Healing the Heart: Meditation and Healing in Daoist Philosophy

Guest post by Park Seung-Hyun

Bio: I am HK Research Professor at the Institute of Mind Humanities, Wonkwang University. I received my B.A. and M.A. at the Department of Philosophy, Chung-ang University in Korea, and completed my Ph.D at the Department of Philosophy, Peking University. My thesis was titled “A Study on Huainanzi and ZhuanhXue in early Han Dynasty.” I believe that the true meaning of philosophy emerges only when the essence obtained by pursuing theoretical issues is implemented in real life. In this regard, I believe that philosophical questions should be focused on how human dignity can be realized in the real world. My research interests go to the subject of philosophical counseling and healing, where the issues of human pain are dealt with in various perspectives. My working project lies at the intersection of the train theory and the subject of mind healing. 


Recently, there has been burgeoning interest in healing for illnesses of the heart.1 People living in developed civilizations are burdened by heavy workloads that force them to live busy lives. As people produce more, they also consume more. It is common knowledge that in modern society, people are often treated as tools of production, and are valued for their utility rather than their being. Human dignity is determined by one’s degree of usefulness, and thereby humanity loses its true meaning.

Why do people today place such high value on material civilization to the detriment of living a happy life? Perhaps they suffer because of an incorrect interpretation of what it means to live a happy life. They seem to believe that happiness is not a matter of the heart, but instead depends on external material conditions. They strongly believe that happiness requires a certain status or social success, and to secure such a happy life, they are taught to believe that they must triumph through fierce competition to secure wealth and status. They believe that they should desperately use all means and methods to achieve such an esteemed life. However, owing to such beliefs, life can spiral downwards. Social pathologies and pain arising from misguided beliefs can only be resolved when one’s viewpoints and attitudes change.

A change in viewpoint and attitude toward life must begin by reflecting on oneself. We should reflect on our wrong belief, and attempt to distance ourselves from it. Distancing ourselves means changing our viewpoint. However, a shift in viewpoint cannot be achieved simply by way of intellectual exploration. Intellectual work, which pursues the knowledge of the objective world, is just an auxiliary means to resolving pain. Beyond this intellectual effort, we should also look at the disposition of our mind, and practice resting the mind. This is the starting point of meditation.

Meditation, in my view, is not about pursuing external objects, but a disciplined way of looking for the lost self. Meditation is an attempt to search for the origin that gives the self his or her identity. The ordinary active mind is formed by our habits and experiences, as well as by our education. In this frame of mind, we can distinguish right from wrong according to our life standards, but can always easily slip into self-centered thought and act according to our own biases. When we do this, discrepancies in opinions arise, causing disputes and contributing to a painful life. Meditation aims primarily to distance ourselves from such an ordinary, habitual mind. It further seeks to eventually find the true self.

Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism all uphold the goal of a perfected human being—represented by a saint, an immortal, or Buddha, respectively—and promise that this is a state human beings can reach through various practical disciplines taught by each tradition. From the viewpoint of all three Asian traditions, the realization of such an ideal human life lies in the search for one’s inner foundation. In all cases, discipline and practice starts with overcoming the self, specifically, with winning the fight against the selfish persona. This paper discusses how this practice appears in the Chinese Daoist classic, the Book of the Way and its Power (Daode Jing), by Laozi.

Meditation in Laozi

Laozi’s Daode Jing does not mention a specific meditation technique. However, there are hints of Laozi’s ideas about how to practice. He instructs: “Close the mouth, shut the doors. Blunt the sharpness, untie the tangles. Soften the light, become one with the dusty world. This is called profound identification.”2 This expression suggests three stages of meditative practice.

The first stage, “close the mouth and shut the doors,” is the pre-meditation stage. Although it mentions only the mouth, the implication is we must close all of our sensory organs. This closes the doors through which qi exits, and via which our life energy is wasted. If we thus sit quietly, we are not distracted by the temptation of external objects.

Laozi’s second stage of mediation is to “blunt the sharpness and untie the tangles.” This is the stage of mental discipline in which we refine the roughness of our mind. In this stage, it is important to forsake unnecessary desires that cause conflicts with others. Laozi also warns against pursuing futile knowledge. If we do so, we can be free from worries; we can empty our mind and remain serene.

In this serene condition, we can see the true nature of all things, which is the third stage. This transformation cannot come simply from philosophical thoughts, but must be achieved through a transcendental consciousness that is beyond the ordinary state of mind. That is the realm where light is softened, and one becomes one with the dusty world. This last stage of the discipline is called xuantong, “becoming one with the mysterious.”

Unfortunately, the Daode jing does not give more detail about specific methods involved in meditation. But, Laozi presents various ideas in the text about the practice and its benefits.

Laying down desires

The path of cultivation laid out by Laozi involves modesty, humbleness, and surrendering. By overcoming problematic situations caused by the bondage of the selfish self, we can heal a confused heart. Laozi sternly warns of the results of endlessly expanding material desires: “There is no greater woe in our lives than not knowing our satisfaction.”3 The more desire we have for wealth, power, and sensuous pleasure, the further we pursue them. People always seem to want to be satisfied, to stay ahead of other people, and to feel happy by pursuing sensuous desires. If we do not step away from the pursuit of these worldly values, we will not be able to attain peace of mind and a sense of balance.

In constrast, Laozi finds the true value of human life in remaining simple: “People around me are very bright, but only I seem to be dull. People around me have a calculating and careful mind, but only I remain in the dark. Quietness seems like a sea, and gusts of wind seem to run wild. People around me are all useful, but only I am uncivilized and outdated. Only I, different from others, see it important to move toward the Way.”4 It seems that, compared with others who seem to be moving at a fast pace in response to changing times, Laozi might look like a fool or outcast. However, unlike people who pursue their immediate interests in daily life, his mind is focused on the Way, which is the origin of things. This state of mind is not to be gained naturally, but must be reached through the practice of meditation.

People with Laozi’s “foolish mind” can deal with everyday situations with a flexible attitude. They will not manipulate people, and will not resort to acting immorally. They will handle work naturally. Laozi expresses such a life attitude as “soft.” He insists, “When human beings are alive, they are soft, but when they are dead, they become firm. As plants grow, they are flexible, but when they are dead, they become hard. Those things that are dead are hard and strong, and those things that are living are soft and weak.”5

Though a person who is like water might be humiliated by a strong person, hardness will always eventually be subjugated by softness. “There is nothing in the world softer than water, but when water accumulates and grows bigger it can penetrate even the hardest material. Everyone knows that something feeble can win against something strong, and something soft can win against something hard, though they do not properly practice this principle.”6

Worldly people continuously consume their lives competing with other people to attain more wealthy and honorable positions. In contrast, Laozi emphasizes that we should stay humble, yield to others, and live in a low position that is not usually favored. He says, “Rivers and seas allow all streams to flow into them because they stay low. Therefore, they can become the king of the streams.”7

Laozi believes that this concept of non-competition can help remove the roots of social injustice, and open the way to accept other people’s position. A person with a water-like mind is able to restrain him or herself from fighting with other people. Laozi says, “Water benefits all things, does not pick a fight, and yet it stays where many people disdain it. It resembles the Dao.… It avoids fighting and thus, it has no transgressions.”8 Likewise, “A saint, although seated above, does not feel like a heavy burden to people, and he, although seated in the front, is not like an obstacle to people. Therefore, all people willingly honor him, but they are not bored with him. He does not fight with other people, and so he has no enemies.”9

Thus, Laozi, through his suggested methods of being flexible, keeping a low profile, and being non-competitive, intends to open the way for each of us to restore our own nature and to allow all things to realize their own nature. Through such efforts, we can aim to step away from being bound by our immediate desires and consumption, instead cultivating a yielding and modest mind that looks for a mutually beneficial situation for everyone.

Overcoming artificiality and affectation

However, while modesty and humility are desirable, our habitual, ordinary mind easily falls into temptation and vanity. We seek to resolve our life problems in a simple way rather than in a right way.

Laozi warns against “artificial doing” (youwei, or renwei), which can also be translated as “affectation.” Laozi says in this regard, “A person, with heels up, cannot stand long; and a person, with legs spread wide, walks clumsily and cannot go far. A person, if claiming his insistence, is not bright; a person, if insisting on being right, is not bright; a person, if showing off himself, loses his meritorious achievements; and a person, if boasting of himself, will not sustain his presence long.”10 A person with heels up, a person walking clumsily, and a person showing off or boasting are people who act unnaturaly. Such acts are all deemed “redundancies from the viewpoint of the Way.”11 Vanity is an unnecessary attitude one carries with them when doing a particular act. Such vanity hampers the course of a normal life, and, in worse cases, it leads to unhealthy situations. Laozi notes the diversity of affectations in our lives driven by vanity, and asks us to escape from them.

The causes of such artificiality can be explained in three ways. The lowest level of artificiality refers to the intemperate pursuit of sensuous desires. The stronger and more diverse the stimuli received from external sources through our sensory organs, the further our consciousness is pressed by and subjected to such external stimuli, and the further disabled the mechanism to look upon ourselves becomes. Laozi says, “Five colors blind people’s eyes, five sounds deafen people’s ears, and five tastes hurt people’s mouths.”12 In other words, stimuli of all kinds dull our sensory organs, making us more and more numb. Obviously, the pursuit of temporary pleasures like these does not lead to true happiness. Furthermore, sometimes, manipulation in the pursuit of pleasures leads us directly to pain.

The second level is psychological or emotional artificiality: feelings of pleasure, anger, or numbness when showing off and employing one’s skills to gain favors from others. The third and last level is manipulation through thoughts,  theories, and ideologies. These three levels—sensuous desires, vanity, and ideological distortions—all lead people to manipulate others and to lose their true nature. Such loss of nature causes them to plunge into non-freedom.

To oppose and negate the manipulations of “artificial doing” (youwei), Laozi presents the concept of “non-doing” (wuwei). For Laozi, non-doing does not simply mean inaction. Non-doing is the positive action of refusing to give rise to the factors that lead to the abovementioned manipulations. The verb wu in wuwei can mean “to negate” or “to remove.” The target of such negation are mental states like dependence, falsehood, manipulation, and externalization. Human beings, if bound in these states, will become unnatural and devoid of freedom. Thus, Laozi asserts that, in order to escape from pain and move towards freedom,  these need to be negated and removed.

Non-doing is thus a training to negate and remove artificiality and affectation from the mind. It can be reached only through the course of strenuous discipline, paying attention to each moment in meditation. Only when this practical meaning of Laozi’s philosophy is properly disclosed, can the healing aspect of discipline be clearly understood.

Cultivation of a serene heart

In Laozi’s text, the goal of meditation is to produce a serene heart, through which we can escape from the bondages of life and pursue ultimate freedom. Stopping our desires and our artificial thinking is not merely to sit idle or stay in a dull state, but has the purpose of making us clearly awake and allowing our life to be guided intuitively.13

This state is described by Laozi as “empty” (xu) and “serene” (jing).14 He emphasizes one must become “wholeheartedly” empty and serene. This means concentrating our heart/mind on one thing.15 If our heart/mind is confused, we cannot achieve anything, and we will be driven by external influences and only be troubled. But, if our heart/mind remains truly empty and serene, our life is undisturbed by the movement of external objects.  “Although all things around me are turbulent, I can return to serenity.”16

Laozi closes with this sentence: “If we do not know steadfastness, we will become irrational and wild.”17 This is what we always experience in our routine lives. If we are continuously agitated by external objects, we experience never-ending suffering. We need to stop this situation. If we stop, we can distance ourselves from such situations, and clearly see ways to return to the origin. Then we can regain our stability and search for a steady way of life. However, most people do not properly understand the way to a steady life, and instead are consumed by external things and become ill because of their sensuous desires.

Pursuing meditation is different from the pursuit of external knowledge. Laozi says, “Acquiring knowledge requires daily accumulation; practicing Dao requires daily reduction.”18 Acquiring knowledge can be thought of today as the main pursuits of the natural sciences, social sciences, and other empirical fields. Knowledge pursued in these arenas are obtained outside oneself. On the other hand, practicing the Dao requires the person to look within. Elevating oneself is possible not by filling but by emptying, not by the external but the internal.

Through this inner awakening, we can obtain a clear and pure mind, and discover our true nature beyond our specific environment. Nonetheless, Laozi’s pursuit of mental freedom through meditation is not to suggest we neglect our daily activities. Daoist philosophy is not simply about staying in the area of theoretical exploration. Laozi writes: “Embracing light with our heart and becoming one with the dusty world,”19 we should endeavor to purify and clarify our mind so we can apply these truths in real life. Daoist philosophical approaches thus are part of a practical system of overcoming pain and healing the heart.


  1. The Korean sim (Chinese xin)⁠ is an East Asian word connoting both mental and emotional qualities in addition to the physical heart organ. For readability, I have most often used the translation of this term as “heart,” although in certain cases, I have opted for “heart/mind” in order to make clear what I am referring to.
  2. DDJ 56
  3. DDJ 46.
  4. DDJ 20.
  5. DDJ 76.
  6. DDJ 8.
  7. DDJ 66.
  8. DDJ 8.
  9. DDJ 66.
  10. DDL 24.
  11. DDL 24.
  12. DDJ 12.
  13. Kim⁠ 2011.
  14. DDJ 16.
  15. The discipline method of emptying the heart to obtain serenity shown in Xunzi, jiebi, comes from Daoism.
  16. DDJ  16.
  17. DDJ 16.
  18. DDJ 48.
  19. DDJ 56.


  • DDJ: Laozi. 2007. Daode jing. Translated into Korean by Lee Gang-su. Seoul: Gil.
  • Kim Jeong-ho. 2011. Mentoring on mind control and meditation. Seoul: Bulkwang.