The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.
Teaching without words,
performing without actions;
that is the Master’s way.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, the value of non-action. I have been getting a bunch of new followers of late; so, it is time once again to take this opportunity to explain what Lao Tzu means by non-action.
Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated as doing nothing. But since doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds have come to think it means, I think we need to do better.
Wu Wei is a concept that permeates throughout the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. This is a great mystery. How can this be? How can doing nothing result in all things being done?
To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor, to explain Wu Wei, is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. Perhaps he is thinking of water when he says, “The soft overcomes the hard” and “The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.”
As apt a metaphor water is, there are other ways Wu Wei can be exemplified. When he says, “That which has no substance enters where there is no space” it amplifies the mystery. But it also goes a long way toward explaining it. It shows the value of Wu Wei.
Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, is it? Water, after all, still nourishes. It just doesn’t have to work at it. The softest and gentlest thing overcomes the hardest thing. But it is overcoming without exerting any effort to overcome.
What Lao Tzu is getting at is a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a perfectly natural, not contrived way. So, not doing or doing nothing isn’t about what we do or don’t do, it is about what we are.
Lao Tzu is extolling the virtue of doing nothing, the value of non-action, which, again, is Wu Wei, in the original Chinese. Let’s look a little more closely at what the Chinese words mean. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without”; and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “govern”, or “effort”. So, we could translate Wu Wei as “without doing”, “without acting”, “without governing” (my personal favorite), or “without effort”. In the past, I have tended to go with “without effort” as my default. Then, I looked at some less commonly referenced senses of Wu Wei; for example, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort” to arrive at “effortless action”, and be even more precise.
But, given all the ways that Wei can be translated, and just because I like that it can be translated “govern”, I have decided that translating Wu Wei “without controlling” is an even better way to convey Lao Tzu’s meaning. Looking back over how many times Lao Tzu has told would-be leaders to let go of their need to control, I think I am spot on.
I am feeling quite satisfied with myself at this point; but wait, there is more to this than all of that.
Sometimes, when Lao Tzu speaks of Wu Wei, he presents it in the form of a paradox, Wei Wu Wei, which is often translated “doing not-doing”. The paradox actually explains the state of being in which we need to be. It is “harmony with the Tao”. Doing without doing, or governing without governing, is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. We have given up our need to be in control, our will to power; and, thus, we don’t “try” to do anything. We merely go with the flow.
That leads to the one question I have asked my own self far too many times to count. How do we achieve this state of being? I hope my friends aren’t nearly as slow to catch on as I was. The whole idea of achieving, goal-setting, is kind of completely missing the whole point. What do we do? We do nothing. Duh. It is about being yourself. And doing what comes naturally. Doing what comes naturally sounds easy enough, right? Shouldn’t take a whole lot of effort. What wouldn’t be easy, what is completely unnatural, is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. Now, we really are seeing the value of non-action. It takes something which has no substance to enter where there is no space.
But Lao Tzu offers us the example of the Master to show us the way. The Master teaches without words, and performs without actions. The Master’s way should be our way, too. As long as we are trying to make things happen, we are exerting effort, we are trying to control. That isn’t the Master’s way, so stop it! Instead, be an observer of nature. Notice, nature isn’t in any hurry, yet all things do get done. There is a flow to it, a rhythm. Pick up on that rhythm. Get attuned to it. Everything acts according to its nature. Even us. Become one with your nature, with the Tao flowing through you.