As far as spiritual texts go, the Tao Te Ching can send you away reeling at first read.
It’s a book about the Way – a shorthand coined by Taoist priests to describe the working of the entire cosmos. It begins by basically saying that the minute you try and put the Way into words you’re likely to lose the plot. Having said that, it’s well worth tackling.
Taoists were the original wild bunch, known for being able to harness the powers of the universe to perform extraordinary feats. So what can we take from the Tao and use in our everyday lives?
Here are a few lines from it,
‘The Way never acts,
Yet no act is left undone.
If lords and kings were able to maintain this,
The Ten Thousand Things would transform on their own.’
Tao Te Ching
Translated by William Scott Wilson, Kodansha International Publishing
The way I understand that it this. Seasons change, tides come in and out, moons wax and wane, the sun rises and sets each day – all in perfect harmony, but you won’t find anyone directing the action. Everything gets done, even though no one thing or force is doing the doing of it. And as the Tao tells us, if we ‘lords and kings’ could only try that approach, things would do just fine without our intervention.
This is where the fun starts when we try and live the Tao. Okay, you say. So if I practice a bit of ‘not-doing’, the ironing will do itself. Yeah, right. Now that would be magic!
That’s absolutely true. But I bet you can look back across your life and see a whole bunch of situations where, for all your doing, nothing got done, or you might have actually made things worse.
If you want to play around with these few lines and see what effect they have in your life, try the following.
1 – Review the things in your life that swallow huge chunks of your time, energy and attention that don’t actually have to be done. Catch yourself at the point where you start saying, ‘I have to…’ and ask the question, what would happen if you didn’t? Ironing doesn’t do itself, but would the world end if you didn’t iron? Are there some things that actually don’t need ironing? If you go full circle and decide that to you the pleasure of freshly ironed socks is worth half an hour at the ironing board, then at least you’re clear that you are putting your energy where you want it to go.
2 – Experiment with different levels of intensity of doing. When it comes to ironing, you could just do it. You could even do it whilst listening to a programme you love on the radio or chatting with a friend. Or you could dread doing it for three days, huff and puff through, it making sure you and anyone who comes in earshot knows how much you hate it and seethe with resentment at having to do it for half a day afterwards.
3 – Get creative about alternative ways of doing the things that must be done. Maybe someone you know will come round and do your ironing in return for you picking up their shopping.
You’re already a master of the Way in so many areas of your life. For most people, beyond the early struggles, falls and triumphs, you can walk without thinking, ‘Right foot, left foot, head up, arms swing, right, left, here we go!’ You can just walk. You might even be able to walk beautifully without your own constant intervention.
This ‘not doing’ yet somehow things get done is a skill you already have. Where else in your life can you use it?
The Tao of T
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