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Finding Tranquility Through Non-Action In An Age of Excessive Productivity

Quiet Quitting, the rise in ‘stay at home’ partners and people quitting their jobs to chase long-forgotten passions are indicative of the fact that the ‘gig economy’ is being perceived by an increasing number as unsustainable and more importantly, non-conducive for both a good quality of life and attainment of the highest sectors of Maslow’s pyramid. In my personal quest to push back against over-productivity and manage burnout, I stumbled upon and began to practice the principles of Taoism (Daoism) and implementing little changes throughout my life. I’ll discuss Taoism in detail, the positive ramifications of practising Taoism in today’s society, and with extensive reference to the text I engaged with; ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi)’ by Thomas Merton, I will draw on some note-worthy teachings and ways I tried to marry it with my other beliefs.


One cannot understand Taoism without understanding Tao. Many have confused Tao for God or something to be worshipped. Even though Taoism has space for deity worship, at its core, Tao is the principle underlying the universe, that weaves everything together. Tao combines within itself the principles of Yin (the negative dark and feminine energy)and Yang (the positive, bright and masculine energy).  Tao is, therefore; that in which all things exist, the rational basis of human conduct and the course of life and its relation to truth. Tao as the core of Taoism holds significant importance, the fact that Tao is not a person to be appeased or a force to be worshipped holds it closer to us, it is not something we should strive after, but something that exists without our efforts.


Taoism refers to the cultural, religious and textual traditions ranging from 500BCE to today. The founding of this belief is commonly attributed to Lao Tzu, who is also the author of some of the most veneered texts. Chuang Tzu or Zhuangzi is the author of the second foundational Taoist text named after the author. The historical evidence for Chuang Tzu is a lot stronger than that of Lao Tzu. Combining these two authors’ works together, some key principles of Taoism are as follows; inaction (also known as Wu Wei), simplicity and living in harmony with nature. 


The first principle, that of Wu Wei is key to Taoism as it is the act of remaining calm, and being in a state of non-strife. Chuang Tzu felt Wu Wei was the secret to living in harmony with Tao, he stated “My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness … Perfect joy is to be without joy … if you ask ‘what ought to be done’ and ‘what ought not to be done’ on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer” to suit every case. If one is in harmony with Tao—the cosmic Tao, “Great Tao”—the answer will make itself clear when the time comes to act” Excerpt From-The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton

In his texts, Chang Tzu repeatedly stresses that working towards goals; a higher social status, fame, more money or more of anything that you believe will attain happiness is working in opposing Tao.

Such a bold statement rejects what the present economic and social climate thrives off of; setting goals, striving to achieve things before certain landmarks, or working towards a new weight. Critics of Taoism might argue that this lifestyle of abandoning goals may lead to laziness, inactivity, or lack of productivity, but why does life need to be dictated by productivity levels? Chuang Tzu is not implying that it is wrong to have goals, or discouraging working towards them, upon further analysis of Chuang Tzu’s work we find that his reason for being against calculated steps lies in the fact that it leaves little allowance for the existence and interference of Tao, it works against the flow of Tao, which will ultimately lead to frustration. 


The means and the end remain unjustified as, in chasing goals or materialistic achievements, very little respect is paid to living in harmony with nature. On the second key principle of living in harmony with nature, it is a clear message to return to our roots and reduce the drastic, harmful impact we have on the environment. Living in harmony with nature is not feeding off it, but giving back to it. The environmental crisis also links to the third principle of simplicity. With a lifestyle in line with this principle, radical overconsumption under capitalism would drastically decrease. Simplicity would also beg for individuals to redefine the goals that they have set for themselves and whether they are in line with Tao or borne out of excess, the unhappiness and unsettling feeling that often accompanies constantly chasing after new accomplishments and not savouring the past ones. 

These principles suggest a stripped-back more down-to-earth lifestyle that if multiples subscribed to, would cause drastic positive change.


The way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton is reflective of both Merton and Tzu’s dedication to philosophy and lifelong learning. Merton, a catholic monk was described by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as ‘someone we can all look up to’ having ‘the complete qualities of hearing which means study, contemplation, thinking on the teachings- and of meditation’- an excerpt from the book’s preface. Merton compiled these teachings because he felt inspired by Chuang Tzu, he felt Chuang Tzu ‘concerned with the direct existential grasp of reality itself…’ which he wrote did not ‘lend itself to abstract reality’. And in every sense he was right.Upon reading the words of Chuang Tzu there was constant space for practical application after reflection, below are the results of some of these reflections.


-The useless tree- The first prose in the book, Chuang Tzu starts with a tale about a tree owned by Hui Tzu, who called the tree distorted and full of knots, it’s the inability to be used by carpenters and craftsmen rendered it, according to Hui, useless. Chuang Tzu took offence to Hui Tzu referring to the tree as useless, through his witty, anecdotal comparison he states;


“So for your big tree. No use?

Then plant it in the wasteland

In emptiness.

Walk idly around,

Rest under its shadow;

No axe or bill prepares its end.

No one will ever cut it down.”


Chuang Tzu infers that in and through Tao, everything has a meaning and a use, more importantly, he opens our eyes to the calamitous error of limiting the things around us, and even ourselves, when we label them based on ‘what we can get out of them’ or ‘the value we believe they bring to us’. To Chuang Tzu, in the right environment anything has meaning and purpose, so should be given that chance and that respect. We are taught by Keynesian economics that things fall into sectors known as the ‘factors of production’  which are; land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship. Subconsciously, we begin to filter and categorise ourselves, our work and things around us through this system, looking at what could be viable and key to increasing productivity, but Chuang Tzu challenges this by insisting that we let go of the subconscious sorting hat and embrace things as they are, for the good they could be.


-Two Kings and No-Form – This is the story of three kings, the north sea, the south sea and the place in between the seas, ruled by No-Form. No-Form was the bridge between the two who treated them both well, they wanted to surprise and reward no-form in the way that they knew best, which was to ‘poke holes for breathing, seeing, eating e.t.c’ as No-Form had such holes, true to his name. The north sea and south sea kings put holes in No-Form and in the end he lay dead because of it. The tale ends with a cautionary word from Lao-Tan ; ‘To organise is to destroy.’ 


This particular tale is striking because, on a close analysis of the intentions of the kings, they truly meant good for No-Form, they saw that he ‘lacked’ something that they felt they had and needed. This is reflective of modern life today, riddled with the need to constantly improve and continuously fix through comparison and goal setting. No-Form can take many roles, it could be ourselves, it could be our artistry or our academic lives, but the message implied is clear, once we begin to act like the north and south sea kings, critically looking at our content ‘no forms’ who treat us well and seldom complain, and feel the need to make additions or to organise, eventually the result is that we kill the ‘no-form’. No-Form could also be Nature, often human interference in nature leads to more harm than it does good, allowing things to run their course, leaving things to remain ‘disorganised’- which ultimately means seeing the beauty in something’s raw form is easier said than done, but it goes a long way in keeping our No-Form alive.



-The five enemies- The five enemies is a tale highlighting how the simplicity of man is lost through five things ‘Love of colors bewilders the eye,  Love of harmonies bewitches the ear,  Love of perfumes,  Love of flavors, Desires which unsettle the heart’.

This piece was unsettling as these enemies highlighted were things that I hold to be integral to a good life; colour, music, good smells, good food and good relationships. Chuang Tzu states that these are the things that ‘men of discernment’ claim to live for but these are not what he lives for and the people who chase these things are like ‘pigeons in a cage’. We can therefore infer that Chuang Tzu is opposed to hedonism, seeing a life dedicated to these five ‘enemies’ as imprisonment. Although understandable, I agree to disagree on living for these things- a life dedicated to passions found in art and music, and the comfort found in relationships are often the finer aspects of life. Here my understanding is that Chuang Tzu meant that focus on these things to a degree that takes away from Tao, and  the beauty in the world unfiltered and untouched is where the error lies.



-Action and non-action- If anything should be taken away from this book, the teachings of non-action would be the key takeaway. Chuang Tzu states that  “ “Joy does all things without concern: For emptiness, stillness, tranquillity, tastelessness,  Silence, and non-action are the root of all things.” Urged by Chuang Tzu to return to the root of being and work in line with Tao, I temporarily stepped away from teachings that although important in instilling hope, were not helpful in my present state. The course of non-action contended with ideals of ‘manifestation’ that I had adopted, just before they overtook the media. Manifestation promised that I could ‘craft my own reality’ and bring about the change that I wanted to see, but after reading the work of Chuang Tzu and naming  the course of nature and time as my own personal ‘Tao’, I began to feel disconnected from manifesting, especially since it stirred up feelings of worry and anxiety when the things I tried to manifest weren’t coming to pass. In implementing non-action, I was able to find the middle ground between new-age ideals like manifestation with the powerful teachings of Tao, I began to do my necessary work and ultimately set goals, but I provided much space to allow Tao to work in between the spaces, I allowed my No-Form to exist without erring on the side of the organisation to the point of death. The peace experienced as a result was astronomical.

A belief held is really just one that has gone long enough without being challenged, and through constantly opening myself up to learning, and reading about Taoism, I was able to let go of some beliefs that although helpful, had grown to be limiting to the latest version of myself. I learned a crucial lesson, in growing and maturing- take action through non-action and leave necessary space for Tao.


Photo credit- Notes on Liberty

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