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)
After talking, for quite a few days in a row, about the art of governing, Lao Tzu now returns to the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, Wei Wu Wei, doing without doing. Lao Tzu doesn’t mention governing in this or the next chapter, but this isn’t a time for would-be leaders to snooze. This is very useful for all of us; that means leaders, just as well as the rest of us. Today’s chapter is actually one of the most practical chapters in the Tao Te Ching. When I first started reading through the Tao Te Ching, the very first question that entered my own mind was, “How do I apply this to my life, how do I put it into practice?” Today’s chapter shows us the way.
He begins by stating the tenet: Act without doing; work without effort. For the longest of times, I thought that this involved some mystical practice whereby I would enter a zen-like state of being. The good news, which I only later discovered, is that it isn’t nearly as difficult as I was making it out to be. It is actually quite simple. It is a practice for every day living. You don’t have to become a master to practice this. But, if you practice this, you will become a master at it.
Here, is just how simple it is. As you are going about your day’s activities, think of the small as large and the few as many. Say what? What Lao Tzu is explaining to us is that it all begins with how we think about things. Approach every task as if it is a great task. No matter how small it is, think of it as large. No matter how few things you may have to accomplish, think of them as many. This may seem counter-intuitive, at first; but hear Lao Tzu out. When we think of the small as small, something we would obviously be inclined to do, we tend to make light of it. We might even be inclined to procrastinate. It isn’t any great thing. It can wait until later. Even if we aren’t prone to procrastination, we may still not think very much of what we are doing, as we are doing it. This is devaluing the little and ordinary things that we do. Life to us becomes a series of rote acts. It is all rather boring. We will seek out something else to liven up our lives. This is the very opposite of a life of contentment, the goal of philosophical Taoism. Yes, there is a point to all this.
Lao Tzu wants us to be on guard against devaluing these little things that we have to do. We don’t want to fall prey to procrastination. And, we don’t want to be so bored out of our minds that we seek happiness outside of our simple ordinary lives. By thinking of the small as large and the few as many, we are thinking of it as being the single most important thing to accomplish right now. This can’t be put off. It is too important. And what’s more, look at all of its aspects, this couldn’t possibly be boring. We make things way too complicated. We make things difficult. All because we don’t place value on getting things done while they are easy to get done. The time to confront the difficult task is while it is still easy. We can’t very well go back in time to do that. So don’t put it off. When you view those small things as large, the few as many, you are confronting the difficult while it is still easy. Now that you see it as large and not small, you can break it down into a series of small acts to accomplish.
I said, earlier, that you don’t have to become a master to put this into practice in your own life. I am speaking from experience, here. This has become my own daily practice. Every day I do the very same things. Someone looking on the outside might think that my life is boring. Au contraire. I have found it to be quite the opposite of boring. I have learned how to be content with a simple and ordinary life. All by doing the task at hand, regardless how great or small, by seeing it as bigger than it is, and breaking it down into smaller acts. I was never content with my life before it was simple and ordinary. I always was reaching for something more. More, more. I always wanted more. And, consequently, I never had enough. Now, I have all I need, all I want.
That is how the Master got to where she is. She never reaches for the great. She lets things come and go, as they will. She merely shapes events as they come. Accepting every little thing as being great, and doing those little things as if they were great, she achieves greatness. Sometimes she runs into difficulty. We all can identify with her, there. Sometimes life throws you a curve. Wasn’t expecting that. But she doesn’t expect anything, so she is never disappointed. What does she do when life throws her a curve? When she runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. What does Lao Tzu mean by that? He means that, sometimes, the very best thing we can do is to stop. Take a break. And when your break is over it is time to give yourself to the difficulty. With your break over, you can now look at things with a fresh perspective. Perhaps I didn’t confront this difficulty while it was still easy. Maybe all that is needed is that I break it down into a series of smaller acts.
This is not the time to begin whining about how unfair life is. Also, throwing up your hands, and walking away in disgust, is not an option. Giving yourself to the difficulty means not clinging to your own comfort. So it proved to be more difficult than you imagined. You aren’t the first person that has encountered this problem. And you won’t be the last. Why not choose to be an example of how to get the job done right, this time. After all, you probably have acquired a long list of ways that didn’t work to get it done. That means all the time you spent before was not wasted. You learned a lot. Problems are no problem for her, because she doesn’t let them become problems for her. We don’t have to be a master to put this into practice in our lives. But, if we do it long enough, we will become masters at it.