Returning to the Source

Gregory Ripley
6 min readMay 23, 2023
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

When in harmony with Dao,

The sky is clear; the earth is stable,

The soil is fertile.

Content with the way,

Living with the cycles of life,

Beings are endlessly renewed.

When mankind loses Dao,

The sky becomes filthy; the earth is unstable,

The soil becomes depleted.

The equilibrium is lost,

Beings become extinct.

Daode jing 39

The main goal of Daoism is to reconnect with Dao. This is often referred to as “returning to the source” (huanyuan). The source is Dao, our “original nature” (benxing). In Daoist worldview, individuals are born originally pure; there is no idea like original sin. Instead, it is conditioning from society and our upbringing which can foster a sense of separation from Dao or our original nature.

We may become self-centered and self-absorbed. We may become greedy and materialistic, focused on accumulating things instead of focusing on our relationships with other people, other species, and the earth. When Daoists thought about the ideal form of society, they looked back towards a form akin to tribal collectivism instead of the Feudalistic society they found themselves in. They envisioned society based on cooperation and tradition instead of coercion and acquisition. As Joseph Needham put it, “The ideal society of the Daoists was cooperative, not acquisitive”(see Needham 1956).

This preference for cooperation over competition really extends beyond human society to nature and the universe as a whole.

Daoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Laozi could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.” This implies that the art of life is more like navigating than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s action may use them and not fight them.

— Alan Watts (1975)

So the goal of this book is the same as the goal that those who follow Dao pursue; returning to our source; reconnecting with our original nature, the nature within us which is no different than the nature which surrounds us.

The practices in this book divide into two main categories, practices of the body and those of the mind. This is a fairly traditional way of looking at things and probably feels fairly comfortable to most of us, as we usually divide things up this way in our everyday lives. We might think church or the zendō is for our minds or souls, and the gym or the yoga studio is for our bodies.

In Daoism, there are practices for the mind such as meditation, visualization, and internal alchemy (neidan) as well as practices aimed primarily at cultivating a strong, healthy body as a base of support for the mind-based practices. Ultimately, if we want to bridge the perceived separation between ourselves and nature, it is a helpful step in that direction to start thinking of bodymind as one. So, when engaging in any of these practices, even when the focus seems to be on one or the other, they are both involved. Even when sitting meditating, the body is very much involved. This becomes obvious if your back starts aching!

Daoist Cosmology

Dao gives birth to One.

The One gives birth to Two.

The Two give birth to Three.

The Three give birth to the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.

They mix these energies to achieve harmony.

Daode jing 42

We can think of returning to the source in two ways. We can think in terms of original mind and original body. Before the universe came into being, it was in a limitless state (wuji), which matches the One in the above passage. According to modern science, this is still the nature of the universe. As far as we know it is limitless or infinite. The notion of wuji also implies undifferentiated so that, in terms of the universe, it is still limitless but it has become differentiated.

In terms of consciousness, wuji can be thought of as our original mind. As we come into being or become conscious of ourselves as separate individuals, wuji becomes taiji or differentiated. This is the Two, that is, yin and yang. The stage represents complementary pairs and opposite ideas coming into being. We have relativity, duality, and polarity, things like up and down, left and right, inside and outside. Of course, in our everyday lives we operate at a relative level of consciousness. If I do not want to get hit by a car, I’d better remain aware of relative consciousness! I and the car are not one in everyday consciousness.

When we sit down to meditate however, we may experience this relative consciousness drop away for brief moments. We may experience the fluid nature of time, as minutes can become hours and an hour can fly by in what seems only an instant. This idea is reflected in a common form of meditation in Daoism, “sitting and forgetting” (zuowang). Another form of meditation is “guarding the One” (shouyi), also known as “embracing the One” (baoyi). The One in this case can also be translated “oneness,” reflecting the idea of returning to Tao or reconnecting with nature.

Within the cosmology of Daoism, the Two (yin-yang) give birth to the Three. They are heaven, earth, and humanity. From them arise the ten thousand things, an ancient Chinese way of saying “everything.” In India, ancient Buddhist scriptures use “eighty-four-thousand” to express the same idea.

In terms of original body, we can think of the goal of the movement and health practices we engage in as being aimed at returning us to our original or primal body. We might think of this in terms of living up to our full physical potential in terms of movement ability, as well as physical health.

Daoists speak of this in two major ways, as “nourishing life” (yangsheng) and as becoming like an infant. Newborns are still flexible and resilient. Bad habits of movement or lack thereof have not yet shaped or warped them physically. Certain muscles are not yet overdeveloped, while others remain underdeveloped. Tissue has not become calcified through lack of movement. The fascia is still supple.

Another metaphor to describe this state is to be “simple” (pu). The word, written with the sign for “wood,” literally indicates an “uncarved block of wood,” a log. The meaning is that being like an infant, resting the mind in a wuji state, we are yet to be shaped or limited and are therefore limitless. Ge Hong (283–343 CE), an early Daoist master, used the word pu in his name: he is also known as Baopuzi, the Master Who Embraces Simplicity. The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki calls this “beginner’s mind,” saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few” (2011). In the Western tradition we can see similar ideas expressed.

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson (1849)

In the case of the body, this requires something on our part. It requires regular, healthy movement. We must make movements happen that keep our joints, tendons, and ligaments limber and our muscles strong and supple. In the case of the mind, it is somewhat the opposite process. Our minds move all the time, especially in the modern world. Our minds crave stillness, whereas our bodies crave movement. In the case of mind-body practices such as yoga, taiji, and qigong we can achieve still minds and mobile bodies at the same time. In fact these two dimensions reinforce each other in practice.

(adapted from Tao of Sustainability, 2016, Three Pines Press)



Gregory Ripley

I’m the author of The Hundred Remedies of the Tao and The Tao of Sustainability. I’m an ordained Daoist Priest and Nature & Forest Therapy Guide.