Refraining from Action

Refraining from Action

Strategic non-action can be a powerful method for achieving lasting influence in worldly affairs. In cultures where action is favoured over inaction, direct action is considered a virtue while inaction is considered little more than laziness or cowardice. This section suggests that there is a time for both action and inaction and describes the ways in which inaction can be used to advantage. It is about Refraining from Action.


Periods of action are followed by a periods of inaction. To create a situation in which action is required, the enlightened person begins with inaction to prepare the way. The transition from inaction to action then seems natural, effortless. Such a beginning is unlikely to attract opposition. By placing their self last and outside, the enlightened person creates a situation where natural social forces compel them forward towards the centre, doing so with naturalness and ease. Being selflessly will align their goals more closely with the evolving social environment.


There is an inner pattern to everything in Nature. Cells-replicate, crystals grow, societies evolve all according to a precise template that resides, unseen, within the entity. Therefore the enlightened person is careful not to interfere with natural processes, knowing that to do so would be dangerous and ultimately futile.

In social systems, the enlightened person maintains a position that is in harmony with the evolutionary forces that gradually evolve that society. Their influence is subtly exerted through the force of their focussed inner awareness. Thus they often refrain from taking action when to do so would adversely impact the natural evolutionary flow.

Avoid Becoming Too Specialised

Lao Tzu considered that increasing specialisation is ultimately self-limiting because highly specialised systems impose constraints upon participants which effectively reduce them to machines forced to follow strict procedures. In such an environment, a person stops growing, stops being creative. In Nature, species that become too specialised are prone to extinction. So too will it be with overly specialised organisations. Better to move towards universality, away from differentiation. By looking for what is universally true, one achieves simplicity. The greater the truth, the more simply it can be expressed.

Subtle Influence

Lao Tzu observed that many of the troubles of the world are reactions to earlier provocations. People or groups seek revenge, and in doing so, set up a situation in which the trouble is perpetuated. What you resist persists. By refraining from action, the trouble dissipates over time. The enlightened person therefore uses subtle influence to resolve problems by choosing a course of non-action or minimal action designed to produce no further reactions.

Strategic Non-Action

A deep understanding of situations is gained from one’s intuition in a context of non-interference. The knowledge derived from action is situation-specific. Deeper understanding is obscured by the interplay of action and reaction. Non-action or non-interference is therefore a strategic approach to harmonising one’s inner awareness with the larger forces at work in the external world. This allows the enlightened person to instinctively know where best to position their self to achieve their goals.

Truth in Non-Action

The enlightened person rids their self of fixed ideas from the past, and centres their thinking in the Now, giving them a moment-by-moment awareness of how their social environment is evolving. This awareness reveals the possibilities that the evolving environment offers. Fixed ideas obscure such impressions. Ideally, one gains pure information from observing an environment that is not reacting to the observer in any way. If the observer is also an actor, then some of what is observed is due to the observer’s own actions, leading to observational bias.

Being Non-Confrontational

Being infant-like is often used to describe the essence of the Tao. An infant and young child lives moment-by-moment in touch with their original nature before the layers of social conditioning accumulate. Because young children are clear embodiments of the Tao, the world is not inclined to harm them, nor do they struggle for wealth and power and so place their self in harm’s way. The enlightened person likewise adopts a spontaneous, natural, non-confrontational attitude towards life in order to protect their self from harm in the world. When someone pushes them, they yield. Their opponent is thus thrown off balance and appears to the rest of the world as aggressive, which may then result in a neutralising reaction. The enlightened person concentrates on maintaining balanced energy. They know that unbalanced energy is inherently unstable and leads to its own demise.

Like a River Finding its Way Through a Valley of Boulders

When the enlightened person finds their self in the position of needing to influence an on-going event they apply their efforts to the weakest area. When the weakness absorbs the effort, the weakness moves to another location, and the enlightened person follows. In this way they avoid confrontation with an apparently insurmountable problem and so avoid the counter-reactions that derive from the confrontation. They act like a river finding its way through a valley of stones. When the water encounters a stone, it flows around it and continues on. Eventually the water wears down the stone with little apparent effort. So it is that with non-confrontational actions, the enlightened person influences an on-going event. Their restrained action causes no adverse counter-reaction and they achieve their goals with apparent ease.

Recognising the Beginning

The best time to influence events is at the beginning, before they acquire momentum. The enlightened person hones their skill at recognising when a situation is at its least entrenched state, and positions their self to guide the event through to a successful conclusion. This skill is developed by limiting their desires and avoiding dogmatic or process-driven ways of accomplishing goals.

Give Me Freedom or Give Me Death

Lao Tzu believed that human nature is essentially good. To remain good-hearted though, people need to perceive their self as being free to live their lives how they see fit, to think the way they want to think, to be what they want to be and not to have these freedoms eroded by authority figures seeking to control them.

When authority becomes oppressive, people hate it so much that they lose the fear of death and rise up to end the oppression. This is how precious freedom is in the hearts of people.  For example, the French, Russian and American Revolutions all derived from people finding their rulers intolerable.

The Doomed Leader

An insecure leader believes their personal interests are identical to the interests of the organisation. They are the organisation. It causes them to curtail people’s freedom. They are worried that given enough freedom, the people will oust them, which is a not unreasonable belief.

As the regime becomes more oppressive, the people suffer. Perhaps they have to work long hours in poor conditions. Maybe people do not get enough to eat, or disease goes untreated. All the while contempt for the leader grows. There can be only one outcome – the leader’s eventual demise. The enlightened leader refrains from limiting people’s freedom. Instead they provide the people with the means to grow and fulfil their potential, giving them the space in which to express that potential.


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