Nature & Spirituality, Sickness & Health

How to Do Nothing

Tao Te Ching Chapter 3 Stephen Mitchell

I first learned the term wu wei studying philosophy and religion in college. Taoism—from whence the term comes—held immediate fascination for me.  The idea of not forcing anything in life held such an elegant sense, I could feel it down to my tiniest cells.  But that didn’t make it any easier to practice.

A few years later, I explained to my therapist my understanding of the principle of wu wei.  That it meant “do nothing”, but not really “do nothing”, just “do nothing” in the sense of, you know, not trying to make things happen in a certain way and stuff like that.  She demurred quite forcefully.  “No, wu wei, means, literally, do nothing!”  I didn’t really buy what she was selling.  Clearly, one can’t sit around “doing nothing” all the time and call it a responsible way of life.  One needs to grasp the bull by the horns, pull oneself up by the bootstraps, win one for the Gipper, and follow any number of other effort-filled adages that lead to a successful, fulfilled life.

The only problem?  I’ve tried that.  Many, many times.  And, yeah, if at first you don’t succeed, and all that, but there’s also the one about the definition of insanity being trying the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.

There is also this quote from the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork . . . The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

The problem with the wisdom of mystics like Merton and Lao Tzu (the purported author of the Taoist text Tao te Ching) is that it is almost diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom.  If you have a problem or, for some reason, don’t like your life, conventional wisdom states that you should figure out how to solve the problem, discover how to make yourself happy.  You do this by making lists, by talking it over with other people.  You make plans and plot charts, set goals and establish rewards.  It’s all quite simple, you just have to make a decision and move forward.

A mystic, on the other hand, will tell you to stop.  Right now.  No, really.  Just put your hands down, take a deep breath, and be exactly where you are.  Don’t think about where you want to go.  Don’t think about how you’re going to get there.  Let that information rise to the surface in its own time.  And the really annoying thing about this is that it feels like it’s TOTALLY the wrong thing to do.  Your mind is reeling in free fall.  “What do you mean I shouldn’t think about where I’m going?  How will I get there if I don’t?  ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t want to stay here!”  But that’s exactly where you need to stay: right here.  Wu wei.  Do nothing.

Darn mystics.

Note: The picture at the top of this post is a scan from my pocket copy of Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of Tao Te Ching.  I highly recommend it.


Nature & Spirituality

“You are not here for yourself alone . . .”

    “You are not here for yourself alone, but for the sake of all sentient beings.  Keep your mind pure and warm.” – Soen Nakagawa

    As I write this, I appear to be mostly here for the sentient being known, to me, as Luna LoveGood (thank you, J.K. Rowling), that is,  the little, gray cat, who is, even now, loving me up with every inch of her body and her intention!  She is a remarkable individual—having survived being abandoned when her previous owners moved away without her and her three feline companions, and also having withstood ten months in the SPCA.  I wonder how many  people she made love to before she found a ripe heart in my mother.  Or did she simply sit back and wait for us?  Whichever the case, the resilience displayed by her and her sister Golda TrembleTail is inspiring to me.  For all they knew, their former “owners” were what all humans are like.  And what about all the people who passed by their cage, month after month, not giving them a second look because they were too scrappy-looking and not cute, cuddly kittens.  How did they have the guts to trust us—even a little bit? 

    They’ve taught me a lot about acceptance too.  I tend to have a lot of difficulty with that particular precept that seems to be a major aspect of most modes of thought and spirituality.  I read a chapter from my copy of the Tao Te Ching every day and, usually, there is some mention of this frustrating edict: Accept.  Accept.  Accept.  Acceptance is the path to freedom, happiness, and blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah.  Believe me, I do actually have some semblance of an idea of what Lao-Tzu and so many of our learned forebears are getting at (or at least I think I do).  Only, some days, I don’t feel much like accepting.  Some days it’s just too much to ask.  And then I look at these remarkable cats that I am lucky enough to call members of my family, and I realize that they are acceptance experts.  They had no reason to believe that things would ever change for them when they were in that cage at the shelter.  And they had no recourse.  They had to accept what was their reality at that time, and they did.  It’s not that they were happy about being there, but they let it be, because that was what was. 

    And then they got to come live with us.  Yes, I realize that it’s an assumption to believe that they are more contented in our home, but given the little, love bath Luna gave me earlier (she’s now sleeping in the window), I’m guessing it’s not much of a stretch.  I also recognize that their acceptance of their situation did not necessarily cause the positive change in their lives (although, really, what do I know abort the true nature of the universe), but it’s heartening to have proof that sometimes waiting patiently, and then softly meowing at the nice lady with the bright yellow bag, is enough.  It reminds me again of one of my very favorite quotes, from the movie Uncorked written by John Huddles:

    “Life is a long experience of suffering, disappointment, and chaos.  But the moment you stop squirming against the catastrophe of being alive, music flies out of dog doo.” 

    Perhaps in this case, it’s cat doo, but the idea is undoubtedly the same.  Just this morning I was squirming about the fact that I hadn’t posted anything new and interesting for a few days and maybe my whole “starting a blog” venture was another misguided pie-in-the-sky notion that lacked the necessary follow-through on my part to keep it going and turn it into anything useful.  And then a friend of mine emailed me that she too had started a blog about her upcoming trip to Chiapas, Mexico where she will help develop a psychosocial support program for those suffering state-sponsored human rights abuses there.  I emailed her back, telling her how proud I was of the work she is continuing to do in the field of human rights, and she responded by telling me the blog was my idea—that my starting this one gave her the notion of doing hers.  Sure, it’s nothing huge, not even medium-sized, but it’s good to know that when we act with purity and warmth and, with all due respect, I think I’ll add, passion to Mr. Nakagawa’s quote here, we can help others without even meaning to.

    “You are not here for yourself alone . . .” 

    In the past, I would have thought of this as an onus, a threat even—better be a good girl, otherwise everyone is going to suffer.  But now I can see it as a release, as encouragement—so things didn’t work out the way you planned for yourself, but if your intentions have had merit, then you never know who else you might have helped along the way.

 Cuddle Time