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.