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)
If I had to pick out just one chapter in the Tao Te Ching, which epitomizes how philosophical Taoism has transformed how I practice the art of living, it would have to be this one. You would really have to know the me, before I encountered philosophical Taoism to understand this transformation.
For the old me, life wasn’t art. And it wasn’t really living. It was drudgery. Like my father before me, I knew if I wanted to provide for my family, that meant working 50, 60, or more hours each week. By the time each day of work was done, I had no energy left for making the little time that I was spending with my family, real quality time. To complicate my living further, I was the divorced father of two pre-teen children, and I had sole-custody. And, because I have never been one to make things at all easy, I was choosing to home school them.
While you are living each day of your life, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be able to see how the little things you are doing and the circumstances you are experiencing, are going to affect how your life is going to be in the future. It has only been when I have looked back on the past that I have been able to see the patterns. All the little things that, as they came together and built upon themselves, have resulted in the person I am today.
I certainly didn’t have the time then for any kind of introspection. I was just working, working, working. And trying to raise my two children. Thankfully, a lot of love goes a long way. My children turned out great. But I certainly didn’t know how that could possibly happen while we were just trying to make it from one day to the next.
But, life does have a way of messing with you. And sometimes, probably most of the time, that messing is going to end up resulting in something better than you could ever imagine. But I can only say that in hindsight. If only we could have the benefit of hindsight functioning as foresight. Then, life wouldn’t be so very complicated.
Life messing with me was the economy crashing and me going through unemployment, followed by a series of short term jobs, followed by longer unemployment, followed by disappointment after disappointment. I had encountered Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching some years ago, but had kind of put it on the backburner. Just no time for a real appreciation of what Lao Tzu had to say.
About two and a half years ago I was hit with my most recent lay off, and that was the final straw for me. I decided I just wasn’t going to be a participant in the labor force ever again. I was going to do what I enjoyed doing. And live on what little I could earn, doing what I enjoyed doing. That choice of my own pursuit of happiness made me happy. It helped that my children were then grown. I no longer had extra mouths to feed. It was only me that needed to be provided for, and I knew I could do with a lot less.
I think it was about that time that I encountered Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. And I ate it up. It was so clear to me that Lao Tzu was a libertarian, just like me. The chapters on the art of governing, were exactly what I had always believed. But then there were the myriad chapters like today’s chapter about the practice of wu-wei. Effortless action. That I just couldn’t comprehend. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It flew in the face of everything my Protestant Work Ethic upbringing had taught me. It is easy to agree with Lao Tzu when he agrees with you. That would be the politics. But what about the philosophy? The art of living?
But, I kept reading it, and thinking about it, and reading it, and thinking about it. I encountered a roadblock. What I needed to be doing was unlearning. What I thought I needed to be doing was learning something new. But my own circumstances, the very circumstances that I chose for myself as my own pursuit of happiness, kind of forced me to this roadblock. Back in chapter 48, Lao Tzu talked about the pursuit of knowledge vs. the practice of the Tao. I wanted to practice the Tao. I knew that. But I was trying to do it through the pursuit of knowledge. Every day I thought something needed to be added. That is certainly how the pursuit of knowledge works. But that isn’t how things work in the practice of the Tao. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped.
I had a “Eureka!” moment when this just clicked. I wish I could tell you the exact day and hour this took place. Aren’t most “Eureka!” moments like that? But mine was a lot more gradual and subtle than anything like that. I didn’t see it while I was living it in the present moment. It was only later, using that infamous hindsight, that I could see what had happened.
I can look back and see that I gave up the pursuit of knowledge and chose the practice of the Tao. An entirely different kind of path. A path that has been strewn with the things I have dropped. And that has resulted in the practice of wu-wei, effortless action. It isn’t something that I can still as yet wrap my mind around. Don’t be expecting any intellectuaal explanation of it here. Remember, I gave up the pursuit of knowledge a while back.
I just know that my practice of the Tao, which has made living an art for me, is exemplified in this practice of effortless action.
It is still so very strange for me to try to explain. How very different from how I used to live my life. I live my life effortlessly. I act without doing. I work without effort. I am able to think of the small as large and the few as many. I confront the difficult while it is still easy. I accomplish great tasks by a series of small acts.
I don’t know how else to explain it. I just go with the flow. I gave up trying to achieve greatness. And I really think that somehow – don’t ask me how, I had nothing to do with it – somehow, I achieve greatness. When I run into a difficulty – because yes, I still encounter difficulties, all of the time – I just stop and give myself to it.
And while these words are ones that Lao Tzu is using to describe the Master, I certainly don’t think of myself as the Master of anything, right now. But I do know, that one thing that has helped me more than anything else, is when I quit clinging to my own comfort. That right there is huge. At least it was for me. Once I let go of that, problems became no problem for me.