”There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken in the flood, leads on to fortune”
                                    Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Not-Doing is often confused with ‘doing nothing’ and though it can indeed be effective to abstain from doing something if and when your opponent expects you to do something (the ancient Chinese manual “The Art of War” recommends such behaviour), this is not the usual meaning of the Taoist term ‘Not-Doing’. As I understand it, the principle goes like this.
A man can lift vast weights by setting up some sort of system of gears and pulleys which get natural forces, far stronger than human muscles, to ‘do the work’ for him or her. People knew about leverage long before it was studied systematically: nonetheless it is worthwhile understanding the principles (first elucidated by Archimedes)  for then they can be extended much further and applied in unlikely situations. The central tenet of the ‘science’ I am constructing, Ultimate Event Theory, is that reality is not made up of things but of events and these events are usually bound together in chains and clusters. The power of event-chains is immense : indeed nuclear or gravitational forces are no more and no less than examples of physical event-chains which have stabilised and become persistent, i.e. the same sort of behaviour repeats endlessly. There is no essential difference between biological or human event-chains and physical event-chains : the chief difference is that physical ones are so stable and predictable that they are considered to obey ‘laws of Nature’.
The technique of ‘Not-Doing’ consists in adroitly interfering in certain event-chains to achieve specific goals  : human beings already know how to do this in physical matters, hence the explosion of science and technology. However, their attitude towards the patterns of their own existences is usually passive and defeatist: they do not believe it to be possible to manipulate their own life-sequences to their advantage except in completely trivial ways (if that). But by  inserting oneself into a particular situation or configuration at the appropriate place and moment (and only at the appropriate place and moment), one can “get events to work for you” so to speak – though in fact they are not working for you, simply continuing to function ‘normally’. This is generally thought to be impossible because reality is viewed either as strictly deterministic, or, alternatively, as totally unpredictable and haphazard.  So either way you lose because you are powerless, or feel yourself to be.
I sometimes think of ‘life’ as being like loggers travelling downstream on log-rafts  : they are carried along at breakneck speed by forces far greater than themselves. If they are being taken into a backwater, they have the possibility of jumping onto another log-raft  and, in so doing, not only can they use the momentum of the other log-raft but, by jumping across, they impart a slight deviation to the course of the second log which may be enough to initiate vast changes. They can be taken much farther than would be possible by ‘Doing’, i.e. by deliberate action, since they are using to their advantage natural forces. The person who is able to manipulate events to his or her advantage will be successful (whether famous or not, that depends on whether he wants it), the person who has no feel for or control over events will be consigned to mediocrity and, probably, dissatisfaction also. In the past people talked of ‘Providence’ (as Cromwell did) but ‘Providence’ is in reality something just as ‘mechanical’ as atmospheric pressure or the behaviour of liquids. ‘Event-control’ has nothing necessarily to do with morality or religion : it is a technique that can be developed and rests on certain theoretical principles. These principles include but go beyond the ‘gut instincts’ and ‘rules of thumb’ of successful businessmen and in particular imply a very different sort of physics to the present one.
The technique, however, is both dangerous and tricky. Dangerous because one can all too easily be swept away by forces beyond one’s control; tricky because it is necessary to initially ‘do’ something, show will, but then ‘take oneself out of the picture’, let abstract forces do the work for you. The Tao Te Ching is always going on about “not interfering”, “going with the flow” and so forth – but this book, perhaps deliberately, does not stress that initially will and decision are required : passivity by itself is not enough. Very few people are able to combine determination and fluidity, able to work with determination for a goal but be ready to seize chance opportunities.     SH

Comment by Keith Walton:

A canoeist friend tells me that, when a canoe is being carried downstream, the canoeist is only in control if he is paddling so that it is travelling faster than the stream. If he is just being carried along, he’s not in control, and can’t direct the craft. So his paddling creates the ‘continuous moment’ in which he can, at any time, intervene, and direct the canoe.
This seems analogous to (or the same as?) the martial arts’ practitioner’s constant work, even when apparently ‘doing nothing’, to be always and continuously ‘in the moment’, so that when the ‘gap in the action’ appears, into which he can insert his action, that minimal action can produce devastating results. His work is not in the action, but in a) his history of learning and practice, so he knows ‘instinctively’ what action is appropriate,  and b) in being constantly ready to act.

Sebastian Hayes adds:

This is an extremely important point. I had previously seen event strategies as being either/or, either you use force and impose yourself to get results, or you make yourself directionless and ‘go with the flow’. This what the Tao Te Ching would call the methods of Doing  and Not-Doing and the Tao Te Ching is emphatic that the superior strategy is ‘Not-Doing’. There are, however, dangers in just drifting and seeing where it takes you : the method is too passive.
Sun Tzu, the Taoist author of The Art of War states “Skilful warriors are able to allow the force of momentum to seize victory for them without exerting their strength”. Yes, many commanders have indeed conducted successful campaigns where they systematically avoided pitched battles : this is how Fabius Maximus Cunctator managed to wear down the mighty Hannibal, one of the greatest military commanders of all time. Also, Mao Tse Tung initially  always avoided outright confrontation with Chiang-kai-chek’s numerically superior Nationalist armies and spent most of his time apparently ‘running away’. However, if a commander or individual is never prepared to fight, and this gets out (which it will do inevitably), he will be wiped out. The canoeist analogy seems extremely apt here. Most of the work is being done by the current but, if the canoeist is not exerting a certain amount of force, enough to just keep ahead, his craft will capsize or he will be taken onto the rapids.
The path of systematic ‘Not-Doing’ is thus only to be recommended to persons who are already committed to an active life-style and who cannot afford to be completely passive. Castaneda’s  Don Juan is always repeating to his pupil that ‘seeing’ is no good unless one also “has the mood of a warrior’. Why so? Because the warrior is in a profession where he simply cannot afford to be completely passive. It is noteworthy that the man credited with the astounding statement, “No man rises so high as he who does not know where he is going” was a cavalry officer, namely Oliver Cromwell. Probably the reason the Tao Te Ching emphasizes the ‘passive’ aspect of successful strategy was because China was going through a period of upheaval at the time, the ‘Warring States Period’.
Keith added that this point explains why and how the Sixties ‘cultural revolution’ in the West went wrong : people simply drifted with the current, “Drop Out, Tune in and Turn on” as Timothy Leary, the LSD guru put it. The Sixties generation omitted to make sure they were slightly ahead of the current with ultimately  disastrous consequences.   I added that ‘seizing the occasion’ may well correspond to suddenly ceasing to exert this slight extra force — a sort of ‘Not-Doing of Not-Doing’. In such a case you really do ‘drop out’ for the current speeds on without you. If where you find yourself is  where you want to be, this is exactly right : you only have to swim to the side and climb up the bank.
To sum up: Being ‘in the flow’ is dangerous unless you keep very slightly ahead of the currrent, and remain on the qui vive, ready to seize the propitious moment.       SH 

 

 

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