The Taoist knack for living

by Jon

A Taoist constantly strives to achieve the state where they can do the best thing in the best way at the best time, without conscious effort.

From Diary of a Daoist Hermit:

As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi (Chaungtse) believed that human beings are at their best when “heaven” lives through them, or, when people “merge with the Dao”. This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time—without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the “knack” of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar “knack” for living.

He calls it “the knack” or “intuitive spontaneity”, I sometimes call it “skilled unawareness”, but they’re all one and the same. How impressive it is to watch experts in every field, so “in tune” with their expertise that their actions seem to flow effortlessly. It’s a phenomenon much akin to a professional athlete’s “muscle memory”, and how it unconsciously guides their physical movements.

Taoism demonstrates this “knack” in the text Chuangtse:

A good craftsman draws lines and circles without the help of compasses and squares. His fingers are so sensitively attuned to his material that he does not depend on the direction of his mind.

And in Taoism, as suggested by the opening quote, a sage is one who applies such skill to the art of living.

In order to achieve this state of being, Taoism suggests experience over education. The 48th chapter of the Taoist text Tao Te Ching starts:

The student of knowledge (aims at) learning day by day;
The student of Tao (aims at) losing day by day.

The Tao can be inadequately defined as the “way of the universe”. Loosely put, the Taoist abandons education and wrote learning for experiencing the universe first-hand. Then, seeing the results of their actions, they develop a deep wisdom of how the world works, which, with time and practice, blossoms into “the knack” of the sages. Just as an athlete practices and practices their sport until their body moves the right way instinctively, the Taoist sage experiences the universe again and again until their own instincts guide them to do the right thing, no matter the situation.

Now the similar Bushido precept of “treating matters of great concern lightly” suggests the alternative approach, as a student of knowledge. Bushido promotes a lifetime of endless study, devouring new knowledge day by day. In following Bushido, one plans ahead for as many obstacles as possible, in order that when the time comes, one can treat those obstacles lightly and meet them head on. This is much in the way of governments who prepare response plans for emergencies that may never come. It’s all about preparation for the unknown.

Whichever the path though, the end goal is the same: to be able to handle anything that comes your way.

Oddly enough, both paths acknowledge a strange side-effect of achieving this state of being: one often appears to be an idiot. For Taoists, this is because non-sages often see a sage’s behavior as opposite of how things are “supposed” to be done. This is poetically obscured in chapter 45 of Tao Te Ching:

The highest perfection is like imperfection

In Bushido, this appearance of idiocy happens because even a sufficiently prepared follower is encouraged to believe that their skills are never sufficient. In recognizing the limits of their knowledge, followers of Bushido consider themselves to be idiots. The Bushido text Hagakure says:

In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

I believe that this concept of “the knack” can be found beyond eastern thought. When I first wrote this article, I spent hours pouring over my books and notes on Existentialism. I’m sure with enough time, I’d find a Existentialist parallel to “the knack”.

In the meantime, I present two options: Taoism with its path of constant experiences, or Bushido with its path of continual study. Both help us better respond to the world around us, and enable us to, in the words of the opening quote, do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

Call it skilled unawareness, intuitive spontaneity, treating matters of great concern lightly, or simply “the knack”. My question is, which path appeals most to you?


An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 26, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon