Because of the vast comprehensiveness of the Daoist cosmic ecology, and not in spite of it, the arena for all human action is the immediate environment. Only by paying attention to the minute details of one’s local context is one able to penetrate to the deep roots of the Dao. Popular Chinese culture is full of ways for human beings to micro-manage their environment, from feng shui, the strategy of arranging one’s immediate area to take full advantage of its natural environment to taijiquan (t’ai-chi-ch’üan), the embodiment of cosmic patterns to properly attune the self in the world.
Daoism has particularly emphasized the importance of small beginnings and local perspectives not as an end in itself, but as a strategy. The advice of the Dao de jing is to be low, soft, weak and nonassertive. The Zhuangzi praises the spontaneous skillfulness of craftspeople that cannot be easily taught in words, but is achieved only by the repeated practice of an individual in a highly particular context. Religious practices begin with the purification of mind and body and take for granted the respect for all living beings in one’s immediate environment. Religious communities enshrine such attitudes in precepts that are the precondition for more advanced methods.
In such an understanding nature is not something outside of us to be dealt with after the fashion of a mechanic repairing a car, but is both a mental attitude to be carefully cultivated and the true condition of one’s body that contains the infinite dimensions of cosmic reality within itself. Ultimately, therefore, nature is to be constructed and visualized time and again. Its destiny lies more than anything else in the human powers of imagination.
Reversion and Spontaneity
The goal of all higher Daoist practice is to mirror unobtrusively the dynamic spontaneity of one’s environment, to become imperceptible and transparent as though one were not at all. This goal is made all the more remote by the complex web of social and intellectual structures layered throughout history that form the cultural flux in which human life is trapped. The path towards pure spontaneity thus consists always in reversion or undoing. This reversion can occur mentally, through sitting in oblivion, physically, through the generation of an immortal embryo, and even cosmogonically, through alchemical practices founded on the principle that degenerative natural processes can be reversed and restored to their pure essential state.
Daoism proposes a comprehensive and radical restructuring of the way in which we conceive of our relationship to nature and our cosmic environment. This imaginative act does not readily lend itself to the solution of the problems of modern society except inasmuch as it challenges the very foundations of our economic, political, scientific, and intellectual structures. At the same time, however, as Daoism becomes more influential in the West, even as it is misunderstood, it surely exerts a positive influence with respect to understanding what it means to be embedded in a cosmic ecology.