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 all about the value of non-action. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei; which could literally be translated “doing nothing” though our Westernized minds don’t understand what it is that Lao Tzu means by doing nothing. Still, if there is one fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, it is this one. In other words, if you are going to learn anything from the Tao Te Ching, make sure it is this that you learn.
It permeates through all of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao does nothing, yet through it all things are done. The Master does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. Clearly, there is something more to this doing nothing than doing nothing.
For Lao Tzu, he sees this principle in operation most obviously in nature; and, his favorite metaphor for illustrating Wu Wei is water. In this chapter, without even naming water, we know that is exactly what he is picturing in his mind. The gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. Now, picture water consistently dripping on the same spot of a rock. However soft the water is, it will eventually penetrate that rock. It is powerful, although it does not appear to be so. He tells us that it takes something with no substance to enter where there is no space. That, he insists, shows the value of Wu Wei.
If there is value to it, then we better understand it better. Because doing nothing doesn’t mean doing nothing. At least, not in the way that we understand doing nothing. What Lao Tzu is defining is a state of being in harmony with the Tao, behaving in a completely natural, not-contrived, way.
I have already said that Wu Wei could literally be translated as doing nothing. But, I also added the caveat that doing nothing doesn’t mean doing nothing. So what does Wu Wei really mean? Wu may be translated as “not have” or “without”; Wei may be translated as “do”, “act”, “serve as”, “govern” or “effort”. The most common translations are “non-action” like Stephen Mitchell translates it. But it can also be translated: without action, without effort, without control. It is also presented as a paradox, Wei Wu Wei, meaning acting without action or effortless doing. And now, through the paradox, we can see there really is some doing with this doing nothing. Doing nothing is doing something.
To better understand Wu Wei, consider less commonly referenced senses of it: Action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. In this instance, Wu means without and Wei means effort. Now we have effortless action. And that is probably the most apt definition of Wu Wei that I can come up with. So, what does effortless action mean? It means doing what comes naturally. It means going with the flow. It means submitting to the laws of nature and working with, instead of against, nature.
But the real question before us is how do we go about Wei Wu Wei, doing not doing, or simply, doing nothing?
First, of all, we already do it all the time. We just don’t realize that we are doing it while we are doing it. What do I mean? I am talking about a state where things just flow and you almost lose track of time. When you become one with your world and what you do seems to come out naturally? You are in the zone. But the moment you actively begin to think about what you are doing, to realize you are in the zone, is to compromise that state.
We only seem to be able to reflect back on it, after the fact. While we are in the zone, we aren’t thinking, we aren’t doing, things are just getting done. This state of Wu Wei is something beyond the realm of thinking. It is on a whole other level than acting by thinking. It is something different than a direct action coming out of desires or goals. It is being, not doing. It is going with the flow.
We have all experienced those moments. You know exactly what I am talking about. The question is, how to go about stringing more of those moments together. Is this something that we can bring about more regularly? If thinking only compromises the moment, if desires and goals don’t help, what then?
Teaching without words, performing without actions, that is the Master’s way. But is that example of any help to us, at all? This is about effortless action. And effortless means without effort. That means that trying to effortlessly act is, by definition, to not act effortlessly. It would seem hopeless. But it isn’t. Let the Tao be your guide. Observe nature. Go ahead. Pay attention to the natural flow of nature. It isn’t in any hurry, yet everything gets done. Observe the natural laws of our Universe. Begin to pick up on the natural rhythms, the flow. Everything acts according to its nature. Even you. Pick up on that flow and go with it. That is how to practice doing nothing. No, you won’t be cognizant that you are in the flow, when you are in the flow. But does that matter? Just go with it. Don’t think about it. Just go with it. And don’t be surprised, if you ask me what I am doing, when I tell you, “Oh, I have been doing nothing.”