Taoism – Learning the Art of Non-Action


The Problem with Modern Productivity

After I read The Four Hour Work Week, I thought I could solve all of life’s problems could by becoming super productive and effective in my work (whether day job or side business “muse”). The 80-20 rule blew my mind. I began to see it everywhere. Yes, I do get 80% of my fun from 20% of my friends. 20% of my coworkers cause 80% of my problems.

I began to think that if everyone just found ways to eliminate useless activities from their day, they would be much happier, there would be less nonsense work in general, and we could all live happily ever after.

While I have nothing against productivity techniques per se, I have become more and more irritated with productivity culture.

Productivity culture advocates pursuing productivity in all domains of your life, especially work. Being productive acquires a sort of moral dimension in which the productive are more valued than the unproductive.

It’s clear why productivity culture is embraced by business. The more productive their employees are, the more money they make.

What is much scarier is how much we are internalizing productivity culture, and making ourselves miserable because of it.

I’m writing this on a Monday morning before work, which I feel pretty good about. Early bird gets the worm, right?

Now compare this to what I did this weekend. Friday evening, I watched House of Cards, which was enjoyable. Saturday, I didn’t do much of anything: I slept in, watched some more House of Cards, and then reading and wine drinking in the evening by myself. On Sunday, I spent the afternoon reading.

It was perfectly pleasant.

However, I also spent a considerable amount of time feeling guilty about not getting more done. I was even planning on writing this blog post on Saturday, but that didn’t happen. I put it off until this morning. I was also planning on exercising more than I did, doing some administrative stuff for work, etc.

Though I believe guilt is useful, it’s only useful if it’s calibrated to arise in situations in which you should feel guilty (say, yelling at your significant at your other) and if it actually changes your behavior (you apologize and make a renewed effort to not yell at your significant other).

Productivity culture makes us feel guilty for not being more like machines. We are not machines, nor will we ever become machines, so we should not feel guilty about this.

Of course, we do still need to be productive, at least to a minimal level. Those Excel formulas aren’t going to program themselves you know?

So how can we be productive in a natural way and without the guilt?

Naturally, I decided to look to ancient wisdom for help.

Wu-Wei – The Art of Non-Doing

Taoism is a 4th century BCE Chinese philosophy/religion that emphases living in harmony with the “Tao,” or way. One of they key tenets of Taoism is that language is limited in its capacity to explain the Tao, so I won’t attempt to describe exactly what it is, but here are some key “takeaways” from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism

  • Our provisional definitions of tao are “the totality of natural process” and “the human parts of that process, including instructions, examples, morality, rituals, and so on.”
  • The key link: Humans are an integral part of nature, and human tao is natural tao. 
  • Taoists do not speak of God, but of nature. The tradition’s religiosity stems from the awe of nature that motivates others to worship a creator of nature.
  • Taoists do not think of humans as separate from nature; they view their own actions as continuous with natural spontaneity.

So we can think of the “Tao” as the natural state and movement of our environment and the actors within the environment. The goal then is not to oppose nature, but act with it.

What is particularly fascinating is the concept of Wu-Wei, which loosely translates as “non-doing” or “non-action.”

This concept is difficult to grasp. Here is a section from the Tao Te Ching, one of the two primary Taoist “scripture,” that describes the goal of “non-action.”

Via The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism

If you can empty your mind of all thoughts your heart will embrace the tranquility of peace.

Watch the workings of all of creation, but contemplate their return to the source. “All creatures in the universe return to the point where they began.

Returning to the source is tranquility because we submit to Heaven’s mandate. Returning to Heaven’s mandate is called being constant.

Knowing the constant is called ‘enlightenment.’

Not knowing the constant is the source of evil deeds because we have no roots. By knowing the constant, we can accept things as they are.

By accepting things as they are, we become impartial.

By being impartial, we become one with Heaven.

By being one with Heaven, we become one with Tao.

Being one with Tao, we are no longer concerned about losing our life because we know the Tao is constant and we are one with Tao.

The goal of Wu-Wei is not to be lazy (watching Netflix is not the same as non-action), but rather, to act appropriately and naturally to the situation at hand.

Via The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism

Wu-wei means responding completely, authentically, and spontaneously to the emerging circumstances of one’s environment— without employing what some Zen teachers call a “grasping idea” or “monkey mind.”

Now, compare the concept of Wu-Wei with the American saying “shit or get off the pot.” Basically, if you are not taking action, “shitting” in this case, you should get out of the way so that someone else may take action.

However, as most men know (women seem not to embrace this particular pleasure), there is nothing like reading a magazine while taking a long extended shit without any particular need to go anywhere. So the Taoist might modify the saying to be “shit or not shit, get off the pot or stay on the pot as appropriate.” Sometimes it is appropriate to stay on the pot, even if just to think. Eventually, there is a time to leave the pot. All in due course.

Productivity culture is overly obsessed with taking action. Even not-taking action is seen as a way to boost the effectiveness of taking action. For example, google “being productive at work” and you’ll see recommendations to take a short break every hour or so. However, this is only done so that you are more effective the next round of work.

The end goal for Taoists (not that there is an end in Taoism) is not to maximize productivity to profit oneself or one’s company, but rather, to act in a way that is accordance with the Tao to achieve peace and harmony.

My Taoist Experiments

After some thinking, I’ve settled on a few ways to practice Taoism that will help me embrace Wu-Wei as a means to fight productivity culture.

  1. Tai Chi – This ancient Chinese martial art that derives some of its forms and movements from Taoist philosophy. I’ve learned over my past experiments that having a physical ritual is important for reinforcing abstract concepts, even if they seem unnecessary. Thus, Tai Chi should help me better understand what Taoism is and how applicable it is to our daily lives.

Via Wikipedia article on Taoist Tai Chi

It is not easy to achieve the state of emptiness or stillness in the midst of today’s busy and complex lifestyle. To achieve stillness and yet be involved and active is even more difficult. Practicing Taoist Tai Chi fosters stillness since the focused concentration required to do the Tai Chi set (and developed in learning it) occupies the mind, drawing it away from daily worries and tensions. Learning to quiet the mind, even while moving through the Tai Chi set, lays a foundation for integrating the principle of stillness—and the recognition of our original nature—into our daily lives.

  1. Walking – There is something pleasant about walking without a goal in mind. Walking, unlike running, feels effortless, at least for a while. It allows you to just be. I think we’ve lost the art of walking for walking’s sake. Though this is obviously not an exclusive Taoist practice, I will attempt to walk with a Taoist mindset i.e. with an appreciation for nature and/or the natural order of thing and without any particular goal in mind. I want to embrace walking as a form of Wu-Wei, a form of non-action.
  1. Working naturally – In pre-industrial societies, it seems as if there was a natural rhythm to work. Agricultural work was seasonal, so there was a season for hard work and labor, and there was a season for rest and recuperation. In hunter-gatherer societies, you can only hunt and gather so much at a time (due to lack of storage capabilities) and were limited by human energy. In the modern office environment, we are expected to maintain productivity year-round, or at least maintain the illusion of productivity. For my Taoist month, I am going to go against the grain and only work when it makes sense, and deliberately not work when it doesn’t make sense. This will be interesting because it’s quite vague and I expect some pushback from my fellow worker bees, especially when I start pushing non-action as a legitimate way of spending the afternoon.

Through these experiments, I hope to discover a cure to the oppressive productivity culture that has infected both our work lives and our personal lives. By seeking to move with the Tao, the way, the natural course of things, perhaps we’ll find a way to reduce stress and guilt and increase contentment in our lives.

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.

In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped. 

Less and less is done

Until non-action is achieved.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.

It cannot be ruled by interfering.

– Chapter 46 Tao Te Ching

As always, I will report back on my findings.

  • Stephan

    I just happened to read an excerpt of story by Chuang Zi this morning, referenced in the book Who Dies by Stephen and Ondrea Levine. It’s about the empty boat. Here’s a link: http://www.thedailyzen.org/2015/05/27/the-empty-boat-by-chuang-tzu/ . Nice synchronicity 🙂

    A quick search on “Chuang Zi Empty Boat” turned up a fun handful of reads.

    You will probably come across various discussion of alchemy as you look into Taoism. In case you haven’t already found this out, the more modern interpretation of alchemy is an internal one, since people found that drinking heavy metals actually didn’t make you live longer (still old enough to qualify for your test, though).

    I hope you’ve considered putting “The Tao of Pooh” and “The Teh of Piglet” on your list too 🙂

    Have fun with Taoism!

    • Less_Antman

      I definitely agree on The Tao of Pooh. I also love The Tao Is Silent by Raymond Smullyan, which is funny and insightful and will teach you absolutely nothing.

      My wife spent two straight hours tonight in our bathroom reading. I’m not sure her Kindle can be found in a state of nature, however. 😉

      • If the Kindle battery died, that would be a very Taoist sign to get out of the bathroom 😉

    • Love the empty boat parable.

      I finished my Taoism month already (just beginning to publish posts) but I didn’t do any research into alchemy. I did however read The Tao of Pooh and The Teh of Piglet. Both were excellent.

    • Miguel

      Love Tao so much, it’ll be so nice to follow your progress on it, nice choice 🙂

      And for sure walking is one of the ancient arts that we are kind of losing in our western world, really worth pursuing. What a meditation!

      Just out of curiosity, did you read the essay On Walking from Henry David Thoreau? The guy was really into walking, at least four hours each day. And even the Walden, is it not a experiment on living as much with the tao as possible?

      From the essay on walking: “I believe that there is a subtile magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”

      Be in joy with the flow my friend!

      [EDIT: I wanted to the comment to be directly replying to the post and not the other comment but not sure what happened(maybe tao happened) and it save it here.. sorry Stephan!]

      • Hey Miguel,

        I started reading Walden, but haven’t read “On Walking.” I’ll check it out!

  • I loved the Four Hour Workweek and enjoy Tim’s podcast. But it is not a code of living. You can’t “hack” everything. I remember Tim was just getting into Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the time (I’ve been training over 10 years) and he was going to use his methods to get really good at it quickly. I remember shaking my head, thinking this guy was going to learn the hard way that the reason BJJ is so popular is, it is the most objective of the arts. There’s no hack, there’s no points for pushing someone out of the ring. You have to make them cry uncle and they’re not going to sit around and let you. Years later, I know he still trains but it has not become one of his bragging points. This is no knock on him, every beginner starts out thinking that they will be different and get good fast. It’s neurotic and BJJ is as much laid-back Brazilian surf culture (Gracies were and are champion surfers) as it is a martial art. You have to take your time, make it a lifestyle, and yield yourself to it. Like water, formless. Wu wei.

    • I actually like Tim’s material, so long as it’s understood that, like you said, you can’t hack everything. I also love the idea of “yielding yourself” to a craft. I think too much of western thinking has been about elevating the ego, the self. We don’t know how to submit ourselves to a craft or a cause in an egoless way. Of course, that’s a very difficult thing to do, but we don’t even aspire to it as a culture.

      Thanks for the smart comment.