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Tao - What It Is, and How to Use Breathing to Experience It

Updated on December 21, 2016

Tao (pronounced Dao)

Lao Tsu (a Chinese sage, 604 to 530 BC) tried to convey Tao in verses in his work called The Tao Te Ching. He wrote that Tao cannot be explained in words - it can only be experienced. He wrote:

"To speak of the Tao is not to speak of the true Tao because the Tao is not something that can be put into words."

Because Tao is so complex it cannot be grasped by the rational, logical mind. Tao can only be experienced in spaces, emptiness and stillness, as written in another verse by Lao Tsu:

"Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the centre hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful."

One way of focusing on, and experiencing spaces, emptiness and stillness (and thereby Tao) is to pay attention to the pause (space) in our breathing - the still and empty part of our breathing.


We need to breathe to live. Breathing occurs naturally and normally, and usually without our conscious awareness. We can become aware of our breathing if we have a health problem, during exercise or when we're anxious.

Breathing consists of breathing in and out, with a short pause after breathing out, and before breathing in again. When breathing slowly the pause is short, when breathing more quickly the pause is longer. This pause is also something of which we are not normally aware, not even when we focus on our breathing.

The pause is the passive, non-active part of our breathing. It is when our breathing is still and empty - the space in our breathing.

How to attend to the pause in our breathing

Medical advice should be sought if you have a medical condition that may be affected by this exercise. The exercise should be stopped if you begin to feel dizzy or unwell, and you should resume your usual pattern of breathing.

A warm, well ventilated room free from distractions is best for this exercise, as is a stomach that is not too full - allow at least half an hour after having food.

1. Adopt an upright comfortable position to maintain alertness and concentration. The exercise may be done lying down, but there is a chance of falling asleep.
2. Gently close your eyes (if this feels comfortable for you). This helps to increase focus on the breathing by reducing visual distraction.
3. Relax your entire body by breathing into every part of the body, from your head down to your toes, and say 'relax' to yourself when breathing out. This should not be rushed.
4. Your breathing should be natural and at your own pace.
5. When you feel relaxed, focus on your breathing - breathing in and breathing out. Do this for a few moments.
6. When it feels right for you, focus more on breathing out and the pause before you breathe in again. Do not hold your breath, just notice the pause, do not attempt to control it, or make it last longer.
7. When it feels right for you, after breathing out, allow the pause to be a little longer before breathing in again. The pause should be natural - the breath shouldn't be held - just breathe naturally in a way that feels right for you.
8. Notice your outbreath and the pause.
9. Continue only for as long as is comfortable for you and try to increase the total amount of time for the exercise.
10. When ready to finish, gently and slowly wriggle your toes and then your fingers. Open your eyes slowly and take your time to re-focus outside of yourself. Become aware of your surroundings. Do not stand straight away - but sit quietly until you feel you want to slowly stand and move about.

Focusing on our breathing and the space within it takes time to master. As with any such exercise it needs to be repeated regularly.


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