Knowing When to Do Nothing

art_628465There is a concept in Taoism known as Wu Wei – literally ‘no action’, and often interpreted as ‘do nothing’. It goes hand-in-hand with another concept, Wu Bu Wei – ‘not no action’, or ‘do everything’ [1.] Those who study Taoist philosophy seek to achieve harmony in their lives by doing nothing and doing everything. The idea of doing everything is one that’s probably familiar to all of us: from the moment we wake up we attend to the tasks, chores, and activities of our day right up to the point we close our eyes to sleep again. Doing nothing, however, is a stranger concept. It does not mean being slothful, lazy, or apathetic. Instead, it is about recognising the times when there is nothing you can, or should do – that the right course of action is to not act.

It is a challenging concept to get one’s head around, so let me try to illustrate with an example. Think about the last time you had an argument with someone. It may have been over something of significance to one or both of you, or it may have been – in hindsight – over nothing. If you go back and think about it, you can probably see that it all started from something that was said or done that induced an emotional response in one of you. That response got expressed, which led to an emotional response in the other person, and back and forth it went. Like many arguments it probably heated up as it continued on, perhaps it even got out control and one or both of you were yelling at the other. Chances are at least one of you got their feelings hurt. (If so, hopefully you’ve resolved that by the time you’re reading this!)

Think of that argument as a timeline, like a scene from a movie. You can probably see how the argument started from nothing, and then developed into a full-blown argument. You can probably also see that it took two people to have that argument. Even if it was just one person berating the other, it still took the interaction of both for the argument to happen. Now imagine you can edit that scene. You can move along that timeline and pick a point and edit what happened at that moment. What might have happened if, at some point in the timeline, one of you had stopped arguing? It may have been as simple as saying, “stop, I don’t want to argue anymore”, or perhaps it needed one of you to walk away. If one of you had simply stopped, could there even have been an argument? And if there was no argument, could the problem have been solved faster, easier, or better?

This is where doing nothing becomes important. Using this example, you can think of the argument as doing everything. In fact, you probably are doing everything while arguing – yelling, shouting, trying to put forward, or impose, or defend, your view, and getting emotional. You’re trying to ‘win’, and you will do everything to ‘win’ – and sometimes, ‘winning’ leads to some very undesirable outcomes. If you’ve ever ‘won’ an argument but didn’t feel better for it, you’ll understand what I mean.

To not argue, or cease arguing, is to do nothing. It does not mean turning your back and walking away (though in some instances that might be what it takes). Rather, it is about recognising that continued action is not going to make the situation any better, nor achieve the outcome you really want. In that case it is better to cease your actions – to do nothing – and in doing so, avoid creating a new problem through arguing. As my Tai Chi master says, “you can’t resolve a problem while ever someone is trying to fight you. It is only when they stop fighting you can sit and have tea and work out what the problem is.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course it’s easy to say, yet much more difficult to put into practice. I’m going through a process now which, for the moment, is out of my control, and all I can do is nothing. And yet, for my life to go forward in the way I want it to, this process must happen, and quickly. I have people who need me and who are relying on me to get this done. I have opportunities that are dependent on this happening. And for my own well-being, I need this resolved. The fact that it is taking time is very oppressive and hard to deal with – it’s causing unnecessary strain on me and those I love. I feel responsible and I feel I need to do something to change it – I am trying to do everything, because I’m afraid if I don’t I will lose what it is I’m striving for. Yet the reality is that there is simply no more I can do until it is put back into my hands. I need to do nothing. I know this, and I know that in doing nothing I will be better off, but knowing and doing are often different things, aren’t they? So I am trying to do nothing, however I will be the first to admit it’s not easy.

We can all reflect on our lives and find instances where it seemed that no matter what we did, not matter how hard we tried, no matter how much effort we put into something, we didn’t get to where we wanted to be. We often think that if we stop, everything stops; that inactivity is somehow detrimental to achieving. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is like sailing: you can hoist your sails and work your lines and rigging all you want, however if you’re sailing against the wind, you won’t get very far. But if you stop, and just let the wind fill your sails, you’ll find it takes you to where you need to be.

The trick is not to just do nothing, but to know when to do nothing. And as the Taoists say, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone.

  1. Zhao, Qiguang. (2010). Do nothing and do everything: an illustrated new Taosim. Minnesota: Paragon House

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