The Power of Yielding: Getting It Done by Not Doing It


By Fred Lehrman (New Age Journal, 1975)

"By non-action, all things are accomplished... Without leaving his house, the Sage knows everything in the world
...My words are easy to understand."

Dao Te Ching

Easy to understand? I suppose so, if you understand them. Lao-tze refused to compromise his readers by telling them that which could not be told. In this way he transmitted intact his insight, his "crazy wisdom ," across 2500 years and into the lives of people who, for the time, find themselves on a planet where power games threaten the scene of the game itself.

I want to introduce Daoism as a "Way" of proceeding from here in extricating ourselves from our own clutches. Taijiquan is the best known form in which to take the medicine.

Taiji is a physical practice based on the observations of nature brought forth in the writing of Lao-tze, whose own thought was shaped by his study of the I Ching, or Book of Change, and of the Nei Ching, the classic treatise of Chinese medicine. Taiji has suddenly begun to have a wide popularity in the West; there is even a nationwide television series which surprises and puzzles innocent channel-browsers. But, what is it really about? And how can the study of Taiji assist you in achieving your intentions, whether they be changing a personal situation, setting up a new community where life works better for everyone, or facing the whole problem on a global level? The clue is in the paradox of non action; and the way I would like to formulate the challenge for now is thus: "Obviously, I simply am: yet it seems that I must always try to be."

When you find yourself at the beginning of your first Taiji class, you will soon realize this is unlike anything else you have ever tried to learn. This is because it appears at first not even to be like itself. You are asked to stand quietly, with you feet-heels together, toes naturally apart – flat and relaxed directly under you ("Where else could they be?" your mind asks.) Then you are asked to stand there, right where you're standing, nowhere else, not anywhere you were earlier or might be tomorrow. At this point some interesting things are starting to go on in your body, you notice that you really are there more, that you are denser, more compact, and more aware. What has happened is that the Qi, the vital, live energy of your body and mind, has begun to sense itself. Continuing, degree by degree, aspect by aspect, to learn to just stand there (which your already doing), prepares a new body, a body of Qi rather than muscle and bone, with which you are going to move through the slow, evenly evolving attitudes of the Taijiquan (literally, "Extreme Ultimate Discipline"; quan also means "Fist" or Boxing"). And the paradox begins: you start by lifting a foot, stepping out, slowly shifting your weight, and then very, very slowly letting your wrists fall away from you, out and up until they hang loose-heavy in from of you at shoulder height, then down to your sides again, until in this way your whole body is moving, expanding, contracting, turning, stepping, floating yet anchored, back and forth across the room, washed by invisible waves of air; yet you are still standing still, centered, right where you are, right there.

When I had my first lesson with Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing in New York eight years ago, I didn't understand it, I thought "This is strange; usually I can get some sense of what things are about, I really can't see what this Taiji is for, so I'll stick with it until I do. Then I'll quit." I do understand it pretty well now, but I haven't quit, at least not in the sense that I originally meant. Actually, I have quit, and now I'm, beginning to be able to do T'ai Chi.

Last year, just before he left for Taiwan, Professor Cheng called me over the his desk at Shr-Jung Center in New York (shr-jung, a term coined by Confucius, means "right timing"). He said to me that my practice had reached a significant point and that it was important for me to give it special attention during this period. I thanked him and said that I had been practicing more and thinking a great deal about it, but that there were still some obstinate habits and tensions that I couldn't seem to cut through. He smiled at me sadly, then shook his head: "The Dao is not something you can try to do." These words enabled me to move on.

Everyone who studies Taijiquan encounters such frustrations, which comprise the environment for progress. One continuing frustration is the realization of how inappropriately we use our own bodies. Unlike most creatures and things under the sun, adult humans seem to have lost an awareness of what the parts of their bodies are for, and insist on using one end of the beast to do the job best performed by the other end. Pianos, rocks, trees, wild animals, and young children are generally not plagued by this confusion; but at some point in growing up, people start to get funny ideas about how to get their bodies around in the world. In Taiji class you will begin to notice that you have confused your shoulders with your legs; that it's your legs which get you across the room and that your shoulders might as well relax and enjoy the ride. Also, you will observe that when you raise your hand slowly to a position in front of your chest, arm gently rounded and palm facing in, that your hand looks and feels as if it's holding onto something. But there's nothing in your hand, so drop it! And then you might begin to notice you're still holding onto your hand itself, as if it might go somewhere without you. Let go of it! It ain't going nowhere.

These are the little ways in which we cheat ourselves of power, which is the use of our energy. As you work in Taiji continues, the realization of what you can let go of reaches increasingly profound levels. Progress is slow, because an unknown fear, the fear of power, keeps the body fighting itself long beyond the time when the mind has seen that there is no reason to fight. Professor Cheng calls this stage of practice "drinking" the cup of bitterness. You become painfully aware that you are, for the most part, manufacturing your actions, and only rarely, for moments, are you being your action. Try as you might, at some point you still resist, and at that point your power is no longer at your command. You are at the effect of your own strength. True power, when experienced, has nothing of effort or strength in it.

Let's return to Lao-tze and non-action. If you were a blade of grass on a hillside, and the wind began to blow, how would you practice non-action? If you didn't move, you would be resisting the wind, and that's doing something. If you lay down flat in order to create no resistance, you would be "doing" passivity. But if you simply remained what you are, a blade of grass, which is intrinsically yielding, yet firm, continuous, and coherent, you would move as the wind moves, back and forth, sometimes more inclined and sometimes less. To an observer, there would be motion. Yet nothing would be being done. A blade of grass, not having the same type of consciousness that we have, spontaneously practices non-action. Through Taijiquan we can recover that sense of being a blade of grass on a hillside, in the wind, in the world, and to find that sense in any situation. Lao-tze observed, "That which yields, endures, that which resists is destroyed." And that which is destroyed has no more power.

The strangest part (and hardest thing to accept) about studying Taijiquan is the slow realization, through observation, that non-action actually works. Somehow, by adhering to the principle, you find that you can handle and repel someone whose strength is much greater than your own, with no effort. This realization is on the level of physical mechanics. It is appropriate in that it supports and is in harmony with a realization on the inner plane, which is that you don't have to do it anymore, because you're already doing it.

As you read this article, you don't have to try to read it; you've already done that. In fact, you never had to try to do anything, except that you preferred the redundancy of effort. Discover the on-going energy of the Universe, which you've been using since before you were born to put your body together and to get you here. That's your power source, and it's free and unlimited.

Lao-tze said that the Dao which could be talked about was not the Dao he was talking about. So words lie, even though we need them. Taiji is first of all empty, basically useless; and that makes it the most useful thing in the world. Knowing the useless enables you to find the emptiness in everything: if the wheel did not have an empty space at the hub through which to run an axle, it would itself be useless. So your Yoga, your carpentry, your piano playing, your thinking, your writing, your being with people -- all expand as your practice of Taiji teaches you to do less and less and less.

That which you control, controls you. Grab something, right now, say the leg of a chair, and hold onto it tight enough to keep me from pulling it away from you. Now try to move around the room with this thing that you're controlling. See? That's what control costs in terms of power. However, he who controls emptiness, who controls space, has power. He can move freely, act appropriately, and let go instantly when it's no longer appropriate to be involved. His actions are a function of shr-jung, right timing.

Since the principle of the Dao is not to be in conflict with anything, Taiji is not incompatible with other ways. Yoga, Zazen, Alexander technique, the various therapies – all are facilitated by the element of awareness which Taiji takes as its prime focus. If this were not so, it would not be the "Extreme Ultimate Discipline." And if it is to contain everything, it must itself be perfectly empty. Taiji is not really a training in self-defense, or health, or philosophy; the benefits in these areas are side effects of the practice.

Taiji does not teach you how to do something. It teaches you how to do. It teaches you how. It teaches you.

The editorial questions behind this issue of the New Age Journal is: "Who rules the world?" In order to answer that, we have to consider some discouraging possibilities. All power games take place in limited fields, with boundaries and goal posts. If " the world" is a limited field, we are in trouble.

I remember sitting one morning several years ago with Professor Cheng and several students in the Asian Library at Columbia University. The Club of Rome Report had just been released by MIT, and one of the students had bought in a clipping from the New York Times outlining the hopelessness of solving the compounded problems posed by overpopulation, food shortage, energy resource depletion, atmospheric pollution, radioactive waste, etc. The student was quite upset, and asked professor Cheng what he thought of the situation, and how we could get out of it. The Taiji master turned the question around and asked the questioner what his ideas were. The student gave his answer, and sat expectantly, awaiting correction from the Sage. Instead, Professor Cheng turned to another student at the table, and asked, "What do you think about what he said?" This continued until each student had commented on the others ideas, and it was clear that the subject had been exhausted. There was really no way to solve the problem. Professor Cheng went back to reading his book.

After a pause, the first student, more upset than ever, asked again for some word from the teacher. Professor Cheng leaned forward, and put his book down next to the cup of hot tea which had just been refilled for him. "What will happen to the world? I don't know. Look at this vapor; it comes from the tea, it goes into the air, and right about here" – he pointed in the air – "you don't see it anymore. Where does it go?" He sat quietly for a moment while we pondered the empty space left after the world had destroyed itself. "Don't worry about it, "he said , "Nothing gets lost."

There are many lessons in this story. Primarily, we made the problems, because we are unable still to clear them up. The problems are in us, and not in the world. No one rules the world, because no one rules himself. Until that changes, the world rules us. Because Professor Cheng at first did nothing, we were able to see that; or rather, to experience it. And from this experience comes the natural response, without effort.

The lesson of the tea might appear superficially to mean that we ought to just sip merrily as we are being snuffed out. But Professor Cheng's actions in the world don't give the impression that that's what he's doing. The world gets better when he's around, Thus, the other side of Taiji begins to become apparent. Professor Cheng's teaching is this: in relation to yourself, internally, follow the Dao of Lao-tze -- yield, yield, yield, invest in loss; in relation to the world, externally, follow Confucious -- be responsible, act appropriately to the situation, and always, right timing, right timing, right timing.

Because he has let go, because he knows the abyss, the man of Dao has power.

In the Tui-shou, or "push hands" part of the Taiji practice, the students work in this paradox for hours on end. And as he learns to not resist, to let things have their way, he begins to find that they start to turn out his way just by virtue of his intention, with no strength applied. This is difficult to believe and harder to figure out. Through practice it becomes part of your body's knowledge.

My point is this: go ahead and change the world. To the extent that you resist the Universe, the Universe will resist you. Make the way things are part of your plan, and everything will cooperate to get you there.

© 1998 Fredrick Lehrman

Fred Lehrman was a senior student of the late Professor Cheng Man-ching for 9 years.
He was one of Dr. Marshall's taijiquan teachers.