Taoism and Self-Actualization

by Gary S. Toub, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst, Denver, Colorado

From C.G. Jung Page (http://www.cgjungpage.org/)


Seven key principles and ideas from the ancient Chinese philosophy, Taoism, are discussed in terms of their relationship to self-actualization: the Way, fasting the mind, following impulses, assisting nature, yin and yang, who knows what's good or bad, and the usefulness of the useless. Examples from clinical practice and concepts from Jungian psychology suggest that Taoism's venerable messages can be applied to contemporary Western life. While Taoism itself is not a form of psychotherapy, Taoist spiritual teachings can be valuable tools in psychotherapy practice, especially when therapy focuses on self-actualization.


For over 20 years, I have studied and practiced a wide variety of psychotherapy techniques and spiritual disciplines, from behaviorism to Jung, Judaism to Buddhism. In retrospect, this slow intermixing process was like preparing a big pot of stew with lots of ingredients--a cup of this, a pinch of that--until the flavor and consistency matched my distinctive taste and style. On the other hand, I also have the sense that it was actually me who was being cooked and transformed in the process. In either case, it is the ingredient of Taoism I will examine here.

I became interested in Taoism in the late 1970's. Having already had some background in Eastern philosophy (mostly Hindu and Buddhist), my curiosity was peaked when my analyst, Jeff Raff, pointed out numerous Taoist images, themes, and teachings in my dreams. I was intrigued, and began studying the writings of Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu to see for myself. The more I read, the more engrossed I became--and the more at home I felt with many of the teachings, especially viewed in the light of Jungian psychology. My continued fascination with Taosim eventually led to a dissertation comparing Jungian and Taoist ideas (Toub, 1985), completed under the advisorship of Jungian analyst, John Giannini. In this article, I delineate some of the key principles and ideas I have drawn from Taoism--and how I apply them in the practice of psychotherapy, especially as it is focused on self-actualization.


If I have even just a little sense,

I will walk on the main road and my only fear will be of straying from it.

Keeping to the main road is easy,

But people love to be side tracked.

--Lao Tsu (1972)

In contrast to spiritual teachings based on doctrine or divine revelation, the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism is based on thousands of years of observing nature--particularly patterns of change and transformation. Over time, the Chinese came to see these patterns of change as resulting from a universal creative spirit, or energy, which they called the Tao.(1) Dynamic and everchanging, the Tao was likened to the currents and vortices in air or water. Sometimes it was depicted as tightly coiled lines or threads; other times, as undulating horned dragons, flowing along wave-like lines of change, or dragon veins (Rawson & Legeza, 1973).

The Tao has also been described as a road or way, suggesting that the everchanging dragon veins form a path along which one can act or move. According to Chung-yuan (1963), the oldest form of the Chinese ideograph for Tao consists of three basic parts, representing a human head, a human foot, and a road. The character for the head (shou) has been given various interpretations. Bolen (1979) connects it with heaven, the sun, and masculine, yang energy, while Cooper (1972) equates it with a leader, principle, or beginning. Both Cooper and Watts (1975) also take it to mean intelligence, albeit not of the rational mind. It is clear that both interpret the head to mean a suprapersonal, higher form of intelligence. Jung (1967) proposes that the head symbolizes consciousness.

The foot (ch'o) is associated with the earth and feminine, yin energy (Bolen, 1979). It may also be taken as a sign of movement or progress. The foot and road, considered as a unit, allude to stepwise movement along a path, or as Watts (1975, p. 39) puts it, "going and pausing," or "rhythmic movement." This suggests a type of movement where pauses are taken to think or reflect before the next step is taken. According to Chung-yuan (1963), the foot may also signify following.

Combining the three images of the ideograph for Tao results in three principal meanings. First, it can be taken to mean intelligent or conscious movement along a path. Watts (1975, p. 40) suggests "intelligent rhythm." Jung (1967, p. 20), on the other hand, prefers "to go consciously, or the conscious way." A second interpretation is that the ideograph represents a pupil following a master, or guiding principle, along a path. Chung-yuan (1963) for example, sees it as a leader and follower united in finding a path. Third, the ideograph may represent the path of wholeness, symbolized by the union of the head (heaven) and the foot (earth).

I have come to understand this idea of the Way, or Main Road, as describing a way of being and course of action that is in harmony with the suprapersonal wisdom of the Self. Its meaning corresponds to Don Juan's "path with heart" (Castaneda, 1968) and Campbell's (1988) "following your bliss." In Jungian terms, it characterizes individuation, the unique pattern and process of life unfolding in each individual, both moment to moment, and over a lifetime--in accord with the wisdom and direction of the Self. Of course, as Lao Tsu (1972) points out, a person may or may not be following this path. One may stray from it, or even get lost.

When psychotherapy clients come to me, I wonder what the Tao is for them, and whether they are living in harmony with it. Chances are, they are not. Experience has taught me that much of their suffering comes from being out of Tao. Usually, I find they have lost their way, or they have been blocked, diverted, or seduced to follow a path other than their own. Their symptoms seem to me like distress signals, as though their psyche knows that something is out of balance or not right. As I see it, my task as a psychotherapist is to assist them to rediscover their Tao and support their living it.

I have found that there are usually four steps in this process. First, it requires opening up the mind and heart to the sometimes subtle signals and markers of the Way--discoverable through intuition, feelings, inner vision, and dreams, as well as art, body signals, and synchronistic experiences. Then, it involves allowing the images and impulses to express themselves more fully. Techniques such as dream interpretation and various forms of active imagination (e.g., imaginal dialogue) can be especially useful for this. The third step is identifying and confronting the inner and outer obstacles and adversaries to the living of one's Tao. Finally, it necessitates bolstering the courage, strength, and integrity required to bring one's truth into the world.

Case Example: To Be a Caribbean Woman

Jo was a 32-year-old, white, married woman, who came to me with problems of anger, irritibility, and moodiness. She was afraid of "going nuts," she told me. At her first session, Jo came across as polite, sincere, and business-like. She was neatly and conservatively dressed, bright and articulate.

Over time, I realized that Jo often felt harried; she habitually rushed around, attempting to fulfill the many tasks of a mother of two, as well as a housewife. This was in addition to working two part-time jobs. Overdoing, I discovered, was typical of Jo. She tended to run herself ragged trying to do a million different things. "Busy, busy, busy," "rush, rush, rush," and "work, work, work" were the phrases she often used to describe her weeks. The more we talked, the more I realized that these behaviors were linked to a pattern of self-denial, perfectionism, and harsh self-criticicism.

At one level, I could see that Jo was simply the product of an out-of-balance culture that valued activity, productivity, and hard work. I could also see in Jo the imprints of both her parents: a critical, domineering, and meticulous mother who often preached about the proper way to do things, and a contained, business-like father who rarely expressed his emotions.

In my work with this client, the Tao or Way expressed itself over and over again in dreams that pointed to a more natural, joyful, feminine way of life. For example, early on in therapy, Jo dreamed that she was sailing on a ship to the Caribbean. On the ship, an evil slavemaster was being overthrown. Some time later, she dreamed that she was dressing up in clothes like someone from the Caribbean.

As we explored the image of being Caribbean, I learned from Jo that this would be a new and very positive experience. With it she connected water and sun, green, lush, and tropical. The Caribbean was also associated with simple people, easy going, and less industrial.

I realized that for Jo to be in Tao, she would first need to emancipate herself from the negative taskmaster in her psyche who denigrated and enslaved her. Once doing that, she could begin integrating her Caribbean nature, an exotic, instinctual way of living that was simple, easygoing, less industrial, and closer to nature (i.e., her instincts). This was much of what Jo and I focused on in therapy-- traveling on the Main Road of the Tao and integrating the many aspects of her feminine Caribbean nature.


Knowing constancy, the mind is open.

With an open mind, you will be openhearted.

Being openhearted, you will act royally.

--Lao Tsu (1972)

According to Taoism, keeping to the Way requires openness and flexibility. In Lao Tsu's aphorism, we are told that to act royally (i.e., in harmony with the Tao), we must possess an open mind and heart--an attitude of receptivity that allows unconscious signals and guidance to reach consciousness. Chuang Tsu (1974) elaborates on this principle in a delightful story about Yen Hui, a young man who consults a Taoist sage (in the guise of Confucius) about his plans to save the people of a neighboring state from the careless despotism of their ruler. After listening to Yen Hui's elaborate plans, Confucius remarks:

"How could that work? You have too many plans. They are fine but not appropriate. These preconceived ideas probably won't get you into trouble, but that is as far as they go. How can you possibly influence him? You are still too rigid in your thinking."

Yen Hui said, "That is all I can think of. May I ask what to do?"

Confucius said, "You must fast. I'll tell you why. Is it easy to work from preconceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy."

Yen Hui said, "My family is poor. I have neither drunk wine nor eaten for many months. Can this be considered fasting?"

Confucius replied, "That is the fasting one does for sacrificial ceremonies, not the fasting of the mind."

Yen Hui said, "May I ask what is fasting of the mind?"

Confucius said, "Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your vital energy. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but vital energy is empty, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind." (pp. 67-68)

Confucius closes with the following statement to Yen Hui:

"If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of the ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings Yu and Shun, the constant practice of Fu Hsi and Chi Chu. It is even more useful for ordinary men." (p. 68)

In Chuang Tsu's story, Confucius is telling Yen Hui to go ahead and follow his desire to assist the people of the neighboring state, but not to rely so much on rigid plans and preconceived ideas. Instead, Yen Hui is counseled to proceed with an open mind--a state of inner quietude out of which, at the proper moment, right actions can emerge spontaneously.

As a psychotherapist, I see fasting the mind as critical in two ways. First, it describes the attitude with which I try to work with my clients. It is tempting to categorize and pigeonhole psychotherapy clients, to preprogram my thinking about them and the techniques I should use. After all, I have years of experience and a myriad of theories to choose from. However, the Taoists are pointing out that all this planning and theorizing gets in the way of being fully present to the reality of the moment and the individuality of the human being I am with. The more I focus on my clever ideas and plans, the less likely I will be able to flow with the process that is occurring--the Tao of the psychotherapy relationship. I have, therefore, tried to cultivate a "beginner's mind"--to follow Jung's (1966a) advice to set theories aside and discover psychology anew with each client. Practicing in this manner, I have to be willing to not think I know the answers or even where things are headed; instead, I must trust the wisdom of following the Tao.

Case Example: A Mad Housewife

After arriving for her appointment, Liz told me that she did not have anything to talk about or work on that session. Then, half joking, she said to me, "Why don't you think of something!"

After pausing a moment, I felt the impulse to take her up on it, so I said, "O.K.," and taking the first thing that popped into my head, I asked, "Have you read any good books lately?"

"As a matter of fact," she replied, "I have! I've been reading Diary of a Mad Housewife."

"What's it about?" I queried, deciding to go ahead and trust the Tao. Liz then described the plot of the novel, which centered around the terrible plight of a harried housewife. The more she told me about it, the more Liz realized that her own life was very much like that of the protagonist in the novel, and that just below the surface, she was feeling quite upset and angry with her husband for all the tedious housework he expected of her. We subsequently spent the remainder of the session sorting through the emotions with which she had gotten in touch.

In this case, by fasting my mind and following my irrational impulse, Liz and I were brought into contact with the dragon vein of Tao, where Liz' unconscious issues were cooking. At the beginning of the hour, neither Liz nor I knew what she needed to work on. By trusting the impulse, we got in touch with the Tao, which for Liz was processing her anger about being an overburdened housewife.

I have found that fasting the mind is equally important for my psychotherapy clients. They too tend to follow old habits and programs, rather than remain open to the Unknown. If they are to learn to follow the Tao, they, too, must quiet the ego's constant chatter so the less audible voice of the Self can be heard. For example, a 30-year-old man with a keen intellect and a propensity for planning things ahead of time had the following enlightening dream:

I'm playing some kind of game. It's the game of life. I'm asking people around me how to play--I want to know all the rules before we begin. They tell me, however, that the only way to learn the rules is through playing the game, learning them as I go.

On another occasion he dreamed:

I'm in a large building, trying to work myself through a long, complicated maze. As I'm going along, I keep wondering how I will ever know when I get to the end. Suddenly, it occurs to me that there is no use worrying about it ahead of time; I will recognize the end when I get there.

It is clear to me that these dreams, like the Taoist teachings, are not telling my client to become an empty-headed fool, never planning or thinking ahead. Rather, I understand the message as a compensation aimed at balancing overreliance on rational thought and planned action. The point, it seems, is to learn balance--and to be more trusting of the spontaneous wisdom of the Self.


The superior man goes through his life without any one

preconceived course of action or any taboo. He merely decides

for the moment what is the right thing to do.

--Li Chi (Yutang, 1942)

Imagine a whole community of people whose aim is fasting the mind and living spontaneously, acting only when it is in harmony with the Way. Such a group actually existed in China around the third century A.D. These creative, unconventional souls were the Ch'ing t'an Taoists--otherwise known as the Pure Conversationalists (Chan, 1963; Welch, 1965).

One of the central tenets of the Pure Conversationalists was that a person's integrity depended on allowing the spirit to wander freely, which, among other things meant following one's impulses. This practice of trusting impulses is illustrated in a Taoist story about Wang Hui-chih:

Wang Hui-chih . . . awoke one night to find that it had snowed. Getting out of bed, he began to pace up and down his room, and to recite poems about paying visits to hermits. This reminded him of Tai K'uei. He dressed, took a boat, and started down the shore. Tai K'uei lived far off and it was not until dawn that he reached his house. But just as he was about to knock on his door, he turned and went home. Someone who found out what had happened asked him why. Wang Hui-chih said: "I came on the impulse, and when the impulse ended, I returned. Why had I to see Tai?" (Welch, 1965, p. 125)

In following his impulses, Wang Hui-chih was attempting to keep within the flow of change by allowing the Tao to fluidly express itself through him.

The Taoist approach to following instinctive impulses is similar to the thinking of Jung (1959), who also advocates living in accord with our instincts. While cautioning that they must be handled correctly, Jung proposes that the natural impulses we find in ourselves are not arbitrary, but are connected to a divine inner authority. With these ideas in mind, I have for some time practiced following my clients' impulses in psychotherapy with amazingly fruitful results.

Case Example: Not Working on Anything

Clare was a 39-year-old woman who had been in therapy with me for two years. During one of her sessions, she began by informing me about a number of events that occurred since I last saw her, as well as several dreams she had. Since she mentioned so many things, I asked Clare if there was anything in particular on which she wanted to focus during the hour. To this, she replied that she was feeling tired and worn out, and did not want to work on anything. I decided to follow this impulse and see where it might lead, so I asked Clare what it would be like to not work on anything.

She responded immediately, "Well, I would be an accountant like my husband!" I suggested she go ahead and do that, and act like an accountant there in our session. She then role-played being an accountant going over my books, all the while acting controlled, intellectual, and unfeeling. After a while, Clare stopped role-playing and announced with astonishment that she was feeling a lot better--alert and full of energy.

It appears that by following her initial impulse to not work on anything, Clare was able to get in touch with the energy she had been lacking at the beginning of the session. Along the way, she discovered a cool, objective side of herself that she had been projecting onto her husband, but which she needed to integrate into her own life. In so doing, Clare was able to put herself in harmony with the Tao.


Silently I contemplate

The myriad forms

Spontaneously brought forth

By nature's hand.

--Ch'^ng Hao (Blofield, 1978)

The principle of assisting nature is expressed by the Taoists' extraordinary reverance for nature and their unique approach to landscaping (Blofield, 1978). The principal goal of Taoist landscaping was to create guided wildness--to lend nature a hand by subtly modifying and improving upon her natural artistry. Great care was taken to avoid artificiality. Rocks were often cunningly arranged to resemble a mountain landscape, as if they had lain undisturbed for thousands of years. Any hint that painstaking care and work had gone into creating the landscape had to be carefully concealed, the goal being to make the setting look totally the work of nature. However, one could lend nature a hand by bringing out and highlighting those shapes, textures, and colors that were inherent in the setting or object on which one was working.

Following this approach, a square shape could not be rounded, but a relatively round one could be made rounder. Similarly, a shrub could be trained and trimmed to resemble a stork only if the shrub already possessed the natural form of the stork in the first place. As Blofield (1973) puts it, the Taoists' aim was "to assist nature to do what it might under more favorable circumstances have done for itself" (p. 118).

I believe this Taoist approach to landscaping provides a guiding image for the way human consciousness can harmonize with and aid instinctual life energy. Basically, the Taoist landscapers are saying, "By and large, nature knows what she is doing, and we do not want to interfere. Sometimes, though, she needs a helping hand. This is where we come in. We try to see what nature is doing and help her along a little."

This image also describes the basic idea behind psychotherapeutically assisted self-actualization. Like Jung (1966b), I view self-actualization as a totally natural process of growth and differentiation of the personality. By working with dreams, body symptoms, and other unconscious signals of psychotherapy clients, I am mainly trying to see how my clients and I can assist the process.(2) Together we investigate the ways in which the Self is expressing itself. We then concentrate on consciously assisting what the Self is indicating. Earlier, for example, I described how a female client's dreams made her aware of needing to cultivate her Carribean qualities. I have found that exploring clients' feeling states can be equally valuable for discovering the Tao.

Case Example: Feeling Blank

Audrey was a middle-aged woman who came to me suffering from severe depression. After several weeks of therapy, she came for an appointment announcing that she had not had any dreams and did not have much to talk about. "My week went O.K.," she said. "Nothing much is going on."

When I reflected back what she said, Audrey added that she was feeling somewhat blank. Taking that as the Tao of the moment, I decided to follow up on it. "How does it feel to be blank?" I asked.

Audrey responded by telling me that it was a nice, pleasant feeling. She then asked what I thought she should do during the session--where she should begin. I suggested she begin with just how she was feeling: blank. I encouraged her to go ahead and just allow herself to be blank, as blank as she could be, to assist whatever natural process was trying to occur.

She did this for a few moments, then suddenly burst into tears. After sobbing for several minutes, she calmed down and was able to talk about her sadness. I learned that hidden within Audrey's feelings of blankness were life and death issues surrounded by pain and sorrow. She told me she had lost her old reason for living and feared not finding a new one. Audrey also needed to come to terms with a near death experience she had earlier in her life.

Although she felt consciously that nothing much was going on, by focusing on and amplifying her feelings of blankness, Audrey was able to get in touch with the Tao. In this case, it brought to her awareness the major issues behind her depression.


The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.

They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

--Lao Tsu (1972)

One of the central tenants of Taoist philosophy is the principle of polarity--or opposites--portrayed by the concepts of yin and yang (Watts, 1975). According to traditional Chinese symbolism, yin and yang represent the shady (north) and sunny (south) sides of a mountain, and by extension, all paired existence. Like two sides of a coin, they are considered interconnected poles of nature that cannot be separated from one another. Though opposite, they are interdependent and mutually arising, meaning one cannot exist without the other. Chuang Tzu (1980) is quite clear on this matter:

Those who would have right without its correlative, wrong; or good government without its correlative, misrule,--they do not apprehend the great principles of the universe nor the conditions to which all creation is subject. One might as well talk of the existence of heaven without that of earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly absurd. Such people, if they do not yield to argument, must be either fools or knaves (p. 164).

As the Taoists see it, yin and yang are complementary parts of a whole, so if we choose one and try to block out the other, we upset nature's balance. What results, as Jung (1963) points out, is restricted adaptability and, in many cases, physical or emotional illness. From the Taoist perspective, to be whole and follow the Tao, we must be willing to accept our dual nature and integrate the opposites.

As did Jung, I consider the integration of opposites to be of primary importance for self-actualization. In working with my clients, I inevitably come across areas of one-sidedness or imbalance that need to be addressed. Sometimes, it might be doing that is valued over being. Other times, it is thinking over feeling, or control over abandon, just to name a few. Whatever the case, I never presume to know ahead of time, nor do I impose a preconceived notion of what constitutes being balanced or whole. Rather, I have learned to take the lead from the unconscious, and to follow its labyrinthine path towards wholeness. I therefore make extensive use of clients' dreams and other unconscious signals to guide this process of reconciling the opposites and restoring the individual to Tao.

Case Example: Uniting Heaven and Earth

At age 33, John came to me lost and confused, unsure of what to do with his life. He was recently divorced and jobless. Over time, I learned that John had never had any kind of steady work, let alone a career. He had, however, pursued a spiritual path for some time.

Following a series of religious experiences, John had decided to become a monk. He visited Catholic, Zen, and Benedictine monasteries, where he enjoyed the time for solitude and inner reflection. Each time he was asked to make a commitment, however, he would leave.

As our sessions proceded, it became increasingly clear that John's self-actualization process hinged on integrating his spiritual, inner life with material, outer existence, or in symbolic terms, uniting Heaven and Earth. More specifically, John needed to ground his spirituality--or at least complement it--with the demands of concrete, everyday existence.

John definitely preferred the life of a recluse. He liked being alone and communing with nature. He was fond of meditation, tai chi, and other spiritual practices. But in so doing, John was not whole; he was not expressing the fullness of his being. In his dreams, the unconscious was quite clear: John's wholeness depended on him learning about the everyday world, especially the areas of work, responsibility, commitment, and relationships.

The unification of these opposites was depicted over and over again in John's dreams. It was initially portrayed as a bird (spirit) with a stone (earth) in its beak. The dream showed John needing to retrieve the stone, which was being carried away by the predatory bird--symbolically, his strong spiritual inclinations.(3)

As John began making progress with this issue, other images appeared. On several occasions, he dreamed of Native American villages, where religion was integrated into everyday life. Another time, his dream depicted a Catholic Mass being moved from a church to a marketplace. Slowly, through our work together, John began finding a firmer, more balanced integration of his spiritual side. He found a good job, decided on a career direction, and started graduate school. He also moved out from his parents' house and began living with a woman he was seeing. It was during this time that John had the following dream:

I am chosen to be an astronaut for a space mission. The space craft is powered by an Atlas rocket. I have doubts about being able to perform this task. I'm sure it will go wrong. Nevertheless, the woman in charge tells me I will do fine. She is confident I can fly the space craft. She explains that I will receive all the information I need to fly the space craft from the ground station.

This dream confirms John's newfound ability to soar to spiritual heights while remaining connected to the ground. Though still lacking confidence, John is told he is able to occupy the intermediary position between Heaven (outer space) and Earth (ground control), thereby uniting these two poles of his being.


Other men are clear and bright,

But I alone am dim and weak.

Other men are sharp and clever,

But I alone am dull and stupid.

--Lao Tsu (1972)

In addition to seeing yin and yang as interrelated and mutually arising, the Taoists recognized the absolute relativity of the opposites. No single value or perspective can be considered universally superior or correct, for in another instance, the opposite might be the case. The relative ease with which the opposites may change places is expressed in the ending of a Taoist story about a farmer whose horse ran away:

His neighbor commiserated only to be told, "Who knows what's good or bad?" It was true. The next day the horse returned, bringing with it a drove of wild horses it had befriended in its wanderings. The neighbor came over again, this time to congratulate the farmer on his windfall. He was met with the same observation: "Who knows what is good or bad?" True this time too; the next day the farmer's son tried to mount one of the wild horses and fell off breaking his leg. Back came the neighbor, this time with more commiserations, only to encounter for the third time the same response, "Who knows what is good or bad?" And once again the farmer's point was well taken, for the following day soldiers came by commandeering for the army and because of his injury, the son was not drafted (Smith, 1958, p. 212).

As the story suggests, at times one might be better off withholding immediate judgment as to what is good or bad, and instead going along with the course of things.

Applying this Taoist teaching in my work as a psychotherapist has been extremely valuable. By suspending my opinion as to what is good or bad, I have been better able to assist my clients explore and process the meaning of their experiences--including those that are normally considered symptoms.

For example, rather than help an anxious female client relax, I invited her to let her anxiety be fully present. She closed her eyes and spontaneously visualized an ancient woman shaman, with whom she later dialogued. In this case, I did not assume the anxiety was good or bad--simply that it was the Tao. This approach has proven fruitful over and over again in my practice.

Case Example: Taking the Lid Off Anger

Patrick was a tall, middle-aged professional who came to me with a long history of depression. The first thing Patrick and I worked on were his pent-up emotions about his girlfriend, Leona, ending their relationship. After sharing with me the details of what had happened, Patrick was able to cry openly and freely, painfully grieving the loss. I responded empathically, acknowledging the intense pain he was going through, a process that continued over a number of sessions.

One day, Patrick broke the pattern by telling me he had been lying to himself. "How so?" I inquired.

"I keep thinking the reasons Leona gave me for breaking up were lies," he said. "I don't think she told me the truth." Patrick then explained that he really did not believe Leona would lie, but that for some strange reason he could not let go of thinking she had. This seemed totally irrational to Patrick, and he wanted to put a stop to it.

I agreed with Patrick that what he was doing seemed destructive, but suggested it might be worthwhile for him to learn more about this irrational side of himself. Rather than try to stop it, I recommended to Patrick that he continue lying to himself a bit more so we could discover what it was about. Patrick agreed to give it a try, and continued talking about Leona lying to him.

After a while, I realized that lying to himself was allowing Patrick to verbalize, for the first time, his anger and hatred toward Leona. This session proved to be a stepping stone that in later sessions allowed Patrick to express more freely his anger toward his father, toward me, and toward his pent-up condition.


Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful,

but no one knows the usefulness of the useless.

--Chuang Tsu (1974)

Taoist philosopher Chuang Tsu was fond of telling stories lauding seemingly useless hunchbacks, cripples, and lunatics, suggesting that their very uselessness has hidden virtues.(4) In one story, a knotted and gnarled oak tree appears in a carpenter's dream and reveals its secret:

"What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with useful trees? There are cherry, apple, pear, orange, citron, pomelo, and other fruit trees. As soon as their fruit is ripe, the trees are stripped and abused. Their large branches are split, and the smaller ones torn off. Their life is bitter because of their usefulness. That is why they do not live out their natural lives but are cut off in their prime. They attract the attentions of the common world. This is so for all things. As for me, I have been trying for a long time to be useless. I was almost destroyed several times. Finally I am useless, and this is very useful to me. If I had been useful, could I have grown so large?" (Chuang Tsu, 1974, p. 82)

In his characteristically exaggerated style, Chuang Tsu makes the point that the more useful we are to the world, the more we are in danger of living bitter, dissatisfying lives--lives that are fractured and incomplete. To grow to our full potential like the large oak tree, Chuang Tsu believes we need to cultivate our uselessness.

Self-actualization requires that we integrate all aspects of ourselves. This is difficult to accomplish if we are simultaneously trying to fulfill the roles projected onto us by others and prescribed by the culture. The more we live as average, useful members of society, the more likely we will deviate from our own individual nature. As Chuang Tsu puts it:

[The stupid] are unable to take their law from Heaven, and are influenced by other men; they do not know how to prize the proper truth of their nature, but are under the dominion of ordinary things and change according to the customs around them--always, consequently, incomplete (Van Over, 1973, p. 118).

Chuang Tsu's wisdom is this: to realize our wholeness, we must free ourselves from the suggestive power of the surrounding world and be willing to be--or at least appear--useless.

When psychotherapy is focused on self-actualization, I am less interested in my clients' adaptation to the everyday world than the development of their unique qualities and wholeness--even if the world has no use for them. Paradoxically, it is only through such an individuation process that I feel my clients can contribute creatively and authentically to the world. In dealing with their suffering, most of my clients must begin by discarding their previous identity built around being useful, and rediscover what it means to really be themselves.

Case Example: Liberating the Inner Child

When Harold first consulted me, he was so depressed he could hardly talk. Slowly, I was able to piece together his story. He was 51 and had lived an upstanding life as a devoted husband and father. He had overcome an indigent background and had worked hard to support his family. Harold had also served society for 30 years as a diligent, dedicated law enforcement officer. Something was the matter, though, and he had no idea what it was. Among other things, I suggested to Harold we look at his dreams. The next week, Harold reported two dreams:

I am interviewing a family of Russians, but we cannot communicate because of our language differences. I feel very frustrated.

I am walking down a country lane and come across a sheep and a lamb lying just off the path. I think that maybe I should go over and talk to them. The sheep runs off, but the lamb stays. The whole sequence seems to happen twice.

In the first dream, Harold connected Russians to unhappy, frustrated people. "They feel held back and oppressed," he explained. This led me to believe the dream was talking about how frustrated and oppressed Harold felt, and that he was having a difficult time understanding these feelings. However, considering his past, I wondered if the oppression from which Harold suffered was being too useful to the world--performing duty and charity at the expense of his own nature.

When I asked Harold about the sheep in the second dream, he suddenly perked up. With obvious excitement, he recalled being a boy of 11 or 12 and playing with the sheep in a stockyard. A devilish grin appeared on his face as he explained how he would disobey his parents and climb over the fence into the stockyard.

I began to see that the images connected to Harold's depression were not only of being held back and oppressed, but also of breaking free and overstepping boundaries. The second dream encouraged him to reconnect with his inner child energy, especially that of play and adventure. It also put him back in touch with breaking rules and following his natural impulses. From the Taoist perspective, Harold had become overly civilized and useful during the course of his life. Consequently, he needed to break out of this collective identity by liberating his inner child and becoming an individual again.


When Taoist philosophers Lao Tsu and Chuang Tsu speak of giving up contrived, artificial living, and riding the unbounded sea of Tao, they utter a timeless message applicable to contemporary Western life. Like the early Taoists, we live amidst social, economic, and political instability, our lives often feeling chaotic and out of order. Taoism describes an alternative--a way of living with meaning and in harmony with the totality of life.

By following practices such as fasting the mind, embracing the opposites, and becoming useless, the Taoists are asking us to surrender to the larger order of the universe. They tell us, in effect, to live simultaneously in two realms--the ordinary sphere of human life, and the transcendent reality of the Tao. To Taoist thinkers, this is the highest task of human life.

The philosophy and way of life of Taoism is comparable in many respects to the Western concept of self-actualization, particularly as it refers to the process of living one's day-to-day life in accord with the Self. While Taoism is clearly not a form of psychotherapy, I have found the spiritual teachings of Taoism to be valuable tools for my own psychological growth and in the therapy I provide clients. This is especially the case when working with dreams, irrational impulses, and other unconscious messages, towards the goal of self-actualization.


1. Scholars agree that there is no single definition for Tao--its meaning is said to go beyond words, even in Chinese.

2. For processing unconscious body signals, I have relied primarily on the methods developed by Mindell (1982, 1985).

3. The stone could also be seen as a symbol of the Self, indicating that John's spiritual tendencies take away his wholeness.

4. For a further explication of the theme of uselessness, see Toub (1987).


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