Accomplishing Everything by Doing Nothing

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I just got some clarity recently on something I’ve been puzzling about for a long time.

Years ago, I read in the Tao Te Ching that “the masters accomplish everything by doing nothing.” I believed that Lao Tzu was reporting honestly about what he was witnessing about the behavior of the masters, I just couldn’t comprehend how they did it. How could doing nothing accomplish anything?

The notion didn’t fit with my view of the world: unbroken chains of cause and effect; results stemming from actions; needing to effort to make any headway; F=ma; without applying a force or effort, inertia kept everything going along just like it already is.

But then, recently, during a live call for our Taming the Bear stress class, we were continuing in the phase of class where we teach the students how to make the observations in their lives-and start asking themselves the kinds of questions-that lead to lasting inner change and transformation.

One of the students had had a very busy week and was really frustrated that they couldn’t access the Tools and feel more calm and self-compassionate. They were telling themselves all week that they didn’t need to feel so frustrated, that they knew how to be kind and compassionate toward themselves. Yet, every time they talked to themselves that way, they got more and more frustrated, and calm, inner peace felt further and further away.

Have you ever been really frustrated, angry, upset, anxious, or judgmental toward yourself and someone else pointed out that you could just be kinder to yourself? How did that feel? How well does it work for someone else to tell you to be compassionate toward yourself? Most class members reported that it didn’t feel good nor work very well. Then we explored how it felt when you tell yourself to be kinder to yourself, more compassionate toward yourself.

Much to their surprise, most of the student found that it felt the same way as when someone else told them. So this is an interesting problem. How do you grow kindness and compassion for yourself if reminding yourself to do it just engages your resistance and the rebellious part of yourself? In more general terms, the problem can be stated that trying to make yourself any different than you are in that moment, even if it is toward inner states as noble as empathy and compassion, just keeps you stuck. (On deeper analysis, one can see that this principle is a law of Consciousness and it doesn’t matter if it is broken by someone else telling you or you telling yourself to be different than you are. The law Is still violated.)

Then someone asked the frustrated student how those feelings of frustration and stuckness wanted them to be with them. The student was silent for a moment as they listened in and, in an almost tearful way, answered that those feelings just wanted to be, they didn’t want to be forced or fixed, they just wanted the space to be. (Not surprisingly, all parts of you want what you want.) As the student stopped all efforts or expectations toward those uncomfortable feelings, the feelings shifted, they lightened, they felt much less problematic. That student got out of their frustration and stuckness basically by “doing” nothing. They got there by “being” self-honest, self-aware, trusting, and accepting.

Telling themselves how to be didn’t work to create lasting change; but asking themselves what quality of presence to offer themselves did. The funny thing is, for years, in the office, when a patient is dialoguing with their headache, their tumor, their allergies, arthritis…whatever they are dealing with…I have encouraged them to ask that question, “Okay, (fill in the blank),how do you want me to be with you?” and I’ve never seen some part of someone ask to be attacked, judged, criticized, drugged, beaten up, or annihilated. They always ask to be seen, heard, respected, or something similar.

I just never put it together until today that that “un-doing,” that “stop the efforting,” that “being” is the way to accomplishment that Lao Tzu was referring to.

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