- Communities that embrace the rural lifestyle often share common values with Taoism.
- The three paramount virtues of Taoism — compassion, moderation, and humility — translate easily to post-pandemic “de-urbanization.”
- The Taoist concept of wu-wei or “flow” is especially relevant to gardening and farming.
In recent years there has been a shift toward “de-urbanization,” as more people have chosen to move away from large cities and urban areas in favor of smaller towns, rural areas, or even off-grid locations. Accelerated by the sustained adoption of remote work during the pandemic, this “rural renaissance” is primarily driven by the desire for a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle, where people can have more space and enjoy greater connectivity with nature.
Research has shown that lack of access to green spaces and natural landscapes results in feelings of isolation, disconnection, and a loss of perspective on humanity’s place in the world. Communities that prioritize mindfulness, engagement, and living in harmony with the natural world are not only equipped to tackle these issues, but they also have much in common with the kind of life prescribed by Taoism.
Dao (or Tao) is the fundamental concept in Taoist philosophy, which has its origins in ancient China. Dao literally translates to “the way” or “the path” and refers to the natural order of the universe — the underlying principle that governs everything in existence. The concept of Dao is closely related to the idea of yin and yang, which represent complementary and interconnected forces that work together to maintain balance and harmony in the universe. In Taoism, the goal is to align oneself with the Dao.
The natural order of the universe
Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer who is credited with founding Taoism, wrote, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” This proverb suggests that nature operates effectively according to its own natural rhythm, encouraging individuals to live their lives in a similar way, without rushing or forcing things, but rather allowing events to unfold naturally and taking action when the time is right. It’s a reminder that sometimes the best way to move forward is to slow down and trust the natural flow of the world.
In practice, Taoism is best illustrated by its three paramount virtues, referred to as the “three jewels” or “three treasures”: compassion, moderation and humility. According to Taoist philosophy, nurturing these virtues results in the embodiment of additional virtuous traits. Taoists believe compassion leads to courage, moderation to generosity, and humility to the right kind of leadership, because one can inspire and guide others without seeking personal gain or recognition.
Following a rural lifestyle — even if that means remaining within a city and its suburbs as an “urban farmer,” or as part of a residential “agrihood” built around a shared farm or garden — can provide a supportive environment for these values, as it champions a sense of interconnectedness, sustainability, and community. According to Brett Coleman, the owner and founder of Agrihood Living, “These neighborhoods bring everybody together.”
The three jewels of Taoism
Within a more communal rural lifestyle, compassion is cultivated by prioritizing the needs of others and the environment over individual desires. This can be achieved through communal decision-making processes that prioritize the common good, such as choosing sustainable farming practices or sharing resources. By working together toward a common goal, community members develop a sense of empathy and compassion toward one another and the natural world.
Moderation is fostered by encouraging a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. By growing their own food, individuals are viscerally connected with the work involved in procuring their resources, instilling an appreciation for every resource. By sharing resources, they can also avoid excess consumption.
The third of the three paramount Taoist virtues, humility, is encouraged in a rural context by recognizing that the individual is just one small part of a larger web, where everyone contributes to the work. Illinois-based row crop farmers Kenneth and Kathryn Mentzer, told the Stigma-Free Society, “The strengths that exist include a community that is very like-minded… If someone needs help at home or on the farm, rural communities are always good about taking time out of their day to pitch in.”
Beyond the social aspect, humility is also encouraged by recognizing that we are all part of the broader ecosystem. By working with the land and respecting its cycles, we can develop a humbling sense of reverence for the natural world.
The wu-wei of life
The move toward rural living can be seen as a modern response to the disconnect from nature (and from ourselves) that has resulted from urbanization. This pursuit of inner tranquility and harmony with the natural world is well aligned to the Taoist concept of wu-wei, a Chinese word which translates to “effortless action” — essentially, flow.
This passage from the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese philosophical text attributed to the sage Lao Tzu, illustrates the concept of wu wei: “The Way has no fixed position; It abides within the excellent mind… When people accord with it they are harmonious.” Also from the Tao Te Ching is this passage: “Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace.” With observations like these, Lao Tzu connects us with the Dao and the natural flow of the universe.
Along connected lines, philosopher Lie Yukou writes in the Liezi, a Taoist text from ancient China: “The grass grows naturally, without any effort or intention. Such is the way of simplicity.” Taoism stresses the importance of harmony and unity between man and nature, which has become an unshakable principle of building Chinese gardens. Gardening and tending the land can be seen as a form of wu-wei, as it involves working in partnership with the natural world rather than trying to impose one’s will on it. The goal of Chinese garden design is to create an artful space that embodies coexistence with nature and harmony. By observing the patterns of nature and following its rhythms, individuals can align themselves with “the way” and, by extension, with the universe.
How to find “the way”
Aside from cultivating the three paramount virtues, other ways to access the Dao include Taoist meditation practices, which are designed to help individuals quiet their minds and focus their attention to cultivate a sense of inner peace and clarity. Taoist philosophy also teaches that letting go of attachment to material possessions and desires can alleviate suffering and cultivate a sense of inner freedom.
Luanne Armstrong — farmer and author of “Small Talk: Life on a Farm” — reflects on her rural lifestyle in a way that resonates deeply with Taoist thinking:
“The realization of the aliveness of the non-human is the crack in the paradigm, a shift from understanding nature as passive, unfeeling, and mechanical, to seeing the non-human all around us as aware, a huge something in which we, as humans, participate but can never control, that we can study, become aware of, learn about and find many patterns of translation.”
Taoism reminds us that sometimes the best way to move forward is to stop swimming and go with the flow. For some of us, that may require embracing the Rural Renaissance.