Non – Action

Non-Action - an introduction

Wu-Wei is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Tao. Its glyphs are usually translated as inaction or non-action. Better interpretations would be non-intrusive action or non-wasted action. The point is to stay in sync with your environment so you don’t interfere with natural processes. Then, when conditions are right, you work with them and they work with you and for you, instead of against you. Life’s a whole lot easier when our actions are in harmony with our surroundings and you don’t have to contrive things.

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If you’re looking for a good restaurant dinner, you don’t arrive in the morning when only the clean-up crew is around. You wait until the kitchen and dining room are fully staffed and ready to serve you. Skilled jujitsu practitioners let their attackers commit to a course then, with minimal action and maximum skill, win the match by using their opponent’s strength against them. It’s all in the timing, in knowing when, where and how much action is appropriate for any situation. Years ago a flight instructor instilled in me the principle that a wise pilot uses their superior knowledge and skills to avoid needing to use their superior knowledge and skills. Read the winds of your life and you’ll be a better pilot, sailor or person.

Many of us have been to recitals and performances by beginners, who are mechanically correct in everything they do, but leave us cringing because they lack the flow of easy understanding, of being one with their subject. Their music, their dance, their sport, their whatever, is what they do, not who they are. Think of learning to ride a bike, play a piano, or juggle objects. In the beginning, we’re using our mind to learn. At a certain point we leave our mind behind and learn by feel, because the mind interferes with our flow of doing. We ride and perform our task instinctively, never using the conscious part of our brain. When we reach this point, we’re “going with the flow” or “in the zone” as we’ve heard many athletes and musicians describe how their best performances are characterized by a relaxed focus or single-mindedness on the task at hand. They’re not performing, they’ve become the performance. An environment’s non-essentials simply fall from their consciousness into the wallpaper. Is a joyous child splashing in a puddle thinking or simply being at one with their world?

Non-action doesn’t mean becoming a hermit and dropping out of society. Nor does it mean surrendering to structured rituals which may not be appropriate for a particular occasion.

Instead, it suggests that we recognize our situation and work with it. Most times we’ll find that it’s usually easier to use our energy to take steps that allow others to do their work. 

Why force something that’s not ready when, with much less effort, we can create conditions that allow nature to take its course. Plant a seed now. Later on its fruits will nourish you. [Or, from the plant’s perspective, it lets you plant and nurture it so that it can reproduce.]

Recognize that there’s a harmony in the universe. The stars shine, the planets move and the rest of creation can do very well without human intervention. Remember that we’re simply part of the universe, not its controller. When you enter this lifetime, please check your ego at the door.

 

 There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads to fortune.

Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries…

We must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Brutus
Julius Caesar
Act IV, Sc 3


Enjoy.

Learn.

Live what you learn. 

 

To make things simple for this public site, I’m using public domain translations for references.

John H. McDonald – a modern translator. In the spirit of Tao, he’s hidden any personal information from public view. Several other sites claim his work is in the public domain, so I’ll continue their practice. Mr. McDonald, thank you for your wonderful work. Please feel free to contact me if I’m wrong.

Lin Yutang – 20th Century Chinese/American scholar. From the age of 40 he lived primarily in the U.S., popularizing Chinese philosophy and customs. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1940 and 1950. 

Want to learn more about what Tao says about non-action? Simply click on one of these boxes, below. You’ll find contemporary reflections on Tao’s verses dealing with it. Feel free to read them with – or without – your favourite version of the Tao-Te-Ching. Remember, these are thought-starters, not solutions. Solutions to your issues can only come from you.

The Sage manages affairs without action.

(Verse 2, Yutang translation)

But if you’re devoted to non-action, how do you get things done?

That’s a fair question, but only if you’re grounded in the “action” part of life’s equation, where we feel the need to create, organize or do something. While this may satisfy our ego, it may or may not be appropriate for the bigger picture we all live in. When we look at life and the universe in their entirety this seeming contradiction assumes clarity. Simply put, non-action is just the other side of a coin. To be more respectful to the original meaning of the Chinese characters, we may want to begin thinking “spontaneous” and “contrived” instead of “non-action” and “action.” How can we define “action” if we don’t have something to compare it to? This contrast is essentially what we see in this verse’s comparisons: hard/easy, long/short, high/low and so on.

Rather than look at these examples as opposites, consider seeing them as end points on a continuum. When you listen to your inner Sage – or conscience if you prefer – you’ll act, but in a reasoned, efficient manner. Sometimes you’ll just act spontaneously, from your heart. In either case there’s no need to exhaust yourself creating conditions for success if you’re in a place where those conditions are already assembling themselves from other sources [or if you’re in another place, where they’ll never come together]. Wait until the time is right, then take action. You’ll achieve your goal with the most efficient energy use.

It’s said that the ancient Egyptians had two different verbs for procrastination. One carried much the same meaning that we use today, a negative description of laziness. The other was in the spirit of Tao: Use your intelligence to avoid unnecessary tasks. One of these practices is through another of Tao’s continuing themes, humility. If you don’t attach your ego or your name to a task, you’ll find that many more people will buy into it. You’ll achieve the same result with a lot less work. And if the end result isn’t what you anticipated? No need to worry. Since you never laid claim to it, you haven’t lost anything.

In Tao, non-action doesn’t mean no action. It means no wasted action.

Do what’s necessary. Don’t contrive things to keep busy or to make yourself look good. Oh, and don’t forget to check your ego at the door.

For those who practice non-doing, everything will fall into place.

(Verse 3, McDonald translation)

The good leader – of a nation, a business or a family – recognizes that it’s easier to create conditions to encourage people’s behaviour than it is to micro-manage their lives. Make it easy for people to do what’s best. When you restrict what people are able to see, have, or do, you’re creating temptation, that natural tendency nearly everyone shares: to want what we can’t have. Remember that the best of our underlings will be smart enough [and the worst will be ignorant enough] to find loopholes and exploit the rules and regulations to create those infamous unintended consequences.

It’s one thing to “teach your children”, but if you do this through formal classwork, structured job descriptions or legal requirements you’re creating an environment of opposites that in its own way encourages people to actively search outside the box you’d like to keep them in. As children, how many of us preferred the daydreams arising from the window-view of that wide world outside to the droning of our classroom’s teacher? Change the venue to a meeting room or a church today. Has our attitude changed? Or just our ability to split our awareness and maintain the appearance of attention?

With us or without us people will still want to go their own way. But if we can create an environment around ourselves that’s desirable, it will attract them. And if you create a really good environment, they’ll be attracted to it, not you. Remember, messages are sometimes listened to. Messengers get shot.

What do we need to do to become the goal – or the source – of people’s aspirations, rather than the trigger for their escapist daydreams?

It is because he does not contend that he is without reproach.

(Verse 8, Yutang translation)

Years ago I worked for a man who made a point of telling us to take “well days” as well as sick days. When those first beautiful days of spring arrive, when we need to take time to prepare for some special family occasion, or for any similar reason, he knew that our mental refreshment was more important to the quality of work we did than our physical presence in the workplace. His only requirement – a reasonable one – was that we not all desert the building on the same day. While this practice may not be appropriate for every person in every workplace, the attitude could be.

You may recall the story of Canute, king of England and most of Scandinavia a bit more than a thousand years ago.  Growing exhausted from his fawning aides’ obsequious praise, he went down to the ocean and commanded the waves to stop. We know the result. (At least with the waves. Hopefully he imbued his court with a dose of reality, as well.) So… rather than fighting the currents of life – or building your house on sand – learn to surf through life. And to avoid too much sun. Or you may want to emulate the ancient Egyptians, who used the Nile’s floods as the basis of their agriculture. Or you can always waste your life climbing uphill on that sand dune that’s quickly washed away in next season’s flood.

Or, you can take a look at life from this perspective –

Think for a moment – better yet, feel, for several moments, that energy we have after a truly restful sleep, opening our eyes to a beautiful day. Or of that quiet, unspoken peace radiating from a sleeping child, a comforting fireplace or a task well-done.

How can we replicate this peace throughout our lives?

Most likely not by planning and organizing – unless your planning and organizing is designed to create a conducive environment. Otherwise you’re treating yourself the same way the parent treats the child when they order them to, “Sit down, shut up and tell me everything you did today.”

Don’t put your life in a straightjacket when you can curl your toes in the sand.

Emptiness is what we use.

(Verse 11, McDonald translation)

How many times have you heard the motivational speaker-du jour expound on “potential”. It’s usually something that’s out there, not here with you. And how do you fulfill it? By following their steps, which usually requires investing more time and lots more money with them.

The Tao talks of potential, as well. It’s our core, the inner self that’s invisible to most others. Admire the next beautiful building you happen to see. Where does its potential lie? In that magnificent façade – or the functional design of its mechanicals and interior floorplan? What about that massive warehouse or truck depot out near the airport or railroad? Do those weathered walls and that patched roof impair its function as a storage and transit point? Does your favourite stained and scratched coffee mug perform any differently than a sparkling new one straight from the shop?

It’s fine to admire a structure, be it a tree’s shape, a canyon’s curves and layers, or any other object constructed by man or nature. But remember the maxim coined by architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function.” Whatever we create – in ourselves or for others – should be suitable for the function it will contain. We build to assist, not to obstruct. To contain for use, not to hoard.

Your action? Creating conditions – the structure that allows life to become.

Your non-action? It’s up to you.

How can you “let go” to give yourself to the emptiness, to the potential, within you?

Because he guards against being over-full, he is beyond wearing out.

(Verse 15, Yutang translation)

Feeling stuffed after that big meal? Have you ever loaded yourself or your vehicle with so much that it’s difficult to start moving and nearly impossible to maneuver? Then how can you take advantage of a wonderful opportunity that suddenly appears in your face?

But we can’t starve ourselves or waste cargo space. And the answer is not to simply repeat what you or someone else has done before – because it’s now, not then. Conditions have probably changed.

The answer, to nobody’s surprise, is balance. When we balance our lives – work and play, nourishment and exercise – we’re reflecting Tao’s complementarity. Just as we’re members of a society of humans and a civilization of planets, our body is a society of cells and organs. Each requires periods of action and non-action to be at their best.

So…use your brain – and your heart – to figure out what’s best for you. Then take a break. And don’t forget to give your mind a rest, too. And that’s when those little brain bubbles will start popping in, just like you see in cartoons. Most of our days fill our minds with a confusing collection of to-do lists, media input, daily responsibilities and everything else that assaults our peace and quiet. When we let all the clutter of today’s daily life and planning for futures that may or may not happen just settle to the bottom of our consciousness, we’ll find some clear space that may be open to occupation by thoughts, views and feelings we might not have considered before.

Who knows? You might like these new ideas. Or they may reinforce your earlier decisions. Either way, that rest period – full of non-action – works for you. Remember, all work and no play makes…

Using force always leads to unseen troubles.

(Verse 30, McDonald translation)

Remember those words we were taught to use when we were children?

“Please.”

And, “Thank you.”

Most of us have found that their regular use opens many doors for us. People are usually more inclined to be generous to polite people than to the pushy. And once those doors are open, our access to their contents may well be greater than that given to rude people who just push their way in. Some people might call this the law of karma – if you live by the sword you’ll die by it. Personally, I like the easier way. The return on our investment in kindness is far greater than any investment in force. It’s usually easier to disarm people by killing them with kindness than by killing them with weapons. It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a warlike military, an advertising-driven marketing plan or new tactics on a sporting field. Those using weapons need to keep using weapons because those they use them on will come back with more, most likely more powerful, ones.

And who benefits, besides the weapons-makers?

Because it does not seek greatness, it is able to accomplish truly great things.

(Verse 34, McDonald translation)

Look at Tao as the (hopefully) benevolent parents who birthed us. Children feel that they’re running free, rarely realizing the support and protection surrounding them. Or be like the mature river, gently carrying all as it flows to the sea. Be they fish, boats, people or branches, they’re all treated equally and all are carried to their destination. Even if they’re not aware of it, this same river nourishes the plants that feed the fish and people and provide wood for their boats.

Living in Tao doesn’t mean that we don’t interfere to help or protect someone, it means we ensure that conditions are favourable for them, so that we most likely won’t have to interfere. Others are oblivious to our presence and we’re free of their demands.

By stripping of desire quiescence is achieved.

(Verse 37, Yutang translation)

When you need nothing more than what you already have, do you still want more? Why?

Why not wait for that breeze to bring you refreshment, for time to bring you that holiday joy, for those you love to achieve their goals. There’s nothing you can do to make the clock’s hands or the globe turn faster, so relax.

When we want what we don’t have, or what we can’t have now [or ever], all we’re doing is churning up our stomach acid and wasting physical, emotional and mental energy that could be better spent appreciating what we already have, on who we already are.

Serenity – that feeling of satisfaction, pleasure and joy that come from just being. Whether it’s appreciating the joy of a happy child, the fullness of a finished meal or the crackling of a warming fireplace, it’s a time when we’re not analyzing the present, looking forward to our next task or backward to what we should or shouldn’t have done. Is it possible to maintain this feeling, this peace, this attitude, in every moment of every day?

And what do we call this desire for a state of non-desire?

The highest good is not to seek to do good,

But to allow yourself to become it.

(Verse 38, McDonald translation)

We’ve all seen – and usually admired – people with a natural talent for something, be it sports, business, or some other field. They don’t need to think about what they do because it just flows naturally from them. In the “best” cases their doing is their being, their oneness. The rest of us, with varying degrees of aptitude, skill and a lot of hard work, can sometimes approach the star’s level of expertise, but rarely their comfort with it.

And you may have heard the anecdote about the best way to destroy a tennis pro’s serve: it’s simply to ask him or her a question about its mechanics – do they breathe before or after they toss the ball, how many fingers and where do they place them on the ball, and so forth. You’re taking their natural flow, their being, and converting it to a mechanical process.  This is the reason why natural athletes are rarely good coaches. They’re unaware of the step-by-step process the rest of us need to approach a level of competency that’s still far below their level. Apply this same analogy to music, dance or any other field where the subject’s natural aptitude comes from their brain synapses connecting at a rate that’s far beyond what the rest of us can imagine. (Of course there are probably things we can do in the same manner that are baffling to them.)

When we’re “in the flow” we’re being, not acting. This spontaneity is the core of what Tao calls wu-wei. While it’s sometimes translated as non-action, its true meaning is non-fabrication – the avoidance of artificiality. It’s only those who haven’t yet developed their particular talent who need to act in a step-by-step manner.

And by the way…if you’re one of those experts, or on a learning path to become one, remember not to lord it over those who may not have your skills. There’s no reason to make others feel inferior, particularly because there are undoubtedly some things they do and know that will dwarf your skill and knowledge. Have you ever noticed that the most sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, better-than-you people are trying way too hard to overcome some sort of insecurity?

Be glad you’re learning, be glad you’re skilled. Share gracefully, without putting on airs.

 

Tao is hidden without a name.

(Verse 41, Yutang translation)

Sometimes we just don’t get it. No matter how hard – and how many different ways – someone tries to explain something to us, it’s just beyond our comprehension. And other times the shoe’s on the other foot, where we realize that we’re wasting our time on an issue that’s beyond another’s comprehension.

It could be a case of casting pearls before swine – or as it’s sometimes told: “Never try teaching a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” (Matthew 7:6 and Mark Twain, among others)

Or maybe you haven’t prepared your student properly. It’s hard teaching quantum physics to someone who hasn’t yet learned to add and subtract.

So what are we to do?

As with many other questions, the answer is, “It depends.” If another’s ignorance is not harming themselves or the greater good, why waste your energy and their time? If, on the other hand, you see a potential for harm [or greater good], appropriate action – followed by a lesson that doesn’t sound like a lesson – may be appropriate.

The Tao, among many paths, talks of problems that arise when ignorance reigns. Today we even have scientific studies to document the old axiom that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The more a person knows, the more they realize that there’s a lot they don’t know. Ignorant people don’t know what they don’t know and can assume they “know it all.” If you’d like to learn more about this phenomenon, research on the Dunning-Kruger Effect will probably answer most of your questions. Hopefully it won’t make you overly cynical.

Few in the world can comprehend the teaching without words or understand the value of non-action.

(Verse 43, McDonald translation)

Feel better now? Very few people are perfect. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. But trying is the way to imperfection, not perfection! Consider just being, not consciously teaching others, but living a life they may want to emulate, but only if their path happens to resemble ours. Showing them without showing off. Respecting, living with and benefiting from our environment.

Look at it this way: We all need water. But does water need us? So we welcome water by providing spaces for it to collect. When we allow this environment for water to “just be” we benefit from all that water is. Water naturally seeks its own level and in the long run there’s not a lot we can do about it. Sounds a lot like people, doesn’t it?

Non-action is another way of saying that we accept this principle – that people, nature and things will always return to their true nature, no matter what we say or do. Think of all the times rivers have flooded over our carefully engineered banks and levees. Of course there are times when we need to deal with symptoms – natural flooding and human temper tantrums – in the short term. But the Taoist recognizes their role in the natural scheme of things and adjusts accordingly: dealing with the short term and planting seeds for the long term. Many times we’ll find that haste really does make waste. Don’t rush in to solve today’s problem. It may evaporate on its own before this time next week.

Tired of all the water imagery in Tao? Then consider electricity. It doesn’t do anything. But its presence allows light bulbs and other appliances to operate. The light bulb is a tool that allows electricity to help us. Without power it’s an inert object. But just as water can flood those in the lowlands, lightning can strike those standing up on hilltops. Teach by being, not by standing out.

Why do people work so hard to stop what’s naturally going to happen anyway, when it might be easier to live with it and enjoy it? Living with nature is a lot easier than imposing ourselves on it.

 

The Master understands without leaving, sees clearly without looking, accomplishes much without doing anything.

(Verse 47, McDonald translation)

The child focuses on their toy and the moment – while the parent sees their past and future. The salesman works to convince a customer to buy an item, while his marketing director knows how this item fits not only into the customer’s business and his own manufacturing process, but how the world is changing and what will replace this item. The homemaker looks beyond the meal they’re serving, knowing what will be available for future meals.

These are holistic views, looking at the bigger picture while not ignoring what’s in front of us. You may want to contrast this approach with the western scientific approach, which breaks everything down to its components – the expert being one who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing. Others will contrast it with task-driven business and political environments, with “management by objective.” There’s nothing wrong with any of these, as long as we also maintain a focus on the bigger picture. Without this perspective, it’s easy to become the king who killed the goose laying golden eggs.

One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.

(Verse 48, McDonald translation)

You may recognize a more recent version of this aphorism, told in Luke 18:22, where Jesus told the rich man, “Sell all you have and give to the poor…come, follow me.”

The first part of this admonition might be somewhat difficult for those tied to all their things, but it makes sense in the long run. (Remember, you can’t take it with you.) Do you really want to be like the medieval nobility who donated their castles and vineyards to the monasteries just to guarantee themselves better treatment in the afterlife? Or the ones who contributed to cathedral-building in exchange for their highly visible personal chapel nearest the altar and their face as the face of an archangel or saint in portraits of heaven?

If we’re looking for return-on-investment in charity, is it really charity? Act from your heart, not your ego. Believe it or not, what others think of you really isn’t that important.

Maybe a change of perspective might be helpful. We’re part of the planet, in whatever sub-order you care to identify with – family, tribe, genus, species, whatever lifeform works for you. The important thing is to be a team player. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’re probably aware that most teams keep statistics on assists, because they lead to point-scoring. Office environments have essential staff that allow the names on the door to do what they do best. Without these unsung heroes the big-name heroes wouldn’t be half as effective at what they do. When we recognize our own strengths and weaknesses and work with Mother Nature as a participant, not an overlord, we all win.

Leave space in your life for things that last – if it’s something you didn’t have before, it’s probably something you can live without.

Oh, and one more thing, don’t forget to accept people for who they are, not what they have.

Win the world by doing nothing.

(Verse 57, Yutang translation)

Nobody has your vision. And none of us really knows what’s going on in the minds of others. One person’s tool can easily become another’s weapon. The Wright Brothers invented a flying machine. The military made it into fighters and bombers. Social media pioneers created ways for people to communicate, to see their businesses subverted by propagandists. If you recall the lesson of Jurassic Park, just because we can do something, should we?

Is the world we live in a Pandora’s Box – or a holiday present from a favourite relative? Accept that there will be well-meaning people who accidently do wrong. And that some of the ill-intentioned will accidently do good.

What’s your role in life? Does everyone else have to do things your way? Perhaps they know more about their specialties than you do? And even if they’re ignorant of the way you think things should be done, consider the case of George Boole, the 19th Century mathematician who invented Boolean algebra, the basis for much of today’s computer technology. He never had formal mathematical training and was ignorant of his era’s mathematical conventions. So without these blinders he proceeded to solve problems in what he saw as the best manner, creating a new and better way of doing things.

Ignorance can create that fresh set of eyeballs that so many of us need when we’re in the middle of something, whether it’s proofreading or working on something that you’ve been doing the same way forever from inertia, ignoring the fact that the environment has changed and your project may have become off-target at best and obsolete at worst.

Just because your predecessors did something one way doesn’t mean you have to. Hopefully they did what was appropriate for their times. Hopefully, you’ll do what’s appropriate for your times.

The Sage…bright but not dazzling

(Verse 58, Yutang translation)

Verse 58 is simply an extension of the previous one. How many times have you heard the phrases “hidden blessings” and “unintended consequences”? Whether you’re a family, a business or a government, if you plan every detail you’re depriving people of opportunities to grow and use their creativity. Then when the surprise occurs, as it always will, your people are unprepared to deal with it and you’re worse off than before.

Consider that it’ll probably be easier for you – and more satisfying for those relying on you – if you’re a guiding light instead of a tour guide. Let people approach your being at their own pace, not yours. And you know something? Their path may not be your path, but your light will illumine their way, anyway.

Act by not acting

(Verse 63, McDonald translation)

Through the years most of us have encountered people who’ll promise anything to make you feel good in the moment, but never follow through. Used car salesmen and quite a few home improvement contractors come to mind. Like the little boy crying “wolf!” they eventually lose their credibility.

Then there are the people who build magnificent structures – buildings, businesses, ideas – without placing them on firm foundations. No matter how impressive the structure, it’s bound to fail. Think of that bell tower in Pisa, Italy. Do your really think its designers planned on it becoming the type of landmark tourist attraction that it is today?

On the other hand, remember that there are still Roman roads and aqueducts in use today, thousands of years after their construction. Roman engineers knew what they were doing. They were among the people who recognize the need to assemble their tools, prepare the ground, and lay foundations ahead of time. They’ll do the “little work” early, so that the “big work” is easier to do later. Once that’s done, nature or other tradespeople can do the rest of the work in confidence.

Do we listen to words or watch actions and results? Are you one of those people who under-promises and over-delivers – or who just makes empty promises because you think it’s what your audience wants to hear? Never forget to keep that big picture in mind. It’s there to guide your brush strokes (or pixel placement).

Prevent problems before they arise.

(Verse 64, McDonald translation)

Verse 64 is simply an extension of the previous one. It also contains the famous “journey of 1,000 miles” line that so many of us pay lip service to. Most of us understand it in terms of taking that first step on a big project: recognizing that we can’t have a meal unless someone’s planted a seed, harvested the plant and cooked the food. Another way to look at it is to be aware of our surroundings and their potential. That journey of a 1,000 miles might also be the best one to undertake if the emperor’s troops are on their way to collect you. (You may be familiar with a bible story about King Herod’s men searching for a family with a newborn infant…)

While it’s good to save, it’s better to invest. If you store all your seeds for some time in the future, all you’ll really do is feed some mice. If you cut away too much of a plant or over-cook it, there’s nothing left to eat. You’ll find another version of this story in Matthew 25:14-30

Use judgement, create balance, look to the future. If you nurture a project while it’s young and defenseless, it will grow to where it doesn’t need you – and maybe even pay you back.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know you’ve arrived?

To be foremost among the people one must walk behind them

(Verse 66, Yutang translation)

The mark of the successful politician, salesman or teacher is to convince their audience that they’ve been there too. If people feel that you’ve achieved your success after coming from their background you’ll have a lot more credibility because you’ll be someone they have confidence in. Or, to recall comedian George Burns: “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Ideally you can achieve this through true humility, where people can see who you are and how you got there without your having to wave it in their face. If they can accept you in this manner, you’ve succeeded. If they see what appears to be your “success” as something they’d like as opposed to something they already have through you, you’re creating desire and possible jealousy.

The solution? Remember you’ve got two ears, two eyes and one mouth. Try to use them in that proportion. Be humble and respectful, giving people reasons and examples on how to emulate you without replacing you. If you’re part of their tribe or family, their strength is yours and your strength is theirs.

 

Knowing you don’t know is wholeness. Thinking you know is a disease.

(Verse 71, McDonald translation)

At this point most of us are looking at knowledge that comes from our human experience. To appreciate it from the Taoist experience, we’ll want to place ourselves in the environment that exists outside of our brains and bodies: the world and universe we inhabit. What works well indoors is many times useless outdoors. A scientist can tell you of all the similarities involved in moving through water and air. Common sense tells us to respect the differences. Water and air may be the same to the academic full of their own cleverness, but they’re different to people living in the real world, outside the classroom’s confines.

In other words, don’t let your ego – your supreme confidence in everything you do and have – get in the way of learning – and respecting who and what you don’t know.

When people have no fear of force…

(Verse 72, Yutang translation)

There once was a time when the term fear meant respect. Like many words in many languages it can convey two different meanings. In contemporary English it has become more identified with dread and terror. In biblical translations drawn from the Greek, the word phobos (which carries both meanings, with translation depending on context) came to us as today's fear. Whether you want to respect or be afraid of your creator is a theological discussion we’ll leave for another time and place.

In Tao’s context, where we want to live in harmony with our natural environment – which includes other people – terms like fear and awe are divisive. To get things done, it’s preferable to be a person people emulate and respect rather than one who fills them with terror. We all have strengths and weaknesses. If others have a talent for doing what we cannot, wonderful. Our job is simply to provide an environment for them to do what they do best – and hopefully they’ll learn enough from our behaviour to do their best for society and not for greed.

Your power doesn’t lie in strength, but in not needing to use your strength.

True words do not sound beautiful. Beautiful sounding words are not true.

(Verse 81, McDonald translation)

In today’s society we find that many of the Tao’s verses need interpretation, rather than translation. Hopefully my responses to Tao’s truths have helped you on your journey. If you’ve agreed with me, wonderful. If your disagreement has led you to new insights about yourself, wonderful. We all have our own path – our own Tao – and you’ll want to be sure you’re on your own course, not mine or anyone else’s.

Now it’s time to find your own translation of the Tao te Ching. Read the last verse. Think of examples you’ve encountered in your life.

What’s your path looking like now?