Effortless Action (Teachings of the Tao Te Ching)


What is effortless action?

There are times in life when everything seems to flow by, one good experience after the other in a seemingly endless stream of positive and/or empowering experiences. The travelling lifestyle or University days seem to embody this sense of flow. During these episodes, it tends to be easy to have far-out conversations or to explore spirituality.

People often look back favourably on certain periods of their life, especially when they recently met a new love interest or had the luck to go on an extended vacation. In the midst of these times, events roll over us and we seem more adept at managing situations, often we operate at our peak, and others recognize this. We get the most out of life and the most out of other people. Nothing feels like hard work, day-to-day actions are almost effortless.

The problem is that life is long and favourable conditions such as the above are comparatively short. I want to talk about developing a state of effortless action akin to these times when external conditions are not so amenable, when work is stressful, when partners are difficult, when life seems bleaker than the aforementioned happy days. In this post, I will take excerpts from the Tao Te Ching and explain how they can be interpreted as messages for living a better life on a day to day basis.


Teaching Without Words

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu mentions ‘sages’ many times. A sage is a wise person, considered to be knowledgeable by others, respected, venerated. Not everyone aims to be a sage, and I would say in the West we have somewhat lost the concept. It has probably been replaced by the term ‘guru’. The importance of sages in the text is that Lao Tzu will describe characteristics that sages have as if they are desirable. To be sage-like according to Lao Tzu is to live well. Early in the text, we are told that sages practice nonaction, a term I will take to be synonymous with effortless action as described above.

‘This is why sages abide in the business of nonaction,
And practice teaching that is without words.’

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

Practicing teaching without words is a verbal puzzle typical of the Tao Te Ching. I would say that it means to lead by example, to teach others not with words, but with one’s actions. That others may see what you do in the world and learn from this. Taken together these two lines suggest that achieving a state of effortless action in one’s own life will serve as a beacon to others that they could live their lives in the same way.

We know when we are proud of what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved. As long as we are not a sociopath, by the time we reach adulthood we have a pretty good handle on what behaviours can be endorsed, those that are outright wrong and the grey area in between where we can dabble if we choose. I would say becoming sage-like is learning how to eradicate any need for the grey area.



To keep up a cheery demeanour in the face of life’s frustrations is a sign of a strong character. The lines which immediately follow the above in the Tao Te Ching relate to working with the forces of life;

‘They work with the myriad creatures and turn none away.
They produce without possessing.’

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

Here the Tao Te Ching is telling us that sages work with all living and non-living forms. The myriad creatures for Lao Tzu may have involved spirits and mystical forces. A modern day interpretation would be to accept events as they happen for we have little control over the myriad of events that can occur. I would say producing without possessing is indicative of sages knowing whatever it is they are practising through and through, trusting in themselves, knowing that they are enough on their own to deal with whatever life throws at them. So the message here is to trust in yourself, have confidence in your decisions, and do not judge the world for sub-optimal circumstances.


Present Focused

A lot is said about living in the present and countless volumes have been written on breathing exercises and meditations to help with focusing the mind on the present moment. It is not my intention to recover that ground, but it is worth saying that effortless action does require a certain element of present focus. Talking again about sages, The Tao Te Ching says;

‘They act with no expectation of reward.
When their work is done, they do not linger.’

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2

For me, these two lines relate to focusing on the present. There is no consideration of the benefits present actions taken will produce in the future. Meanwhile not lingering is potentially a reference to always keeping moving, keeping high energy, moving from one project to another. In life, it is worth having projects and past times that one can always escape to. Time becomes more and more scarce as commitments grow but we should always make time for our selves and interests in our days.


Staying Stable

To do all of the above is good but it is not enough. You don’t want to get carried away, caught up in life. For some individuals, there’s a risk of losing one’s grip on reality whilst having too good a time or becoming depressed through having too bad a time. In the Tao Te Ching we are cautioned in a later chapter;

‘Comprehending all within the four directions, can you reside in nonaction?’

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 10

For me, this question is asking whether we can achieve great understanding and still keep everything together. I think finding a source of stability is more important than all of the other aspects I’ve outlined. Experiencing the state of effortless action can be a great thing, but it needs to be sustainable. It is possible a source of stability could be an interest such as an ongoing passion but its more likely to be a person with a balancing effect on your personality.


Drawing from the Tao Te Ching

This post has talked about the life experience/process of effortless action. It has outlined that to achieve effortless action may require us to lead by example, although that doesn’t mean we need to actually be leading anything; just that we should be sure of ourselves and our actions. It has discussed the need to be non-judgmental of the world and life events and to be present-focused.

The final point covered is to seek other people who may keep us stable when we need it. Nobody is an island, even the most individualistic people require input from others in their lives. Overall these are just a few excerpts and my own interpretation. I’ve found these tips helpful in some challenging times and I hope you can too.

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