The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing.
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)
In today’s chapter we return to the concept of Wu Wei. That could be translated as not-doing doing, or inactive action. But I see how saying, “Let your doing be not-doing or your action inactive” could be quite the challenge to wrap our minds around. I know it was for me. To begin with we need to understand yin and yang. And, how they interact together. Not-doing doing is yin yang. That is helpful but I also understand why me saying, “I am going to practice not-do do” might elicit laughter. Lao Tzu talked, just a couple of chapters ago, about why the fool laughs out loud when hearing of the Tao. He certainly gives the fool plenty to laugh out loud about. Still, especially for some of my newer followers that find themselves smack dab in the middle of the Tao Te Ching and wondering what I am going on and on about, I would like to make this concept of Wu Wei a little easier to understand. It is, after all, a very central concept in philosophical Taoism.
In the translation that we have before us, Stephen Mitchell translates it as “non-action” and says there is value in that. And there is. Too often we want to do something when doing nothing would be the best course of action.
But, I don’t think most of us properly understand what is meant by this non-action. It is more than just not-doing, as we already said when we defined it as not-doing doing. It isn’t non-action. It is inactive action. It isn’t just yin without any yang. Of course if all we have been doing for a long while is yang, maybe it is time to balance things out with a good dose of yin. Hopefully, this is making the sense I am trying to make.
For me, the best way to express Wu Wei is to call it effortless action. Acting effortlessly in everything that we do. That is the Master’s way. We see that manifested all the time. Especially in nature. Actually, nature shows us the way perfectly, if we only have eyes to see. But humans can and do demonstrate effortless action as well. You can see it demonstrated in the martial arts. The ease with which martial artists perform their every movement.
So, becoming an ardent observer of nature and taking up one or more of the martial arts would both be excellent ways of learning how to act effortlessly. But I know some of you are going to say that you simply don’t have the time for that.
So, I am going to tell you what I did. I determined that I needed to live purposefully. And, for me, that meant simplifying my life. Letting go of all the extra baggage I was carrying around. And, finding out how very little I actually need in order to live a happy and full life. I am not finished yet. So, don’t think I am speaking from some mountain top trying to convey wisdom here. I certainly don’t consider myself a master yet. I am still only an apprentice, with plenty more to learn. But, I can say, that I have managed to reduce the number of hours in any given week that I need to work in order to accumulate more and more and more. And never finding satisfaction in all that stuff. Nor, ever having enough hours to get everything done that I needed to get done.
Because I am now working a third of the hours I used to have to work, I have many more hours for not-doing doing. What does that mean? For me, it means that now, I don’t ever look back on my day at a long list of things I didn’t get done. I didn’t write the list in the first place. That helps. But it really doesn’t convey what I am trying to convey. When I lay my head down on my pillow at night, I do so, utterly amazed at all the things I got accomplished that day. It didn’t used to be that way. I used to look back on all the things that I was going to have to get done tomorrow. That never made for a good night’s sleep.
If I am actually conveying what I am trying to convey, it would be effortless action, or Wu Wei. I just go through the flow of each day. Doing things as the need arises. I have plenty of time for that. No pressures. No stress. I just effortlessly act throughout my day. Much in the same way that I am typing this up. Just letting it flow. Not forcing, just letting. And, just like that, it is finished.