Action Through Inaction

This may sound counter-intuitive, but… well. It’s not. The idea comes from the Taoist mantra of Wei Wu Wei (literally “doing not doing”).

The idea is that trying to force things only impedes them.

“The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 29

I think this becomes especially noticeable with art. Think about a dancer, who moves gracefully without even thinking about it. True, it takes a lot of work – a lot of “doing” – for the dancer to reach that point.

But a good dancer knows when to step back and let go. I’ve learned this for sure with my music. The more I try to enhance a mix, the less harmonious the tones become. The more I try to perfect my lyrics, the more clunky they become.

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 9

A large part of any art is knowing how to not force things. And knowing when to step back and go on to the next thing. “Doing” should ideally come naturally. And it should pass just as naturally.

“Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 2

When we allow our actions to simply flow through us, we in essence become the action.

When I’m most impressed with dancers is when the dancer becomes the dance. When I’m most satisfied with my own music is when I forget that I’m playing an instrument, and I simply become the instrument.

A good fighter simply becomes the fight. Their body moves freely and reacts before they’re even mentally aware of what they’re responding to.

This is where the saying of going with the flow achieves tangible results.

“Less and less do you need to force things,
Until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
Nothing is left undone.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 48


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