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The Tao makes no effort at all, yet there is nothing it doesn’t do

The Tao makes no effort at all
yet there is nothing it doesn’t do
if a ruler could uphold it
the people by themselves would change
and changing if their desires stirred
he could make them still
with simplicity that has no name
and stilled by nameless simplicity
they would not desire
and not desiring be at peace
the world would fix itself

Taoteching verse 37, translated by Red Pine

Verse 37 opens with a famous and enigmatic saying of the Taoteching: The Tao accomplishes everything, yet it makes no effort. This is otherwise known as “wu wei”, i.e., “effortless action.”

It is important to note here that a popular misconception of yin-yang is that it represents an eternal, static harmony. Rather, yin-yang is a dynamic, creative tension that moves the cosmos along. Change is inherent in the idea. It is likewise inherent in the idea of wu wei. Action always results in change but, in the case of wu wei, it is effortless action.

Change is the way of nature; change is Tao. In a society following the Tao, Lao-Tzu says here, people would change by themselves, without interference from the ruler. But this is not change driven by desire (i.e., [mimesis]). There is a difference between change driven by dissatisfaction (desire) and change as adaptation to changing circumstances. The latter is the way of nature; the former is the cause of all conflict.

The wise ruler—the sage—the one who rules themselves—responds to the stimulation of desire by invoking “nameless simplicity”—the Tao itself, that which cannot be named. The Tao calls us away from mimesis, back to our own natures. Once aligned with our own natures, we can adapt as necessary, out of an interior stillness not driven by desire. The problems of a society full of such people would be solved effortlessly.

The Tao, doing nothing, leaves nothing undone.

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