Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.
The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 63, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I hope you had your fill, the last six days, of training would-be leaders in the art of governing; because, today, Lao Tzu has moved on; returning to the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the practice of Wu-Wei. Wu-Wei, as all but my newest followers will recall, is the practice of doing not-doing. But that only makes it seem like some mysterious practice. It could be translated doing nothing; but I think it is best explained as effortless action. For there is work to be done. And doing nothing doesn’t mean that nothing is going to be done. It is talked about over and over again throughout the Tao Te Ching; where Lao Tzu will say that the Tao does nothing and the Master does nothing; yet, all things are done. He offers the opposite of this practice when he describes those that are always doing things and leaving plenty more to be done. Clearly, we want to be practicing doing not-doing, if we want all things to be done.
It took me quite awhile to unravel the mystery of Wu-Wei. I admit, that I have spent a great deal of my time, on my blog, encouraging my readers to “get into the zone;” thus, bringing about a state where your body and your mind are at one with the Tao and all your actions flow effortlessly. But that makes it seem like the practice of Wu-Wei is something that only a few can achieve. And that was never what I had in mind. And, if you will recall what I said, yesterday, you will understand that we are, each and every one of us, already one with the Tao. The practice of Wu-Wei doesn’t require us to enter some zen-like state. In today’s chapter, one of the more practical chapters in all the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains how each of us can practice it every day.
Act without doing; work without effort. That is the goal. So how do we do it? It is really quite simple. Imagine that! It is all a matter of how you think about things. Instead of thinking of the small as small, think of it as large. Instead of thinking of the few as few, think of them as many. We all have work which we do. Tasks that we have to get done, day in and day out. Maybe we don’t think that these little things that we do are very great things; but then again, that may be exactly where we need to rethink things. When we change our thinking around, when we see the little things that we do as big things, then we may begin to reorient exactly how we go about accomplishing these great tasks by a series of small acts. Simplify! That must be our mantra. Think of the task before you as too great to be done in one giant effort. Instead, break it down; break it down into a series of smaller tasks. Don’t misunderstand here. We aren’t supposed to go running away from these great tasks, saying, “Nope! Too great for me!” We just need to break them down. Here a little, there a little, until the great task is completed.
Procrastinators, I feel your pain. I have been there, my friends. And why is it that we procrastinate? One reason is that we think that little task can wait. It is only a little task. It won’t be any problem to put it off until later. But how does our thinking change, if we don’t see the small as small? What if we saw all those little tasks as great ones. That should motivate us to get to it. By procrastinating, by putting it off until later, those little tasks do start to pile up. What would have been easy to accomplish, has now become difficult. We need to change our thinking so that we can confront the difficult while it is still easy. I understand that some of you will insist that you work best under pressure. But that is all the more reason to apply the pressure while the task is still a small one. Remember, the goal is to act without doing and to work without effort. By breaking the task before us into a series of small acts, we are creating that state of effortless action. By thinking of the small as large and the few as many we will be getting everything done, while doing nothing.
Follow the example of the Master. She never reaches for the great. But it is thus, that she achieves greatness. She achieves it by a series of small acts. Does all this sound too simple, too elementary, to be worth your time? What a shame! You could be achieving great things! You won’t see the Master walking away from doing these little things. She does one thing at a time, she does it well, then she moves on.
But what happens when she runs into difficulty? We all do, you know. Even the Master. When that happens, she stops and gives herself to it. What does Lao Tzu mean? He means that we all make mistakes. Perhaps we didn’t confront this difficulty while it was still easy. Maybe we didn’t break it down into small enough acts. We have run into difficulty. What do we do? No, you don’t get to throw up your hands and walk away. Still, it is time to stop. Take a time out. Breaks are good. While you have stopped, breathe, relax. Now, take a fresh look at this difficulty. That is giving yourself to it. Where did things go wrong? What can I do differently? How can I break this down into smaller acts? This is not the time to be rushing to make a deadline. Hence the need to not put off until tomorrow what you could easily do today.
Here it is important for us to remember that the life of ease that Lao Tzu has promised us is not something that can be had by making things more difficult. Now is not the time to be clinging to our own comfort. Whining about just wanting to be over and done with it, isn’t going to help. Problems don’t have to be problems. They can be the catalyst for new innovations. Just think of all the things you have learned. All the ways you know how not to do the thing. And think of the new ways that you are looking at things. Ways that you never would have thought to look before. You are going to do this. You are going to achieve greatness.