Do Nothing?
or Do Everything?
The Tao

By Catherine Exton (8/14/11)

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Good Morning! And Welcome!

My name is Catherine Exton. I work with Aiya on the newsletter and I help out in the community kitchen.

I am here today to introduce you to two principles of Tao: Doing Nothing and Doing Everything.

Before I go into that I will give you a brief description of Tao.


This is the Chinese character for Tao. It means starting out on a track while standing still – In other words, being present in the moment.

Tao is the way, the path, and the source of all things. Tao is nameless, formless, without limits, and timeless. It creates, nurtures and destroys all things in an eternal cycle from chaos to form and back to elemental chaos. It embraces all things. Nothing is lost. All things are equally precious and significant.

To follow Tao is to find one’s place in the natural order of things.

In Tao, the three foundations of life are:

The well-being of individuals
Harmony within social groups, and
Practices that evolve consciousness.

Taoists know that life comes and goes. They deny none of their inclinations. They repress none of their desires. They gather pleasure as it appears. They shun personal fame and fortune. They are beyond caring or fearing the outcome of any situation.

Two books on Taoism were written centuries before Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. Unfortunately, both of these books were lost.

Lao Tzu recorded his observations on Tao around 614 B.C. Though it is not certain whether Lao Tzu was one person or many, he was a contemporary of Confucius, Buddha, and Pythagoras.

Legend has it that his mother conceived him while she watched a shooting star fly through the night sky. When he was born he was 62 years old. Hence the name, Lao Tzu, which means “Old Master.”

He wrote the Tao Te Ching for a young border guard who stopped him as he was leaving China on the back of a black ox.

Tao means “way.” Te means “Virtue.” And Ching means “Book.” So Tao Te Ching means the book of the way and virtue.


We live in a culture that exalts DOING. If you are not a doer, you are a slacker. You are supposed to take control of your life and make things happen. But this is all about using force to get what you want. Oprah reminded us that we are human BEINGS not human DOINGS.  

In the philosophy of Tao, doing nothing has great value and is called Wu-wei. Wu means non Wei means action So Wu Wei means non action.

Doing everything is Wu Bu Wei. It translates as not non action or simply action.
(Wu means non, Bu means not, and Wei means action)

To keep things simple I will refer to non-action as Wu Wei and action as Wei.

So Wu Wei as non-action and Wei as action.

Wu Wei is NOT refusing to do anything, nor is it about being idle.

Wu Wei is letting nature take its course, doing nothing against nature, and never forcing anyone or anything to act against its nature. It is spontaneity, creativity and doing things effortlessly, without struggling.

We are in Wu Wei when we are flexible, adaptable, and open to change.

Wu Wei is flexibility. Stiffness is death. The tongue is flexible. The teeth are stiff. Which falls out first?

Wu Wei is knowing when to act and when not to act: knowing when and how to act with respect to natural processes. Wu Wei is being open and receptive.

When you feel connected to nature, to the world, you are in Wu Wei. Wu Wei is being fully open to that which wells up from within our heart of hearts. It is the place within each of us that is in communion with and at one with all that exists.

It is not stagnation. It is acknowledging past mistakes and moving forward, without guilt.

So, instead of bemoaning past mistakes, we can ask ourselves what we can learn from them. Then we can use what we learn to proceed to our next step. Because, just when we think we’ve begun to understand a part of our path, new information flows in and we are presented with a new puzzle.

The inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner created hundreds of prototypes that failed. But each failure gave him valuable information that allowed him to build the next prototype.

When Thomas Edison’s laboratory burned to the ground, he said, “Thank God, we can begin anew.”

Think of WATER as the essence of WU WEI or NON-ACTION.

As water flows downhill, it takes the path of least resistance. It takes many shapes and adapts itself to the form of its surroundings. It ventures into low places and still preserves its dignity.

The humility and weakness of water are its greatest strengths: Without striving, it carves away caves and canyons and smooths the most jagged of rocks.

So behave like water, take on its nature and swim in the world.

EMPTINESS is another way to think of WU WEI

When you think of emptiness, what comes to mind?

Tao has a positive spin on emptiness.

Think of a bowl. A bowl has value because the empty space within it can receive things. Like the bowl we become receptive when we empty ourselves of anxiety, preconceptions, greed, and false ambitions.

We can become the empty vessel, open and receptive to possibilities.

We find this physical space within us by exhaling. We have all been in stressful situations that cause us to do this: (Blow out). This is your body’s way of releasing tension.

You can do this intentionally with the following technique.

[Do belly-breathing technique. Breathe in through nostrils and out through mouth. ]

I’ll demonstrate this. What you are doing is getting a better air exchange. When you empty out your lungs you can then pull in more air, which gives you more oxygen. It helps reduce blood pressure and slow down your heart rate.

We have some great expressions of Wu Wei or non-action in our culture.

I’ll begin each saying, and I invite you to finish it.

Take it . . . easy.

Go with the . . . flow.

Let go and . . . let God.

If it ain’t broke . . . don’t fix it.

Look before . . . you leap.

Haste makes . . . waste.

Less is . . . more.

Man proposes . . . God disposes.

If at first you don’t succeed . . . try, try, try again.

Don’t jump to . . . conclusions.

When life hands you lemons . . . make lemonade.

Act in haste . . . repent at leisure.

Good things come to . . . him who waits.

He who hesitates . . . is lost.

The concept of Wu Wei or non-action is illustrated by the tale of two men who fall into a swiftly moving river.

The first, being too old and weak to fight the current, lets it carry him downstream. By surrendering to the current, he is swept out to calm waters.

The second, younger man tries to fight the current and drowns.

The old man accepted the nature of water, became one with it and was brought to safety. I want to point out that he could also have been swept over a waterfall.
But by not fighting the current he increased his chances of finding calm water.

Wu bu Wei is not-non-action OR action. It is doing all things, leaving nothing undone.

It is being thorough.

It is doing everything creatively to build a good habit

Wei is refusing to do insignificant or trivial things. It aims for key matters. Wei is being focused.

We cannot predict from moment to moment when we will be in Wu Wei or in Wei.

When do you hold your tongue? When do you speak your mind? Every day we have to make choices between action and non-action.

It is important to practice Wu Wei, or non-action, before you practice Wei or action. Think before you act.

The mindsets of Wu Wei and Wei are never elated, never depressed; they always flow at peace, they are calm.

Who here is a bird-watcher? And how do you go about it?

Wu Wei style (non-action): You find a place in the forest where you can sit down with your back against a tree. Sit quietly without moving, for 20 minutes. By that time, the birds will have accepted you as part of the environment and will go about their activities without hesitation.

Result: You may not see as many birds but you will observe more of their behavior.

Wei style (action): You take a walk in the woods, looking for as many birds as you can find in the time you have.

Result: You will see more birds, but you will not see them for any great length of time.

Imagine you are drifting down a river in a canoe. You use your paddle only to avoid hitting rocks, submerged logs, debris and other boaters.

Who thinks you are using Wu Wei or non-action? Who thinks you are using Wei or action? Who thinks you are using both principles?

Go in Peace,
May you be equal to the tasks ahead of you,
Ready to renew yourself and to take on the unknown,
Eager to cast away old ideas that no longer work.
May you move with confidence into your future.

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