Coming Undone


There is a line in the Tao te Ching that goes something like, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” In order to grasp this seeming contradiction, it is helpful to know that the Tao te Ching espouses the virtues of humility and the seeming paradox that in emptiness there is infinite possibility (e.g., the empty space inside a pitcher is what holds liquid and makes the pitcher useful). This quote could also refer to our human ability to evaluate. Oftentimes, we evaluate ourselves by how many items we have checked off a to-do list; or, we compare ourselves to others and judge ourselves as lacking. The intention is to motivate ourselves, but the result can be a nagging, restless sense of incompleteness or inferiority. That self-imposed pressure can prevent us from seeing that everything, including us, is perfect as it is.

I often think of that quote from the Tao te Ching. This is because I often get caught up in the illusion that I need to do more and be more, and that I need to have a perpetual list of tasks and increasingly ambitious goals. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with goals, tasks, and taking action. I am suggesting that there is a profound difference between doing something in order to contribute to the world and doing something in order to prop up my ego and feel secure.

There is another line in the Tao te Ching, “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.” The world of humans is increasingly populated with alluring and amazing technologies to help us plan, organize, record, share, and compare our lives. In large part, their appeal seems to lie in the psychological comfort we take from the idea that we can achieve happiness through accomplishments, and that the worth of our accomplishments comes from the recognition of others. This might explain the impulse I feel to post, tweet, pin, gram, and tumble every move I make. It might also explain the belief I hold that doing is better than being.

The problem is that doing is never done. The more I do, the more there is left to do. Because the feeling of security is fleeting, I must create more accomplishments to achieve in order to keep the security going. The focus is on the result. In being, there is nothing to do and nothing left undone. There is only vast emptiness–not bleak, sterile emptiness, but emptiness that contains the possibility of everything–a generative, creative ground from which all phenomena can spring. In emptiness, there is perfection. In letting go of doing, I free myself to do what matters. In just being, I embrace perfection, including my own.

I invite you to come undone, even for just a moment. I wish for you that you can have an experience of the perfection of not doing, and the joy of simply being. I will leave you with one last quote from the Tao te Ching, “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”

In peace–Darren

Image taken from