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What is te in Taoism?

Grand Canyon mountains

The word ‘te’ appears in the title of Taoism’s most popular book: the Tao te Ching. This translates as a Book (Ching) about developing ‘te’ guided by the way of Tao. Confucianism and Western interpreters refer to it as virtue, but earlier Taoists described it as one’s inherent character. There is a vast difference between expressing one’s inherent character and the idea of practicing moral rectitude.

Te is the essence of Tao active in everything and is similar to what Jungians would call the actualized Self. The Tao te Ching says: ‘The highest virtue is not virtuous.’ This is because the type of virtue described by ‘te’ should come naturally, not dictated by society.

Just as Tao is spontaneous in and of itself, so is te in the individual. Conforming to other’s idea of who you are is like a log jam that blocks a river. Eventually Tao will break away all that blocks your expression of te. Like everything in nature; Tao eliminates all obstacles to growth. In your ‘coming to be real’ Tao would have you express yourself – warts and all.

Jungians describe ego as a tiny island floating in the sea of the unconscious. The Self encompasses the totality of the ego and unconscious. However, in Taoism, there is no separation of ‘me in here’ and ‘that out there,’ so there are no islands. An awareness of Tao (or the way) is what awakens te in the individual. In a sense, awakening to the interconnected flow of Tao is what engages the emergence of te.

Like the seed of a tree that knows inherently that it will grow to become an oak tree, it can be planted among pines, but it is not going to become anything other than an oak tree. Te is not something we develop – it is a blue print within us. Tao is the way life unmasks all that blocks our te. The oak’s nutritional needs will be different from the pine, and Tao will bestow exactly what it needs in its ‘coming to be real.’

Similar to the oak seed growing among pines, we cannot separate ‘in here’ to become what we see ‘out there.’ All of life will conspire to ensure each seedling grows to become what it is.

The outline of our te is revealed by the unique symbols and story line of our dreams. Until it is actualized and expressed, it can be projected as the Unknown Self. This is why apparent conflict can teach us so much about what we have hidden away. All that we disown is projected onto the face of the Other.

‘Dragging the adversary about when there is no adversary will cost you your inner treasure.’

Your inner treasure is your te.

Accessing Te

Working with your dreams, can teach you about the expression of te. Over the many decades of doing dreamwork, I have observed the common themes that orchestrate its expression. We dream of what we are not acknowledging during the day. Our dreams are cryptic as a way of allowing new ideas to transcend the walls of preconceptions.

I added the oracles to my website for those who cannot remember their dreams. People may think they do not dream, but REM (rapid eye movement) proves everyone dreams nightly. Having an intimate conversation with an oracle is another way of accessing te.

I have written popular translations of the Tao te Ching, I Ching, Tarot and also offer in depth astrology readings. I have witnessed how all of these tools describe the lifepath, challenges and the road to our empowerment. Like dreams, each correlate to a set of common archetypes and themes, and like our individual DNA, each of our stories are unique.

The Human Journey and Nature

In Taoism, the human journey is no different from the way an oak grows from a seed. Everything it will become was already within, dormant only until it is activated. Evolution shows us how nothing new is added to the overall genetic mix. What proves successful in one line finds its way into the general population through sexual reproduction. All that we are unfolds from a pattern of genetic instructions.

The I Ching describes the human journey from the perspective of nature’s cycles of change. Tarot is the Western version of the common archetypes that describe one’s current situation and likely outcome. The Tarot Trumps are drawn from the characters of its myths, and the archetypes are accessible in their humanity.

Astrology, or how the macrocosm is revealed in the microcosm, captures a snapshot of the universe at the moment of birth in a story that describes the lifepath. Observing the placement of pyramids and our ancient fascination for the moving planets, we were told the stars were placed there as signs. The rainfall was predicted by the alignment of Sirius with openings in the pyramids and led to the agricultural revolution.

Eastern astrology is different, but what is captured in a reading of the Water Tiger is uncannily similar to the more detailed western reading of a chart with a water and fire grand Trine.

All of our oracles are meant to guide us in understanding the way of Heaven, but Tao is the nameless origin or Earth and Heaven (Yin and Yang.) The way of Tao is to people like rivers are to a fish. Tao is the natural condition of the flow of life, and te is the natural condition we were born with.

How Tao Unmasks Te

The Taoist is after a perspective that awakens one to the joyous flow of existence. The entire text of the Tao te Ching provides a poetic journey that guides us in moving just outside of the known. We release the ‘carved block’ portrayed by any given moment. We learn to embrace the ‘uncarved block’ of what the ever-present moment may become – if we allow it.

All of these tools reveal how life is about give and take, how to join and unjoin, and when to stay and when to flow. More importantly, they reveal the difference between what blocks us and how life attempts to break us out of self- defeating ideas. When we transcend any sense of separation from what unfolds, we access our power to participate with the outcome. Whether through dreams, Tarot, the I Ching or Astrology, the information revealed is remarkable because of their similar themes.

As 2020 greets us, I thought it would be a good time to trace the ‘thread running through the way’ in all of these approaches to self-understanding. By contrasting the I Ching’s 8 Pa Kua with Tarot Trumps, planets in Astrology and elements of dreams, we can see the transformative cycle that unmasks our te.

Empowerment: The Appropriateness of Taking – Qián The Creative

Many philosophies negate experience or teach us to practice inaction. In Taoism, Wu Wei means not striving, but it is not the same as taking no action. The difference between action and striving is how we respond to what is happening. Striving can disconnect us from the way as we push our way forward. However, there are times when we must recognize how we hide and are guided to take the action to follow what the time requires.

Shadow dreams of a stalker attempting to break into our house or to overpower us reveal how a potent part of our nature was sent underground. Some part of us simply wants to be understood, integrated and allowed back into ‘our house.’ In dreams, the house represents our paradigm. Shadow dreams are always about activating authentic empowerment and Qián is like our Ch’i or empowered essence.

Qián teaches us about empowerment, but asserting our power is not a ‘me vs them’ exercise. Empowerment is how we learn to fearlessly express who we are. This is similar to the Magician in Tarot who has gained access to all of the elements: wands (passion/ideas), swords (initiative/discipline), pentacles (practical/self-sufficiency) and cups (inspiration/benevolence.) The Magician is an empowered individual with command of experience in a way that makes what they do seem like magic. In reality, the individual has just mastered an awareness of following Tao to express their te. The Magician has become master of their experience.

In Astrology, Pluto reveals the theme of empowerment by its placement in a sign and house. Mars portrays our tendency to actualize this drive. Summer, Yang and all that is visibly growing and active on the earth is described by Qián. Even among plants, the drive for positioning of leaves to access the sunlight is a fundamental part of nature. We cannot attempt to help others when we have not learned how to help ourselves, but we learn much about our te when we place ourselves in position to help another.

Themes: Strong, assertive, creative, father, sky, heaven, empowered, potent force, power, Shadow dreams.

Joy: Learning How to Receive – Duì The Joyous Lake

Life loses its meaning if we have not learned how to take time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. There comes a point when we recognize how the mind can get wrapped up in neediness or routine that leads us away from Tao and te. The heart mind in Taoism is that place just below the heart, sometimes referred to as the solar plexus. It combines feeling with thought in a way that allows us to resonate rather than react from judgment.

Duì The Joyous Lake reminds us to resonate with life. Throw a rock into the lake and the water ripples in circles, settling slowly back to a peaceful center. Water in dreams portrays the condition of our emotions and feeling nature. A difficult passage in water, or traveling in the dark can reveal the level of access we have to our feelings and our emotional response to life.

Just as there is a time to take, we must also learn how to receive. We cannot follow Tao without access to the heart mind. Without this heart connection, we become a mind just splashing emotional reactions and lose access to our center.

In Tarot, this level of enjoyment and care-free joy is expressed by the Sun card. A naked child with arms open to embrace life rides on the back of a horse. This card captures the essence of our ‘coming to be real.’ It is said ‘te is the bubbling of instinct by the prospect of your coming to be real.’

In Astrology, the placement of Jupiter reveals our tendency toward expansion and joy. Its effect is to open doors, and how receiving opens us to the mystery of life as it unfolds.

The key to understanding Duì is recognizing the difference between responding and reacting. When we react, we are defending something – often connected to the past. When we respond, we are participating with life to allow it to unmask us. Being free to receive changes the texture of what we experience.

Themes: Pleasure, tranquil, complete devotion, opulence, contentment, arrival, water in dreams

Relationships: The Importance of Interdependency – Li Clinging Fire

Life is one vast network of interdependency and we are included in this design. Li portrays our relationship to others and the outer world, and its clinging nature means what we see cannot be separated from who we are or how we are behaving. Working in cooperation with others, we learn to share who we are and what we can do without giving up our authenticity. We join groups because of shared similarities – but te is revealed in the way in which we are different.

Dreams are like a mirror where everything is a reflection of our inner world. Each symbol is a unique portrayal of our inner condition. In life, a similar mirroring occurs. Dreams are cryptic to allow ideas to transcend the walls of critical consciousness. In life, those things we can’t understand serve the same purpose. We are stopped in our tracks when te is excited. This is why projection – or encountering behavior in another that bothers us – creates a charge. It embodies a quality we wish to explore or express.

When we meet conflict, we believe life is working against us. In fact, Tao is purposefully unmasking us through these types of encounters. You see how when you smile the world smiles back. Wake up with a bad attitude and it will be mirrored in all you see. If you are in a hurry no amount of rushing will change how others will also appear to be in a hurry.

In Astrology, Venus represents the right brain and how we relate to others. It is the part of our nature that recognizes the whole rather than the sum of its parts. Li is called the Clinging Fire because if we want to understand what is important to a person, we need only observe what they are actively cultivating, fixated on or clinging to.

The fire nature of Li is like the Star card in Tarot that transcends mundane concerns to align the Soul with the vision of Heaven. It transcends spiritual dogma because the inspiration is uniquely personal. Even in the most trying circumstances, we can learn to laugh in the way Tao makes us laugh at ourselves. 'The mysterious mirror' shows how all of life is a mirror presenting us back to ourselves. In this way, we are given a type of cosmic joke when we awaken to Tao. If you don’t like how life is responding, change your attitude. The Clinging nature of Li teaches how the outcome always has a cause – and the cause is you.

Themes: Light giving, humane, dependence, clinging, conflict, clarity, adaptable, inspired, mirror nature of dreams

Shocking: Freedom from the Known – Zhèn the Shocking Thunder

Taoism portrays children being closer to Tao because of their spontaneity in expressing te. These are the qualities that just come natural to us. As we grow, we tend trade them for acceptance and begin to set up a paradigm that thwarts any ideas that go against what we believe. This is why dreams are so bizarre and why the most frightening dreams have the power to shake us out of stagnant thinking. Similarly, the situations that shock us the most in life have the purpose of tearing down a stagnant paradigm.

Because of our desire to conform and fit in, we can sometimes become trapped in a sense of self that is not authentic. People often contact me because of nightmares, but the reason we have nightmares is to liberate us from what has trapped us. Like Shadow dreams, nightmares are a positive sign that power is being resurrected in the psyche.

The shocking nature of Zhèn is meant to coax us out of hiding. This element of nature is revealed in the severe weather patterns that regenerate a barren landscape. In ancient times, the clan would tell scary stories around the campfire at the end of winter. Children do this too with stories of the boogie man. Zhèn is often described as ‘ha ha’ or ‘ho ho’ like laughter. You can imagine the intensity of fear that builds up until its expression is released as laughter. Fear is an energy that traps us and shocking experiences are meant to release it.

The Trickster in dreams is like the Trickster stories told by the ancient clan. This character turns the rules topsy turvy to show how blindly following dogma has no personal meaning. Like a late-night comedian, dreams of a silly character will appear to poke fun at our serious attempts to be certain. There are no absolutes in life except that there are no absolutes.

The Fool in Tarot captures a similar theme. When we are embarking on a path drawn from a vision nobody else can understand, sometimes we are called a fool. But we are following the inner drummer and this is the expression of te.

Uranus in a chart also describes the area of life we are called to pioneer. Like Zhèn the Thunder, during Uranus transits to the chart, its energy is sudden and out of the blue. It excites freedom from the known and awakens us to our authentic path.

Whether through nightmares, Trickster dreams or the unexpected, when life moves into unpredictability we are returned to a more authentic path.

Themes: Inciting movement, arousing initiative, awaken, freedom from the known, trickster, nightmares

Patience: The Time it Takes to Learn – Xùn The Gentle Wind

Some of the most beautiful structures on the earth are red rock mountains that have been carved by centuries of wind. This didn’t happen over-night, which is why the wind is called Gentle. When we apply commitment and dedication with the discipline to keep trying – in time, we will succeed.

Patience is a funny curriculum and you can see this in situations where you are not allowed to laugh. The intensity of being placed in a scenario that seems to go against your comfort level allows you to release the bubbling of instinct. This is te in its purest form because you can feel the excitement of your coming to be real. Perhaps someone asks you about your feelings, or being pulled into conformity has suddenly become more than you can bear. Either way, life has a penetrating way of releasing you to your truth – even when it takes embarrassment or a humiliating experience to do so.

Sometimes we get stuck in a routine without any sense of being grounded. What we want often takes time as if life is testing us on our desire. Is this what you truly want? If it is real it will endure.

In the Temperance card of Tarot we see an angel with one foot in the water and one foot on land as a message about taking the middle path between extremes of thinking. The angel is pouring water between two chalices portraying alchemy. Our base nature can be hidden by ego driven behavior, but is purified through the forward and backward movement of Tao into gold. This is the 'yellow undergarment' or te referred to in the I Ching and Tao te Ching. Te is like gold, and life tosses us back and forth to release the heavier sediments that hide it.

Mercury in astrology is the embodiment of our left brain and discernment. Associated with alchemy, it is used to dissolve gold, releasing any sediment. When it is boiled, mercury evaporates, leaving the gold nugget. This is a good example of the discernment required to gain insight without closing the mind to future possibilities.

Walking the middle path, we learn to stop judging good and bad, and give life the chance to reveal its perfection. Unlike the sudden gusts of Shocking, Xùn teaches us about commitment and longevity, balance and moderation. We cannot see the wind but we know it is there because of the effect it has on the world. In this way, Xùn is about developing faith in what we cannot see.

Synchronicity is a cornerstone of Taoism because when we give up a sense of separation, we are able to calmly release ourselves into the totality of what is. The mirror of life can make us laugh at our attempts to be anything other than what we are at any given moment. Joy allows us to giggle our way back to our center. Like a child who lives in wonder, we hover at the doorway of perception.

What we believe becomes manifestation until we release the need to believe anything. By opening to wonder, we can experience ourselves wandering in the unfathomable.

Themes: Penetrating, longevity, patience, enduring, moderation, harmony, alchemy, synchronicity

Transcending: Going with the Flow - Kǎn The Abysmal Water

Every culture has a flood story, as if our genetic memory might recall a time of being connected to an unconscious or intangible existence pre-arrival. In the womb, we are sea creatures nurtured by an amniotic fluid.

Transcendent means to go beyond the limits of what we know ourselves to be in order to identify with the infinite. If wandering in the unfathomable releases the hold the mind can have over us, identifying with the infinite allows us to resonate into the eternal everything. There is no quicker way to learn how to go with the flow then to release any sense of me vs. the universe. We are the universe.

In Astrology, Neptune is called a transpersonal planet because it is not energy that describes personal characteristics. Kǎn, the Abysmal Water resembles what we know about Neptune. It is the instigator of peak states achieved through meditation, spiritual discipline or drugs. It is an awareness that is mind blowing, but difficult to bring back and describe to anyone else. It urges a transpersonal epiphany that becomes deeply personal, but unrelated to ego awareness.

People spend almost half of their day thinking about something other than what they are doing. Add the eight hours of sleep and dreams and you get the sense that the mind has a propensity for transcendence. In dreams, natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or tornadoes show us how our paradigm undergoes transformation. We are picked up from the known and transported into another context altogether. Kǎn is called Abysmal because when our foundation is being renovated, we can find ourselves swept up into a river of change with nothing to cling to.

The most interesting thing about a dry and parched landscape is that it brings about the gusts and storms meant to regenerate it. Where there is foliage and trees, the storms are less severe.

The I Ching refers to Crossing the Great Water as a way of crossing to the opposite side of our mental landscape to gain a better view of where we are. Rather than churn through indecision and keep revisiting an idea of a current crisis, we look at the repetitive themes that occur to understand what life is reflecting back to us. Constant rejection can reveal how we have a fear of becoming intimate. Constant crisis can reveal how we are not going with the flow. ‘Those who go against the way are called unlucky.’

The Tower in Tarot has a similar theme. When a faulty foundation or ‘ivory tower’ needs to come down, nature doesn’t distinguish between paupers and kings. Where Zhèn, the Shocking Thunder can be instantaneous like a bolt out of the blue to release fear, Kǎn is a complete deluge that returns us to the Great River. We go with the flow because the flow knows where to go and learn that life is truly more than our idea of it.

Themes: Dangerous, in motion, intangible, release, deluge, the flood, natural disaster dreams

Grounding: Become Master of Your Experience – Gèn Mountain Keeping Still

The Tao te Ching says:

‘Go to the end of emptiness. Hold fast to the way of stillness. The myriad of things all rise together and return to their separate roots. Returning to your roots is called stillness. Returning to stillness reveals your nature.’ Your nature is your te and it becomes more accessible through stillness.

Much of the Tao te Ching teaches us about turning back, or knowing when to stop, which is the lesson of Gèn. Those who are resolved in their power have no need to defend anything, and words are a measure of this inner knowing. Like the shavings removed to make a sculpture, substance and te are revealed by what is taken away.

Gèn is this sense of turning within to learn: ‘composure straightens out one’s inner life; honor will square one’s external life.’ No matter the crisis, there is no need to be defensive. Defensiveness ensures that the outcome will be relentless because we are generally defending something we do not need. It is something that is usually outworn and of the past. How do we know? Because life is conspiring to eliminate it.

In the Chariot card of Tarot, we see a soldier in a chariot, drawn by black and white sphinxes in repose. While this card can suggest movement, it is not without careful consideration. The black and white sphinxes pose the riddle that is solved by knowing the middle way. Black, white, light, dark, cold, hot, up and down are all variations of something, but that something needs no definition. Through stillness we can eliminate the contradictions that cloud the essence of the intangible.

The Chariot can suggest something related to the vehicle, and in dreams vehicles represent our motivation and what is driving us. Gèn allows us to see what is driving us through contemplation in stillness and we learn we are more than the story we tell of our insecurities and suffering.

In dreams, a vehicle driven by someone else shows their input on what we do. A vehicle out of control shows we are not moving forward authentically. Looking for a vehicle, or losing our car in a parking lot in dreams represents examining motivation. Different vehicles relate to different things. A boat moves through the emotional landscape while a train shows tracks that were laid down for us that are not easily changed. Hopping in and out of trains shows our desire to find our true path as does the bus, which symbolizes moving away from conformity. Sometimes we have to stop before we can understand the path forward.

Saturn in Astrology has a similar message of the need to be grounded and it shows the area we want to get right in life. Being grounded is not always pleasant, but we learn a valuable lesson. Often Saturn feels restrictive until we learn the importance of commitment, patience and perseverance.

Contemplating and aligning vision with will, we discover how knowing and believing are no match for what is real. The sobering effect of Saturn and Gèn lead us to realize: what is – is. They teach us to give life the time required to show us why.

Themes: Resting, standstill, completion, basics, aligning vision/will, time out, transportation in dreams

Returning: The Universe Within – Kūn The Receptive

We began with Qián the Creative and its opposite is Kūn the Receptive. These energies are the foundation for Yin and Yang. Where Yang represents Summer and all that is visible and growing on the earth, Yin is the Winter and the gestation of the unseen. Tao is the blending of the visible and invisible, and this pushing and pulling energy of life.

We observe it in the force and fields of electro-magnetism. Yin is the field, while Yang is the force. Both are necessary to propagate life. The force of Yang creates the field and the field coaxes the force forward to perpetuate movement.

Qián and Yang are masculine, while Kūn and Yin are feminine. We can see the power of Yin in the High Priestess of Tarot. When this card appears, we are guided to turn inward to connect with vision, inspiration and our dreams. Intuition is our direct connection to te.

Beyond the expression of personality (Sun) libido (Mars) discipline (Saturn) expansion (Jupiter) logic (Mercury) and relatability (Venus), the Moon portrays elements taught by mother, our need for comfort, how we feel safe, and our subconscious tendencies.

There are many myths about heroes going into the underworld to uncover clues that will teach them who they are and what they are supposed to do. Dreams of going underground, into caves or even just into the basement are also indicative of digging into the subconscious terrain. On this journey of activating te, we must take responsibility for our condition to understand how it can become buried.

One of the most basic but most difficult concepts in Taoism is learning to become open. Unlike Duì the Joyous Lake, which teaches us about opening and receiving from experience, Kūn is about becoming receptive to the inner world. Like the High Priestess, we open to our dreams and intuition to make sense of what we are experiencing. When we meet conflict, we yield to allow the charge to teach us about what it is that is pushing our buttons. And if our buttons are being pushed – why? What are we protecting? Chances are the situation will reveal a valuable part of our nature.

There is a devotional aspect to Kūn that suggests surrender, rather than pushing. Like the feminine aspect of courtship, when we yield or turn away, we become magnetic. Life is only complicated because it is our nature to seek tangibility and stasis. Life is better understood when we look inward. Do we court conflict or joy? Are we open to becoming, or are we stuck in a state of being something we are not?

Many people know a lot about their Sun sign, but know little about their Moon sign. The Sun is Yang and describes the personality, but the Moon is Yin and can reveal subconscious motivations. An adventurous and Sagittarian with a watery Moon (Cancer/Pisces/Scorpio) will be more cautious. An inquisitive Gemini with an earthy Moon (Taurus/Virgo/Capricorn) will be tamed by more practical and tangible needs. The elemental makeup and sign of the Moon will flavor the Sun sign.

When we learn that the universe is within, we see how our tendencies drive our motivation, and our motivation drives our focus. Being receptive comes when we acknowledge that we have an antenna. We can watch the show, but we come to realize it is being broadcast from somewhere else.

Themes: Devoted, yielding, intuition, response, undercurrents, underworld and basement dreams

Look for Tao and it cannot be seen; it is invisible.
Listen and it cannot be heard; it is inaudible.
Reach for it, although it cannot be touched; it is intangible.

What is unfathomable can only be looked upon as one.

It rises like illumination, but does not dazzle.
It settles back down, but is not obscure.
It is without beginning, and end,
It is infinite, indefinable.

This is the form of the formless;
it exists in non-existence;
Being indefinable
is its greatest mystery.

Go up to it, and you will not see its beginning;
follow behind, and you will not see its end.

Hold close to the ancient Tao
and become the master of your present existence.

The ability to know the beginning of antiquity
is the thread running through the way.