Taoism and the 12 Steps

The Chinese view the Universe as a balanced interplay of opposites; the yin and yang, which are understood as complementary forces such as darkness and light, heat and cold, male and female, control and acceptance. Chinese philosophy is also an integration of Confucianism and Taoism, representing complementary positions. Confucianism emphasizes human will and rational decision-making; Taoism emanates from trust in instinct, intuition, creativity and acceptance. Both emerged about 600 BCE and are represented by the teachings and writings of Lao Tzu and Confucius.

The word Tao means way or path, pointing to a path or way in which people live in unity with all things, the Earth and the Universe. The concept of Tao is synonymous with source, process and wisdom. In Taoism all is part of the One.

The Tao Te Ching, much like the Big Book of A.A., has been a well-spring of inspiration. It has been translated into more languages than any other book except the bible. According to Houston Smith, it is “a testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the Universe…it can be read in half an hour or a lifetime.”

What the Tao Te Ching has most in common with the 12 Steps is the life fulfillment which results from living in harmony with its precepts.

The Tao Itself

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way)

Lao Tzu describes the Tao, or the Way, as the flow of life. It is the ‘way’ things are. It is also the force that moves in and through all things, it permeates and guides all things. As Taoists, we learn to recognize our resistance to this flow and how to yield and surrender to the flow. This practice is synchronous to the Third Step of AA. Our biggest challenge as humans is to learn not to impose control in an ever-changing world.

Step 1: The chase and the hunt craze people's minds.

The focus of the 12th Verse of the Tao Te Ching reminds us that allowing the desires of our senses to drive our actions results in excesses and a loss of connection with our inner truth. Because everything in our world is transitory, it is easy to chase appearances and illusions and be distracted from what has meaning and purpose. Dr. Dyer in Change your Thoughts, Change your Life, translates this simply to mean, “We cannot know the creator if we’re focused exclusively on what is created.” The Tao provides a clear description of the power of addiction, “the chase and the hunt craze people’s minds.” It goes on to affirm that it is a waste of energy which in the end impedes our emotional and spiritual development. If we live according to the Tao we learn to live in the world, but not to be solely of the world because we no longer allow it to be the master of our choices. Our senses become instruments through which we experience the world, broadening and deepening our appreciation and gratitude for its diversity and abundance.

Text or Verse

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
The chase and the hunt craze people’s minds.

Wasting energy to obtain rare objects
only impedes one’s growth.

The master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
He prefers what is within to what is without.
12th Verse
Tao Te Ching

Why scurry about looking for the truth?
…Can you be still and see it in the mountain? the pine tree? yourself?
Hua Hu Ching
Lao Tzu


  1. During your next walk outdoors, find a seed from a local flower, vegetable, plant or tree. Hold it in your hand.
  2. Examine it.
  3. Appreciate what is unique and beautiful.
  4. Direct your awareness to the realization that within it is the the form and the potentiality for it to become a fully-mature flower, vegetable, plant or tree.
  5. Think about the emergent process of creativity and its connection to the creative power of the universe.
  6. Spend some time realizing that the same emergent creative process has been at your inner core since your conception. This is the power of the Tao.
Step 2: Knowing ignorance is strength, ignoring knowledge is sickness

The 71st verse of the Tao touches the heart of the paradox of addiction and recovery in the words “only when we are sick of our sickness shall we cease to be sick.” It is only when we become fully aware that we are sick in mind, body and spirit that we can cease to be sick, because only when we are equipped with this knowledge are we ready to consider changing the fundamental cause. Knowledge provides us strength, ignorance of the truth perpetuates our dis-ease. When we experience dis-ease in mind, body or spirit it is because some aspect of our life is out of balance. The next step is to identify where we are living in excess and what is being ignored as a consequence.

Text or Verse

Knowing ignorance is strength.
Ignoring knowledge is sickness.

Only when we are sick of our sickness
shall we cease to be sick.
The sage is not sick but is sick of sickness;
that is the secret of health.
71st Verse
Tao Te Ching


  1. Examine your daily routine and identify where there are excesses. Are you eating to excess, drinking alcohol to excess, watching TV or playing video games to excess?
  2. How do we define excess (exceeding sufficient limits)? Any activity is excessive if, as a result, we are neglecting other areas of life. Are their negative consequences to ourselves or others?
  3. What changes are you willing to make to bring all aspects of your life into balance?
Step 3: To know harmony is to know the changeless.

In the Taoist way, when we come to understand that when we force an outcome we are going against the flow of life, and in doing so, we often encounter resistance, disappointment and often suffering. It often feels like we are pushing to no avail. When we surrender, we are letting go of the need to control everybody and everything around us. The need for control comes from fear; the fear of our own inability to handle what we are not ready or prepared for. There is a natural rhythm in the flow of life, and when we find it, we are able to effortlessly keep in step. Only then do we live our lives by letting go of stress, worries and fears, trusting in a power greater than ourselves.

Text or Verse

In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
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.
Harmony with the Tao: Creative Letting-Be in Personal Life

To know harmony is to know the changeless:
to know the changeless is to have insight.
Things in harmony with the Tao remain;
things that are forced grow for a while,
but then wither away.
This is not the Tao.
And whatever is against the Tao soon ceases to be.
55th Verse
Tao Te Ching

Step 4: One who understands himself has wisdom.

The 33rd verse of the Tao is asking us to discover who we really are; and how we affect others. What is the quality of our relationships with family, friends, community and Earth? How are our actions impacting others? Are our actions congruent with our values and beliefs or are we acting out of alignment with our inner core belief system? Do we spend more time apprising others than we do evaluating and scrutinizing ourselves? The 33rd verse is asking us to be responsible for our actions.

Text or Verse

One who understands others has knowledge;
one who understands himself has wisdom.
Mastering others requires force;
mastering the self needs strength.

If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.

One who gives himself to his position surely lives long.
One who gives himself to the Tao surely lives forever.
33rd Verse
Tao Te Ching

He who can totally sweep clean the chalice of himself can carry the inborn nature of others to its fulfillment; getting to the bottom of the nature of men one can then understand the nature of material things, and this understanding of the nature of things can aid the transforming and nutritive powers of Earth and heaven and raise man up to be a sort of third partner with heaven and Earth.


  1. The next time you are anxious, hurt, frustrated or resentful about something which happened “to” you, shift your focus from the other person to yourself.
  2. Allow yourself to fully feel these emotions. And at the same time, take ownership of these feelings, realizing they are yours.
  3. Remind yourself that you have a choice – you can stay in these feelings by recycling through the events which triggered them, or you can replace your present thinking with “new ” thoughts.
  4. Use your breath to begin to clear your head and your heart. Take 10 cleansing breaths- breathe out the feeling(s) and breathe in calm, peace and serenity.
  5. Recognize that no one has power over you. You can choose your perceptions, your feelings, your attitudes, your thoughts and your actions.
  6. It’s also important to check “your side of the street” to ascertain what are you accountable for in the event. Do you need to “own” anything, and if so, do you need to make anything right with another in order to fully let the event go?
  7. Allow your judgments of the other to be replaced with some positive quality or gratitude for the other.
  8. Allow the power of the Tao to flow through you, cleansing your Spirit and your intentions.
Step 5: He sees everything as his own self

In the 49th verse the Tao is asking us to live beyond our judgment of others. We are being given a formula for learning to live harmoniously with each other. It requires us to replace criticism, judgment and prejudice with acceptance, kindness, and appreciation. This conversion does not happen instantly; it requires practice and discipline. We can begin by replacing our critical and judgmental thoughts with just noticing others without evaluating or assessing them. The next step is to identify something in the other that is similar to yourself. Look for the common ground – focus on the similarities not the differences. The way of the Tao is to see ourselves in others and to experience the oneness of all creation.

Text or Verse

The sage has no fixed mind; he is aware of the needs of others.

Those who are good he treats with goodness.
Those who are bad he also treats with goodness
because the nature of his being is good.

He is kind to the kind.
He is also kind to the unkind
because the nature of his being is kindness.

He is faithful to the faithful;
He is also faithful to the unfaithful.
The sage lives in harmony with all below heaven.
He sees everything as his own self;
he loves everyone as his own child.

All people are drawn to him.
He behaves like a little child.
49th Verse
Tao Te Ching

Nothing is more outwardly visible than the secrets of the heart, nothing more obvious than what one attempts to conceal.


  1. Make a commitment to this practice for one day.
  2. Every time you become aware that you are judging someone, stop, and switch to just observing them.
  3. Notice who they are. If it is someone you know well, bring to mind a positive aspect of their personality or a gratitude you have for there being in your life.
  4. Notice some aspect of who they are that is like yourself. Allow this to form a stronger bridge of understanding between you.
  5. Continuing focusing on the similarities and then shift your attention to some aspect that is very different from you. Don’t judge it, just notice it.
  6. Express your gratitude to the Creator for the diversity in the world which is responsible for the variegated and magnificent whole.
Step 6: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The heart of this verse reminds us that all we need to do to change is take the first step. It is often the hardest step, but once it is taken, those that follow become easier. It also reminds us that we can’t go back and do-over what is already done. All we ever have is now, this moment. This practice is also at the heart of the 12 Steps which emphasizes living one day at a time, and concentrating only on doing the next right thing. One step, one moment, one day at a time is the way of the Tao.

Text or Verse

What is at rest is easily managed
What is not yet manifest is easy to prevent.
The brittle is easily shattered;
the small is easily scattered.

Act before things exist; manage them before there is disorder.
A tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling.
A tower nine stories high starts with one brick.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
64th Verse
Tao Te Ching


  1. Pick one thing you want to change and have been procrastinating to begin.
  2. Decide what is the first step required to initiate the change process.
  3. Commit to doing it for one day – today.
  4. Tomorrow, you can make the same decision to do it again.
Step 7: Puff yourself with honor and pride and no one can save you from a fall.

The 7th verse of the Tao explains that the secret of the Tao is in serving. The reason that both heaven and earth last forever is because they do not live for themselves, but for others. It is a simple message and formula for happiness. This verse affirms the law of circulation – by giving without expectation, everything we need will come to us. “Serve the needs of others, and all your own needs will be fulfilled.” The Tao describes the perpetual and eternal free-flowing power from the Source which sustains and endures. Our work is to understand that we are one with this power which flows through and as us when we are willing and available.

Text or Verse

Heaven is eternal – the earth endures.
Why do heaven and earth last forever?
They do not live for themselves only.
This is the secret of their durability.

For this reason the sage puts himself last
and so ends up ahead.
He stays a witness to life, so he endures.

Serve the needs of others,
and all your own needs will be fulfilled.
Through selfless action, fulfillment is attained.
7th Verse
Tao Te Ching


Gratitude is a powerful practice which easily connects us to the Source as we define the good in our daily lives.

Today make a list of all the good that you have received which has come without any effort or expectation on your part. Be aware of the simple things we take for granted; sunshine on your face, clean water, family members, good health, freedom etc.

Step 8: Risk returning injury with kindness.

When there is hurt, “someone must risk returning injury with kindness, or hostility will never turn to goodwill.” There must be an offering of kindness, love and authentic forgiveness. The cosmos continuously demonstrates that within chaos we will find tranquility and vice-versa. This is characterized in the symbol of the yin and yang. Within the dark we find a speck of light. As we come to live in the way of the Tao, we learn to let go of anger and resentment in order to create space for love and kindness to flow. Source is always giving, always creating, and new life is always emerging. This is the way of the Universe.

Text or Verse

After a bitter quarrel, some resentment remains.
What can one do about it?
Being content with what you have
is always best in the end.

Someone must risk returning injury with kindness,
or hostility will never turn to goodwill.
So the wise always give without expecting gratitude.

One with true virtue always seeks a way to give.
One who lacks true virtue always seeks a way to get.
To the giver comes the fullness of life:
to the taker, just an empty hand.
79th Verse
Tao Te Ching


The next time you quarrel or find yourself at odds with someone, ask yourself this question – “What would Love do here?” Once you have the answer, go do it as quickly as you can!

Step 9: Give without keeping an account.

The 27th verse of the Tao asks us to give to others without keeping an account or expecting something in return. This principle equates giving with receiving. One is equally as important and virtuous as the other. Both are equal aspects of the practice of circulation. Both require an element of trust – trust that ultimately justice and fairness prevail. Trust in the law of karma which affirms that for every action their is a corresponding reaction. When we learn to trust in the Tao we come to understand that everything exists in harmony. Nature is harmony. In order for us to live harmoniously we need to give whenever possible and to receive whatever is ours.

Text or Verse

A knower of the truth travels without leaving a trace,
speaks without causing harm, gives without keeping an account.
The door he shuts, though having no lock, cannot be opened.
The knot he ties, though using no cord, cannot be undone.

Be wise and help all beings impartially, abandoning none.
Waste no opportunities.
This is called following the light.

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s job?
if the teacher is not respected and the student not cared for,
confusion will arise, however clever one is.
This is the great secret.
27th Verse
Tao Te Ching


  1. Today give of yourself every time you can find an opportunity to do so.
  2. Be kind, be loving, be compassionate, be generous, be honest.
  3. And, give one gift or perform one generous act anonymously
Step 10: Be poised and centered in the midst of all activities.

The 26th verse of the Tao advises us how to maintain serenity in the midst of any circumstance. The source of this serenity comes from within and is therefore always available. The essence of the truth in this verse is that circumstances don’t determine our emotions and actions unless we allow them, the power of choice resides within us. The challenge is always to maintain a state of stillness and calm even in the midst of chaos. This paradoxical balance is symbolized by the opposing energies of the yin and yang. This practice will develop the skills of self-mastery within us. The Tao states that when we allow ourselves to be “blown to and fro” by the changing circumstances in our lives, we are no longer centered by our root and we become restless and vulnerable.

Text or Verse

The heavy is the root of the light.
The still is the master of unrest.

Realizing this, the successful person is poised and centered
in the midst of all activities; although surrounded by opulence,
he is not swayed.

Why should the lord of the country flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
To be restless is to lose one’s self-mastery.
26th Verse
Tao Te Ching

The honest man looks into himself and in his daily acts maintains constant respect to his given word that his deeds fall not below it. If he has failed in something, he dare not slacken in the attempt toward it; if he has erred, he dare not carry the error to the extreme; his words accord with his acts and his conduct with his words as one who turns to compare them with scruple. The essence of honesty is that it springs from the heart.


The next time you find yourself feeling anxious and unsettled make a decision to find the stillness within in order to change your feeling(s).

Take between 5 and 10 deep, cleansing breaths to clear your mind and allow your body muscles to relax into the out breaths.

Turn your attention to other pleasurable thoughts or repeat a prayer or mantra that is comforting and centering. Some people find classical or instrumental music helpful to change the intensity of their energy.

At some later time during the day (during the 10th Step examination of the day) review how this process worked and what changes might be necessary in the future to adopt it as a practice of self-mastery.

Step 11: You cannot know it, but you can be it.

The 14th verse of the Tao attempts to describe the indescribable in terms that we can understand: it’s invisible, inaudible, intangible yet through our intuition we can see, hear and feel it as one presence. It is not something we can grasp and hold, but rather something that we can learn to be; and when we have some mastery in the practice we will experience “ease” in our life (tranquility, serenity, harmony, and freedom from suffering).

Text or Verse

That which cannot be seen is called invisible.
That which cannot be heard is called inaudible.
That which cannot be held is called intangible.
These three cannot be defined; therefore, they are merged as one.

Each of these three is subtle for description.
By intuition you can see it, hear it, and feel it.
Then the unseen, unheard, and untouched are present as one.

Its rising brings no dawn, its setting no darkness;
it goes on and on, unnamable, returning into nothingness.

Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end.
You cannot know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.

Discovering how things have always been
brings one into harmony with the Way.
14th Verse
Tao Te Ching


Most people find the easiest way to experience the power of creation (or the Creator) is in nature. Walking meditations provide us an opportunity to be in nature, experience the meditative benefits of rhythmic breathing and movement, and be in the moment of the here and now with various objects in nature. As you gaze upon a flower, listen to the warbling of a frog or feel the balmy breeze on your skin, allow yourself to ponder the creative energy which sources and energizes all that is. Experience the “isness.” Allow yourself to be in the awe (simultaneous feelings of wonder and fear). Express your gratitude for what stirs your passion. “Discovering how things have always been brings one into harmony with the Way.” We come to experience the permanence of the impermanence – the power of eternity.

Step 12: Serve the needs of others, and all your own needs will be fulfilled.

Thie 9th verse of the Tao creates an opportunity for us to to view our lives through the filter of balance which is a fundamental principle of the Tao. It helps us understand when enough is enough and that within the natural order there is enough. Excess upsets the balance. Our own excesses upset the balance in our lives. A prideful ego sets us up for a fall which is the natural consequence of this excessive behavior when it pushes out the appreciation and acclamation of others and their efforts and contributions. If we live our lives humbly, we know how much is enough, when to stop and when to let go. In living our lives mindfully, we can find joy in any moment.

Text or Verse

To keep on filling is not as good as stopping.
Overfilled, the cupped hands drip,
better to stop pouring.

Sharpen a blade too much and its edge will soon be lost.
Fill your house with jade and gold and it brings insecurity.
Puff yourself with honor and pride
and no one can save you from a fall.

Retire when the work is done;
this is the way of heaven.
9th Verse
Tao Te Ching


  1. Make a commitment to clean out whatever is excess in your life.
  2. What do you need to stop?
  3. What do you need to release and let go?
  4. How can you consume less and recycle more?
  5. How can you live more simply with less?