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 about the fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism: The value of non-action. Non-action is a translation of the Chinese, Wu Wei, which could be translated doing nothing; though doing nothing doesn’t really mean what our westernized minds think it means. Because it is so important to philosophical Taoism, I want to spend a little time explaining what Wu Wei means.
This is a concept that permeates 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. This is a great mystery. How is it that not doing can result in all things being done?
To explain this mystery, Lao Tzu points at the operation of nature as the most obvious example of this principle at work. His favorite metaphor of Wu Wei is water. Water nourishes all things without trying. And, the soft overcomes the hard, the gentlest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
Water is an apt metaphor. But it isn’t the only way that Wu-Wei can be exemplified. He also says that something with no substance enters where there is no space. That only intensifies the mystery. But it does show the value of Wu Wei.
Since there is value to it, I want to better understand it. Because doing nothing isn’t really doing nothing, in this context. Water still nourishes, even if it doesn’t have to work at it. And the soft and gentle does overcome the hardest thing. Overcoming without having to try to overcome sounds really good to me. I want to be able to put Wu Wei to work for me.
So, what is Lao Tzu getting at? I think he is defining a state of being in harmony with the Tao. That is, behaving in a completely natural, not-contrived way. We want to be in harmony with the Tao. That has certainly been Lao Tzu’s theme, all along.
I want to better understand what Wu Wei means. Because I have already decided that doing nothing doesn’t cut it. Wu could be translated “not have” or “without” and Wei could be translated “do”, “act”, “serve as”, “govern”, or “effort”. The most common translations for Wu Wei are “non-action” like Stephen Mitchell is translating it here. But it can also be translated; without action, without effort, or without control. Notice how all of these words have been used over and over again by Stephen Mitchell in his translation. He really gets it right.
The other way that we see it presented is in the paradox Wei Wu Wei, which could then be translated as acting without acting, or doing without doing. Here, we can plainly see that there is something to do. We are getting closer, but we aren’t quite there.
To better understand Wu Wei, let’s consider some less commonly referenced senses of it. For instance, “Action that doesn’t involve struggle or excessive effort.” In this case, Wu means “without” and Wei means “effort” and now we are really getting somewhere. For “effortless action” is probably the best way of explaining it. Instead of thinking that you should be doing nothing, something that leaves us thinking we should, well, just do nothing, think of all your actions being effortless.
What we want to do is practice Wei Wu Wei. And Wei Wu Wei is a state of being where all of our actions are without effort. How do we achieve this state of being? It isn’t as hard as we might make it out to be. It really is the most natural way to be. What is unnatural is trying to fit substance in where there is no space. It really is a lot like being like water, just going with the flow.
And we actually are in this state of being all of the time. We just don’t realize it while we are. I am certain that you can think back on it, after the fact. A time that things just flowed and you lost track of time. You became one with the world and what you did just happened so naturally. You were in the zone. But the moment you actively began to think about being in the zone, when you became aware of that, things started breaking down. Then our minds got into the action and we started exerting effort to maintain this state of being. Nope! That isn’t how it works.
That is why 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, but things are getting done. This is the state of being where all our actions are without effort. So, Wei Wu Wei is something that is beyond the realm of thinking. It is on a whole other level than acting by thinking. I know we have been taught all along to think before we act. But this state of being is a whole other dimension. We don’t think. It isn’t goal-driven. It isn’t something driven by our desires.
We have all experienced those moments. I know we have, because we are human beings not human doings. We have gotten a bit confused on that point; but that truth remains the truth. And obviously, we would like to string more of those moments together. But that would seem impossible. We can’t do it consciously, anyway.
So, that is where Lao Tzu finds it necessary to bring in the Master to show us the way. Teaching without words. Performing without actions. That is the Master’s way. As long as we are trying to make it happen, we are exerting effort. So, that isn’t the way. Effortless really means without effort. So, what can we do? Let the Tao be your guide. Be an observer of nature. Nature isn’t in any hurry. But it does have a pace to it. Pick up on that. Get yourself in tune with the waves of motion in the Universe. It isn’t in any hurry; but all things do get done. Pick up on those natural rhythms, the flow. Everything acts according to its nature. Even you. Just go with that flow. When you are in the zone you won’t even be aware that you are. But what does that matter? Don’t think about it. Just go with it.