“4 Necessary Steps to Effortless Action”
As we continue our focus on service, let’s look at the basics of action itself. What are the four steps we must consider before we can take meaningful action? Let’s look at ancient wisdom from the Tao to explore this very modern question.
Speaker: Rev. Melanie Eyre
When available, a revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
Community Circle Zoom Meeting/Discussion: Wednesday, October 20.
In One Family
Send thy peace O Lord, which is perfect and everlasting, that our souls may radiate peace.
Send thy peace O Lord, that we may think, act, and speak harmoniously.
Send thy peace O Lord, that we may be contented and thankful for Thy bountiful gifts.
Send thy peace O Lord, that amidst our worldly strife, we may enjoy Thy bliss.
Send thy peace O Lord, that we may endure all, tolerate all, in the thought of thy grace and mercy.
Send thy peace O Lord, that our lives may become a divine vision, and in thy light, all darkness may vanish.
Send thy peace O Lord, our father and mother, that we thy children on Earth may unite in one family.
~ By Hazrat Inayat Khan, early 20th century Sufi poet and mystic
A Prayer of Light
As we bring healing to those in need of strength,
May our spirits be filled with the light of You.
As we bring hope to a broken world.
May our hearts be softened by the light of You.
As we bring understanding to those who are suffering,
May our arms be opened by the light of You.
As we bring awareness to hatred,
May our anger be lessened by the light of You.
As we bring calm for inner peace,
May our breath be deepened by the light of You.
And may You guide us to those who seek our gifts,
Leading them gently and lovingly,
To the light of You. Amen.
~ By Rabbi Lisa L. Levine
“4 Necessary Steps to Effortless Action” by Rev. Melanie Eyre
So far this month, we’ve been talking about sacred service from different perspectives. I’m going to keep my focus there, but look at it from a different perspective. I’d like to explore the concept of action from the Tao. What does this ancient wisdom have to teach us about the steps we take today, as we contemplate being of service?
First, a little background. When we think about Taoism, I think the first name that comes to mind is that of the sage Lao Tsu, who many believe was born around 604 BCE. We know pretty much nothing about him, not even his name. Lao Tsu can be translated as the grand old master, old boy, or even old fellow. It is obviously a term of endearment and not a name. We have few details about his life. Scholars believe he was born in eastern China in the province that is now Henan, lived a quiet and introspective life, did not prosyletize and made no effort to found a religion. Religious historian Huston Smith calls him a “shadowy figure.”
Legend has it that, seeking solitude in his last years, Lao Tsu started out of town on a water buffalo and headed toward what is now Tibet. He was stopped at a mountain pass. After some conversation the gatekeeper realized that this was an exceptional person and he asked Lao Tzu to dictate some of his philosophy to give to the civilization he was leaving. So he stopped there for three days and ultimately gave the gatekeeper the Tao Te Ching, translated as The Way and Its Power, 81 verses that can be read in under 2 hours. He then got back on his water buffalo and wasn’t seen again.
Of course, this is legend, and we don’t know for sure. I think part of the point of the story is to tell us that the spread of this wonderful philosophy didn’t depend on a concerted effort by Lao Tsu to institutionalize it. Perhaps it spread because its message rang so true to so many.
The Tao is a philosophy of balance, ease, and wholeness.
While Lao Tsu’s contemporary, Confucius, found his solution in ritual and in tradition, the Tao included none of that. The philosophy instead teaches that there is a natural harmony underlying all things, encompassing all things, and that our highest good comes from spontaneous and authentic living in alignment with this truth. The Tao is a philosophy of balance, ease, and wholeness.
Some mistake this philosophy to embrace a passiveness – a ‘go with the flow‘ attitude that accepts whatever happens. That’s not it.
‘Wu wei’. . . is a combination of supreme activity and supreme relaxation.
The word used by the Tao is ‘wu wei.’ The phrase translates as ‘inaction’, and has also been translated as ‘effortless action.’ Huston Smith writes that its real meaning, in the Taoist context, is a combination of supreme activity and supreme relaxation.
This is a tough concept for us to grasp, because it’s so counterintuitive. How are these opposites possible? We are either active or we are relaxed, but we can’t be both. Taoism disagrees – our essential nature is that we are both.
. . . we can be both supremely active and at the same time supremely relaxed.
This seeming dichotomy is possible because we are not isolated, disconnected beings. We are borne along in the energy, the ever-giving flow, of the tao, or the way. When we can release our grip on our ego selves and surrender to that energy acting through us, we can be both supremely active and at the same time supremely relaxed, counterintuitive as it seems. If you have studied the Tao at all, you will appreciate its emphasis on the reconciliation of seeming opposites.
We act, but the difference is that we do it without meeting resistance, or friction, because we are acting in harmony with the way of all things. The image used frequently is that of water – it flows without effort, bearing up all that it carries. If we are in the river and we fight, we struggle to stay afloat, what happens? We become exhausted, we sink. However, if we surrender, we are borne along.
About 200 years after Lao Tsu came the birth of another Taoist sage, Chuang Tsu. He is credited with writing the work called Zhuangzi, the second foundational text of Taoism and one of the classics of Chinese philosophical literature. His wisdom, irreverent humor, fables, and stories have had great influence, including on Christian mystic Thomas Merton, who wrote The Way of Chuang Tzu. Merton said in the forward that he enjoyed writing this book more than any other he could remember.
So today I want to bring together Chuang Tsu, the Tao, the notion of effortless action, and leave you with some insights on how all this history and philosophy might have actual bearing on your life.
The primary resource I used for this talk is Parker Palmer’s excellent book “The Active Life”, a book I recommend to you. Instead of simply talking about the notion of effortless action, he illustrates it with a tale from Chuang Tzu. The tale is called “The Woodcarver”, and I share it with you now:
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand of precious wood. When it was finished, all who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver: “What is your secret?”
“I am only a workman; I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles, that were not to the point. I fasted in order to set my heart at rest. After three days fasting, I had forgotten gain and success. After five days I had forgotten praise or criticism. After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness and of the court had faded away. All that might distract me from the work had vanished. I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest to see the trees in their own natural state. When the right tree appeared before my eyes. The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt. All I had to do was to put forth my hand and begin.
“If I had not met this particular tree There would have been no bell stand at all.
“What happened? My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; from this live encounter came the work which you ascribe to the spirits.”
The quality of the carver’s actions is determined by how he relates to each.
So much beautiful imagery in that story. Such depth in the process of preparing to make the bell stand, imaging the bell stand, and finally going about the work. There is much to unpack here about the actions we take.
Palmer identifies four elements of action in this story. The quality of the carver’s actions is determined by how he relates to each. The same is true for us, in our own actions.
These four elements we must examine are motives, skills and gifts, the other, and results. How we relate to each is what truly matters to the action we take.
First is motive. We must ask ourselves “why am I doing this?” This is a fundamental question, one we sometimes do not even explore very closely as we jump into action. Palmer writes,
“Every action has some motive behind it, a force-field out of which it arises. If we do not explore that force, we will never act in a transcendent way; we will live out our lives as automatons who move but do not choose.”
Ok, don’t want that. Our motive for taking action dictates its very nature and often its result. To achieve effortless action, our motive must flow from our truest essence.
We look to the story as an example. The woodcarver, whose name is Khing, doesn’t make the bellstand on a whim, or even because he himself wants one. The Prince commands him to do it – the initial motive is external. In addition, given the culture of the time, if Khing had done a bad job, had not satisfied the prince, it would not have gone well with him. He would have been punished, perhaps even executed for his failure.
Think about your own life – what has been the result when you have acted from compulsion, obligation, or even fear?
However, Khing knows that in order to create a thing of beauty, such negative and punitive compulsion cannot be his motive. Think about your own life – what has been the result when you have acted from compulsion, obligation, or even fear? How has such a motive diminished the final result?
Palmer points out that many of our actions may begin from such a place. However, we must find a process that enables us to move beyond such limited beginnings to a place that calls out of us our creativity, joy, and love – the gifts we use to fully create.
He began to get past the fear.
So what does Khing do? He says, “I guarded my spirit, did not expend it on trifles, that were not to the point.” He began to get past the fear, the possible consequences.
“I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
He knew he must work from his own internal truth, not any of these false motivators.
This fasting may have been a physical process, but it was also a psychological one. Chuang Tzu likened fasting to forgetting – by fasting, Khing forgot, discarded, what Palmer called the “psychic junk food of gain and success, praise and criticism” – even the prince himself. He let all those externals fall away, and he had to do it before he could begin. He did not permit all these external drivers to be loaded onto the work he needed to do – he knew they must go.
He knew he must work from his own internal truth, not any of these false motivators. By focusing until he could move past all the distractions, he regained what Palmer called his original unity, necessary for right action.
“The call may come from the wrong place or for the wrong reason, but that does not mean it is the wrong call.”
Palmer writes that he suspects the woodcarver:
“began by understanding that sometimes we must be outwardly called to our own inward truth, and that these callings may come from the most unlikely sources – such as a ruthless prince. The call may come from the wrong place or for the wrong reason, but that does not mean it is the wrong call.”
So think about parallels in your own life. Some task to which you are called, some obligation you have no choice but to fulfill. These happen in our lives all the time – work, family, even a volunteer obligation we’d rather not worry about right now. Instead of simply moving forward in resignation, is there a process you can use, a fasting, a forgetting, that enables you to claim your own internal authority, to move forward in your own wholeness?
Skills and Gifts
The next element we must consider Palmer calls skills and gifts. Here he asks us to consider the gifts we bring to the action we take.
What skills did the woodcarver bring? In the first line of the story he is identified as a master carver, and we may be tempted to stop there – it’s an easy answer. He spent years cultivating and learning those skills – surely they are what made the difference.
However, isn’t that also a vehicle to separate ourselves, to let ourselves off the hook? A work such as this could only be done by a master, not by an ordinary person. Those who see the finished bell stand say it’s so beautiful, it must be the work of spirits.
Palmer calls these our birthright gifts, and calls us to remember and value them.
That’s the setup – this creation had to be the work of some agency beyond merely human. An ordinary person like me could never have made something like that.
However, the woodcarver himself won’t let us off that proverbial hook. The Prince asks the carver, “what is your secret?” Khing replies “I am only a workman: I have no secret.” He then describes the process he went through to remove distractions so that he could work from his own inner truth.
Chuang Tsu is telling us that this work was not the result of Khing’s acquired skills so much as his inner gifts. Palmer calls these our birthright gifts, and calls us to remember and value them. We all have them, and far too often we diminish or outright forget them.
. . . everyone has what Palmer calls “birthright gifts”
“. . . by spiritualizing and mystifying Khing’s action, the people and the prince distance themselves from it and evade the challenge implicit in its very humanness. If they were to embrace the notion that Khing is ‘only a workman’ . . . they would have to reflect upon and revitalize their own active lives. Instead, they let themselves off the hook by attributing the bell stand to something other than Khing’s hard work and faithfulness to his gifts.”
When we consider our talents or our gifts, we tend to focus on those skills we have acquired, perhaps because we had to work to attain them. I’m a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a musician. When others have these gifts, we gravitate toward their expertise, telling ourselves that they know a truth we do not. We’re just ordinary. That’s what the people and the prince have done.
However, everyone has what Palmer calls “birthright gifts” – gifts we have at birth, which are a part of us, and which are not the result of education or special training. These are the gifts we are to use to co-create our world. As he says, “Each of us is a master at something, and part of becoming fully alive is to discover and develop our birthright competence.”
. . . he used his ability to wait for insight to come . . .
It’s not easy, again because we tend to focus on those skills we’ve acquired, like the woodcarver’s skill in carving. But that’s not what he used to approach this task. Instead, he used his ability to wait for insight to come, to take risks under extreme pressure, to trust, to speak his truth even to power. Without these birthright skills, his acquired ability to carve would have made him nothing more than a skilled artisan, not enough to create such a thing of beauty. The qualities that made the difference were there already.
So, what are your birthright gifts? Palmer says the place to start may be your childhood. What brought you pleasure? How did you spend your time, before you became more aware of society’s expectations and pressures? This may be the first place to look for those gifts that you have forgotten, which, when remembered, are the foundation of your own joyful cocreation.
The next element to consider is what Palmer calls the woodcarver’s relation to “the other.” In the story, the other is the tree from which he carves the bellstand. However, Palmer tells us to remember that every aspect of our lives involves an other – if you’re a teacher, it’s the student; a parent, your child; a doctor, the patient. The list is endless. The point is that we do not create alone, but in partnership with that other.
Chuang Tsu is telling us we must honor the essence of the other, whatever it is, whoever it is. The woodcarver says he entered into a “live encounter” with this “particular tree” – realizing it was a dynamic encounter with a unique tree. When he considered this tree, the bell stand appeared beside it, and all he had to do was put out his hand and begin. He didn’t have an image of the bell stand until he reflected on that particular tree. The other, whatever it is, surrounds us, and is a living, integral player in our own actions, requiring our attention and respect.
Consideration of Results
The final element is related, and it is consideration of results. What does the story teach us here? Despite the compulsion from the prince, and the risk to himself, Khing says that if he had not met this particular tree there would have been no bell stand. He could not dictate the results, and indeed was prepared to forego them entirely. He had to act in accordance with his own inner nature, what he knew to be true about himself. It was not the result that was driving the process.
We cannot proceed thinking that the only actor is us, that we are to work our will on all things. Creation is a dynamic process, which must be followed rather than forced. It is a process of listening, and responding, aware that we may not know the end and we surely cannot compel it.
Have reverence for the process that is co-creation, of which we are a part.
Chuang Tzu calls us to have reverence for the process that is co-creation, of which we are a part.
There is so much more to explore about this wonderful fable, and our own understanding of it. For now, we keep in mind that our consideration of these four elements, our motives, our skills and gifts, our relation to the other, and our relation to the results, can make all the difference in how we show up to each other, to our world. Palmer says that, by keeping these four elements in mind, Khing was not crafting a bell stand. Instead, he was crafting himself. So are we.
About Rev. Melanie Eyre
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
I Release written by Ricki Byars
Amazing Things written by Jana Stanfield and Megon McDonough.
This service aired on October 17, 2021