Newsletter - February 2023
Time To Do Nothing?
“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” (Lao Tzu)
Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? This is Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching talking about how we often see each action as a separate “thing” expected to produce a result. But if we simply respond with compassion to the flow of whatever’s happening around us, and let go of expecting any particular result, then when no “thing” is done “nothing is left undone.”
The lazy side of me smiles when I read these words. “See,” I say to myself, “It’s okay to do nothing. Lao Tzu says so.” But when I look closely, that’s not exactly what he says. It’s not even what he implies. In fact, he doesn’t even suggest it. Unfortunately, what I say to myself is just my mind jumping to convenient, comfortable conclusions and feeling pleased with itself. So, what happens when we explore outside this comfort zone? This newsletter looks at what I think Lao Tzu is getting at, and how it is relevant to living our lives.
In our typical everyday world, we spend a lot of our time “doing things.” Anything we do takes time, and since we see (and experience) time as a limited commodity, it becomes important to us to spend time on the “right” things. Our language is full of warnings about not “wasting time,” about focusing on “one thing at a time,” and persisting single-mindedly until we “get things done.” But this approach has a subtle consequence we may not be aware of.
The consequence is that we tend to see our actions only in terms of the results they produce. Why? Because if we’re going to be efficient, then all that matters is how quickly or effectively we produce the results. The action is not an end in itself, it is merely a means to an end. Therefore, the exact “thing” that we do becomes very important. So we spend a lot of time defining exactly what we do, calculating what we expect the results to be, measuring when our activities start and stop, identifying the dependencies between them, and building project plans that get us to “project completion” as quickly as possible.
At this point you might say “Hey, not everything I do is a component of some project plan. And, even if it is, what’s wrong with that?” To which the answers are, yes, I know—and, even if it is part of a plan, there is nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s a very practical approach to “getting things done” in the world we live in. Practical results tend to be visible. We can see them, measure them, and judge them. But what if there’s more to life than what meets the eye? The next lines in Chapter 48 are “True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.” What is Lao Tzu getting at?
To practice the Tao is to be aware and accept what “is” and to dwell in harmony with it. Oddly enough, this doesn’t call for us to do any “thing.” At the end of the day, “things” don’t really need us to help them “go their own way.” They can get there just fine without us. Not to be unkind, but our attempts to help them along are most likely done with fulfilling the desires we have in mind and thus amount to “interfering.”
I think we dwell in harmony with the Tao the moment we realize there is no “thing” that we need to do. Everything is perfect just the way it is. But does this mean that what we do doesn’t matter? That we can’t make a difference? That we now do nothing? (This is what my lazy self was hoping for.) The answer to all three questions is no, absolutely not.
Dwelling is not a passive process; it is an active one. I think it helps to think of the universe as music all around us. Our job is to discover our song and sing it in harmony. Singing is not doing nothing. Nor is it interfering. It is singing. Being part of the Tao is about being. It is not about doing things. “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” Being, not doing—this is “true mastery.” I think this is what Lao Tzu is getting at.
An example that’s true for me is when I get lost in the details of the “things” I am doing. When I do this, I can easily become blind to the reality of what is happening around me. What if I’m not actually producing the result I want? Or maybe there's now a much better way to achieve the result, and I’m simply too blind to see it. Or maybe the desired result has become no longer relevant, and I’m too buried in the details of what I’m doing to even see that. I think the root of all this potential trouble lies in our focus on results and being driven by our desires.
What if we were not driven by desire? In fact, what if we were not “driven.” What if life were a flow and our part were to respond and contribute to the flow by simply being the unique person we happen to be, contributing the unique talents we happen to have? What if the music is already there, as I suggested earlier, and our part is simply to listen and sing in harmony with it? If we did that, I think we’d be more likely to get to the end of our days and discover that nothing had been “left undone.”
What’s an example that’s true for you where perhaps you are too focused on “doing things”? There is certainly a place and time for doing things; it’s just not everywhere and all of the time. In your experience, how can you tell when it’s not that place and time? If you’ve found any good ways to do this, please share them with the rest of us. Note that Lao Tzu never says any of this is easy. I think he just suggests it is all much simpler than we think.
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, you can get in touch with me by:
replying to this e-mail
reaching me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FrancisPringMillAuthor
using the Contact page on my website www.inharmonywiththetao.com
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