Act Without Doing

Posted by on Jan 22, 2013 in PGST Reflections | No Comments

In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu offers us timeless and nurturing wisdom.

“Act without doing;

work without effort.

Think of the small as large

and the few as many.

Confront the difficult

while it is still easy;

accomplish the great task

by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;

thus she achieves greatness.

When she runs into a difficulty,

she stops and gives herself to it.

She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;

thus problems are no problem for her.”

So how can we begin to “act without doing?” I think for many of us the strain and the effort, the heavy-handed doing, comes from taking our attention off our relationship with the actual action and putting it into the future, i.e. fantasy. Let’s say our PGST action for the day is to “for at least 20 minutes make a list of possible investors for my new business.” We start our list and a few names spill out right away – “Frank, Kevin” – but then a cloud of shame and hopelessness can begin to form. We think, “God, I can never really ask Kevin for money, can I? What if he thinks I’m running a scam, or gets offended in some way by my proposal – What would I do then? – How would I deal with Kevin screaming at me calling me a wretched charlatan?!!” We are no longer in the action of simply making a list of potential investors. We are now imagining what we would do if Kevin freaked, and then we enter a shame spiral. Of course, in the demented playground of the mind, this can all happen very quickly, before we are hardly conscious of it. We are attempting to manage feelings of fear and shame, which is impossible: feelings cannot be managed or mastered. The frustration of attempting to stuff and control the emotions can lead us to work with forced effort – “I’m going to make this f@&*ing list happen so my fear and pain will stop!” This grinding of the will is the opposite of the “act without doing” that the passage speaks of in the first two stanzas. Lao-tzu goes on to tell us how we can begin to cease this futile grinding and enter into non-doing action.

“Think of the small as large and the few as many.” We are already embracing this concept when we create our “for at least twenty minutes” action. Instead of attempting to face the “large”, something like “get my new business up and running”, we are breaking it down into the workably “small” – “for at least twenty minutes make a list of possible investors for my new business.” This seemingly “small” action is in actuality the “large” because the reality is, there is no “large.” Every great enterprise is nothing more than “a series of small acts.” Because of underlying fear, the ego often wants to move the attention to the “large” (future/fantasy) and therein lies the trap. The solution is to gently bring the attention to the “small” (present/reality). There is a technique I practice which I call “back up, chop down.” If a task reveals itself to be to complex and confusing we can step back and chop it down into a smaller task. For example if we are setting out to “for at least twenty minutes work on the first draft of my screenplay” and we realize we don’t know how or where to begin, we can “back up, chop down” and “for at least twenty minutes work on an outline for the first draft of my screenplay” or, even, “for at least twenty minutes research how to write an outline for a screenplay.” When we practice “back up, chop down” we also get an experience of how the “few” are in reality the “many.” The single action of researching how to write an outline for a screenplay gives birth to writing an outline for a screenplay which leads to writing a first draft, then a second draft, a third, etc. The simplest initial baby step, or the “few”, is the entry point to more complex and varied actions, or the “many.”

“When she runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. She doesn’t cling to her own comfort; thus problems are no problem for her.” I think this can be illustrated if we go back to the idea of the master poker player that I mentioned in last week’s Reflection. When getting what many of us would judge as a “lousy hand”, the expert poker player wastes no time in bemoaning the fates, “Damn it! Why couldn’t I draw a full house!” On the contrary, there is no judgment whatsoever. The master card shark immediately goes to their statistical knowledge of what move makes the most sense, reads the other players, takes into consideration the current pot, etc. “Problems are no problem” for the card shark because they live in solution and acceptance. They, as we can gently begin to learn, take it one card at a time, and simply, directly play the hand they are dealt.

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