Thursday, February 28, 2002

The Tao of the Pattern


By Linda

This essay discusses the strong foundation of Taoism in Wheel of Time philosophy.

Cycles and Patterns of Change

The Tao is the order of nature; a force flowing through everything including life.

The Tao is constantly changing and chi [cosmic energy] circulates throughout the universe. But all is not chaos; there is an underlying harmony and pattern.

- Peter Marshall, The Philosopher’s Stone

Taoists believe in the cyclic nature of time and the universe. They accept the way of nature, that of impermanence and variation, and live with and adapt to the change, letting nature take its course. In Taoism there is no deity or creation of the Universe. Balance is the heart of Taoism: the idea that nothing exists without its opposite and that opposites are only the ends of a continuum. The Wheel of Time world is also a world of opposites, but it needs to regain the balance that is so necessary for the proper functioning of the Pattern. The books are all about the necessity of balance.

Time is cyclic in The Wheel of Time, cycling without end from the moment of creation. There is a Great Pattern to Time, a design into which the threads of lives, things and events are interlaced to form the whole of existence and reality, past, present and future, even other dimensions and other possibilities (The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time). The major difference between Jordan’s world and Taoism is the existence of a deity who created the Wheel of Time universe, and another deity, the Dark One, who aims to undo this creation; for a discussion on Wheel of Time theology, see Eschatology essay. The fact that the two deities oppose and complement each other is Taoist.

The Pattern itself is neither good nor evil. In keeping with the theme of Taoistic balance, it is:

a Pattern in which light and dark, good and evil, male and female, and life and death struggle for balance within the weave of destiny.

- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time

As Moiraine says:

”The Wheel of Time weaves all lives into the Pattern, all actions. A Pattern that is all one colour is no pattern. For the Pattern of an Age, good and ill are the warp and the woof.”

- The Dragon Reborn, Within the Weave.

The Wise Ones advise people to accept their place in the Pattern, and, by going with the flow, find happiness:

"The Pattern does not see ji'e'toh," Bair told her, with only a hint of sympathy, if that. "Only what must and will be…You must learn to ride fate. Only by surrendering to the Pattern can you begin to have some control over the course of your own life. If you fight, the Pattern will still force you, and you will find only misery where you might have found contentment instead."

- The Fires of Heaven, Among the Wise Ones

Certainly the three ta’veren worked this out:

Try to run away, and the Pattern pulled you back, often roughly; run in the direction the Wheel wove you, and sometimes you could manage a little control over your life.

- The Fires of Heaven, After the Storm

Going with the flow and adapting to change in this manner is the Taoist philosophy.

Anything we do will inevitably create its own opposite. To succeed in life, according to Lao Tzu, we should step back and permit this balancing to take place…
- Annellen Simpkins and C. Alexander Simpkins, Simple Taoism: A Guide to Living in the Balance

This necessity of balance is shown repeatedly throughout the series, from the balancing of opposites, be they light and dark or male and female, to the existence of opposite weaves. The Ogier even incorporate the philosophy into their politics:

”An argument must have opposition if it is to prove itself”

A Memory of Light, Into the Thick Of It

Room for balance is provided and the change brought about by the resolution of opposites accepted.

When you let be, circumstances stop being a problem…Allow matters to take their natural course and the struggle of resistance lessens.

- Annellen Simpkins and C. Alexander Simpkins, Simple Taoism: A Guide to Living in the Balance

Rand equated willing surrender with being in a box. He thought the solution to enduring his fate was to be unemotional and deliberate when killing (The Gathering Storm, A Force of Light).

He would be harder, now. He understood how. Where he had once been steel, he became something else.
From now on, he was cuendillar. He had entered a place like the void that Tam had trained him to seek, so long ago. But within this void he had no emotion. None at all.
They could not break or bend him. It was done.

The Gathering Storm, The Last That Could Be Done

The Dark One and Ishamael/Moridin forced Rand to do evil with the One Power and the True Power to break him and the Land – destroy the force of good. The darker Rand became, the fewer positive events in the Pattern (The Gathering Storm, A Promise To Lews Therin). A Taoist would predict that the harder Rand becomes, the more unbalanced he becomes, but also the more likely he would be to be pressed into the other extreme. And we saw this in Towers of Midnight, where Rand was Buddha-like or Jesus-like straight after this epiphany. It might seem logical that if Rand refuses to do any bad thing at all, this would twist events strongly in favour of the Light. But he cannot go too far. When Rand made a world where there was no evil in his battle with the Dark One, people were vapid and childish from the lack of choice in their lives. Rand had to learn to walk the middle path. Jordan wasn’t understating the case when he said balance is necessary; if his world gets sufficiently unbalanced reality breaks apart, as we saw in A Memory of Light. Rand also showed the Dark One that while he is a major source of good, he is not the only one and in fact it was the nobility of the people which inspired Rand to resist and then defeat the Dark One.

During much of A Memory of Light, only good events happened around Rand as he counterbalanced the efforts of the Dark One:

But, you see, I get only one side of the coin these days. Someone else is doing the bad. The Dark One injects horrors into the world, causing death, evil, madness. But the Pattern . . . the Pattern is balance. So it works, through me, to provide the other side. The harder the Dark One works, the more powerful the effect around me becomes."

A Memory of Light, To Die Well


Complementary Forces: Yin and Yang

The Tao divides into the two fundamental principles of yin and yang:

Yin and yang [are] the two poles that set the limits for the cycles of change…All manifestations of the Tao [everything] are generated by the dynamic interplay of these two archetypal poles.

- Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point

They are two complementary forces operating in the universe which ebb and flow like a wave.

- Peter Marshall, The Philosopher’s Stone

The passive principle yin is represented by the tiger, darkness, water, and woman, and the active principle yang by the dragon, brightness, fire and man.

In Jordan’s world,

the True Source [or One Power] is made up of two complementary parts: saidin, the male half, and saidar, the female half. Each has separate properties and affinities, working at the same time with and against each other,

- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time

to provide the driving force that turns the Wheel of Time.

Saidar is yin-like in the way channellers must passively surrender to it to use it, and saidin is yang-like in having to be actively seized to be used. Appropriately, saidin users usually weave fire, a yang attribute, easily and saidar users water. The Dragon (a yang symbol) is one of the strongest male channellers.

While some see yang as the stronger since it is ‘active’, others see it as weaker than yin, because it is changeable. Similarly new channellers often think that Fire and Earth, powers saidin users are generally strong in, are more powerful than Water and Air. However Aes Sedai say:

"There is no rock [earth] so strong that water and wind cannot wear it away, no fire so fierce that water cannot quench it or wind snuff it out."

- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time

Neither saidin nor saidar is stronger than the other, just different, and both are equally necessary for order and balance. Just as neither yin nor yang exists without its opposite, so neither saidar nor saidin exists without the other. Each channeller, no matter how strong, can only access half the True Source; no one can ‘have it all’. Cooperation is essential.

The ancient symbol for Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, when both powers were used in balance, is a borrowing of the Taoist yin yang symbol (although with the colours reversed; saidar (yin) is white, not black and yang is black, not white as it is in the Taoist symbol). The yin yang symbol represents balance: when yin and yang are present equally, there is order and calm, when one outweighs the other, there is disorder and confusion. Chaos versus order…sounds familiar. Consequently this balance between yin and yang is much sought after in Taoism and is vital in the Wheel of Time world too. The Dark One thrives on disorder, and with the tainting of saidin and the unbalancing of the usage of the One Power, was able to throw the world into disarray, ending one Age and derailing another. Rand is prophesied to conquer under this symbol; his victory will restore balance to the Pattern and prevent the Dark One from taking over. Jordan deliberately left the dots out to symbolise that his world is out of balance.

Moghedien observed that Moridin liked to combine opposites in seemingly conflicted or impossible ways (A Memory of Light, Prologue).

The dragon is one of the most powerful yang symbols and in The Wheel of Time he counters the excess yin, the lack of creation, of the Shadow. It must be emphasised that yin is not evil, nor is yang, but an extreme excess of one or the other can cause destruction and suffering. As stated above, balance between the two brings order and well-being to the world. For three thousand years, saidin was too dangerous to be used thanks to the taint, so channelling was too yin: passive and unchanging. This is exemplified by the Aes Sedai, who have changed very little, clinging to custom and passively waiting on events in their own exclusive city, even preferring potential novices to come to them. With such an imbalance it is not surprising that Rand is so yang.

Rand is not the only yang, or solar, character: Aviendha and Elayne are two other positive yang characters, while Graendal and Sammael are negative examples of yang characters. Golden or red hair is a physical manifestation of solar qualities, whereas dark hair and an affinity for dreams or the night are lunar characteristics. Egwene and Perrin are positive yin or lunar characters and Ishamael and Lanfear are negative yin characters. Ishamael/Moridin is rarely seen outside in the sun, or in broad daylight; which was why Rand forcing the sun to shine on Moridin in his dream had such significance symbolically. Moridin’s excess of yin increased his susceptibility to despair and nihilism; and thus his early surrender to the Shadow.

The number six is the most yin number, and it is no coincidence that this is the number of Forsaken remaining on the Day of Return. Conversely nine is the most yang number, and nine leaders of the Light fought these six Forsaken best or most closely: Rand, Mat, Perrin, Lan, Aviendha, Nynaeve, Moiraine, Egwene and Min. (For those who could argue against Min, she exposed Moghedien and deduced how to trap Moridin with Callandor).



Five Powers

In Taoism:

all substances in the universe are composed of five ‘elements’. The five elements do not refer to five kinds of basic matter as in the Western notion of the four elements (fire, earth, air and water) but to five sorts of processes. The ‘elements’ are not passive but five powerful forces in ever-flowing cyclical motion. It was thought that when the five elements were aligned and associated in symbolic correlation, everything else in the universe would fall into a fivefold arrangement.

- Peter Marshall, The Philosopher’s Stone

Similarly, there are five elements in the Wheel of Time universe and Five Powers of the One Power to manipulate (not create) them:

There are five different threads to the One Power, known as the Five Powers. They are named according to the elements their energies manipulate: Earth, Air (sometimes called Wind), Fire, Water and Spirit.

- The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time

A channeller can use these Powers to create things, eg a sword from Fire, or a club from Air, or set the conditions right for fire to occur, but not create the elements themselves.

As Egwene realised, every weave has its opposite, even the dreaded balefire:

That isn't the way it works, she thought. Two sides to every coin. Two halves to the Power. Hot and cold, light and dark, woman and man.

If a weave exists, so must its opposite.

M'Hael released balefire, and Egwene did . . . something. The weave she'd tried before on the cracks, but of a much greater power and scope: a majestic, marvelous weave, a combination of all Five Powers. It slid into place before her. She yelled, releasing it as if from her very soul, a column of pure white that struck M'Hael's weave at its center.

The two canceled one another, like scalding water and freezing water poured together. A powerful flash of light overwhelmed all else, blinding Egwene, but she could feel something from what she did. A shoring up of the Pattern. The cracks stopped spreading, and something welled up inside of them, a stabilizing force. A growth, like a scab on a wound. Not a perfect fix, but at least a patch. …

The two streams of power sprayed light against one another, the ground around M'Hael cracking as the ground near Egwene rebuilt itself. She still did not know what it was she wove. The opposite of balefire. A fire of her own, a weave of light and rebuilding.

The Flame of Tar Valon. …

Somehow Egwene knew that the Flame would have had much less effect on a person who had not given himself to the Shadow.

A Memory of Light, The Last Battle

and Taim was actively channelling the True Power. The weaves were extreme opposites.


Jordan’s characters often travel in a Taoist fashion, by apparently moving the world around them rather than moving themselves: in the waking world channellers Travel by either bending the Pattern and boring a hole in it, or by making two sections of the Pattern identical, and in Tel’aran’rhiod, the world moves around the person as they will.

Tao is bottomless yet empty, the heart of things, of life. Immortality is found in the emptiness. From the emptiness springs usefulness. The empty space within a cup makes it useful because without the empty space within, a cup cannot be filled.

- Annellen Simpkins and C. Alexander Simpkins, Simple Taoism: A Guide to Living in the Balance

Emptiness, the void, makes access to the One Power easier. Women empty themselves of emotions and open to the Power to be filled with saidar. Men put themselves mentally within the void and seize saidin.

The One Power is life, and brings longevity, though not immortality. Some channellers are tempted by the Dark One’s offer of immortality and go over to the Shadow. However Ishamael found the immortality of the Dark One to be emptiness.



One Power as Elixir of Life

Channellers feel comparatively empty when they release the One Power. Perhaps because saidin and saidar stem from the Creator, they have the effect of enriching the lives of those who use them, and also increasing their longevity and well-being.

Longevity is a major concern of Taoists who:

sought to prolong life and were fascinated by youth. They believe there are techniques that can not only arrest the process of aging but can also recover the physical condition of youth.

- Peter Marshall, The Philosopher’s Stone

Some Taoists were/are alchemists, seeking either a chemical elixir or a spiritual technique that will maintain health, arrest aging and prolong life. (The balance between saidin and saidar is also equivalent to the alchemical wedding – the union of polar opposites – that European alchemists tried to achieve to form the philosopher’s stone, the elixir that would prolong life or restore youth (see Alchemical Symbolism essay) and is where the two philosophical systems meet).



In Jordan’s world, channelling the One Power has the effect of an elixir of life. Channellers live far longer than non-channellers and age more slowly, with all the diseases and conditions that come with aging – grey hair, weakened muscles, cardiovascular disease, dementia, or loss of fertility and libido – being greatly delayed.

Channelling not only slows aging, but those who begin to channel late in life begin to look younger to a degree. For example, 67 year old novice Sharina will still lead a long life now that she has learnt to channel, but she will live it out as an older woman. On his blog, Jordan explained further:

As an aside, I saw somewhere that I supposedly said that Sharina Melloy will not grow younger. If I did, then I misspoke. Sharina will not grow young, but she will grow younger in appearance, as will any other older women who begin to channel. For Sharina, by way of example, she will "regress" into apparent middle age, but no younger.

Jordan’s words indicate that Sharina, having undoubtedly gone through the menopause, will not regain the ability to bear children. There are limits to the One Power ‘elixir’ – after all, channellers are attuned to only one half of the One Power.

Why have we not seen men who began channelling late in life, such as Damer Flinn, look younger? Perhaps slowing takes longer to manifest in men, or maybe an old man’s appearance has been unimportant amongst Rand’s group compared to the rush of events, or else Flinn’s just stuck with some very unobservant people. :P

Channellers feel more alive while channelling or even holding the One Power, while those channellers who are cut off from the Source feel lifeless. After Siuan was healed from stilling she told Nynaeve:

“You gave me back… my life. As simple as that. I had convinced myself I wasn’t dead, but it certainly seems so compared to this.”

- Lord of Chaos, To Heal Again

In contrast to the One Power, the Dark One’s True Power corrupts the body and mind, destroying eyes and mouth and perhaps more, and causing extreme addiction to its painful ecstasy, and eventually a horrible death.


True Power as Elixir of Death

The True Power is the dark elixir, the elixir of death, antagonistic to the Creator’s elixir of life. The One Power is universal, and in the Utopian Age of Legends was available to all through the standing waves, whereas the True Power is exclusive – granted to a favoured few - and is a poisoned chalice, since it is ultimately lethal.

The saa are the stigmata of the True Power, and only the Naeblis used enough True Power to gain them. The Dragon also had stigmata – the brands on his hands, the wound in his side and also his heel. (His dragon tattoos proclaimed him Car’a’carn.) The Champions of the deities were linked in Shadar Logoth (birthplace of a third power inimical to both) when channelling a weave of the same purpose with opposite powers. The Dragon was forced to channel the exclusive power of the Dark One, and the Naeblis forced to contribute the True Power to protect the Dragon and the One Power as they sealed the Dark One away.

The Light won a conclusive victory by using the Dark One’s own champion against him. It seemed to me that while Moridin objected to being seized and used, he did not struggle over much – did not try to stab himself, or move away. Perhaps he soon accepted the resealing as a chance for oblivion?

The True Power is extremely unbalanced, being barely restrainable in what it does, as Demandred warned Taim. It is used in secret and only by grace of the Dark One – a selfish Power. If all power corrupts then the True Power is named true all right. It corrupts truly and absolutely; or truly corrupts absolutely.

Rand balanced the lure of the True Power he could draw unaided with the vast amount of One Power he could pull through the Choedan Kal:

He was not certain which of the two sources of energy was more dangerous, but as long as both called to him, he was able to resist both.

The Gathering Storm, Into Bandar Eban

This shows how addictive and tempting the True Power is.

And what is the True Power ‘truly’ but power without responsibility (no one else but the Dark One knows when or how it is channelled) or empathy/compassion (there is no feeling of awe or heightened sensitivity to the universe)?

If saidar and saidin are channelled in a balanced fashion, and the True Power bound to buffer it, then the Dark One can be defeated and order and harmony restored.



Using the One Power Virtuously

In Taoism, each person’s chief task is the development of virtue. The three virtues to be cultivated are compassion, moderation and humility. A sense of humour also helps to keep a person humane.

In the Age of Legends the Aes Sedai and their Da’shain did cultivate compassion, moderation and humility as they served the community. Aes Sedai in the Third Age pride themselves on accepting things as they are and accommodating change (as Taoists do) but largely abandoned developing the three virtues, and once they reached the shawl, no longer had time for the humour they saw as Accepted. Some Aes Sedai made a show of humility in an arrogant manner:

Sometimes sisters set themselves penances, in order to maintain the proper balance between pride and humility—that balance [is] much prized… many sisters [make] a haughty display of submission to the greater will of the Aes Sedai, an arrogant showing of their lack of arrogance. The pride of humility, Siuan [calls] it.

- A Crown of Swords, An Oath

but this only shows how far they drifted from the ideals of the Age of Legends. Aes Sedai were feared more often than respected. Damane are feared so much that they are completely humiliated and then enslaved into perpetual humility by those who could learn to channel. Compassion, moderation and humility are virtues all the channellers, all the once and future Servants, must have as they truly serve the community, and deserve their trust.

Finally, Taoism has some wise words for Rand:

It is the way of the Tao,
that things which expand might also shrink;
that he who is strong, will at some time be weak,
that he who is raised will then be cast down,
and that all men have a need to give,
and also have a need to receive.

- Classical Taoist text

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Written by Linda, December 2006 and updatged October 2013

Contributor: Old Salt


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