Taoism and Non-Doing

In Nature there are no mistakes.

Explaining Taoism is tricky. The problem is, the more you try to explain it, the more you get away from it. I think it was Einstein who said that if you cannot explain something simply, it means you don't understand it (which is a very Taoist statement!) and 'the Tao' cannot fully be understood using ordinary thinking. So we're kind of in a fix.

Instead I would suggest reading a version/translation of the Tao classic, the Tao Te Ching, and deciding for yourself. It can be read in an afternoon (and I'm a slow reader) and returned to whenever you have a moment. Indeed, 'the movement of the Tao is returning', and the time is always the moment.

The text is not a criticism of anything, nor a set of instructions, or a method, or a holy book of moral lessons. In fact, much like seminal TV sitcom Seinfeld (the 'show about nothing'), it sticks to the 'no learning' rule. After all, it doesn't need to teach you what you already know: 

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired

In the practice of Tao, every day something is dropped (ch 48)

Instead, perhaps you could see the Tao Te Ching as an invitation to return to your 'original' self; before self-consciousness set in, before the ideas formed in your head about who you think you should be.    

Of course to a reserved Englishman such as myself the Tao Te Ching was full of dangerous nonsense, and I must confess that upon reading it for the first time I had to take a cold shower. It was too late however, all kinds of topsy turvy ideas were now in my mind. Take effort for example. I had learned that if you wanted anything worthwhile in life, you had to strive for it and that happiness only comes after struggle. Yet now I was being told that the 'Master' stands aside, lets things take care of themselves, gets things done by not doing and achieves by not striving, and that if you are going to do anything then 'do what makes you happy'.

Now, some might see this as an excuse for laziness (to which I might say that our relentless activity does not exactly seem to be making the world a better place), but there is also a subtler message here. This is that the 'struggle' itself can be the source of happiness. If we make our happiness conditional on some future milestone we're setting ourselves up for failure, whereas in the Tao we find a process itself that we fall in love with instead of a goal. It is when enter that mysterious zone known as 'flow' - that elusive feeling of 'non-doing within the doing', of the activity somehow doing itself - that new things seem to emerge. For example, how often has some important thing happened to you - a job, a relationship, whatever - when you were no longer 'looking' for it? 

Less and less do you need to force things,

until finally you arrive at non-action.

When nothing is done,

nothing is left undone   


The Tao Te Ching was supposedly written by a sage called Lao Tzu, believed to be a civil servant who, upon leaving his job to go wandering in ancient China, was begged by a border guard to write down some of his wisdom. However 'Lao Tzu' may have been a name given to mean several authors: it roughly translates as 'Great Master'. Taoism emerged from the 'natural philosophy' of southern China and is sometimes contrasted to the more moral-driven teachings of Confusianism in the north. An example of the natural philosophy would be the concept of li, the natural patterns that we see in nature. These patterns emerge from 'within to without', as in the manner in which snow flakes, rock strata or leaves grow. Here we see spontaneous, organic activity that takes shape in its own time and always produces something completely unique, and in which - interestingly - there are no 'mistakes'.

When I started trying to live a bit more taoistically my life didn't become miraculously easier, and I was certainly not on the path to 'success', but there was something liberating in no longer trying so hard to be someone. So often we think we're on the way to getting somewhere but just not there yet, or that we're missing out, or we've missed out. Consequently, our activity originates from this 'outside', forever pulling us off-centre. In Taoism your centre can never be anywhere other than where - or what - you are. Any meaningful or true activity therefore can only start from this centre of things, the Tao, everywhere and nowhere.


The practice of Tao is not forcing things. Look at how much force we use in our days: Alarm clocks force us awake. We force ourselves out of bed, then force ourselves onto trains or buses while around us traffic tries to somehow force itself through itself. Headlines and adverts force their way into our attention. Other people want us to do things we don't want to. Agendas - political, economic, social - force themselves into the most intimate recesses of our lives, often under the guise of 'morality'. Taoism is about not forcing things and letting go, including letting go of our own agendas, and then seeing what happens; in the words of the Tao Te Ching to 'yield and overcome'.

What about other people? People can be difficult. Every so often somebody has it in for you. It could be someone at work or college - more or less a stranger - but often it is someone you know well, even a family member or partner. This can be hard to handle. Maybe their moods are unpredictable, at once friendly, now hostile, maybe they accuse you of being a certain way, or project traits onto you which seem obviously to belong to them. It is overwhelmingly difficult not to react in some way to this; to either justify ourselves, offer a confused apology, walk away, tiptoe around them, become angry ourselves and so on. Even when alone, often we are still reacting. In the Tao we drop it all. We step aside. We don't have to push back, we don't have to fix anything, we don't have to justify.

What can children teach us about the Tao? One master marveled at how the child is completely at one with their environment, moving with it, playing with it, dependent on it, no separation between outside or inside. Their creativity is spontaneous, their energy seemingly limitless. They don't hide their needs or impulses. If hurt or frightened, they let it out. They like to make friends, to be liked, to get attention. They move from one thing to the other without holding on. Compare this to adulthood! 

Of course we all have to grow up, become self-conscious and independent, and we need to learn some rules. A few of those rules make sense, but others don't and if we're unlucky we'll internalize those rules. At some point a hand is held out with only enough sweets for one person, and through this mechanism - repeated throughout our lives in various forms - we learn to compete and to compare ourselves to others. We learn to become attached to things and to do things for the sake of something else. Our bodies become separate, our happiness conditional, our activity restricted. We lose touch with the Tao.

So, how to reconnect? Part of the problem is that as we 'grow up' we learn that life is difficult. Yet, none of our subsequent efforts seem to be towards making it less difficult - only in sustaining the effort required. In other words it is a lesson we reinforce with continual practice. So perhaps to reconnect with the Tao we have to take the opposite lesson, and reinforce that with continual practice instead. Yet, 'go with the flow' never seems to work for me. There has been so much conditioning. So perhaps we can start by overcoming some of that conditioning. Working hard at making things less hard work. Something along the lines of 'train hard, win easy' maybe?  

On a final note, before you check out or re-read the Tao Te Ching for yourself, we can think about water. The practice of Tao is often compared to being like water, of being without resistance yet able to flow past or through any obstacle. Water has the ability to fill any container, take any shape, and also hold whatever is dropped in it. On the surface there are usually waves yet the depths are always quiet, and no matter how violent the disturbance, it always returns to its form, finding 'true level'.

HJ, 2018