Written by Lao Tzu over 2,500 years ago, the Tao te Ching is my favorite book of wisdom. The fact that its insights ring true all these millennia later shows just how timeless it is.
While I love the entire book, there are a few passages that resonate the most. One of them is from Chapter 3:
“Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.”
The key to the passage is the phrase ‘not-doing.’ What does Lao Tzu mean by that?
I interpret not-doing as synonymous with being. When we are simply being, we are present in the moment.
Not-doing means not getting trapped in ego
Just as important is where we aren’t when we are not-doing. We aren’t stuck in our heads with our attention hijacked by our thought factory minds. We’re not trapped in the clutches of our avaricious, drama loving egos.
The second half of the passage resonates most with me. “…everything will fall into place.” Why is that so important?
Because Lao Tzu is saying that all we need to do in life is be present. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself. I believe this to my core.
Teddy Roosevelt’s focus-on-the-moment credo
This has myriad applications to how we conduct our lives. I’ll throw out a random anecdote about how this applies to our working lives. It comes from my favorite American president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt prided himself on throwing everything he had into the work at hand. Whether it was rounding up cattle in the Badlands of Dakota Territory in his mid-20s or negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize), he gave 110 percent only to what he was working on at the moment.
Unlike most politicians, then and now, Roosevelt did NOT allow his attention to stray to things like scheming and schmoozing his way up the political ladder. He practiced being present on the work at hand and knew that the rest would take care of itself. Which it did. In spades.
I’ve worked hard these past several years to follow this simple credo I created for myself:
“Be present and trust in life.”
That second part about trust is essential. Why? Because most people get stuck in their heads and think and worry all the time for a reason. At some level, we believe that if we DON’T worry, about our bills, jobs, careers, etc., our lives will collapse into ruin.
So training our attention only on the present, and not worrying/thinking incessantly, requires some trust that doing so is in our best interests. The good news is that the more we do live in the present, and reap all the gold that that inevitably begets, the easier it gets to trust in that mode of living.
Practice, practice, practice
And how do we get better at not-doing/being/presence? Look no further than the first word of Lao Tzu’s passage: Practice. Notice that he doesn’t tell us to simply be present and everything will fall into place. He tells us to practice being present.
How do we practice not-doing? We meditate. Regularly. And we practice mindfulness throughout our days.
Chop the wood and carry the water
We commit ourselves to, as Ram Dass called it, chopping wood and carrying water in our spiritual practices. Slow and steady. Gradual progress. It’s not about meditating for fifty hours at a weeklong retreat. It’s about meditating for fifteen minutes a day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
When we do this, sooner or later we see that all this practicing of not-doing results in things falling into place in our lives. That’s been my experience.
It can be yours, too.
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