Not doing

APRIL 8 03 – There was a nice discussion about the Daoist idea of wuwei ('not doing') on the newsgroup alt.philosophy.taoism today. The usual difficulty had arisen whereby someone couldn't understand when a poster tried to explain to him that it didn't really mean 'doing nothing' but was to 'do without doing'.

I've never liked that way to explain it, it takes way from the simplicity of just 'not doing' (it does mean 'doing nothing' and nothing more). It is usually explained as 'doing without doing' by people who have an intellectual understanding of what they think wuwei means but do not really know what it means. They're just parroting what they've read in books (written by other people who didn't understand) in lieu of experience.

The person who had originally asked what wuwei meant framed the dilemma in a great question:

what is meant by 'to do without doing'?
what is the difference between doing
something without doing and
doing something with doing?
how does one live one's life so
that one does all things without doing?

I answered:

by not doing.

those who try to make out not doing means something more than not doing haven't learnt what not doing really means.

For years I've thought to myself those two characters wuwei have been subject to voluminous interpretation, but there was no getting away from the fact that it simply meant: not doing.

People love to make out 'not doing' really means a 'special' kind of doing. Well, of course it does, but still, all it means is not doing. People have a problem with simply not doing. Example is the best way to show wuwei, and a guy called Potts put it beautifully:

For example I got a garden bed in my back yard which from time to time requires digging up. Now I'm an old man and digging generally is not my favourite pastime. Sooo I tend to put it off. Then one morning I wake up, the sun is shining and without thinking I go out to the shed pick up the garden fork, enjoy the sunshining and the birds singing and dig up the garden bed without thinking about doing it. After an hour or so it's done. Doing without doing?

I responded:

Absolutely right. Even better if you don't have to 'put it off' because it doesn't occur to you that it 'needs doing'. I washed ink off my backdoor this afternoon, it took at most 10 minutes and a bit of scrubbing and a high-power jet from my plant mister. It was a sunny day, it was good to do it. It's been there a year and a half and I've been thinking I must do something about that.

Twenty years ago I lay on my bed reading the Daodejing, thinking all I want to do with my life is understand this book. That's also something I haven't thought about for twenty years. I must write a few notes on it here…