The Value of Non-Action

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 43, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The Value of Non-Action

The essence of philosophical Taoism is that nature is a far better teacher than those who rely on eloquent words to teach us. This is why Lao Tzu, so often, points to nature and uses forces of nature as metaphors for how to be in harmony with the way things are.

In today’s chapter, he explains how the way things are in nature, the gentlest (or softest) thing in the world overcomes the hardest, and that which has no substance (or form) enters where there is no space, shows the value of non-action, the practice of wu wei.

The practice of wu wei, or wei wu wei, is doing without doing; and, it is one of the fundamental tenets of philosophical Taoism. It is joined by knowing without knowing, and competing without competing. But wei wu wei is the greatest, and the foundation for the other virtues. It is also a much misunderstood concept.

Much misunderstood, and much maligned. “What do you mean you are going to do nothing?” Actually, I mean just that. But, probably “that” doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean being lazy. It doesn’t mean not doing your work. And, it certainly doesn’t mean nothing gets done. On the contrary, when the Tao, or the Master “does nothing”, all things get done. What it does mean is acting the way nature does, effortlessly. And, it means not forcing, not trying to control, not intervening, not interfering, not dominating. It could probably be best described as going with the flow.

And, that, should be considered superior to striving against it. Which is why wei wu wei, doing without doing, is actually the most natural way to be.

But, how can this be taught using words? Performing without actions? It seems a paradox. Or nonsensical. So it is, that the Master’s way is to teach, not with words, but by example. Pointing at the way nature accomplishes everything, without trying. It just is what it is. And, we can just be what we are, too.

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