Autistic survival tools – Daoist philosophy

The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi are the primary foundations of Daoist philosophy and religions based on this philosophy. The former book contains a timeless collection of critical thinking tools, and the latter book elaborates these tools in terms of concrete examples based on the experiences of living in powered-up societies, providing readers with a rich set of tools for exploring the predicament that plagues all attempts of empire building.

The writings of Zhuangzi can also be understood as an in-depth exploration of the social model of disability. This turns the book into a tool for understanding and articulating the human rights violations that arise from the pathologisation and marginalisation faced by Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. 

Both books explicitly warn about the dangers of dogmatic principles or rules to follow. They teach readers how to ask questions instead of specific ways of going about life, and they do this in a humorous way that is largely lacking in Western philosophies, religions, and science. 

The topics covered also make it obvious that the paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and suffering thrown up by powered-up civilisations are as old as the oldest empires, and that people have always found ways of being that minimise the harm inflicted by rigid and oppressive structures, making the Dao De Jing relevant to our era of hypernormative industrialised and post-industrialised societies. Daoist analysis offers a refreshing contrast to the simplistic and polarising left/right debates that dominate WEIRD politics, which only serve to perpetuate fear, hate, violence, and paradigmatic inertia.

Please note that apart from limited exposure to elements that much later made it into Zen Buddhism, I am new to Daoist philosophy, and have not read any further books on the topic. Learning that there are around 1,500 related texts and non-exclusive religious sects is an encouraging sign of cultural diversity that seems to be lacking in many in many modern societies. Unsurprisingly, none of this is part of Western school education systems. 

Rather than rephrasing what more than 1,500 authors have thought and written about, I have compiled an extensive selection of quotes from the two foundational texts, which illustrate, from my perspective – grouped into specific themes, how the texts relate to our times, and in particular to the lived experiences of Autistic people. 

In case you prefer listening to a scholar who has studied Daoist philosophy for many years, I can recommend the following lecture and Q&A by Hans-Georg Moeller, who teaches in Macau.

The philosophical insight into genuine pretending i think allows us to understand and to practice Xiao Yao You and to understand and to practice some form of Ān Míng, being kind of okay with your fate. The two are complementary like the insight into genuine pretending which provides the basis for achieving this state of Xiao Yao You or this state of ease when you’re already in a state of civilization. Let me put it in a different way, when you’re a child and you do child play, you do not need philosophy. You are in – you can achieve – a state of Xiao Yao You or Ān just by luck, a lot of the time, simply when you’re playing. Now when we go through this civilization process, which everyone goes through, no matter in the West or in the East, they’re just different kinds of civilization process. I think again, that’s what the Zhuangzi reflects when we grow up.

This also in the Dao De Jing, right, the childishness, the childhood is always seen as a place where we’re kind of naturally in the state of Xiao Yao You. But through civilization we become more and more Bù Ān, because we always have to identify with these roles and so forth. So to understand this kind of childish condition is something that, at least momentarily, may allow us – now as as grown-ups we need the philosophy of genuine pretending, as children we don’t need it – but as as adults, we need – under the pressures of society – we need philosophy. Again, I think that’s the Daoist approach to philosophy. It’s a medicinal, a therapeutic approach. I think the core for Zhuangzi is that philosophy allows us to achieve this kind of childlike state of Ān under condition of the pressures of civilization, by understanding the existential condition of genuine pretending that we all exist under.

I am curious about how many have already read at least one of these books and how these texts relate to your lived experience. Please comment below!

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8 Responses

  1. I’ll be honest with you — I’m more of a neophyte that you say you are, but am fascinated by the Dao/Tao te ching and look forward to reading your remarks. I’ve only read one book thoroughly which is Ursula Le Guin’s “Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way,” in which the brilliant mind and beautiful writing of Le Guin greatly benefits the Tao.

  2. Fourteen years ago – at the end of the 2000s – I encountered a blog called THE AUTISTIC TAOIST.

    Le Guin is a great interpreter of western Dao.

    And in the early 2000s I read THE TAO OF POOH.

    One thing which attracted me to Taoism – was being water.

    The point about pretending to pretend – it means that pretending becomes a well-engrained habit.

    [it is metareflection and metacognition].

    I also have found a lot of Autistic youth and elders connecting to Taoism – like Polly Samuel.

    I do see philosophy as therapeutic and medicinal.

  3. Very interesting. I learned about Taoism in early adulthood and it quickly became a favorite. I was late-diagnosed and whenever I’d have a bad burnout one of the things that comforted me was reading these books. I wonder if it resonated so much with me because there’s the central vibe of “leave things alone to follow their own nature”. I especially needed that kind of wisdom pre-diagnosis.

  4. Last year, I read The Book of Chuang Tzu. What intrigued me was my inability to fully grasp all the obscure allusions and references within it. To me, this serves as a testament to the genuine nature of its translation. Unlike the Tao Te Ching, this particular book presents amusing anecdotes along with moral guidance. Numerous sections caught my attention and I bookmarked them for future revisits in my constant endeavor to align myself with natural principles while navigating through life’s complexities…

  5. I didn’t know anything about Daoism until today, so I don’t have any books to quote. I like the idea of interconnection, it reminds me interdependency or transdisciplinarity.
    Where I’m having trouble is with the idea of not interfering, of being liberal (in every sense of the word), when the prevailing dogma is the devaluation of life and the common goods by not giving them a price commensurate with their capacity simply to live or to regenerate.
    I believe this is why books have been written so that we can identify “eight typical faults to which people are prone and the four troublemakers in business management”, I love this.

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