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Returning to What’s True, Part VII - The Art of Stepping Back

If you are like me, you are involved in many different vocations, projects, and activities, while trying to give your best to every one of them. You spend your energy freely, and others know that – they expect that, and they grow to rely on your seemingly boundless drive. Would it be surprising then to feel, at times, overextended and overwhelmed?

Step back. You don’t have to take responsibility for all that happens.

Ask yourself, can you really do this right now? Feel the answer in your body. Your body knows better than your mind. Are you really noticing your life?

You might feel the natural shift in what you can and cannot do, should and should not do. Recognize this subtle change and accept it for what it is.

The Waiting Room, an installation by Dhara Rivera at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico © Lane Igoudin, 2022

The art of wise, strategic passivity

This non-doing, or non-striving, is the noblest kind of action in the philosophy of a close relative of Zen – Tao, or Daoism. Tao teaches to be flexible and respect the natural flow of time and nature. You can’t stop this flow, so there is no need to force anything. Just be present, humble, and modest.

This combination of mindful presence and lack of imposition is a skill that should be cultivated. Non-doing doesn’t mean doing nothing, being passive or removed from life. It is the art of effortlessly going along with the ebb and flow of life. You can only respond effectively to what a situation demands when you put our own ego-driven plans aside and see it clearly.

Leo Tolstoy, influenced by Tao philosophers, questioned the ethical value of work for work’s sake. “I've always been shocked by the astonishing, dominating especially in Western Europe, opinion that work is something like virtue,” he wrote in an essay called “Non-Activity.” “I always noticed the opposite: determined work, ant-like pride of one’s own work makes not only an ant, but a cruel human. The greatest villains of mankind have always been particularly busy and preoccupied, not leaving a moment to stay with themselves without occupation or amusements. But even if the love of work is not an obvious vice, it can under no circumstances be called a virtue. . . [Work] in our wrongly organized society is primarily a moral anesthetic, like smoking or alcohol, to hide the wrongness and depravity of your life from yourself.”

Strategic passivity may seem contrary to both traditional Ashkenazi values that I grew up with and to the Puritan ethic of the Western society, valuing busyness, 16-hour workdays, where the work itself becomes the end-goal. Yet it isn’t, in fact, contrary to the Jewish teachings. They warn of trying to force something to happen where or when it isn’t meant to happen as a power struggle between and individual and the Lord.

Are you getting in G-d’s way?