Not praising the praiseworthy
keeps people uncompetitive.
Not prizing rare treasures
keeps people from stealing.
Not looking at the desirable
keeps the mind quiet.
So the wise soul
would empty their minds,
fill their bellies,
weaken their wishes,
strengthen their bones,
keep people unknowing,
keep the ones who do know
from doing anything.
When you do not-doing,
nothing’s out of order.
As Le Guin says in her reflections on this poem:
Over and over Lao Tzu says I wei wu wei: Do not do. Doing not-doing. To act without acting. Action by inaction. You do nothing yet it gets done…
It’s not a statement susceptible to logical interpretation, or even to a syntactical translation into English; but it’s a concept that transforms thought radically, that changes minds. The whole book is both an explanation and a demonstration of it.
The beginning of the Tao Te Ching really tries to drive that home, I think. It hits you with these almost contradictory ideas repeatedly, not to distance you from the text, but to prepare you for the text.
It’s like a videogame with proper UX. The first couple levels/missions/quests are primarily to teach you the mechanics of the game. Once you understand or can at least deal with the main concepts, the game burrows a bit deeper.
Lao Tzu is both introducing the Tao and demanding you accept that this seemingly contradictory logic is going to be a core concept. You may not understand it yet–you may never even come to understand it–but this is at the center of the Tao.
For me–as I’ve said–it was more a feeling of completeness, of coming home. Even without any guidance or explanation, this sort of idea just clicked. I think it’s because paradoxes and contradictions have always seemed true to me. Or at least that there is truth in them.
So much of the Tao is about finding balance in life. A way to live a good life. It shrugs off questions like What is the meaning of life? in favor of asking us to accept that life is the way it is. It may even be meaningless. Or there may be no greater meaning than living a life well. And that starts with you. With having a quiet mind, a steady heart, and not clinging to the ephemeral.
But this is also where Lao Tzu begins talking about leadership explicitly. And his argument, as we’ll see going forward, is that the best leader is an almost absent one. One who doesn’t manage her people or their resources, but lives well and exists as a demonstration of the Tao.
For a leader with strong desires will twist the world according to her own will, which often leads to disaster, even if the impetus is pro-social. In our doing is undoing. In our actions is our own failure.
That’s not to say Don’t try or even to say Why try, but to understand that for every inch we push, the world will push us in a new direction–possibly even backwards–because the world always seeks balance.
I think of climate change now. Humanity has raped and pillaged the planet for over two centuries. The planet is now seeking to find balance, and that balance may not include our species. It clearly doesn’t include the thousands that’re becoming extinct every year.
The Sixth Great Extinction is a result of us. We pushed and pushed. But the earth didn’t rise up to strip us of all that we gained. It simply twisted, spoiling all our grand efforts with famine, plague, flood, and tempests.
This, for me, is one of the most remarkable aspects of the Tao Te Ching: it is always relevant. It never stops reflecting life, because it is one of the most human texts ever written.
Unlike most other ideologies or religions or even philosophies, it promises no sense of perfection or reward. It simply states the reality of the world, and seeks a path through it that will leave the most things undamaged.
Leave no trace is a common idea in camping, but I think this reflects what the Tao is. A way of life that takes nothing from other people or the world itself. The Tao demands nothing and it punishes nothing and it rewards nothing.
In this way, it is eternal. And I think it’s the text that best fits our species.
We’re messy, disgusting, beautiful, violent, hopeful creatures. We’re built on paradox and every impulse is contradictory, and yet we keep moving, keep transforming.
And I have seen nothing in my life–no work of art or politics–that fits this mold better than the Tao.