Sunday, June 04, 2006

What is Non-action?

One of the phrases most-identified with the Tao Te Ching is "non-action." In Chinese, the phrase is [wu wei]: the character for "not" followed by the character for acting, making, or doing (many languages use the same word for all these things). But what exactly is "non-action?" Most translators and commentators subscribe to one of four interpretations:

1. EFFORTLESS ACTION: In this reading, non-action is the kind of action, without effort or thought, produced by thorough training. Advocates of this interpretation compare non-action to actions performed by skilled athletes; a skilled quarterback's throw has a perfect spiral, excellent accuracy, and amazing distance, but the quarterback doesn't even think about it; he's thinking about whether or not he's going to get blitzed, and which of his teammates are open. The idea behind this interpretation is that many everyday actions can become effortless, not just by training, but by a certain state of mind that is not preoccupied with thinking, and just does what comes naturally, the way we say a skill is "second nature."

2. ABSENCE OF UNNECESSARY OR HARMFUL ACTION: In this reading, non-action is a focus on not doing superfluous action. In this busy world, an advocate of this interpretation would say, we are always thinking about how to solve problems by doing things. For example, our solution to insomnia is to learn self-hypnosis, take up meditation, or take melatonin. To practice non-action, according to this definition, would be to solve the problem by not doing something. For example, not watching TV right before bed, not taking on as many stressful assignments at work, or not going out with friends when homework needs to be done.

3. LACK OF RESISTANCE: In this reading, non-action is a lack of resistance to the actions of the world. The authors of the Tao Te Ching often compare the Way to water, since water doesn't resist and flows naturally, according to the laws of the universe. This also extends to not competing with others; one of the most common phrases in the Tao Te Ching is often translated as "If you don't compete, no one can compete with you."

4. A SPECIAL MEDITATIVE PRACTICE: According to some interpreters, the Tao Te Ching contains a lot of phrases that can only be interpreted as jargon; names of specific meditation or contemplative techniques. Verse 10 is the most frequently cited where this is concerned; many interpreters believe that "opening and closing Heaven's door," "becoming like an infant," and "cleansing inner vision" are the names of specific meditative exercises that would have been familiar to the students of the people who wrote the Tao Te Ching. In this interpretation, "Non-action" is also a name for a kind of meditation. Exactly what kind, we'll probably never know, but we can guess it probably has something to do with calming and clearing the mind.

So which do I think is the meaning most probably intended by the authors? I would say #2 is the most likely, followed by #3. The TTC is filled with recommendations to do less, to relax, to not exert effort, and even to give up knowledge. One of the later verses even admires people who don't leave their native country! Interpretation #3 is also referenced many times, such as in the comparisons of the Way to water and the exhortations not to compete with other people.

As for interpretation #1, it is true that skillful effort was something admired by the authors. There are several references to skilled people doing things exceptionally well, such as skilled runners leaving no tracks. Another Laoist text, the Chuang Tzu, has an example of a butcher using his knife so skillfully that he hardly has to exert any effort to carve up a bull, and he never has to sharpen his knife. However, the Tao Te Ching speaks of non-action as something that should be practiced in everyday life, and that makes it most likely that it's not referring to the kind of exceptional skill possessed by elite athletes and tradesmen. This also applies to interpretation #4. In the TTC, non-action is something you practice with everything in your life, and that rules out a separate activity like meditation.


niennie said...

thanks! helped in my comparative philosophy essay.

Anubhav said...

Thanks! I was confused with what non action meant. It helped me a great deal in understanding the concept.

Anonymous said...

excellent explanation for a lay person like me. Thank you! Chris, 1 January 2010.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts on non-action are:

Pretty deep, huh?

Anonymous said...

Hey, awesome explanation. I was stuck for a while on the concept of non-action. I kind of understood #1 from the beginning, but I was missing #2 which is a VERY good point. I have spent my entire life trying to "do" things to fix problems. I have done many extreme things to fix problems, and it usually does nothing but make it worse. I never thought about actively not doing to solve a problem.