do nothing, non-doing

If you want to get more done, think not about doing.  “Do nothing and get everything undone,” says Lao Tzu. 

This concept is known as non-doing, or wu wei. How is it possible? Many people find it perplexing, especially in the world where we are so used to constantly doing things. The idea of achieving results through not doing is difficult to comprehend.

Do nothing and leave nothing undone

However, non-doing, i.e. wu wei, is not only important; it happens naturally all the time. You are actively engaged in non-doing every minute of your life. Consider the simple act of breathing. You don’t consciously think about it, yet you do it effortlessly. What happens when you try to control your breath? It becomes forced and unnatural.

In anything we do, if we can align ourselves with the flow of nature and act without exerting conscious effort, we tap into our spontaneity and achieve more effective results. Attempting to exert excessive control, like trying to control your breath, hampers rather than helps the activity.

Non-doing does not me doing absolutely nothing. It means acting in accordance with nature’s requirements rather than being driven solely by personal desires. Instead of imposing our will on nature, we allow it to take its course.

As an illustration, let’s think about speaking. Many people feel at ease and speak naturally when among close friends, freely expressing their true personalities and even injecting humor. However, when faced with the task of speaking on stage, they become tense and transformed individuals. Their spontaneity evaporates, replaced by stiffness, shyness, and nervousness.

What happened? They can speak naturally in the presence of friends, proving their capability as effective speakers. So why do they struggle in other contexts? The answer lies in their departure from their innate nature.

Something has robbed them of their confidence and taken control. It could be fear, confusion, the eagerness to impress, or other factors we might call “doing.” If they can remain true to themselves, just as they are with their friends, they would regain their confidence to speak—even when on the stage.

What they should do is non-doing. By letting go of the “doing” that prevents them from expressing themselves naturally, they reclaim control and become effective speakers. This is non-doing!

Many outstanding athletes and artists compromise their performances at critical moments due to excessive “doing.” If they can adhere to non-doing, they will retain their excellence without striving.

When things don’t go the way we want, we often become impatient, stressed, and resort to “doing”, which can be futile interventions. As a result, we end up doing more but achieving less.

Embracing the art of non-doing brings about transformative change. Embrace non-doing and be astonished by how accomplishing more can necessitate doing less.

This principle lies at the core of Lao Tzu’s teachings in the Tao Te Ching, holding profound power.

There are various ways to cultivate non-doing, but one of the most crucial approaches is to let go of worrying. Instead of being consumed by anxiety and fear, learn to accept things as they are.

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  1. Thank you for posting this. There is so much misunderstanding of ‘not-doing’. How does one arrive at non-doing? Witness the futility of doing ….

    1. Hi, Sol, the word ‘non’ in non-doing has a specific meaning in Tao Te Ching. It refers to nothingness and implies Tao. Non-doing is not futility of doing, but to act in accordance to Tao. Since nature is a manifestation of Tao, we may also say that non-doing is to go with the flow of nature.

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