A Philosophy of Non-Action

With my surface-level knowledge of Eastern philosophy and its complimenting practices (martial arts, spirituality, etc.), I have seen a reoccurring theme: non-action. “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” (Tao Te Ching, ix). This acting-without-doing approach does not need force. It is the antithesis of brute discipline. And while execution matters, there is a harmonious balance point of ‘enough’.

philosophy of non-action as seen by a girl on the beach

Martial Arts

For example, the martial arts of jiu-jitsu, t’ai chi, and aikido do not use brute force. They draw from balance, precision, and fluidity to create powerful movements that produce an ‘effortless’ and effective result. Yoga, as Michelle Deane eloquently describes, mimics the martial art’s philosophy of non-doing. Non-doing is often misunderstood and taken literally. However, this objective, as seen through its physical activities, first requires hours of practice. This is the discipline and foundation needed to become a non-doer. Then, when the time for performance comes, when mastery has arisen, the doer to dissolves into the act. Gone is the dualism of mind and body; mind and body now act as one fluid unit and follow intuition. The resulting scene is that of seamless movement, perfect timing, and extraordinary focus. It is what we would call ‘being in the zone’.

philosophy of non-action in a flower bud

Sense of Timing

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I saw the line:

“A sense of timing is an act of genius.”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Being in the zone and a sense of timing are results of a meditative, centered mental state. It is what yoga builds towards. It is what athletes dream of. And it is a mental state we can all obtain and benefit from if we work towards understanding and practicing it.

a flower

Form and Function

For further insight into this state of mind, I want to refer to the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu’s famous text. In a few short pages, the Tao Te Ching’s sheer presentation embodies the antidote to excess, its simplicity delivering more power per word than most known religious texts. It opposes force, overworking, and extremism. The Tao Te Ching can be read and interpreted in many ways. In fact, each time I read it, I reach a different meaning. Using the Stephen Mitchell translation, I will lay out a few pointed quotes that relate to non-doing and how I am applying these points to my life at present. Perhaps it will inspire you to see these quotes in a new light, as well.

a cat practicing the philosophy of non-action by sitting in a basket

Tao Te Ching Quotes

“Practice not-doing,

and everything will fall into place” (3).

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

Lately, when I feel I am using excessive force in my life routine, a conversation, or an activity, I no longer look at myself. I am a factor, of course, but the surrounding environment, people, and culture compact to create influences often more powerful than just the one person that is me. When I remove my lens of individuality, no longer believing I am the key influencer in my activities, I see myself as an actress in a grander play. It allows me to accept change, rewriting my script (if you will), and shaping an environment, either now or in the future, that is more conducive to ‘not-doing’. By rearranging the parts, I can etch away at creating an ideal environment– a flow state. In this, I do by not-doing, accomplishing my best work through fluid days.

“He who stands on tiptoes

doesn’t stand firm.

He who rushes ahead

doesn’t go far.

He who tries to shine

dims his own light.

He who defines himself

can’t know who he is.

He who has power over others

can’t empower himself.

He who clings to his work

will create nothing that endures” (24).

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

Attempting to get ahead often leaves me left behind. There is a time to begin, a time to end, and a time to reflect. “A sense of timing is an act of genius,” as was stated earlier. And we all possess this ability if we only learn to slow down and listen to the ticking of our internal clocks. Instead of trying to grow up too quickly, or vice versa to turn back the clock, embrace this current state of life, whether that be youth, failure, success, old age, love, or heartbreak. It is the only place we can be at this moment. And through embracing the present, we step into our power and away from control.

“The Master does nothing,

yet he leaves nothing undone.

The ordinary man is always doing things,

yet many more are left to be done” (38).

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

To be busy is easy. To be deliberate takes intention, thought, and practice. Be deliberate.

“In the pursuit of knowledge,

everyday something is added.

In the practice of the Tao,

every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things,

until finally you arrive at non-action.

When nothing is done,

nothing is left undone” (48).

Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

The first two lines remind me of Sartre’s ‘Self-Taught Man’  in Nausea—it speaks to the accumulation of knowledge. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is seen as a valiant act in modern US culture. For Sartre, it is absurd, another action that life offers as a senseless distraction to the greater questions. These questions, for the existentialist, are the grandiose questions of life—death, ‘happiness’, meaning. I find great parallels between the existentialist and Eastern thought, as they walk through similar logical steps. Of course, the conclusions are abruptly different. Philosophies like the Tao Te Ching embrace the non-action that existentialist call absurdity. In the Tao, absurdity’s description is overtaken by clarity, an act of minimalism and subtraction. Each day, there is something removed, be it a physical act or a mental block, that makes your path smoother. It is this studied approach that lets us arrive onto non-action.

flowers embrace a philosophy of non-action

In conclusion, non-action is no accident, just as an athlete’s effortless movements a musician’s performance requires practice. We are all capable of walking through life as artists and athletes, moving towards a state of non-doing as we eliminate the noise.

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