Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

The Non-Action Hotline

In my No Way Café contemplation group, we were joking about my “addiction” to acquiring even more translations and interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. This could prove to be a costly and cumbersome habit since the Tao Te Ching has been translated more than any other book in history except the Bible. How many do I need?

When billionaire John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money was enough, he answered, “Just a little more.” I can relate.

Someone joked that I should call the “non-action hotline,” referring to one of the basic principles of the Tao Te Ching. Another person picked up on the joke and added that when you call, all you hear is white noise. So funny.

But it got me to thinking more about this concept on non-action or wu wei, undoubtedly one of the more challenging concepts to understand and put into practice. We are a culture of overt doing – making our to do lists and checking off the items with smug satisfaction, or wilting in the face of all the things left undone. We set goals and make New Year resolutions, and measure our success or failure accordingly.

Many see our current national and global situation as a call to action. A woman I barely know came up to me before tai chi class and asked me what I was doing to address something that was recently in the news. When I agreed that the situation was tragic, she raised her voice and challenged me. “No, I mean what are you DOING?”

Understanding that no answer I could give her would be satisfactory, I just said quietly, “Probably not enough.”

A more accurate answer might have been, I’m doing what I am called to do. Or even better, I’m allowing what wants to manifest through me to manifest. Non-action doesn’t mean passivity or apathy. On the contrary, it is a dynamic and powerful principle. It means being in alignment with the natural energy of the universe such that necessary action happens, and unnecessary action doesn’t. That can look different for different people. It can look different for the same person at different times. But it all starts with internal harmony that then manifests outwardly in various forms.

In martial arts, we practice finding our internal alignment. All movement comes from this. All power comes from this. When I am aligned, I can feel the energy moving freely. I can sense in my body the truth of this teaching. It’s wonderful.

The Tao Te Ching assures us that when this principle of non-action is internalized and practiced, “nothing is left undone.” This is the paradox of wu wei. If nothing is done, how is nothing left undone? All I can say is that when I “surrender as general manager of the universe,” as the saying goes, I can experience the creative and dynamic power of the universe at work. Whatever I “accomplish” is then not anything that I have done, but it has happened through me. In that sense, nothing is done (by me) yet nothing is left undone (by the universe).

Maybe I don’t need any more translations of the Tao Te Ching … at least today. I better call the hotline.

13 thoughts on “The Non-Action Hotline”

  1. Surrender is often underrated, but there's a time to act and a time to stand still. This post reminds me of a Bible verse that says when you've done all that you know to do, simply stand. Thank you for sharing this with us, Galen.

  2. Starting with internal harmony, then manifesting itself into outward an various forms. Wow, Galen! We can only speak and act when our hearts and minds are in alignment with our Creator. The answer is almost never to DO something, but to BE something – a being in which meaning and love of that which is beyond ourselves is realized. Only then will we make the correct, or nearly correct, decisions.
    Blessings, my friend!

  3. As Adyashanti says, surrender is the name of the spiritual game. So true, Pam. I like your reference to that verse. I'm going to look it up. Reminds me of a meditation quip — "Don't just do something. Sit there!"

  4. I agree, Martha. The Tao Te Ching teaching that when we do nothing, nothing is left undone, is so much like the teaching that when we surrender ourselves completely to God, the Holy Spirit is free to move through us and manifest God's divine love.

  5. After reading this, I have an image now of someone standing still in the centre of a whirlpool of people running around doing, doing, doing and reacting to every development…. The person in the middle is inner aligned and knows at this moment there is no point acting or reacting becasue it won't necessarily accomplish anything. That person knows that things have to be left to play out in a natural way before they know how to act or what to implement. So they have a kind of detached perspective through which they remain open to those natural forces and they'll be ready to aid them when the time is right. It takes self discipline not to join in the 'affray' but it's the right place to be in so many respects. This is what I plan to remind myself of on a regular basis when others try to push for action out of panic or worry – namely family dynamics!Cheers, Galen for another highly useful post!

  6. Perfect description, Lynne. But practicing in the context of family dynamics…well…. Someone said "If you think you're enlightened, just go spend the holidays with your family." The crucible of practice for sure! When I asked my martial arts teacher for some tips on sparring technique, he said, "Remember to breathe." Ha!

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I am always wondering whether it's more helpful to stand back and look at a problem, or dive in and try to fix it. It's obvious to me that when people act without correct motivation, it makes things worse. And I laughed to learn that you are always trying to find yet another translation of the I Ching! 🙂

  8. I agree, DJan, that motivation can make a difference. If I'm marching for peace, for example, am I marching with peace in my heart, or with anger at the "other side"? One is an act of division and strife; the other is an act of compassion and hope.

  9. '…when I “surrender as general manager of the universe,” as the saying goes, I can experience the creative and dynamic power of the universe at work. Whatever I “accomplish” is then not anything that I have done, but it has happened through me. In that sense, nothing is done (by me) yet nothing is left undone (by the universe).

    You explained non-action very well here, Galen. Often I do things without preplanning . Gardening comes to mind, all gets done but mostly with non effort. When working in the flow of the universe it seems we can do, without putting effort and willpower into it. It happens like you say it does, 'it has happened through me, not by me. There is a different identity at work. The ego identity is relaxed long enough for the consciousness identity to work through our biological bodies. The little mind becomes servant to the big mind. This big mind is also what christian contemplative authors call the mind of the cosmic Christ.

  10. The concept of non-action and the idea of effortlessness is so difficult for folks in our Western culture to understand, much less embrace. Great example of gardening. When I used to spar in kung fu, I could tell how I was doing by how out of breath I was. When I was gasping for air, I knew that I was using too much effort. When I slowed down and breathed deeply, and allowed the action to happen, I could spar for a long time without getting tired. Thanks for commenting, Brian.

  11. As always, I find a parallel with my own beliefs. Your Universe, I see as actually our Heavenly Father working with us and through us, His plan. I believe that all truth comes from God. In the beginning and now all truth is here to be found. Different beliefs have parts of those truths.
    Blessings and hugs for a great read today!

  12. Thanks, LeAnn, and sorry for the delay in responding. I've been in bed with a stomach bug so not on my computer. But doing much better. Yes, I think you and I sometimes use different vocabulary to describe the same essential truth of God and the Universe.

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