Actionless Action

The time I should have been doing an MBA, I spent studying Taoist philosophy.

It’s a maddening, fascinating collection of elliptically expressed ideas from a bunch of characters who were probably completely fictitious.

That was 33 words that probably drove away 90% of the readers who happened across this. If you are still with me, welcome! Relax – you are among friends.

One of the most interesting Taoist concepts is wu wei – which can be translated as “actionless action”. Achieve everything by doing nothing or, as Lao Tzu says “the sage does nothing, and nothing remains undone.” This is really quite strange and I felt a little silly talking about it, until I realised I knew a master practitioner. In fact, I was married to one.

My wife is Italian. We met while I was working in Italy. When we married and moved to the UK, she got a job as a psychotherapist in a big central London hospital. She was very effective, able to help people who came to her with files two inches thick from previous contacts with a whole range of services. One of her patients, who presented as a homeless woman with a history of suicide attempts, is now a qualified lawyer.

What this has to do with wu wei is that, at the time, Sara didn’t really speak english. Hardly at all. You might think that this would be a handicap in delivering a “talking cure” but it  wasn’t. Somehow, she was able to change the climate around her in a way that made people more resourceful, more able to help themselves, less desperate or suicidal.

There are probably other people like this. Police officers who just need to walk onto the scene for everyone to calm down. Salespeople who sell without selling. Managers who never exercise their authority because people just do what’s expected of them. Experts in conflict resolution who leave everyone wondering what all the fuss was about.

I am left with the tantalising thought that there is a different, more subtle, less stressful way of doing almost anything that involves human beings. And it’s there, right in front of us, hidden in plain sight because it looks like nothing.