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)
Yesterday, I shied away from trying to explain the mystical language that Lao Tzu was using to express how all things get birthed and how all things achieve harmony. I had a friend who has been “into” Taoism much longer than I, try to help me to better understand the mystical language that Lao Tzu was using. Thanks, John. I promise that the next time I get around to that chapter again, to delve back into the mystical; and what you said to me will be a big help.
Today’s chapter is a bit easier for me to decipher. Lao Tzu paints two pictures for us. Both are referring to the Tao. It is the Tao that is the gentlest thing in the world which overcomes the hardest thing in the world. And it is the Tao which has no substance and enters where there is no space.
And these two illustrations are what Lao Tzu uses to show the value of non-action. We have talked a lot about the value of non-action. It is a fundamental principle of the Tao. How does the gentlest thing overcome the hardest thing? By not-doing.
Too often, we see force being met with more force. The events in Ferguson are the ones closest to home for me, that illustrate that point. I have already talked previously about the events in Ferguson. By now, I am sure you are very much aware of that situation. So, I have no intention of rehashing that. Knowing what you do about that situation, you can see that is the exact opposite of the way of the Tao.
Sometimes I like to play what I call the “What If?” game. It is a mental exercise where I wonder how events would have transpired differently if certain actions had not been taken. Generally, hindsight is 20-20. And it is easy for me to say, “What if the police had not responded to the peaceful protestors with overwhelming, militarized force? But at the same time, I doubt the powers that be are learning that kind of lesson from the situation in Ferguson. Somehow, I suspect they are only preparing for further escalation of force, the next time the opportunity arises.
But I am running off on a tangent. Let’s get back on today’s chapter. And the value of non-action. Wu-wei, which is the principle of non-action is fundamental to Taoism. Often the best solution is not to act at all. Or, when action is needed, to do as little as possible. I think of the Tao like the Invisible Hand of the free market. I am opposed to interfering with that invisible hand. Most things in the world correct themselves, given time. But we get impatient, don’t we? We get in a hurry. The Tao will take too long. But when we interfere, we only make things worse. Sadly, for the powers that be, that only emboldens them in their efforts to further interfere. Now the mess is even bigger. They must interfere even more.
Now I know, that when some hear of this principle of non-action, they think it is speaking of passivity, or surrender. But that is all an illusion, used to masquerade the truth. People with power need excuses to wield power. If there aren’t ready excuses, they’ll manufacture some.
Non-action isn’t passivity or surrender. It is the patience to wait for the outcome. The Tao has things under control. The Universe only seems to be chaotic and without order. That is the illusion. But the reality is that we do live in an ordered Universe, governed by universal laws. When things are chaotic, it is only because we have been interfering with the natural order. Left to itself, the Tao always balances things out.
We simply must trust that the Tao has things under control; and is governing the Universe towards harmony. I can’t stress this enough. Problems we perceive as demanding our attention are often merely phases on the way to a good outcome, and in no need of our meddling. The law of unintended consequences comes to mind right here. How can we be sure that we are contributing to a solution when we don’t even know what would happen if we left things alone?
I know that someone is thinking about situations where we need to take action, and quickly. Like, for instance, to save lives or to avoid a disaster. While I am not going to deny that very real possibility, I am also wary of that excuse; since the powers that be will always use that excuse to justify everything that they do. Just look at what went down in Ferguson. The police can justify their militarization with the need to be prepared for the very worst that could happen. And then they set out to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ultimately, we humans have a tendency to regard ourselves a bit too highly. It is nothing short of hubris if we think that nothing would happen, at least nothing good, without our intervention. And that hubris, pride, will likely be our undoing.
But Lao Tzu doesn’t only paint us a picture that illustrates the value of non-action. He also talks about teaching without words. Perhaps that is why he likes to paint these mental images for us. Lao Tzu has said before that the more we speak the less we know. We speak because we have to explain our actions. We have to defend our actions because if we had only avoided those actions, we wouldn’t have to defend them.
This is not the way of the Master, who teaches without words. How can the Master teach without words? Because the Master performs without actions. By letting the Tao do the work, there is nothing that needs to be said. You can see the results without any explanation being necessary.