That which offers no resistance, overcomes the hardest substances. That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space. Few in the world can comprehend the teaching without words, or understand the value of non-action.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 43
There’s no proof that he truly ever lived, but if he did, it should have been somewhere around the 5th and 6th century B.C, which makes him a contemporary of Confucius.
Nevertheless, the legendary Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote a masterpiece called the Tao Te Ching, which is the main work of Taoism. A well-known concept that has emerged from Taoist philosophy is wu wei, that can be translated as “non-action”, “effortless action”, or the paradoxical “action of non-action”.
In a practical sense, we can describe wu wei as the state of flow, often referred to as the ‘the zone’ by athletes. When athletes are in the zone, they engage in action without striving and move through time and space almost effortlessly. There are no extremes, no worries, no ruminations; everything seems to flow in a natural course.
As an introduction to the beautiful tradition of Taoism, I’d like to present to you the Philosophy of Flow.
The Tao Te Ching is a mysterious piece of art. Not only there’s no consensus when exactly it was written, but the existence of its author remains disputed. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the profundity of this work has left its mark on humanity to this day. Not to mention that the Tao Te Ching is the most translated work in world literature after the Bible.
The essence of Taoist philosophy is living in harmony with the Tao, also called the Way. So, what is the Tao?
That’s a question we can’t really answer, and it’s futile to try. Our understanding of the Tao only goes as far as the limitations of our perception. What the Tao really is and what it looks, feels, smells or sounds like remains a mystery. Moreover, the Tao that we speak of isn’t the real Tao, according to Lao Tzu. Hence, the famous opening of the Tao Te Ching goes like this:
The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 1
The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.
So, what knowledge is available about the Tao? Well, the Taoist philosophers emphasize over and over again that the true Tao is an all-encompassing force that is beyond our comprehension and cannot be perceived by the senses.
Even though we can never grasp the true Tao, the goal is to live in agreement with it, which is strikingly similar to the Stoic approach to nature.
So, how do we live in harmony with the Way? Taoist literature doesn’t really give one practical method to achieve this. However, we can find many clues that point to achieving stillness of mind, curbing the senses, being humble, and the cessation of striving, in order to open ourselves up to the workings of the universe.
This stillness of mind doesn’t necessarily mean that we sit down somewhere with our eyes closed. The Taoists observe that stillness of mind can be combined with action, and if we are completely in the present moment, our actions will go effortlessly, without friction and accompanied by a razor-sharp focus. So much so, that it’s almost ecstatic.
In his biography, retired professional basketball player Bill Russell writes:
It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.Bill Russell, Second Wind
The Taoist work Zhuangzi contains a story about a cook named Ting who engages in his work while in a state of flow. This grasped the attention of Lord When-Hui, who was amazed about how elegantly the cook cut up oxen. When he commented him on his skill, Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied:
What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.Zhuangzi, The Inner Chapters, 3
An essential part of this story is the condition of the knife that the cook uses. He stated that good cooks change their knives every year because they cut and mediocre cooks change their knives every month because they hack. Cook Ting, however, was using the same knife for nineteen years, because he used it with skill and subtlety.
This story connects to another essential teaching of Taoism which is the power of gentleness. By forcing and striving, we might get the job done, but at the same time, we spend much more energy than necessary and possibly suffer from collateral damage.
On the other hand: someone in a state of flow approaches a task intelligently, knowing when to act and when not to, and finds a balance between action and non-action. It’s a matter of not too hot, not too cold. It’s the golden path between anxiety and boredom.
The idea behind non-action goes against the Western ideal of forcing and working harder and harder to get results. We are encouraged to be ambitious, to take control and to strive. Meanwhile, many people suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, and sleep disorders. Are we burning ourselves out?
We look down on passivity and often mistake it for laziness. But these are different things. When we look at nature, ‘doing nothing’ makes way more sense than we tend to think. Results do not equal the amount of energy we spend. Results are the consequence of a series of actions.
The funny thing about this is that many of these actions come naturally and a task doesn’t need more human intervention than necessary to steer it in the right direction. Isn’t it so that many problems solve themselves?
Taoism compares life to a river.
The river already has a course or several courses, and once we find ourselves in that river, we can swim against the current, we can hold on to a branch or we can let go and go along with the stream.
Most of our lives, we swim against the current and we don’t even realize it. Our mind believes that it can and should control the environment, in order to survive, which is kind of egocentric because the vast majority of processes within as well as outside ourselves are not in our control. I mean, let’s face it: we don’t control our bodily processes like digestion, blood flow or the healing of wounds. We don’t control other people, we don’t control the future. We don’t even control who we fall in love with and what people we find attractive.
Everything outside our own faculties just goes into some direction. Sometimes forced by intelligence, but mostly in a natural course. When we flow along with the current, we align ourselves with this natural course. This is the path of least resistance; it gives nature a chance to unfold, without us resisting it. So, the Taoist way is rather navigating through the river instead of trying to control it; something that will never work.
Another aspect of the river that characterizes Taoism, is the water itself. The characteristics of water are softness and humility that basically symbolize Taoist virtue. Here’s a quote from the Tao Te Ching:
The supreme good is like water, which benefits all of creation without trying to compete with it. It gathers in unpopular places. Thus it is like the Tao.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 8
Water may be soft, but it overcomes hardness which we can see in the erosion of rock. And water not only seeks the lower places; it also has no purpose, no goal, no specific desire. Yet, it nourishes everything that it passes. It’s an incredible life force, that literally does God’s work, but without any ambition.
Water is the softest and most yielding substance. Yet nothing is better than water, for overcoming the hard and rigid, because nothing can compete with it.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 78
If you’ve ever experienced a state of flow, there’s one thing that disappears and only comes back when the thinking mind takes back control. This is the focus on results, rather than the task at hand. This reminds me of the Stoic concept of ‘amor fati’, which recommends one to embrace the outcome, whatever it may be, and instead of worrying about the future, focusing on what’s in the present.
No matter if you’re completely immersed in sports, writing, a video game or dancing; when you’re in a state of flow, you forget the results, the pressure, the anxieties about the future, the failings of the past. It’s just you and the task at hand. You are completely in the present. And the only way to do this is by letting go.
Letting go means stop swimming against the current, stop holding on to some branches. It means letting go of the past, letting go of the future, focus on this moment entirely, and just live it, without hesitation.