Can Practicing Taoism Make You Happier?

Leo Mowry, owner of Village Yoga in Toronto, says her emotional and mental space was a mess before she found Taoism. Here, Mowry explains how Taoism helped her embrace the moment, see the world with greater compassion and minimize worry.

Q: Can you tell me about your state of mind before you found Taoism?

A: I was pretty severely emotionally abused as a kid, so I came into adulthood a total mess. I had really limited social skills, was depressed, had a 10-year eating disorder and high anxiety. I was so hidden behind layers of pain and defense mechanisms that I didn’t even know who I was.

Q: How did you find Taoism?

A: A friend of mine gave me The Tao of Pooh, which uses Winnie the Pooh as a metaphor for Taoism, when I was in my mid-20s. I read the book and realized that I was Taoist. It’s not a religion, it’s a philosophy and it’s very similar to both yoga and Buddhism. It’s all about aligning with the present moment so that you flow through life instead of being knocked constantly from thought to thought and emotion to emotion. It’s a method of controlling your mind so you can be present instead of always having to worry about the past and the future. I hadn’t ever encountered a philosophy that explained the universe in a way that made sense to me. I’ve been studying Taoism for almost 15 years and every step along the way has made me feel lighter and has helped me shed those defense mechanisms that kept me in the dark for so long. I’ve become happier and happier.

Q: Can you elaborate on those defense mechanisms that were holding you back?

A: I was painfully shy and I couldn’t even trust myself to speak. In high school people either thought that I was the biggest snob or a total loser because I wouldn’t speak. Really, I was scared to speak because whenever I did it wasn’t received well. When you don’t love or know yourself, you can’t know or be intimate with anyone else. There was a level to which my friendships and relationships could progress, but then they couldn’t go any further because I was in denial about myself and had no intimacy with myself. It was like a block.

Q: How do you see the world differently as a Taoist?

A: I see the energy of the world as love – which is essentially what every Eastern philosophy tells us. That’s what the major religions tell us God is. But I understand God as the energy of love that is inside of us and all around us. I don’t think of God as a grey-bearded figure; it’s an energy. With Taoism, the goal is to align yourself, acting compassionately, in the present moment so completely that that expression of the energy of love guides our every action and movement. Instead of always being worried in the past or the future, you can truly be joyful and present and express that. It’s almost like having the freedom to express the most joyful energy you could ever imagine all at once, every moment. And that’s what enlightenment is; it’s lightening up and being in this loving place all of the time.

Q: What does your Taoism practice look like?

A: It’s a lot of contemplation and meditation. But for me, a philosophical practice is all about the way that you live. So, for example, in the beginning, maybe it was something as simple as being invited to a party that I was really nervous about – and I had really horrible social anxiety when I was younger. I would be really nervous about that, but Taoism would allow me to acknowledge that I was nervous and think, well, if I don’t do everything I’m nervous about then I’m going to live in this small little box. And I don’t want to be myself. I would consciously tell myself to relax, put a smile on my face and not worry about what other people think. And the more I put myself in that situation, the more comfortable I became.

Being an entrepreneur, I could spend a lot of my time worrying about money. But the thing is, my practice is to be present and live in the moment so I have to get beyond that state of fear to be joyful and live my life. And, moreover, I understand that the more joyful I am and the more sincere my expressions of joy, the more likely that those issues will be resolved. It’s almost like getting out of your own way. Almost every self-help book on the market talks about silencing your inner critic; Taoism has been teaching that very same thing for thousands of years. It’s all about getting out of your head and into the moment.

Q: How does Taoism stop you from being preoccupied with the past and the future?

A: The whole goal is to be completely present and live your life one moment at a time. Say you and I meet one day and we decide to have lunch. If I’m at that lunch and I’m so worried about paying my rent, I have basically missed that connection you and I might have had. I am not even at that lunch, if my awareness is somewhere else. If you’re truly living in the moment, whatever you’re doing, the idea is to be there completely. And it’s not like I don’t plan; I’m a business woman. But I only do that when I’m doing that.

Q: Do you experience it as a clearing of the mind?

A: Totally. And the more I’ve practiced, the lighter and happier I’ve become. And it’s not that I don’t go through hard times; everyone has challenges in their lives that they can overcome and learn from. But every step of the way I get a little better and a little lighter and I’m present more often. For me, my life purpose is to be as present as possible.

Q: Can you suggest some exercises that people can start with?

A: It’s amazing how often the mind goes to a negative place. If you can start to notice when you feel bad and consciously realize that what you’re feeling bad about isn’t in this present moment, and instead focus wholly and completely on what you’re doing in this moment, then you can start the journey toward changing the channel in your head.