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


Non-being in Taoism

This is a difficult topic to explain to most people. This is because we’re so use to speaking, and thus thinking, in relative terms. The problem with this is that:

“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

It’s an entirely different way of thinking. We have the tendency to view things in comparison to other things, when oftentimes there’s no need for comparisons. Because comparisons tend to offer us an oppositional view of the world.

But the world doesn’t exist in a massive dichotomy. That would be utterly chaotic. I’ve noticed that a lot of people can’t seem to appreciate another person’s beauty without immediately considering their own non-beauty. What an ugly way to live!

And sometimes it’s not the aspect of something we would immediately expect that makes it beautiful.

“We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11

So a Taoist walks into a therapist’s office.

The therapist asks, “How do you feel today?”

The Taoist responds, “I feel empty inside.”

I couldn’t resist. So oftentimes, we overlook important – even necessary – qualities. We do this with objects, with other people, and especially with ourselves. We have this tendency of trying to mold ourselves a certain way. Usually in a way that we think will help us fit in with societal expectations.

But what would happen if you molded a cup too much? You may end up ruining it’s original purpose of holding things. What if you spent too much time filling the interior of your house? It would no longer be livable.

Get comfortable with the being and non-being that exist within you. You don’t need to know your purpose just yet. In general, Taoism is all about going with the flow. The more you attempt to mold or to lead or to do, the farther away you get from the Tao.

“Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20

Here again is the problem with drawing comparisons. When others do the “right” or “successful “things, it implies that you are doing the “wrong” things or that you are “unsuccessful”. But your value is not determined by other people’s choices.

Why can’t we all be “right” or “successful” in our own ways? Again, there’s no utility in trying to mold ourselves a particular way. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So, to repeat Lao Tzu, “Stop thinking, and end your problems.”