Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Don't Just Do Something, Sit There

James--a One Cosmos Prayer Partner whose love offering has been received and whose book is on the way--is intrigued by Taoism. Although he does his best to put Taoist principles into practice, he is having difficulty understanding the idea of non-action. He is powerfully drawn to the idea despite the difficulty, and has asked if I or Petey have any thoughts on matter.

I have tremendous affection for Taoism, which is full of profound and universal wisdom that is easily compatible with Judaism, Christianity, or any other spiritual path. As a matter of fact, when I began my off-road spiritual adventure, it was initially as a Taoist, or perhaps a Zen-Taoist hybrid. This is because out of all the religions, these two are perhaps the most free of what most modern people would regard as “superstition” or “magic.” There is nothing in them that offends the rational intellect. The ego, yes--the intellect, no.

However, ultimately I could only get so far with Taoism, because it lacks a potent source of grace. In other words, it’s a “do it yourself” (or Tao it yourself) religion. In my case, my practice took a quantum leap forward once I obtained some nonlocal assistance. However, that by no means negates the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching. Again, its insights can apply to most any spiritual (or even non-spiritual) practice.

First of all, for those of you who are out of the loop, wu wei is one of the central concepts of Taoism. Although literally translated as “non-doing” or “non action,” it is probably more accurately thought of as “not forcing.” The apocryphal writer of the Tao Te Ching, Lau-tzu, gained his insights by simply observing the way nature worked. Nature doesn’t “do” anything, and yet it gets everything done in a most efficient way. Non-action means living in accord with the way things are, for example, in the way that water naturally overcomes whatever is in its way and flows toward its destination. It doesn’t mean that you don’t cut the wood, but that you cut it along the grain--you don’t force things. Think of a blind man who moves in his environment by learning how to avoid obstacles.

Non-doing means not acting in the way you would like things to be, but in terms of the way they are. In other words, it means acting in accord with objective truth, with the natural order of things, not with mere opinion. It means living in alignment with with pre-existent reason--with the logos.

Non-doing is sometimes seen as passivity, but it is not that at all. For example, great athletes are in a state of non-doing, while mediocre athletes attempt to force things--they don’t allow the game to “come to them.” Great athletes don’t consciously deliberate about the many options available to them. There’s a saying in baseball, “don’t think. You hurt the ballclub.”

Similarly, great jazz musicians enter a state of non-doing during collective improvisation. There is no way they could respond as quickly as they must if their minds were thinking about all the possible directions they could take their solo. If the mind gets involved, it’s already too late--the moment is gone. By yielding to the moment, a sort of transcendent beauty, or pre-existing pattern becomes immanent and is revealed in the music. It cannot be imposed, only discovered.

The great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett might be the most articulate practitioner of musical non-doing. He writes that a jazz musician "goes onto the stage hoping to have an encounter with music. He knows that the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness.... It is a discrimination against mechanical pattern, against habit, for surprise, against easy virtuosity, for saying more with less, against facile emotion, for a certain quality of energy, against stasis, for flow..." It is "like an attempt, over and over, to reveal the heart of things."

Interestingly, this was the approach to psychotherapy recommended by one of my mentors, the psychoanalyst W.R. Bion. His advice to the practicing therapist was to “suspend memory, desire and understanding” before each session. In other words, the idea is not to force things, but to allow them to develop of their own accord. Premature understanding of the patient is often a defense against depth, against the fear of not knowing, against the emotional turmoil that must be tolerated and allowed to evolve and coalesce. Each session with the patient is a step into the formless, infinite void that must be approched with faith. Out of that faith, understanding will emerge, but it cannot be forced.

The principles of the Tao are very much at odds with contemporary left-liberalism, which forever tries to impose order and outcomes, as opposed to classical liberalism, which trusts that the chaos of liberty spontaneously leads to a higher and much more robust order. For example, the Tao states, “I let go of economics, and people become prosperous.” “When taxes are too high, people go hungry.” “When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.” “If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.” “Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery.” “Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.” Leftists hate the idea that there is infinitely more embodied wisdom in a free market than in the shrewd sophistry of Paul Krugman, and that most societal problems will solve themselves if you allow them to. Indeed, many of our most troubling contemporary problems are a result of some meddling liberal "solution" that was put in place 30, 40, or 50 years ago.

In many respects, President Bush governs in a Taoist way. For example, the Tao is deeply skeptical of intellectuals and abstract concepts: “The more you know, the less you understand.” “He who tries to shine dims his own light.” “The master doesn’t talk, he acts.” “True words aren’t eloquent; eloquent words aren’t true.” What could be more heretical to the silver-tongued devils at the New York Times? This is one of the main reasons they despise him, because his natural simplicity is a rebuke to their unnatural, convoluted, and "nuanced" complexity.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Taoism is that language can introduce all sorts of redundancies into existence. We do not “have” an experience. We are experience. Experience is an encounter between a knower and known, but in reality, knower and known are simply two sides of the same coin: there is no knower without a known, and no knowledge without a knower. External and internal reality are bound together by a mysterious process that we do not understand, and to which we add nothing by escaping into some symbolic representation of it. You do not live your life. Rather, life is lived through you. Thoughts arise. You don’t think them. But you can learn to let them go.

Jesus, at least in terms of his practical wisdom, was clearly of a Taoist bent: “Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to your stature?” “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” When he says “seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he is saying something analogous to living and being rooted in the Tao.

Oh, and what does Petey think? He agrees with Lao-tzu that if you try to be a Taoist, you're wasting your time:

My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.*

*All exerpts from the Tao Te Ching are taken from the excellent Stephen Mitchell translation.


dilys said...

I came across a Roman Catholic(tm) essay, The Prayer of Lady Macbeth*, in which the writer negatively describes a certain utilitarian philosophy -- consequentialism -- as trying to "effect" rather than "serve" the Good. This has proved a useful distinction for me, in art as well as in ethics and pragmatic questions. That is, initially kick back, soften the vision, see what's already in motion toward coming to birth; then lean one's weight toward the flow, often quite actively.

"Not-doing" regarded that way is said to feel like not making decisions until it is time to make them, also not thinking one knows the future. I imagine the prerequisite is a quiet and confident mind, which is related to the preparatory discipline of, well, almost every tradition.


dilys said...

BTW, some 411 for anyone who's interested, since Gagdad mentions him: Stephen Mitchell is more than a superb translator of the Tao Te Ching. He is married to an on-the-ground teacher and living master of wu-wei, Byron Katie, who originated a most original inner Work.

OK, I'm done, sounding a little pushy here for the wu-wei subject...

Gang of One said...

Again, a thoughtful and encouraging post, Bob.
I once heard someone remark that if you think you are explaining Taoism, then you don't know Taoism.

I don't think you are explaining Taoism, but that you are speaking about a concept which Tao embodies/illustrates.

In my recent incarnation as a man fighting to become an adult without losing the creative child still alive in him, I often come across the same directive in our Jewish tefilah to be in harmony with God's Will. From my meditations, called hisbodidus I begin to understand what is meant by this.

God's Will is everywhere. It is what moves all Creation and it is what moves all humanity. Even with the mechanism of free will, our actions many times disturb the continuum, if you will, of God's Plan for the universe. It is taking great effort and much unlearning of old, invalid ways to do God's Will, e.g., not force things and thank Him for his actions and for what we percieve to be his inactions. The Master from Galillee knew from what He spoke when He told us to concentrate on doing God's Will. He knew it to be the Tao, the Way, toward peace and enlightenment, not to mention health, wealth and true happiness.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a practicing psychiatrist and Hasidic Jew, has written a superb volume explaining and giving clarity to the meanings of the liturgy of Jewish parayers or tefilah. In his book he goes into detail about the transcendent nature of some of the most movong psalms and praises that we Jews give to our Creator three times daily. So much of what you have been posting here is congruent to what this Rabbi speaks of.

Please, write some more.

Mike said...


I found this insight, which you related specifically to therapy, to be applicable to relationships in general:

"Premature often a defense against depth, against the fear of not knowing, against the emotional turmoil that must be tolerated and allowed to evolve and coalesce. Each a step into the formless, infinite void that must be approached with faith. Out of that faith, understanding will emerge, but it cannot be forced."


Assistant Village Idiot said...

CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity (I think), identified the Tao with an understanding of moral action which seems to be common to the wise in many traditions.

If you look closely, you will see that moral principles are quite consistent cross-culturally, but what order they go in varies greatly.

James said...

Thanks for the insight on Wu Wei. I'm trying to get over being a perfectionist, a liberal, a serious procrastinator, and a generally non-confident person. The liberal part has pretty much been taken care of thanks to the blogsphere. I like the idea of a quiet and confident mind. I'll work on that, then maybe Wu Wei will take care of itself.

Anonymous said...

Incline without necessitating is how I learned this principle in undergraduate philosophy. Subsequent, and recent studies have led me to understand that the systems of mental culture developed out of the Indian practice of Dhyana, including Zen and Taoism, in that they seemed to equivocate in the arena of morality, gave rise to the code of bushido and hence to the kamikaze practices of it's adherents. Prof. Kelly Ross in an article titled "Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao" lays out a cogent analysis in this regard. (on the WWW)

So, it is fine to subscribe to a system of mental culture that asserts that "the ultimate teaching is silent", but this silence allows for anything. In the Bhagavad Gita Krsna says if the warrior, Arjuna, "...kills them without passion or expectation, practicing karmayoga, he can achieve salvation even while he does this." Maybe so. But I am inclined to take "conscience" as a God aspect and morality as a practice for it's enhancement. We need, I think, to cultivate an enhanced version of wu wei.

John Hinds

Anonymous said...

Is anyone familiar with Patinkin v. City of Bloomington, Indiana (Civil Action No. 07-000482, S.D. Ind.)? I understand that outside counsel for the City of Bloomington, William J. Beggs, whom has ties to the KKK, has successfully manipulated the local court system to oust two prominent Jewish landowners from the town. Why don't stories like this get attention in the national media?