The object of Philosophical Taoism is to align one's daily life to the Tao, to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow. The basic way to do this, we earlier noted, is to perfect a life of wu wei. We have seen that wu wei should not be translated as do-nothingness or inaction, for those words suggest a vacant attitude of idleness or abstention. Better renderings are pure effectiveness and creative quietude.
Creative quietude combines within a single individual two seemingly incompatible conditions-supreme activity and supreme relaxation. These seeming incompatibles can coexist because human beings are not self-enclosed entities. They ride an unbounded sea of Tao that sustains them, as we would say, through their subliminal minds. One way to create is through following the calculated directives of the conscious mind. The results of this mode of action, however, are seldom impressive; they tend to smack more of sorting and arranging than of inspiration. Genuine creation, as every artist knows, comes when the more abundant resources of the subliminal self are somehow tapped. But for this to happen a certain dissociation from the surface self is needed. The conscious mind must relax, stop standing in its own light, let go. Only so is it possible to break through the law of reversed effort in which the more we try the more our efforts boomerang.
Wu wei is the supreme action, the precious suppleness, simplicity, and freedom that flows from us, or rather through us, when our private egos and conscious efforts yield to a power not their own. In a way it is virtue approached from a direction diametrically opposite to that of Confucius. Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism's approach is the opposite-to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behavior flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser being, stronger being. The Tao Te Ching puts this point without wasting a word. "The way to do," it says, "is to be."
How are we to describe the action that flows from a life that is grounded directly in Tao? Nurtured by a force that is infinitely subtle, infinitely intricate, it is a consummate gracefulness born from an abundant vitality that has no need for abruptness or violence. One simply lets the Tao flow in and flow out again until all life becomes a dance in which there is neither feverishness nor imbalance. Wu wei is life lived above tension:
Keep stretching a bow
You repent of the pull,
A whetted saw
Grows thin and dull
Far from inaction, however, it is the embodiment of suppleness, simplicity, and freedom-a kind of pure effectiveness in which no motion is wasted on bickering or outward show.
One may move so well that a foot-print never shows,
Speak so well that the tongue never slips,
Reckon so well that no counter is needed.
Effectiveness of this order obviously requires an extraordinary skill, a point conveyed in the Taoist story of the fisherman who was able to land enormous fish with a thread because it was so delicately made that it had no weakest point at which to break. But the Taoist skill is seldom noticed, for viewed externally wu wei-never forcing, never under strain-seems quite effortless. The secret here lies in the way it seeks out the empty spaces in life and nature and moves through these. Chuang Tzu, the greatest popularizer of Philosophical Taoism, makes this point with his story of Prince Wen Hui's cook whose cleaver seemed never to lose its edge. When he cut up an ox, out went a hand, down went a shoulder. He planted a foot, he pressed with a knee, and the ox fell apart with a whisper. The bright cleaver murmured like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance. Pressed for his secret the cook replied: "There are spaces in the joints; the blade is thin and keen. When this thinness finds that space, there is all the room you need! It goes like a breeze! Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years as if newly sharpened!"
The natural phenomenon that the Taoists saw as bearing the closest resemblance to Tao was water. They were struck by the way it would support objects and carry them effortlessly on its tide. The Chinese characters for swimmer, deciphered, means literally "one who knows the nature of water." Similarly, one who understands the basic life force knows that it will sustain one if one stops thrashing and flailing and trusts oneself to its support.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
Water, then was the closest parallel to the Tao in the natural world. But it was also the prototype of wu wei. They noticed the way water adapts itself to its surroundings and seeks out the lowest places. So too.
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
Yet despite the accommodations, water holds a power unknown to hard and brittle things. In a stream it follows the stones' sharp edges, only to turn them into pebbles, rounded to conform to its streamlined flow. It works its way past frontiers and under dividing walls. Its gentle current melts rocks and carries away the proud hills we call eternal.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it in to practice.
Infinitely supple, yet incomparably strong-these virtues of water are precisely those of wu wei as well. The person who embodies this condition, says the Tao Te Ching, "works without working." Such a one acts without strain, persuades without argument, is eloquent with out flourish, and achieves results without violence, coercion, or pressure. Though the agent may be scarcely noticed, his or her influence is in fact decisive.
A leader is best
When people barely know that he exists.
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, "We did this ourselves."
A final characteristic of water that makes it an appropriate analogue to wu wei is the clarity it attains through being still. "Muddy water let stand," say the Tao Te Ching,"will clear." If you want to study the stars after being in a brightly lit room, you must wait twenty minutes for your eyes to dilate for their new assignment. There must be similar periods of waiting if the focal length of the mind is to readjust, withdrawing from the world's glare to the internal recesses of the soul.
The five colors can blind,
The five tones deafen,
The five tastes cloy.
The race, the hunt, can drive men mad
And their booty leave them no peace.
Therefore a sensible man
Prefers the inner to the outer eye.
Clarity can come to the inner eye, however, only insofar as life attains a quiet that equals that of a deep and silent pond.
(Posted with permission)