The Intersection of Taoism, Deep Ecology and Praxis

Jarrod Hyam

Oregon State University


            ¡°Deep ecology¡± is a philosophical term developed by Arne N©¡ss in 1973; it represents a new paradigm in ecological thinking.  Deep ecology merges ecology with spiritual wisdom and socio-political action.  Interestingly, this paradigm is nothing ¡°new¡± to ancient wisdom traditions, such as those found in India, China, Japan, primeval European paganism, and Native American worldviews.  Such approaches acknowledge the holistic relations between the various social, environmental and spiritual spheres.   

            Deep ecology's concern with harmonious natural living and environmental awareness establishes an affinity with Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (Ô³Óì经).  Both approaches advocate direct communion with nature as a means to insight, rather than living in accordance with abstract maxims.  ¡°Self-realization¡± is the mystical component of deep ecology that involves a gradual expansion of self-identity to become ever inclusive, rather than clinging to a separate, isolated ego.  This process of maturation is also integral to the perennial wisdom of Tao Te Ching.

            In this essay I will demonstrate what the newfound paradigm of deep ecology contributes to environmental ethics, and how practical engagement with the natural world1 can be approached within this paradigm.  I will compare deep ecology's insights with Taoist wisdom.  Also, I will show that self-realization is not mystical reverie or escapism, but instead forms a vital point of engagement for both Taoism and deep ecology.


            Arne N©¡ss sets out eight foundational principles of deep ecology2:

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves
  2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population.
  5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed – economically, technologically and ideologically
  7. The ideological change will be appreciating life quality rather than seeking a higher standard of living
  8. Those who subscribe to this are obliged to implement necessary changes.3  


            This list provides deep ecology's fundamental tenets.  Prior to engaging with these principles, however, a fundamental shift in one's overall conception of reality – one's Weltanschaaung or worldview – is required.  This necessary transformation is termed ¡°self-realization¡± by N©¡ss and deep ecologists.


The notion of self-realization, also called ¡°self-in-Self,¡± is vital to the philosophical system of deep ecology.  Warwick Fox famously captured this foundational premise by stating, ¡°It is the idea that we can make no firm ontological divide in the field of existence: That there is no bifurcation in reality between the human and the non-human realms¡¦to the extent that we perceive boundaries, we fall short of deep ecological consciousness.¡±4  The ego, or isolated self, is built on a socially-reinforced assumption that ¡°I¡± am strictly this body, this individual history.  We emerge from the undifferentiated bliss of the womb into a hazy fog of self-awareness, as the ego-self gradually realizes that she is not the mother's body; there is now a separate self.  To realize one¡¯s self is to identify concretely with the Self, which is the organic whole of the cosmos.  The upper-case Self is often used to translate the Hindu conception of atman, the soul that is coterminous with the cosmic Spirit.  However, Self in the context of deep ecology points to a merging of identity with the natural world, in which the objective/subjective categories blur, and one can truly see personhood as becoming increasingly inclusive as the boundaries extend farther away from the ego.  ¡°Through the wider Self every living being is intimately connected, and from this intimacy follows the capacity of identification and, as a natural consequence, the practice of non-violence.  No moralizing is needed, just as we don¡¯t need morals to make us breathe.¡±5 However, living as an expanded Self need not result in life-denial or the extinguishing of self known to some forms of Buddhism; self-realization acknowledges the personal self, while simultaneously exploring its more expansive aspects.


Living as an autonomous ego-self is to live with the unquestioned assumption that the self is truly independent; that is, to exist is to move along a trajectory that is somehow separate from the flux of reality.  This incessant clinging to a separate self leads to the profound loneliness and isolation known to modernity.  Such continual isolation sometimes develops into an overwhelming existential despair: meaninglessness, a lack of purpose, angst.  Nonetheless the constricted self constantly pursues unification, whether in the activities of socialization, sexuality, artistic sharing, travel, nature retreats, or the countless cultural activities occurring in one's community.  Subliminally, self seeks Self.       


Though an individual identifies strictly with her body, she is simultaneously water, plant, mineral, animal, cloud, and sunshine.  The growth of plants depends on photosynthesis and thus sunlight; omnivorous and herbivorous animals depend on these plants; carnivorous animals depend on these previous animals.  Thus, as one absorbs a given material – solar radiation, water, minerals within plants – the organism literally becomes what is ingested.  Since many residents of both First and Third World nations are detached from the processes of nature, food and water are typically consumed in a sterile, efficient manner, while the individual is removed from the natural processes involved in producing these life-sustaining materials.  Self-realization involves the systemic awareness that an organism is a confluence of forces and materials, not in the sense of being conditioned or limited, but in the sense of ontologically spanning beyond the physical body.  The perceiving of boundaries is yet another socially-constructed veil to maintain socio-economic stability.  How is it possible to differentiate one's body from the ocean of air he is immersed in?


            The modern self is fragmented in numerous ways.  The Western self is not only detached from nature's cyclical processes, it is additionally divided within, by inheriting Descartes¡¯ separation of mind and body.  Living in a secular, post-Christian culture, we have also inherited the Judeo-Christian ontological divide between spirit and matter.  Thus, the holistic perspectives of Native American and Eastern philosophy have attracted deep ecologists, who hope to ground ¡°ecosophy¡± with an intense study and understanding of our physical environment.  This new understanding, which was known to archaic wisdom, stems from organic, non-fragmented assumptions.  Lynn White Jr. comments on the influence of Judeo-Christianity regarding our current ecological situation, ¡°since the roots [of the ecological crisis] are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.  We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny.¡±6 Deep ecology offers this re-evaluation, and the religious tendencies of deep ecologists are a response to the spiritual elements of the ecological crisis.


A key element for deep ecological praxis is the Taoist7 notion of wu wei (Ùé为),  translated as ¡°doing not-doing¡± or ¡°non-action.¡±  This is a subtle concept of Tao Te Ching, and it can easily be misinterpreted as simple laziness or passivity:

                        ¡¦Less and less do you need to force things,

                        Until finally you arrive at non-action.

                        When nothing is done,

                        Nothing is left undone.

                        True mastery can be gained

                        By letting things go their own way.

                        It can¡¯t be gained by interfering. (48)


            The ¡°non-action¡± of wu wei is more akin to ¡°right¡± or harmonious action.  For example, a master tennis player has such keen awareness of his muscular and mental responses that his action seems effortless, without any volitional striving.  An equilibrized stasis is achieved, though this stasis is dynamic and ever-shifting.  This effortless, intuitive action captures the definition of wu wei.  In terms of a land ethic, the yearlong observation-only phase of permaculture corresponds to doing not-doing, because while one may not be altering the land, careful observation is still a form of action.  Permaculture, a method of farming founded on holistic and communal practice, is an excellent example of Taoism in practice.


            ¡°The slogan of ¡®non-interference¡¯ does not imply that humans should not modify some ecosystems, as do other species.  Humans have modified the earth over their entire history and will probably continue to do so.  At issue is the nature and extent of such interference.¡±8 The conundrum is how non-interference can be practically applied, since humans will inevitably modify ecosystems in some way.


            From a Taoist perspective, humans have lost their delicate balance with the Tao.9  We have forced, interfered, fenced off, dammed off, and toxically dumped far too much.  As technology and culture rapidly progress, so does our hubris and sense of dominance over nature.  The rate of species extinction continues to escalate, while some rationalize this as a ¡°natural cycle¡± or as an issue of little significance.  Climate change and species extinction are undeniably tied to human overpopulation and the toxication of Earth due to countless pollutants.


            How is it that we regain the harmonious balance with Tao?  Integral to effective praxis are both self-realization and wu wei.  That nature is intrinsically valuable is taken for granted.  Proper non-action is a conscious, attentive approach to the natural world, in which self-in-Self concretely manifests; one¡¯s identify merges with the vast pantheon of life.  This is experiential, and forms a major aspect of both Taoist and deep ecological contemplative practice.  Therefore, any killing or modifying will be done with careful consideration of systemic effects, rather than blindly acting in an excessive manner, as current logging and industrial practices are sometimes carried out.  Naess comments, ¡°And the so-called struggle for life, and survival of the fittest, should be interpreted in the sense of the ability to coexist and cooperate in complex relationships, rather than the ability to kill, exploit, and suppress.¡±10 To kill another plant or animal is in some sense harming the eco-Self, but life feeds on life, and such destruction is necessary for survival.  However, a holistic return to balance is to understand precisely how one is altering the ecosystem she is embedded in; therefore, any destruction will be done mindfully and consciously, with knowledge of the infinitely interconnected causality present in the natural world.  A feedback loop develops in which the self-realizing person perceives the subtle interactions between self and environment; this feedback is a novel education.  ¡°Letting things go their own way¡± is gained through mindful observation and participation in cosmic rhythms.  As stated in Naess¡¯ third principle of deep ecology, humans should only satisfy vital needs, rather than wasting and exploiting resources.                       


When man interferes with the Tao,

The sky becomes filthy,

The earth becomes depleted,

The equilibrium crumbles,

Creatures become extinct.  (39)


            It is this equilibrium of give-and-take reciprocity that deep ecologists work towards.    Lao Tzu sometimes calls Tao the Great Mother, or the ultimate Source (6).  ¡°Interfering with the Tao¡± is thus to act unskillfully, excessively, without awareness of systemic effects – that is, without awareness of the Source.  Our current economy is predicated on this very modality: competitive and self-interested action.  It is the strictly selfish action of the ever-striving isolated self.  As was mentioned above by Naess, ¡°no moralizing is needed.¡±  Western morality is founded on axioms and absolutes; this is evident in Jewish morality (¡°Thou shalt...¡±) and the Kantian imperative, which prescribes specific moral duties to apply to all situations.  Deepening self-realization leads to spontaneous insight and action; to prescribe morals and axioms is to interfere with the Tao and lose sight of the spontaneous Way.  Lao Tzu is prophetic in stanza 39: are our skies not laden with pollutants, our earth depleted of resources, our creatures rapidly becoming extinct?                                                                                                               


            Praxis is thus grounded in contemplation, spontaneous insight, conscious action and a holistic worldview.  Wu wei is an intuitive morality that flows from experience and widened awareness rather than adopting a moral system; it manifests as doing not-doing.  Religious scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker comments, ¡°The implications of this holistic cosmology for an environmental ethic should be somewhat self-evident¡¦The natural world is not a resource to exploit but a complex of dynamic life processes to appreciate and respect.¡±11 Tucker defines wu wei as ¡°nonegocentric action¡± that avoids attachment.12 Again, appreciation and respect need not result in quietism or the refusal to act; instead, such reverence can lead to intuitive wu wei.      


Do you want to improve the world?

                        I don¡¯t think it can be done.


                        The world is sacred.

                        It can¡¯t be improved.

                        If you tamper with it, you¡¯ll ruin it.

                        If you treat it like an object, you¡¯ll lose it.  (29)                                           


            Modern Western culture, which is rapidly becoming global culture,  progresses along the very trends that Lao Tzu cautions against.  Modern science seeks to ¡°improve,¡± to tamper; following Bacon's lead, Nature is an object, a machine to be manipulated.  Technology has aided in some of our material conditions, but the industrial model of incessant growth strains natural resources and leads to profound inequalities in the distribution of wealth.  Affluent nations continue the Enlightenment objectifying of Earth; our planet is simply a complex array of systems and machinery, readily available for human use.  Those in the Third World toil to procure these resources for the world's affluent.  Scientific power via technology is the current model of ¡°power-over,¡± in which humanity exerts power over the natural world.  Our metropolitan centers and  systems of transportation cut deeply into Nature's stasis.  Additionally, the creations of our technological world – television, automobiles, automatizing machines in general – divide us from the visceral sensation of the natural world, and thus we lose connection to seasonal cycles, lunar cycles, and the subtle ebb and flow of cosmic rhythms.                      


            Earth has become ¡°It,¡±13 a mere object to manipulate; thus we have already lost the deep intimacy with nature known to our archaic past.  Re-connection is highly emotional, and provides a sacramental basis for action.  Deep ecologists seek to go beyond ¡°Itness¡± into a spiritual sentiment between I and Thou, a connection that, with maturity, even dissolves the I-Thou boundary.  Thus, what has been desecrated can be healed and restored.  Praxis can re-establish this lost equilibrium. 


¡¦ordinary men hate solitude.

But the master makes use of it,

Embracing his aloneness, realizing

He is one with the whole universe.  (42)                                                                  

            This stanza beautifully conveys the essence of self-realization.  If one is to move beyond a merely anthropocentric attitude towards Earth, and even beyond the notion of stewardship, the movement towards self-in-Self is essential.  N©¡ss states in ¡°Self-Realization,¡± ¡°Through identification, they [environmentalists] may come to see that their own interests are served by conservation, through genuine self-love, the love of a widened and deepened self.¡±14                                                                                           


            Self-love from a psychoanalytic perspective is hopelessly narcissistic, grounded in endless attempts to validate the ego¡¯s security.  self-in-Self leads to a broader sense of identity that is as concrete as one¡¯s former constricting ego-sense.  Conservation and compassionate wu wei is thus not altruism; it is the outflowing of genuine love, as a mother selflessly loves her child, or as a lover stares into the eyes of her beloved.  Therefore, one is never truly alone.  The unifying of self with cosmos leads to an ecstatic gnosis that defies words.  I continue to be myself, but I evolve personhood by engaging with the ever widening Self.  To experience at-one-ment with the universe pushes us away from an impersonal, mechanistic view of the natural world.  We are infinitely more than just this body, just this personal drama.  It is as though we are created from Earth with complex emotional and rational capabilities so that we may be the voice of Earth, the thoughts of Earth, the exploring Spirit of Earth.                                                           


            Thus, to be psychologically healed is to be socio-politically healed; this is the first step needed to cultivate non-dual eco-awareness, that Earth¡¯s injuries may be healed.  N©¡ss¡¯ 4th principle states that human populations need to lower substantially.  It is difficult to implement this principle, aside from reproductive education and effective birth control.  The intuition of this principle is that, again, we have lost our delicate balance within the eco-Self by rampantly overpopulating and damaging Earth¡¯s health.   


            N©¡ss¡¯ 6th principle pushes for policy reform, which may run counter to Taoist approaches, since wu wei emphasizes minimal resistance both from politicians and citizens.  However, political change is necessary to curb our current rate of destruction.  Ecological awareness is political in itself, as it radically subverts the societal apathy and sorrow we find ourselves in.  Thus, eco-Self awareness has a dissident place as much as socio-political activism.  ¡°Enlightened self-interest¡± moves beyond narrow self-interest to a life lived consciously, in harmony with the Self.

                        Therefore, if you dedicate your life for the benefit of the world,

You can rely on the world.

If you love dedicating yourself in this way,

You can be entrusted with the world.15   (13)


1     The term ¡°praxis¡± will refer to practical engagement in this essay.

2     I have slightly condensed this list.  N©¡ss adds additional comments after each principle, but this list conveys the main points.

3    N©¡ss, Arne. ¡°The Deep Ecological Movement.¡± Deep Ecology for the 21st Century.  Ed. Bill Deval and

      George Sessions.  Boston: Shambhala, 1995. p. 68.

4    Quoted in Sessions, George. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton: Gibbs M. Smith,

       1985. p. 66

5    N©¡ss, Arne. ¡°Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach To Being In The World.¡± Deep Ecology for

       the 21st Century. Ed. George Sessions. Boston: Shambhala, 1995. p. 233.

6    Quoted in Sessions, p. 207.

7     To use the term ¡°Taoist¡± at all is controversial, since it is a term that refers to numerous philosophies.  For example, there are Taoist hermits in China that practice esoteric meditations and practices.  My use of ¡°Taoist¡± refers to the philosophical discipline invoked by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (Daojia or Գʫ), and does not refer to the elaborate practices of Taoist religion and occultism.

8    N©¡ss, ¡°The Deep Ecological Movement,¡± p. 69.

9     The Tao is indefinable, which frustrates the definition-obsessed tendencies of Western philosophy.  Tao is that ineffable Presence, sometimes called Urgrund, God, or Brahman; Tao slips through the intellect's attempt to understand its essence.

10    N©¡ss, Arne. ¡°The Shallow and The Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements.¡± Deep Ecology for the  

       21st Century. Ed. George Sessions. Boston: Shambhala, 1995. p. 152.   

11    Tucker, Mary Evelyn. ¡°Ecological Themes in Taoism and Confucianism.¡± Worldviews and Ecology.

       Ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim. Lewisburg: Bucknell, 1993. p. 154.

12      Ibid., p. 152.

13    Cf. Buber's ¡°Ich und Du¡± for an edifying study of the implications of thinking in terms of I, Thou, and


14    N©¡ss, Arne. ¡°Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach To Being In The World.¡± Deep Ecology for

       the 21st Century. Ed. George Sessions. Boston: Shambhala, 1995. p. 229.

15   Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Stanzas quoted

       sequentially: 48, 39, 29, 42, 13.