Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you center your energy,
be soft, tender,
and so learn to be a baby?
Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?
Opening, closing the Gate of Heaven,
can you be like a bird with her nestings?
Piercing bright through the cosmos,
can you know by not knowing?
To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.
Much of this poem seems concerned with what probably looks like meditative techniques. I don’t think that’s an incorrect way of looking at this. And it leads into the final stanza. This poem asks if we can consider existence. Can we examine and meditate on the world without losing ourselves, without becoming unstable? If we can, we may be ready for the final stanza.
The last stanza repeats ideas presented in previous poems, and this is the first repetition. It will happen again. I’ve mentioned previously how the Tao Te Ching, in my view, is not a prescriptive text, which is maybe what makes the repetitions interesting. Think of it like a refrain, or a theme in the symphony. It’ll come back with slight variations or identically, and it brings a cohesiveness to the text. All the meanderings and mystical language becomes grounded in these little paradoxes, which tell you to lead without lead, to teach without doing.
Inaction means something specific in this text, and it doesn’t mean to simply do nothing. At least that’s never how I’ve read it. To me, it’s always been more of a passive form of leadership.
This idea exists in the business world, incidentally. Someone who guides employees is considered a leader, while someone who simply makes demands on employees is considered a boss, with the term being pejorative.
This idea exists in many religions, too. The idea that leadership comes through demonstration and not by the exertion of force. You teach, not by sitting someone down and lecturing them, but in demonstrating.
The Tao asks that we consider our actions. Not only the action itself, but also where it leads and what the ramifications are. For every step we take in one direction is a step away from any other direction, and so it’s worth considering what those steps mean and where they lead us.
So can we know without knowing? Can we act without acting?
The paradox exists there for a reason, and I think the reason is to make us consider more. To meditate on ways to act. To be like water.
But I think a clearer example is in that last stanza. To bear without owning. To lead without ruling. Especially since this poem ends with a statement about power.
So to me it’s always been a matter of force and exertion.
Inaction, then, has more to do with force. If you exert force upon your pupils, are you really teaching them what you think you’re teaching them? If you exert force upon those you have authority over, are you really leading them?