Another take on the Tao Te ChingDecember 20th, 2010
A central theme of the Tao Te Ching is that of wu wei, of nondoing.
But if you interpret it another way, it can also be taken to describe a state of effortless mastery. Stephen Mitchell put it most eloquently in the foreword to his translation.
“A good athlete can enter into a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke, or the right movement happens by itself effortlessly… the game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; …”
That’s great, but how do you get to that stage?
How do you get to the point where the notes play themselves, where you achieve a kind of oneness with what you do?
And this is where the Tao Te Ching falls short.
It fails to mention that effortless mastery comes at a price.
It talks about the effortlessness of water flowing to the sea, but water has to get to the mountains first before it can flow to the sea.
The Tao makes no mention of this fact.
(In the natural world, nature takes care of that. The sun evaporates the water from the sea and it condenses in the mountains to fall as rain. That’s a whole other subject altogether — using nature to work for you.)
It is in the last line of Chapter 28 that we get a glimpse of what effortlessness is all about in the Tao.
“A great tailor cuts little.”
The Tao here is referring to skill. Skill is what makes the difference between effortful and effortless. Because it requires a great deal of skill to know how to ‘cut little.’
Skills is at the heart of effortless nondoing.
If you have good skills, everything you do will seem effortless. Just watch a great player like John Williams and you will see how effortless he makes playing the guitar seem. He’s the tailor who cuts little.
But where does all that skill come from?
From a great deal of effort, years of patient practicing and experiencing.
The sentiments in the Tao are echoed by many other books on effortless mastery and living.
They all praise the concept and advocate a philosophy of effortlessness. But like the Tao, none of them mention the fact that effortless mastery comes at a price.
And that’s the irony of life, to achieve effortlessness, you have to be prepared to put in a great deal of effort.
That old law of no free lunch still holds true here.