Reading Wayne Dyer’s Change Your Thoughts — Change Your Life towards the end of my Year of Nothing was remarkably revelatory. Both the chain of events that led me to the book and its content helped me put in perspective what I gained during this year, and made me realize that I had become a Taoist without noticing.
Here are the most important Year-of-Nothing lessons, and the corresponding passages of the book that clarified each of them.
Doing nothing for a whole year detoxed my system from “achievement addiction.” It developed my capacity to be content with who I already am, the serenity to appreciate all the positives that already exist in my life.
The 3rd verse of the Tao Te Ching hints at the connection between non-doing and contentment.
The sage governs by emptying minds and hearts, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
Practice not doing… When action is pure and selfless, everything settles into its own perfect place
Taking a long enough break from goal-oriented action seems to have a taming effect on the ego, isolating us from its constant push to move things forward, and therefore allowing our better appreciation of the blessings of what we already are and have.
Here’s Dyer’s interpretation of this part of the 3rd verse, which he entitles “Living Contentment”:
You may have a long list of goals that you believe will provide you with contentment when they’re achieved, yet if you examine your state of happiness in this moment, you’ll notice that the fulfillment of some previous ambitions didn’t create an enduring sense of joy… “Stop pushing yourself,” Lao-tzu would say, “and feel gratitude and awe for what is. Your life is controlled by something far bigger and more significant than the petty details of your lofty aspirations.”
Doing nothing for so long somehow directed a lot of my psychic energy inwards, building my courage to take hard looks at myself. I now am clear about what made me deviate from my core values in the past. I feel more compassionate.
I am also more able to accept that many of the things we assume as “achievements” are due to factors out of our control — for instance, the huge material abundance in our lives is in large part a result of simply having been born in the Western hemisphere of the world.
In this regard, the 9th verse of the Tao Te Ching reads:
To keep on filling is not as good as stopping.
Overfilled, the cupped hands drip, better to stop pouring.
Retire when the work is done; this is the way of heaven.
Dyer interprets the central message of this verse to be “Living Humility”:
Cramming life with… activities when we’ve obviously reached a point where more is less indicates being in harmony with ego, not the Tao! Living humility knows when to just stop, let go, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. This verse clearly analogizes that the pursuit of more status, more money, more power, more approval, more stuff, is as foolish as honing a carving knife after it has reached its zenith of sharpness. Obviously, to continue would just create dullness, and it is obvious that a keen edge represents perfection.
Our happiness comes mostly from the relationships we build. We cannot really say that we “achieve” truly meaningful and fulfilling relationships, for what works best in that department is to allow our capacity for joyful giving to emerge. This is a state that by definition cannot be willed. It comes about as a spontaneous byproduct of contentment and humility, both also elusive to our conscious efforts. Try too hard, and you break the spell.
But there’s something to doing nothing for a while, either by meditating or taking a quiet walk in the park or surrendering to a Year of Nothing, that does the trick.
In this regard, the 7th verse of the Tao Te Ching reads:
…Why do heaven and earth last forever? They do not live for themselves only. This is the secret of their durability.
For this reason the sage puts himself last and so ends up ahead. He stays a witness to life, so he undures.
Serve the needs of others and all your own needs will be fulfilled. Through selfless action, fulfillment in attained.
Dyer interprets this verse as “Living Beyond Ego”:
The more you pursue desires, the more they elude you. Try letting life come to you and begin to notice the clues that what you crave is on its way… Stay appreciative of all that you receive… Stop the chase and become a withness — soothe your demanding habits by refusing to continue running after more. By letting go, you let God; and even more significantly, you become more like God and less like the ego…
Soon after I took the plunge, quitting a business and lifestyle that were clashing with my most important values, and let myself go with the flow without specific expectations, I was surprised with a very particular sense of self-confidence. Not the kind that comes from reinforcing the ego, but from faith — a conviction that whatever was going to happen, I would be just fine. I felt happy to live with the worst case scenario if I ever needed to, in order to stay true to myself and do the right thing.
Gradually, all sort of synchronicities started to happen, as if by meaningful coincidences the right people, information, opportunities and resources stumbled into me at the right time and place. I started feeling incredibly “lucky.” And yet, I sensed that somehow this luck was the result of my having become less fearful towards the fuzziness of life’s adventure.
The 55th verse of the Tao Te Ching states that
He who is in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child. Deadly insects will not sting him. Wild beasts will not attack him. Birds of pray will not strike him. Bones are weak, muscles are soft, yet his grasp is firm.
In his interpretation of this verse, entitled “Living by Letting Go,” Dyer elaborates:
Verse 55 of the Tao Te Ching incites you to realize that what you call luck isn’t something that randomly happens–it’s yours for life when you decide to live by letting go… letting go for protection sounds paradoxical… But try seeing it as a way of allowing life’s natural rhythm to flow unimpeded through you. Living by letting go means releasing worry, stress and fear. When you promote your sense of well-being in the face of what appears as danger to others, your alignment with your Source frees you from pushing yourself to act in a forceful manner. La-tzu reminds you here that “things that are forced grow for a while, but then wither away.”
Living by letting go will allow you to appreciate Lin Yutang’s wry observation in The Importance of Living: “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”
The notion of luck postulated in this verse of the Tao Te Ching resonates much stronger with me than the Law of Attraction and similar concepts preached by all sorts of personal development gurus these days. There’s no way that “the universe will conspire to get us what we want” until we loose our attachment to whatever it is that we want so badly, are content with what we already have and who we are, and have faith that as long as we let go and let our actions be guided by a sense of higher purpose, we will be OK with whatever life puts us through.
During the last 2-3 months of my Year of Nothing, my desire for pursuing goals again started growing fast. But I noticed important changes in the way I approach the concept of action. Paradoxically, there is something to non-doing and trusting your “luck” that also brings clarity as to how simple (yet not easy) it is to voluntarily bring about change in the world through action. It’s as if I can see the chain of causality from action to results much more clearly. That fresh clarity gave me a huge motivational boost.
This goes as well for the negative consequence of our actions in the world — I can confidently say that today I am much more conscious of the environmental impact of my lifestyle, and of the unintended consequences for others that my actions might have.
Also of crucial importance has been a strong intuition on the value of following the path of less resistance in life. As it happens to be, I also discovered that traditional Chinese thinkers regarded this principle as the key to enlightenment, the concept of “effortless action” or wu-wei being an analogue to the Buddhist notion of Nirvana.
This is very much in line with modern notions of personal development and business thought that advocate a motivational focus on personal strengths, passions and meaning instead of profit and other external forms of reward. Action that is in line with our talents or level of skill, is exciting, and/or meaningful cannot be said to involve effort in the sense of struggle, tedium or moral torment.
Doing nothing and wu-wei are so interlinked in the traditional Chinese psyche that both are sometimes identified and referred to as “non-action.”
The Tao Te Ching’s 43rd verse is particularly straightforward on this subject:
The softest of all things overrides the hardest of all thigns. That without substance enters where there is no space. Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words, performing without actions–few in the world can grasp it–that is the master’s way…
And Dyer’s commentary:
[The principle of non-action] is clearly seen when you look at great champions as they perform their chosen activities. The greatest golfers are effortless in their swing… they don’t use force, nor can they find words to describe how they do it. The most talented artists dance softly, without effort; paint quietly, without force; and write easily, without struggle, by allowing the words to come to them.
…Some marathon runners say that they’ve learned to relax and stop pushing, letting their legs, arms and torso simply be as their bodies begin experiencing extreme exhaustion with only only a few miles to go. They report that when they shut down the mental interference and instructions they magically cross that finish line.
Apply this way of seeing everything in your world: Tasks will be simplified, your performance level will increase, and the pressure to be better than others by using superior hardened strength will cease to be a factor.
As a result of my Year of Nothing, I have also gained a much tighter control over my urges to be active for its own sakes, which more often than not is simply a modern form of procrastination.
In a nutshell, having spent such a long period of time in non-action, paradoxically gave me a much better sense of the value of action.
Equally important in the Taoist notion of wu-wei is the concept of timing. In order for action to be effortless, we must learn to act only when the time is right. Doing nothing for such long time allowed me to appreciate the value of dwelling in non-action for as long as it is needed, until the right time to act arrives.
Living from the void
Last but not least, doing nothing for a whole year somehow infused me with a sense of spirituality, with the notion that there is a creative, overarching consciousness “out there” that nurtures every single thing in the universe. I can’t help but wonder about the possibility of synchronicity and “luck” as discussed above being mechanisms by which this higher consciousness communicates with us.
With hindsight, I think I now have a better idea of how this process of “illumination through non-action” might occur. In the Taoist view, “emptying” the mind of thoughts and desires through meditation and other techniques, takes us from doing nothing to being nothing — and nothingness is at the core of the “nameless,” “formless” source of everything that they called the Tao.
That’s why meditation is viewed by Taoists as a means to “harmonize people with nature:” making us more spontaneous, allowing us to discover our true vocations, more respectful of other life forms by becoming empathetic, compassionate and less judgmental, etc.
But above and beyond all these positive effects, there is a deeper experience of transcendence, a sort of heightened awareness about the Tao as that higher form of consciousness that is so appealing to me nowadays. A deeper inner conviction that in ancient Chinese thought was the spiritual anchor that allows one to “live by letting go” as discussed above.
That is the principle embodied in the 11th verse of the Tao Te Ching:
Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub; it is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges.
Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that makes it useful. Carve fine doors and windows, but the room is useful in its emptiness.
The usefulness of what is depends on what is not.
These are Dyer’s words on the meaning of this verse, which he interprets as “Living from the void”:
A composer once told me that the silence from which each note emerges is more important than the note itslef. He said that that it’s the empty space between the notes that literally allows the music to be music — if there’s no void, there’s only continuous sound. You can apply this subtle awareness to everything that you experience in your daily life. Ask yourself what makes a tree, a tree. The bark? The branches? The roots? The leaves? All of these things are what is. And all of them do not constitute a tree. What’s needed to have a tree is what is not — an imperceptible, invisible life force that eludes your five senses. You can cut and carve and search the cells of a tree endlessly and you’ll never capture it.
This is the fifth, and last post of the “Year of Nothing” series. For the fourth post of the series, click here.