Was Einstein a Taoist?
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
"I have such a feeling of solidarity with everything alive that it doesn't seem important to know where the individual ends or begins." - Albert Einstein
The idea that Einstein may have been a Taoist first crossed my mind after reading one of his many thought-provoking quotes:
"I have such a feeling of solidarity with everything alive that it doesn't seem important to know where the individual ends or begins."
As you may know, at the heart of Taoist beliefs is the idea that everything is connected, only separated by human’s labels and language, everything is just part of a larger whole. The similarity between these ideas sparked my interest and I decided to dig deeper, exploring more of Einstein’s quotes as well as his scientific theories to see if there was a greater relationship between the two.
Let’s start with Einstein’s observations and understanding of the Universe. “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it.” Through studying different physical forms, such as gasses, liquids and solids, Einstein came to the conclusion that different physical sates take their form as a result of differing frequencies of vibration. Everything takes its form because of the vibration of a universal energy; in scientific terms: atomic vibration.
Modern science, such a quantum physics and sting theory, is now able to support this idea that our physical world is just one large sea of energies that flash in and out of being within milliseconds in a continuous pattern. But what does this all have to do with Taoism?
A few thousand years before Einstein’s conception of the Universe, ancient Taoist masters realized that the cosmos and all things in it were made of and connected by the same energy. They conceptualized this energy to be Qi and devoted their lives to trying to understand it. The exploration of Qi energy is what laid the foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine, Feng Shui and the concepts of Yin and Yang.
In short, Einstein believed that,
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe’.”
He believed that everything is integrated and interconnected, while also acknowledging what is measurable in scientific terms only encompasses part of the universe. "Our knowledge is limited."
This concept makes me think of the first Verse of the Tao Te Ching (the foundational book of Taoism).
“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Tao is both names and nameless.
As nameless it is the origins of all things; as names it is the Mother of 10,000 things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery; ever desiring, one only sees the manifestations.
And the mystery itself is the doorway to all understanding.”
Just like Einstein’s belief that “knowledge is limited”, Taoist also believe that the pursuit of knowledge can only bring us so much. In search of trying to understand the Tao, by naming it, by trying to give it a label you will never understand its whole meaning. We can have knowledge of the Tao, just as we can have knowledge of the universe but to truly understand them, this goes much deeper than words.
Einstein’s most renowned discovery is his theory of special relativity and time dilation. This theory changed the way in which time itself was understood. Up until Einstein everyone believed time moved constantly in a single direction but Einstein’s theory led us to contemplate our perceived truths of the universe. He understood that time was not a constant but relative: the faster you move through space, the slower you move through time.
He was able to look at the labels and definitions that were previously given to the very fabric of the universe and see past them. Taoist teachings encourage us to do this same thing. Taoist believe the labels that we prescribe to the world only give us a limited understanding of it; we separate and distinguish things for our own simplified understanding but in doing this, lose an understanding of their true nature.
The “uncarved block” is a metaphor often used in by Taoists to further explain this point. The “uncarved block” represents potential of possibility; its true nature is and can be anything. As soon we carve the block, or define a tree, or set the parameters for how time works, we are restricting our understanding of what those things are, and what they can be. In theorizing a new concept of time, Einstein, like a Taoist master, was able to see past the sculptures or frameworks we have made to understand the universe and see the “uncarved block”.
One of the most common practices known about Taoism is mindfulness and being present in the moment. Ougui, the Taoist tortoise from Kung Fu Panda, put it beautifully:
“Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is a mystery.
But today is a gift, that is why they call it the present.”
At its core Taoism is about balance. If we focus on the past too much, we can become unbalanced and feel regret; if we focus too much on the future, we can become anxious about everything that could be; only when we live in the moment can we find balance and peace. Taoism is about the journey. We should move through life not thinking about the destination or achieving the next goal but enjoying and appreciating the journey.
What does Einstein have to say about this, well exactly that:
“A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.”
“I love to travel, but I hate to arrive.”
So, I will leave you with these final words from Einstein and you can decide for you self whether or not he was a Taoist:
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”