, Buddhists, and others like them is that only certain types of music promote an air of inner peace. Whether it’s traditional Asian music, new wave, adult-contemporary, or even recorded sounds of serene nature settings, there’s a delusion that cranking up the stereo and blasting fast-paced, aggressive music is counterproductive to attaining and maintaining inner peace. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I have times when I thoroughly enjoy some relaxing musical pieces, there are also times when up-tempo songs also fill me with an invigorating feeling that allows me to do more active things in better harmony with myself. I love a broad variety of musical genres, each having its own time and place to satisfy my desires and help me enjoy life.

Taoists have no emotions and are completely withdrawn from the rest of society. Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard this from a couple of people and I literally stood silent in disbelief for almost a full minute. Needless to say, this is simply untrue. The perception that Taoists lack emotion probably stems from their frequent lack of showing upset at the little misfortunes that life is known to present to anyone at any given time. However, this is mostly because of two things:

1)      The Taoist knows that misfortune is inevitable and part of being human and having a body. Anyone that ventures forth in life with any kind of expectations as to what may happen throughout the course of the day will somehow, somewhere, and at some time experience misfortune.

2)      Misfortune is only a temporary condition or occurrence. Taoists know better than to see most misfortunes with any kind of severity because if it doesn’t maim or kill you, it is completely recoverable.

Taoists can never get married. How’s that? Again, this was something that was related to me that left me stupefied for a moment. Perhaps I missed this somewhere in the Tao Te Ching and won’t my wife certainly be surprised. Another unfortunate misnomer about Taoism, Taoists most-assuredly can and often do get married, have a partner in life, and enjoy many years of companionship with another person.

Inner Peace is a myth because everyone has conflicts within themselves. Inner Peace is NOT a myth and internal conflicts are not a condition of existence. To be sure, most people are presented with situations or circumstances that are troubling in one aspect or another, but that does not mean that inner peace is unattainable or that the conflicts of the world are of significance or consequence to any one person. Inner peace is an acquired state of mind that recognizes that conflicts – both internal and external – will arise from time-to-time. However, conflicts can be resolved and sanctity can be restored.

Taoists are committed to non-violence and kindness no matter what. While these traits might seem ideal and admirable, I wouldn’t suggest testing this erroneous theory. It would be only a misguided, delusional, or abjectly foolish person to believe that any and every Taoist in the world is going to accept a physical assault without defending themselves or attempting to escape and it’s not very likely that they’ll be thanking you for the beating afterward. Living in harmony with life doesn’t equate to throwing one’s head into an oncoming fist with grace and gratefulness.

Taoists meditate and practice Tai Chi Chuan. This is nothing more than a stereotyped presumption. Some meditate and some don’t. Some enjoy Tai Chi and some don’t. Some sing while they work in a garden. Some ride bicycles and some go bowling. Some just go through their days without subjecting themselves to any specific routine, ritual, or exercise. It varies from one to the next.

It’s important to keep one’s mind open when exploring Taoism, which includes dismissing any preconceived notions of what inner peace and Taoism are. The world is full of wondrous variety, a wide array of people and things that Taoists love to explore and experience and so, too, Taoism is filled with a diverse range of people and things.

To those that wish to explore Taoism or want to develop their sense of inner peace (or both), I suggest that you enter into the endeavor with a truly open mind – an “empty canvas,” if you will – and allow yourself to see, hear, learn, and understand all that is being offered to you. It’s an endless journey well worth making.

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