Free To Choose

Every being in the universe
is an expression of the Tao.
Its springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honors the Tao.

The Tao gives birth to all beings,
nourishes them, maintains them,
cares for them, comforts them, protects them,
takes them back to itself,
creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering.
That is why love of the Tao
is in the very nature of things.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 51, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we got over our fear of death. Today, is all about the art of living. Today, we see how every being in the universe spontaneously honors the Tao by behaving according to our nature. We are, each and every one of us, an expression of the Tao. It is the Tao that gives birth to all beings. It is the Tao that nourishes us. It is the Tao that maintains us. It is the Tao that cares for us. It is the Tao that comforts us. It is the Tao that protects us. And, it is the Tao that takes us back to itself. How is it that this occurs? Well, we can see it expressed all around us, in nature. And, if we will dare to look within ourselves, we will see it there, as well.

We spring into existence. Nothing more spontaneous than that. We all start out unconscious, perfect, and free. Every being takes on some physical body. And every being lets circumstances complete it. Did I read that correctly? Every being lets circumstances complete it? What about us humans? Lao Tzu has news for us. Circumstances complete us. Whether we “let” it happen or “resist” it happening. The art of living is in letting it happen, instead of resisting. Every other being in the Universe doesn’t seem to have any problem with that. We, humans, not always so much.

But that goes against our nature. It is in our very nature, even as humans, to honor and love the Tao. We go against our nature when we resist honoring and loving. The Tao is like a mother with her children. We are all children of the Tao. An expression of the Tao. So, we can be like the Tao. What is amazing is when we aren’t like the Tao. When we behave unlike the expression of the Tao that we are. Understand how this works. The Tao creates us. Each of us. Every being in the universe. But it doesn’t possess us. We are, still, all free. We are free to act differently from our nature. And many of us do.

And there are consequences to not acting according to our nature. Disease, famine, pestilence, premature death. These are some of the consequences of not acting according to our nature. These aren’t punishments brought to bear on us by the Tao. They are merely consequences for not living according to our nature. A nature perfectly adapted for living in this universe. We are free. And that means free to live a life of unease. All that the Tao does for every being in the universe, the giving birth, the nourishment, the maintenance, the care, the comfort, the protection, all of these things, these acts, are done without any expectations.

The Tao merely guides us. That’s it. No interfering. No forcing. We are free. But are we living a life of ease and contentment? It is your choice. You are free to choose. And, with all freedom there are consequences. You can choose to live counter to the Tao. But you can’t avoid the consequences. You can choose to live in accordance with the way things are. And you will have that life of ease and contentment that Lao Tzu has been going on and on about. You are free to choose. What will you choose?

Prepare To Die

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 50, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Are you ready for death? That is what today’s chapter is all about. How to be ready for death. And who, other than a mortician, wants to talk about being ready for death? Lao Tzu wasn’t a mortician, though, and he was willing to talk about it. So, maybe we need to talk about it, too. We all know we are going to die. We may want to postpone it. Prevent it if we can, for as long as we can. But we know we are going to die. At least, we say we know it.

And, we fear it. Yes, admit it. We fear it. We’d much rather talk about living, on and on and on. Maybe, if we can postpone talking about it, even thinking about it, we can somehow postpone what we know is inevitable. We are all going to die. Lao Tzu won’t let us not think about it, not talk about it. He wants us to be ready for it. Why?

There is really only one reason. We can’t truly live until we accept, submit to, and yes, surrender to this very real part of the life cycle. We are going to die.

Lao Tzu doesn’t mean we need to hasten death’s arrival. But we shouldn’t let the fear of it keep us from truly living, today, now, in this present moment. Fear, once again, is nothing but a phantom. It is a phantom which arises because we are thinking of ourselves as separate from the whole. This phantom, fear, is only an illusion in our mind. An illusion. But it causes our bodies to offer up all sorts of resistances. These resistances are what keep us from living in the present moment.

And living in the present moment is the only way to truly live. So it is that the Master, our example, gives himself up to whatever the moment brings. Giving himself up. That is a kind of surrendering. A surrendering of myself as separate from the whole. I, that is, me, myself, and I, am going to die. I have to die, to myself. That is the way of nature. Nature has its ebb and flow. Life flows. Death ebbs. Both have to happen. We know this. The Master knows this.

Once you surrender to nature’s ebb and flow, you have nothing left to hold on to. All the illusions in your mind, like the phantom of fear, are gone. And, with them gone, all the resistances in your body are gone, as well. You have surrendered to whatever the moment brings. You are not your own separate self any longer. You are one with the Tao. You go with the flow; and, when the time comes, you will go with the ebb.

In the last few days, we have been talking about how not-knowing and not-doing are entwined together. Here, we have the Master portraying how this works. His mind has been emptied of all illusions. He doesn’t think about his actions. They flow from the core of his being. His body offers no resistances to this. His actions simply flow. Intuitively. Effortlessly.

He holds nothing back from living. That is the only way to be prepared for death. It is coming. But not now. Not until after a good day of work. Then you will be ready for sleep.

People Don’t Understand Her

The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.

She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.

She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.

The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 49, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Do you understand her? Most people don’t. They think she is out of her mind. Her mind is like space. Like, way out there. I mean, look at her. She doesn’t act as so many people do, with some agenda, a mind of her own. No, she works with the mind of the people. What does Lao Tzu mean by that? What Lao Tzu is doing in today’s chapter is talking about the Te in the Tao Te Ching. The Te is virtue. What is virtue?

Is virtue being good merely to those who are good? Is virtue trusting only those who are trustworthy? Anyone can do that! What do you mean you weren’t good to those who were good to you? How horrible! You mean to tell me you don’t trust people who have demonstrated their worthiness to be trusted? What is wrong with you? No, being good to people you know are good, and trusting people you know are trustworthy is the very least that can be expected of people who call themselves human.

But the Master shows us what true virtue is. And most people just don’t understand her. Do you? She isn’t just good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. She doesn’t just trust people that she knows she can trust. She also trusts people she knows aren’t worthy of her trust. No wonder most people don’t understand her. No wonder most people think she is out of her mind.

I guess she is. Out of her mind, that is. Because she is working with the minds of the people. Whatever mind they have. She wants to demonstrate for us all, what virtue really is. Those that are good probably think they know what it means to be good. And those that are trustworthy, likewise, think they have a pretty good idea what it means to trust. But do they, necessarily? If we are only good to those who are good, what have we really done? If we only trust those who are worthy of our trust, what out of the ordinary have we accomplished?

By demonstrating true goodness and true trust, a valuable lesson can be learned by all. Virtue is extraordinary. Not everyone does it. Not everyone gets it. Yet, everyone is blessed by it. People don’t understand her. But people do know she is extraordinary. She isn’t like everybody else. She is different. What will this crazy woman do next? Let’s wait and see. She treats them, not like children, because what adult wants to be treated like a child? No, she treats them like a mother cares for her own children. Taking care to work with them, right where they are, Whether they are good and trustworthy, or not so good and not so trustworthy. What ever mind they have, she works with it. And shows all of us, the way of virtue.

More Yin Than Yang

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.

True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 48, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about the almost inverse relationship between knowledge and understanding. As Lao Tzu put it, the more you know, the less you understand. The real dynamic that Lao Tzu was talking about is that there is big difference between knowledge and understanding. And, I promised today, Lao Tzu would better explain the differences between the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of the Tao. It is, of course, the practice of the Tao that gives us understanding.

The difference between the two is highlighted in the opening of today’s chapter. The pursuit of knowledge requires that you are always adding to it. Each day something more needs to be added. You never get to the point where there isn’t something more to add. On and on and on you go in your pursuit. But you never have enough. It is not, in and of itself, a satisfying pursuit. You always are left still lacking. What can we come to understand from this pursuit, other than the realization that we can never know enough?

But the practice of the Tao is nothing like this. For one thing, it isn’t a pursuit. You aren’t going after anything. You aren’t adding to anything. Instead, every day, something is dropped. Is it knowledge that we are dropping? Getting more ignorant with each passing day? No, it isn’t like that, either. Embracing not-knowing is not choosing to be ignorant. What it is, is knowing that we don’t know. That we can’t know. But, we can understand. And that is more important.

For Lao Tzu, understanding comes as we realize how not-knowing and not-doing are entwined together. We have talked a lot about not-doing, before. I am not going to try and say all of that again, today. I hope you have been following along as I have been taking a chapter each day. So you already understand that not-doing or doing nothing, isn’t really doing nothing. Instead, it is letting go of our need to control outcomes. Less and less do we need to force things. It is a daily practice. Each day we let go of our desire to make some action. Until we arrive at non-action. It is going with the flow of nature. Letting go of all resistance to the laws which govern our Universe. We work with them, rather than against them. And it is effortless. It just happens naturally. Intuitively. All that we do is not-contrived. Nothing is done, yet nothing is left undone.

This is something we can’t know. So, if you are scratching your head right now, trying to wrap your mind around this, stop it. It is something our minds can’t wrap around. Lao Tzu teased us yesterday with the Master arriving without leaving, seeing the light without looking, and achieving without doing a thing. Our minds just aren’t going to get this. But we can understand it. It is an intuitive thing. We are all intuitive. We just need to practice being intuitive.

We all know what intuition is. It is when you understand something, but when you stop to try and figure out why you understand it, you say, “I don’t know, I just do.” And we have heard a lot about a woman’s intuition, as if only women can have such a thing as intuition. How ridiculous! Still, maybe intuition is just a little more yin than it is yang. And yin, being a female kind of thing, we may all of us, both male and female, need to embrace a little more yin in our lives.

The whole point that Lao Tzu is making, not just in this chapter, but in the whole book, is that true mastery isn’t something that can be gained by adding to our knowledge. Even if we do so each and every day. The only way that true mastery can be gained is by letting things go their own way. Our interfering isn’t going to help. All that does, is make our lives more difficult. The way things are is the way things are. Resistance isn’t just futile. It is life-draining. Accepting, and yes, submitting, to the way things are, is the only way to understand what we can never really know: A life of contentment and ease are ours. The Tao has already done the giving. Now, all that is left for us is receiving.

The More You Know…

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 47, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, the challenge before us was seeing through all fear. It is the only way to always be safe. Today, Lao Tzu wonders what we are going to be doing with this new-found freedom from fear. What we want is to open our hearts to the world and see the essence of the Tao. There is so much that we want to learn. The pursuit of knowledge awaits us. We can’t wait to get out there and start learning.

But Lao Tzu catches me eying the window as I rush to the door in my hurry to get out and start exploring. “Hold on, there. Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“I’m sorry, Master, I was just thinking it was time to get going. So very much out there to see and do.”

“Oh? What exactly is out there, that isn’t in here?” Lao Tzu asks, pointing with his bony finger at my heart.

We don’t have to go anywhere to open our hearts to what is. The essence of the Tao is not outside of us, it is within us. Of course, I am not thinking about my heart, at all. I am thinking that my brain doesn’t have enough knowledge. There is still, so much to learn. I don’t know enough. And, living in the town of Podunk, in the middle of Nowhere, means I have some traveling to do.

Lao Tzu will have none of it. We think so highly of the pursuit of knowledge. So very highly, in fact, that we will go many thousands of dollars in debt, just so we can say that we acquired a little more knowledge. But Lao Tzu wonders what exactly we have gotten for all of that. You know so much, and understand so little. And you remedy your lack of understanding with still more knowledge. Only to find you understand even less.

Does that sound anti-knowledge to you? I don’t think Lao Tzu is anti-knowledge. I just think he wishes that we valued understanding a little more. Maybe we do; but we don’t understand that understanding isn’t gained in the same way that knowledge is gained.

In tomorrow’s chapter, Lao Tzu will better explain the differences between the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of the Tao. There is a stark difference between knowledge and understanding. Today, is something of a teaser.

Today, Lao Tzu teases us with the example of the Master, who arrives without ever leaving, sees the light without looking for it, and achieves without doing anything. That isn’t something I need to know. It is something I need to understand.

When Will We Be Safe?

When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 46, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

As I was thinking about today’s chapter in the Tao Te Ching, I was in the car coming home from tutoring. I was listening to NPR news on the radio, and the top story was President Obama’s press conference where he revealed that one of our many deadly drone strikes had inconveniently taken out two civilian hostages. One an American, and one an Italian. President Obama offered his condolences to the families, insisting that in the fogs of war, especially our endless (he said present) War on Terror, mistakes happen. He didn’t use the word inconvenient. But I think it is an appropriate word for our immoral actions all over the world. It was inconvenient that those hostages were there.

Of course, there also was some convenient news to report about this particular drone strike. It was also reported that two Americans, alleged al-Qa’ida operatives, were also assassinated in this drone strike. Now, why was that convenient? Well, because we are supposed to jump through special hoops before targeting Americans. But, just like we didn’t know the hostages were there, we, apparently, didn’t know the American alleged al-Qa’ida operatives were there either. And, since we weren’t actually targeting them specifically, their deaths were merely convenient. After all, we didn’t have to offer them any so-called “American” rights, some semblance of due process. How convenient!

Drone strikes always seem to have a way of being both inconvenient and convenient. We never seem to know until months after the bloody aftermath who we have killed. That is inconvenient for the families of the innocent victims. But it certainly is convenient for those who are motivated by fear to manufacture enemies out of thin air. We have stockpiles of weapons that we can’t allow to get dusty, after all. The health of the State depends on this endless war.

I think that would be how Randolph Bourne would see it. Lao Tzu just shakes his head, how counter to the Tao the health of the State is. For my part, I want a country in harmony with the Tao. There is a clear line that differentiates the State from a country. The State has no regards for any country. Including its own. All that matters is how many warheads it has stockpiled. And how best can we put those to use. Sure, there are going to be those inconveniences, that is just the tragedy of war. But, it is never the State that suffers those inconveniences. Only the country suffers those inconveniences. How convenient!

Yes, it is the country, with all its inhabitants, that suffers when the State is healthy, when the country goes counter to the Tao. It is individuals, like you, like me, like the hostages that weren’t supposed to be there, like the Americans that didn’t get anything near due process. Oh, to live in a country in harmony with the Tao. Factories making trucks and tractors? That is bliss!

And it is all because of something that Lao Tzu has earlier called nothing but a phantom. Fear. The greatest illusion of them all. Fear. It isn’t real, but succumbing to it has deadly consequences. Our rulers actually have people believing that what these drone strikes are actually accomplishing is defending us. Defending us? From who? An imaginary enemy, like those two hostages? Like the countless civilians that we have killed in all the years we have been using drone strikes? This is a defensive posture? No, you’re wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. Why do we have all these enemies? Our rulers keep telling us that they hate us for our freedoms. What a crock! Our freedoms? What freedoms would those be? The ones pre-9/11? That would be just about all of them. We don’t have those anymore. But they still, supposedly, hate us. It couldn’t be that it isn’t little ol’ you and me that they hate. That it is the State, waging war on them, that induces them to hate.

This didn’t begin on 9/11. We have been running counter to the Tao for generations now. Meddling in affairs in which we had absolutely no business. No, I can’t say we didn’t have any business. Because it was always about business. Our meddling, and our wars, have always been about making a few people rich at the expense of all the rest of us. But when the health of the State is on the line, you can’t be in harmony with the Tao. It isn’t the State’s misfortune that we have an enemy. That is the State’s lifeblood. But it is our greatest misfortune.

Somehow, someway, we are going to have to figure out how to see through all the fear. That is the only way to always be safe. For my part, I have never been afraid of anyone that wasn’t an agent of the State. The State has manufactured for itself plenty of enemies for us to be scared of. But they aren’t my enemies. And I don’t fear them. But I do fear the State. Leviathan is pretty scary to me. And somehow, someway I have to be able to see through this fear, too. Then, I will be safe.

Just Give Me A Moment

True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.

True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 45, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday, we were talking about what Lao Tzu is always talking about, you already have everything you need. Be content with who you are and what you have. We waste a whole lot of our lives, looking to others for fulfillment. And happiness will elude us, as long as we think it depends on money. Instead of focusing on something outside of ourselves, we need to look deep inside our own selves. For it is there, that true happiness and true fulfillment is to be found.

That, of course, is easier said than done. What makes it not as easily done, as said, is that we are our own worst critics. Just turning our focus inwards isn’t going to be enough, if we are going to insist on believing the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. Oh, we don’t think we are lying to ourselves. We think we are giving an all too honest appraisal of just how imperfect and empty we appear, as we look within.

Look, I know what Lao Tzu has been saying, and I want to believe it is true. But when I look at me, I don’t see perfection. That is the problem, isn’t it? How can I be content with imperfection?

Most of my readers are quite a bit younger than me. This is something that makes my day, each and every day. Because I love working with young people. I can be a mentor of sorts, and I benefit from your youth and enthusiasm. It’s a win-win. I do hope you don’t mind getting a few words of wisdom from this older guy.

And here they are: You are more perfect than you seem to be. Oh, you don’t see it. And, you probably never will. You are always going to judge yourself by an impossible standard. Your greatest perfection is going to seem imperfect to you. You never are going to quite measure up to your exacting standards.

We all live a kind of double life. We are so concerned with appearances. So, we try to appear to have it all together; while, to our own selves, we appear to be a complete wreck. While we hope we can fool others, we know we can never fool ourselves. And, regardless of what Lao Tzu tells us, well, if he knew the truth about ourselves, he wouldn’t make it all sound so very simple.

But Lao Tzu does understand. That is why he says that the truest perfection is always going to seem imperfect. The truest fullness is always going to seem empty.

Perhaps it would help for us to simply follow Lao Tzu’s instructions instead of interrupting with our objections.

Could it be that we are measuring things differently than we should be? Instead of worrying about not being perfect enough, why not just be yourself, completely? Forget about other people’s standards of perfection for a moment. And just let yourself be free to be you. Now, try to ignore your own inner voices as they point out all the ways you don’t have it together. And just be you. Is this supposed to be easy? No! But it is necessary.

Lao Tzu has been talking about being truly fulfilled. And, we can’t get past how empty we feel. How can he keep saying that I have everything I need? That there is nothing lacking? I am so empty! Okay. Work with me here. So, you seem empty to you. I get it. But is that the final verdict? Can you do one thing for me? Just be filled in this one present moment. Forget about later today, or tomorrow, or next week. And don’t be thinking about all the ways you failed yesterday. Just be present with me in this moment. Fully present.

True straightness is going to seem crooked to you. True wisdom is going to seem like folly. True art is going to seem completely lacking in art. You are always going to be your worst critic. But just stop that for this present moment. You can go back to feeling like a failure later. For now, be what Lao Tzu insists that you are.

Are you with me? Here, in this present moment? Good. Now, things are getting ready to happen. Don’t freak out on me, but things are going to happen. Don’t let that shake you up. You are here in this present moment. Don’t worry about things that are going to happen. Just let them happen. Don’t fight it. Don’t resist it. Just relax. Enjoy this present moment.

As events transpire, breathe. Always breathe. Now, begin to shape those events as they come. You are in the present moment. You aren’t thinking about what happened yesterday. You aren’t thinking about tomorrow. You are right here, right now. And as events are happening, you are shaping them.

Now, step out of the way. That’s right. Step out of the way. I didn’t say, “Jump!” I didn’t say, “Look out!” I simply said, “Step out of the way.” You are living in the present moment. Conscious of every breath. And, now, the Tao can speak for itself: “You are perfectly yourself. You are fully present.”

It Really Is A Choice

Fame or integrity: which is more important?
Money or happiness: which is more valuable?
Success or failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 44, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

What is most important to me? What do I value the most? How do I define success? Failure? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves. Because our answers will tell us a lot about ourselves. You can gain the whole world and lose your own soul. That is the problem with looking outside of ourselves for what really matters.

To get to the end of my life, never to know true fulfillment and never happy with myself – how horrible a life to live. But that is the kind of life you have as long as you are looking to others for fulfillment and your happiness depends on how much money you have.

Oh, to be content! A life of contentment. That is what Lao Tzu is offering to anyone who will choose it. It really is a choice. Realizing I have everything I need, right now. That what I have is enough. That there is nothing lacking. It really is a choice. I can and do rejoice in the way things are. I don’t have to lose my own soul to gain the whole world. The whole world belongs to me, now. Because I am one with the world, now.

The Value In Doing Nothing

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(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.”

Demystifying The Mystery

The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

All things have their backs to the female
and stand facing the male.
When male and female combine,
all things achieve harmony.

Ordinary men hate solitude.
But the Master makes use of it,
embracing his aloneness, realizing
he is one with the whole universe.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Of all the chapters which delve into the mystery of the Tao, none are as mysterious as today’s chapter. What is this mysterious One to which the Tao gives birth? What is the Two? And, the Three? Is this some esoteric mystery that only a select few can know? Or, is it something that his initial readers would have immediately understood, but my westernized mind does not? I have even entertained the notion that Lao Tzu intends for it to be a mystery. But, only for a moment. Lao Tzu seems to want us to understand the mystery, as best as we can. I decided, some time ago that I needed help. I read through many different translations. I consulted quite a few commentaries. I never was satisfied. Finally, I decided that Lao Tzu was speaking plainly. This was just one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. All the other pieces would help me to understand it, if I could just figure out how they all fit together. Eventually, I consulted the second most familiar early Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu. What Lao Tzu said in few words, Chuang Tzu expanded on.

This is what Chuang Tzu had to say on the mysterious One. “At the beginning, there is Nothing. No existence. No names. Where One rises up, there is One, but it doesn’t have a form yet.” That helped me. Because that pointed me back to what Lao Tzu has been saying all along about non-being. Non-being is nothing. It has no existence, no name, no form, yet. Non-being is very hard to explain. It is not yet manifest, what it will be. I think the only way to describe it is to call it the non-manifestation of the Tao. It is a mystery.

And every creation story seems to start out with nothing. I don’t know how satisfying it is, but I am going with identifying the One as non-being, or nothing. The initial action of the Tao, then, is to give birth to nothing. What an inauspicious beginning! Why not light? No, we start out with nothing.

That makes things a whole lot easier, actually. Since Lao Tzu has already told us that non-being gives birth to being. This has yin and yang all over it. The One gives birth to Two. Non-being and being. That would be Wu and Yu in Chinese philosophy. What we have here is two very distinct aspects of the Tao. The Tao that gives and the Tao that receives. And these aspects rise up spontaneously, almost simultaneously. Yes, I know we see the One rise up first. Giving precedes receiving; but only for an instant. Until what is given is received, nothing has been given. They work in concert together. That is why it is also correct to say that being gives birth to non-being. This is how yin and yang work. Spontaneous, and almost simultaneous.

Now that we have non-being and being, yin and yang, what is this mysterious Three? To answer that, I had to delve a little deeper into Chinese philosophy. We understand that yin and yang are always in a state of flux, a state of motion. All things are in a constant state of motion. But what is the motivating force that puts them into motion? This mystery Three is a third aspect of the Tao. The first being, wu. The second being, yu. The third is chi. I have seen chi defined as energy. Or, the life force. And, sometimes, as breath, or spirit. I think all of these are helpful. The Two, wu and yu, yin and yang, combine. And, like the splitting of an atom, produce chi. Once again, I see this as something that happens both spontaneously, and almost simultaneously. All three are merely aspects of the Tao.

The Tao gives birth to itself, in all its aspects. This can be more easily understood and accepted, once we understand and accept that the Tao is everything. I spent a great deal of time demystifying just the first third of today’s chapter. But all of that is necessary if we are to understand the next two-thirds. Once we have that, we can understand how the Three gives birth to all things.

All things stand with their back to the female and face the male. What an interesting position in which to find ourselves. Where is the balance, the harmony? The chi moves all things, so that male and female combine. And then, harmony is achieved.

So, why is it that ordinary men hate solitude? Yesterday, we were talking about extraordinary and ordinary individuals. Actually, the words we used were superior and average. But, they mean the same thing. It takes an extraordinary person to so value solitude, that you embrace your aloneness, and know how to make use of it. Let’s not forget how everything came into being. It started with One. Just One. Nothing, really. Embrace your oneness with the Tao, and with the whole Universe. We are all one with the Tao. The Tao is nothing, and everything. And, in the Tao, we are both nothing and everything. Ordinary people can’t tolerate being alone. They hate solitude. But, the Master understands. It is only in solitude that we come to realize that we are not alone. We are not separate. We only appear to be separate. We are all One with the Tao.