May 10, 2007


Caption: Feline Taoist sage Seamus McGoogle has mastered the art of non action.

El Cabrero was lucky to stumble upon his first copy of the Tao Te Ching as a teenager. I can't seem to keep a copy of it as I keep giving it away.

That ancient classic of Chinese philosophy is the guiding thread through this week's Goat Rope. If you haven't already, please click on the earlier entries.

Ever since starting to try to soak up that little book, I've always cringed when called an activist. From the Taoist point of view, that's a bad thing (see yesterday).

Briefly, Lao Tzu taught that aggressive action usually leads to resistance and unintended consequences. Instead, he called for non action (wu wei). Non action doesn't mean not doing anything, although it might if there's nothing better to do, but it does mean doing nothing that isn't timely and appropriate.

The best example I can think of comes from martial arts, where you often fail if you try to force a technique but can easily succeed if you wait for the proper opening. Too often, we're busy but not getting anything done and wasting energy. As they used to say in judo class, "If you're trying too hard, you're not doing it right."

In practice this may mean focusing on prevention rather than intervention, looking for the solution within the problem itself, or working with rather than against the grain of the situation.

Tao abides in non-action.
Yet nothing is left undone...

He who acts defeats his own purpose;
He who grasps loses.
The sage does not act, and so is not defeated.
He does not grasp and therefore does not lose.

The style of work advocated does not resemble chanting slogans from the barricades (although at rare times it might); at its best, it is often invisible. Non action can also mean waiting until there is an opportunity for effective intervention. As the eminent philosopher Tom Petty noted, the waiting is the hardest part. Lao Tzu asks,

Who can wait while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?

MORE ON SAGO. According to the new federal report on the Sago mine disaster, lightning may have set off the chain of events, but other precautions could have prevented or reduced the severity of the incident. Here's Ken Ward from today's Gazette.

LIVING WAGE FOR MARYLAND. This week Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed that state's new living wage law, which sets a baseline of pay for government service contractors. Here's more from the AFLCIO blog. A number of local governments have passed living wage ordinances, but Maryland is the first state to do so and could set the example for others to follow.


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