Critical Thinking In Taoist Training

The role of critical thinking in Taoist cultivation cannot be overlooked. The ability to perceive reality with a clearer vision has always been a goal of Taoist training. The ancients realized we are all subject to personal bias and deception by the senses.

Coupling this idea of bias with the idea of Wu Wei or effortless action can creates a dilemma for the Taoist cultivator. It is popular to think that effortless action is simply doing whatever comes into your mind. This is really not the true meaning of the practice of Wu Wei.

Another component of Taoist training is the concept of Yin/Yang or Tai Chi balance. Exactly what this means has been discussed in detail by many. I am suggesting that it means we must create a balance not only in our body, but also in our mind and spirit.

Qigong and Tai Chi practice help with the balance of body and somewhat of the mind. I contend that is also entails an understanding of the yin/yang operation of our reasoning mind. Modern day psychology has identified and labeled a yin/yang type of reasoning our minds go through on a daily basis. They have labeled this function a system 1 or system 2 operation of mental reasoning and problem solving.  Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the two systems like this:

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.

System 2 allocates attention to the effortless mental activities that demand it,including complex computations. The operation of system 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Using your intuition or system 1 answer the following simple puzzle taken from Daniel Kahneman’s book.

A bat and a ball cost $ 1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball costs?

Fairly effortlessly a number comes to mind for most of us. If you were like the 80% of college kids given this question in a survey or more then 50 % of students at Harvard, MIT or Princeton your answer would have been 10. Is this Wu Wei in action? Wouldn’t it be great if it were this easy? The problem is, the correct answer is 05, not 10.  Oops. It took me a great deal of time and discussion with friends before I gave up on my original answer of 10.  I thought I was tricked, or fooled. I was just simply wrong when I came up with the simple answer of 10. Did my Wu Wei of effortless action deceive me? Well, my answer was wrong. If Wu Wei is to be believed it must entail a balance of both system 1 and system 2 to gain correct insight. Simply following your gut is not enough. Our quick thinking mind often makes mistakes. It is also influenced by myriad other factors, like personal bias, choice and media or content exposure. These factors all impact our ability to make good decisions that would involve both a system 1 and system 2 integration. Yin/Yang balance is needed in our thinking. That might take some effort at first; however, with practice it will become almost automatic. Practice and training in use of both systems is the basic foundation for Wu Wei or effortless action. Control over the mind is the essential element needed for Wu Wei to be present.

Let’s take a look at the idea of China and Chairman Mao. Over the years journalists

“have brought vivid images of Mao and China to newspapers and magazines in Western countries. Understandably, those stories have been driven by the concerns of the reading publics of the New York Times, The Guardian, or Le Monde more then by concerns of historical balance or complex contexts. More interesting than most academic accounts, these press reports have been more subject to the changing whims of contemporary politics. They are important because they nonetheless shape popular and political ideas about China much more then academic works. The key difference is that most scholars will frustrate the human desire for a “ clean story” – a clear line of why things happened and who’s to be praised or blamed.” (Dr. Timothy Cheeks A Critical Introduction to Mao p.18).

So if I am exposed to constant media attention slanted in a particularly vein, I will be predisposed to think about the subject, biased towards that slant. Scientist call this Availability Heuristics and “ is our tendency to make a judgment about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances.” Tversky, A; Kahneman (1973). “Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability”. Cognitive Psychology 5 (1): 207–233. DOI:10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9

“For example, many people think that the likelihood of dying from shark attacks is greater than that of dying from being hit by falling airplane parts, when more people actually die from falling airplane parts. When a shark attack occurs, the deaths are widely reported in the media whereas deaths as a result of being hit by falling airplane parts are rarely reported in the media.”  See :Read, J.D. (1995). “The availability heuristic in person identification: The sometimes misleading consequences of enhanced contextual information”. Applied Cognitive Psychology 9: 91-121.

Some surprising studies reported by Daniel Kahneman show that 80% of respondents in a research study judged accidental deaths to be more likely to occur then a stroke. Unfortunately “ Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined…” Death by botulism is 52 times more frequent occurrence then death by lightening, but respondents indicated they thought death by lightening was greater. Why these great disparities between reality and subjective opinion? Media driven events surely play a role in how we think about something, and how we respond to the naturally occurring events as we go through life.

How does this affect my Wu Wei? Probably a lot.

Let’s examine some popular notion that exists about Taoism, Qigong, Tai Chi and China. The first is that Wu Wei is easy, all you have to do is whatever comes natural. As you can see, it is not that easy because of the input into our consciousness from biased outside sources that effects are natural response. Second, Religion and spirituality are not taught or practiced in China, therefore the real Qigong or Tai Chi practice is not allowed or taught. Again a belief that is simply not true. It is true that China did persecute many during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1967 however “The 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees “freedom of religion” in Article 36. The policy regarding religious practice in China states that “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities”, and continues with the statement that: “nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.” See

China has always been a deeply spiritual country and the basics tenets of Taoism display deep understanding of humankind’s role in a spiritual universe. Modern science is beginning to confirm many of the benefits of these ancient, spiritual practices that also have great health benefits.

Lastly, I want to comment on this commonly held belief that Chairman Mao was a brutal dictator who murdered millions of people, even worse the Hitler. Again, something that is popularly held in the west that is simply not true. There are no Killing Fields, No Death Camps, No Reports of Mass Murders or brutal final solutions of genocide. It is true that millions of people died after Mao came to power. As Mao expert Dr. Timothy Cheeks correctly points out “The Great Leap Forward has been blamed for the death by starvation of millions of Chinese, but according to Dr. Cheek, its premise as an economic plan made sense. “China’s situation in the 1950s was that it was labor-rich and resource-poor. The Communist Party was very interested in science and technology but they needed to use the resources they had. The idea to turn labor into capital is perfectly legitimate.” Now compare this with a media driven headline “ Mao Murders Millions”.  Knowing what we know about Availibily Heuristics and how it effects our opinions it is evident that Mao was a more complex person then can be imagined and not just an evil dictator who reeked havoc in his country. He is still deeply revered and looked to as a leader in China.

“The roots of social democracy in China also came out of Maoism in a kind of ironic dialectic. I think Mao continues to leave his dialectical challenge to China. On the one hand, he’s left a strong party that has kept the country stable while most other post-socialist states have undergone upheavals. On the other hand, he has planted the seeds of resistance to the autocratic side of that stability.”

“And since the Party cannot afford to disavow itself from Mao, that whole corpus of his writing that includes large sections on the right to rebel are there for people to use. If a person quotes Mao to resist the Communist Party, it would be very difficult for the Communist Party to throw that person in jail because he’s quoting Chairman Mao,” Dr. Cheek claims.”

We humans are complex beings that are influenced deeply by the society we live in, its social mores and values and most importantly its media biases. Taoist critical thinking is needed for spiritual awakening, regardless of your Religious beliefs. That critical thinking begins with recognition of adverse bias beliefs that prevent the genuine Wu Wei from being manifest. The Yin/Yang of Critical thinking using systems 1 and 2 are necessary for our personal and spiritual growth.