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 tried tackling the very mysterious, as we took a look at a creation myth story from the Tao Te Ching. Today, I think my job is a whole lot easier. Today, we are talking ,once again, about the value of non-action.
Lao Tzu begins by talking about the eternal reality. He says that the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. And, that which has no substance enters where there is no space. But how does this show the value of non-action?
I am glad you asked. 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 like to think of the Tao as the Invisible Hand of the free market. Because I am a free market anarchist, 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.
The “powerful”, in particular, like to interfere. It is their modus operandi. Their excuse for being needed. And they are empowered by us going along with their hare-brained schemes. Far from ever actually solving problems they only make greater problems; and, then they will insist that gives them all the more reason to interfere more. “We just didn’t do enough.”
When the Tao is interfered with, it is like trying to overcome the hardest thing by being harder. Trying to force something of substance where there is no space. Nature’s way is self-evidently the best approach to handling difficulties. When you encounter something that is hard, be gentle. That is stepping around the difficulty. There are examples of this throughout nature. We just don’t take the time, or make the effort, to learn the lessons that nature is teaching us. Nature doesn’t act. It just is. Trying to force your way into a space that is already full, makes no sense at all. So, why do it?
I know that the first time I heard of this principle of non-action, that I thought it was speaking of passivity, or surrender. But, I came to realize that was just the way things appeared. The way things seem to be. The eternal reality is something far different. People with power need excuses to wield power. If there aren’t ready excuses, they’ll manufacture some. But non-action isn’t passivity or surrender. What it is, is the patience to wait for the outcome. The Tao has everything 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. Which is all well and good, if you want things to be balanced out. But what if you want imbalance? What if you thrive on disparity?
I have come to realize that there are always going to be some people who will never want to leave things to the Tao, because it upsets their apple cart. In a free market, the Tao takes from what is too much and gives to what is not enough. That is the reality of a free market. In spite of all the rhetoric to the contrary from vested interests that will have you believe that only by interfering with that invisible hand can we make sure that the rich don’t just get richer while the poor get poorer. The reality is and always has been that it is because of interference that imbalance and disparity is the norm. Even now, many will insist that things would only be much worse if we truly had a free market. “The problem isn’t that we over-regulate, the problem is that we regulate too little.” And even those politicians that cry out for deregulation are still not wanting to have a free market. They just want to tweak a little here and there, and leave the government still firmly entrenched in the market.
But I will continue to insist that non-action, having the patience to wait for the outcome, is the only way to truly foster peace, harmony, and happiness. We simply must trust that the Tao has things under control; and is governing the Universe towards harmony. I don’t think I can stress this too much. 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? Good intentions, my own Dad always was telling me, may pave the streets of Hell, but, they are a poor measure of whether you did your job right.
I know that someone right now is thinking of all sorts of situations where we need to take action, and quickly. Like, for instance, to save lives, or to avoid a disaster. I am not going to deny this. But I am wary of these excuses, since the powers that be will always use excuses like these to justify everything that they do. They become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Ultimately, we humans have a tendency to regard ourselves a bit too highly. It is nothing short of hubris for us to think that nothing would happen, at least nothing good, without our intervention. And that hubris, pride, will likely be our undoing.
Still, for all my ranting today, Lao Tzu doesn’t just talk about the value of non-action. He also talks about teaching without words. Oops! Maybe I should have been paying more attention. Why do we talk so much? Because we are always feeling the need to explain our actions. We have to defend our actions, because if we had only avoided those actions in the first place, they wouldn’t be needing defending.
This is all so obviously not the way of the Master, who teaches without words. How does the Master accomplish this? Seriously, I need to know. And, here it is. Because the Master performs without actions. By letting the Tao do its work, there is nothing that needs to be said. You can see the results without any explanation necessary.