Can Doing Nothing Solve All Your Problems?

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

– from The Tao Te Ching [mistranslation]

“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath the feet.”

— from The Tao Te Ching [accurate translation]

I’ve been reading The Tao Te Ching recently and it’s been helping me overcome several challenges I’ve been facing.

The Tao (pronounced “Dao”) means, simply, “The Way.” (I am told that “The Way” sounds just as vague and non-denominational in Chinese as it does in English.)

The Tao Te Ching is the core teaching of Taoism. Taoism, I’ve learned, is not a religion. It’s a wisdom teaching that has been around for thousands of years. The Tao Te Ching itself is a collection of very simple, straightforward wisdom teachings.

“The Journey of A Thousand Miles” Revised

Although you may not know it, you may already be familiar with The Tao Te Ching.

For instance, have you ever heard of this popular phrase:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”?

It’s very likely that you have.

I’ve heard this phrase over and over my entire life, and I’ve inadvertently been living by its teaching. But I never knew where this teaching came from until very recently, when I discovered that it came directly from The Tao Te Ching.

Now, if you were as familiar with this phrase as I was, then you would be just as surprised as I was to discover that the famous phrase is actually a mistranslation.

Oh yeah.

The following is a more accurate translation of the phrase:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath the feet.” [Bold added.]

When I read this I was stunned.

I used to think that the lesson here was that every task we endeavor to accomplish begins with us taking a small step toward achieving our goal. Because I thought that this was the lesson, I had been looking to take that “single step” my entire life.

Now I realize that it’s no wonder I could never find “the single step”:  it was never there to begin with.

The Problem With The Journey of “The Single Step”

First of all, I think it says volumes that some Westerner translated the Tao Te Ching incorrectly, and that this mistranslation has resulted in all of us misunderstanding a core teaching of the Tao.

You see, as Westerners, we are strong believers in self-reliance, independence, and individuality.

So, Westerners understand very well what it means when someone tells us that we need to take a “singe step” toward a goal. The idea of “the single step” makes us feel powerful. It gives us work to do: taking a step.

Taking “the single step” not only gives us something to do, but, most importantly, it gives us something to obsess over. It’s so easy for us to obsess over every part of taking that “single step.” 

How should I take this ‘single step’?” we might think. “When should I take the step? Who should take the step with me? Where should I take the step?” And at last: “What is the step for and why should I take it in the first place?”

The idea of “the single step” also gives us something to make our own. It’s our step that we’re taking, after all. We have the power in this scenario. We are the sole pioneers in the journey of our life.

Right?

Unfortunately, we have only inserted this Western idea of self-reliance and individuality into a teaching that wasn’t talking about self-reliance at all.

Because the real way to accomplish a task, the Tao seems to say, is not by taking a single step, but by looking “beneath one’s feet.” Which is to say that in order to begin the journey of a thousand miles, you have to go outside of your “self” completely. You also have to stop obsessing over taking a “single step” and simply become aware of where you are at this very moment.

It is only when we relinquish “the self,” and become aware of our surroundings, that we truly know what to do next.

Why The Journey “Beneath Our Feet” Makes More Sense

As I’ve said, The Tao Te Ching seems to be implying that, in fact, our journey in this life may not rely exclusively upon our own initiative.

I know. It sounds too rigid for us.

Where’s the freedom? We wonder. Where’s the spirit of individuality? Where’s the “me” in the whole scenario? And the part where “I” take “the single step”—where “I,” alone, am the one that takes the initiative?”

It’s gone.

Even though the first step is gone, and the narcissistic “I” has gone with it, I don’t think that the implosion of “free will” is what The Tao Te Ching is driving at here.

I think the point The Tao Te Ching is driving at is this: when we get rid of  having to take “the single step,” we can also get rid of the stress we’ve piled up on top of taking that “single step.”

Because, if we need not take a single step–if we are already where we need to be–then there’s no need to stress. There’s no need to wonder, or puzzle, or debate.

Our focus no longer has to be on taking a single step.

Our focus can be shifted. Our focus can land on inhabiting the space in which we currently reside in: the present moment (a.k.a. the area “beneath our feet.”)

Then, when we are fully present, we need to trust that the answers will come to us, and that soon we will know what step to take in order to fulfill “the journey of a thousand miles.”

Our job, the Tao Te Ching seems to be telling us, is not to act out on our lofty goals as a separate, distinct individual. It is telling us that we also need to be receptive: we also need to act on behalf of something bigger than us. (After all, we are co-creators, not sole creators.)

If there is any action we need to take, then, it is the act of becoming aware of this simple fact. Because it’s only an individual that is fully aware of his place in the grand scheme of things who can begin the journey of a thousand miles and, in the end, succeed.

Moreover, the answer to our current dilemma cannot be found by taking action–because the answer is actually hiding beneath our very noses!

Any search for an answer outside of us is only distracting us from the answer that already exists within us right now, right here, where we currently stand.

Why Starting “Beneath One’s Feet” Leads To “The Single Step” Anyway

According to the Tao, the first thing we have to do in order to succeed is to become fully aware of where we are in this moment. Then, once we are fully aware and present, “the single step” will arrive organically and effortlessly out of our simple choice to become aware.

If you stop trying to take the “right” step, and simply do nothing, then you’ll end up taking the right step anyway.

Isn’t that wonderful?

much love,

Ollin

Are you obsessing over trying take “a step” toward fixing a problem? If your problem isn’t urgent, try not to take “a step” towards solving it today. Try to be absolutely present instead. Don’t act, just be. Then, see if the answer to the problem doesn’t just come to you without any effort on your part.

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26 comments on “Can Doing Nothing Solve All Your Problems?

  1. Great post, Oli. Sometimes we force ourselves to take that first step (any step) too soon, without giving ourselves the time to reflect on where we are and where we need to go.

  2. colleenwright says:

    I hung this quote in my first apartment seven years ago, and now it’s in our bathroom, where I’m sure to see it several times a day🙂 I never knew the true translation, which is even more motivational. THANKS for sharing. Lately I’ve been feeling like my goals are thousandS of miles away, and this is a great reminder that they’re right here with me, now. I just need to keep building on them.

    • Ollin says:

      It is interesting to note that our obsession with taking a single step is distracting us from being present and from actually taking the right step.

  3. Stewart says:

    Ollin, who’s translation of the Tao te Ching are your reading?

    “If you stop trying to take the ‘right’ step, and simply do nothing, then you’ll end up taking the right step anyway.” – That’s a great summation of a lesson so many people simply haven’t realized, yet. Your life is predetermined to learn certain lessons. Your steps only determine the order you learn them. There is no ‘right’ step… only the step that is. It’s the “trying” that gets in our way.

    -Stewart

    • Ollin says:

      Yes, you got it Stewart. This is such a hard lesson to learn AND teach. I had to revise this post SO MANY times because I felt it would confuse people. I think it will still confuse people. But for those who are ready for its wisdom I think it will be a revelation. Yes “the trying” to live gets in the way of us living.

    • Ollin says:

      Oh, and I’m reading a translation by Derek Lin. Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained. A really great copy. Not as poetic and smooth, but very accurate. Which I like better.

  4. Dana Bennett says:

    I read the Tao for quite some time years ago. Thank you for bringing it up and pointing out the mistranslation in this popular statement from the Tao. I’ve been stressing out lately about how to get started as a freelance writer in this social media-fied world, and wanting to … change a lot of things in my life. I study A Course in Miracles now but it says basically the same thing you said here today – be entirely present and you will know what next move you need to take. Or something akin to that. Being present is the biggest challenge we receive as humans on this planet. I think back to how I felt as a child, and I learn from that awareness. And I continue to read and study and find writers like you to include in my awareness. I look forward to your posts. Thank you, Ollin.

    • Ollin says:

      You know Dana, it’s weird. You can ignore awareness and then go out and try to find a better or clearer or easier answer and no matter where you look, no matter what culture, science, religion–whatever–it all points back to simple presence and being. I kid you not, even science is behind the great benefits of meditation and mindfulness. That’s really where everything, all the wisdom, religion, even self-help advice points to: just being and awareness.

  5. excellent post. thank you for this. i have always looked for the ‘first step’ and wanted it to be the right one, so i didn’t waste time LOL. but now I can see that standing still, without frustration is about starting the journey. good stuff

  6. Great post, Ollin.

    Hebrew scholars will tell you the Bible doesn’t start, “In the beginning…” But rather “In A beginning…” a fascinating difference that contemplates other worlds, or other creation stories for our own world.

    Kabbalists will tell you G-d gave a first try to our world and scrapped it, and we’re the second go-round, as signified by the fact that the first letter of Torah, “B’raysheet” (in a beginning) is a bet or “B” rather than aleph or “A.”

    Every translation is always an interpretation…and if you’re not reading things in their original language…often, you don’t know what you’re reading.

    • Ollin says:

      Wow, that is so fascinating. Now I want to read the correct translation of the Bible in Hebrew! It’s so interesting how the truth can get lost in translation. Thanks for sharing Carol!

  7. I love the Tao te Ching and read it regularly. My favourite quote: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”

    Thanks for this post – I had no idea about the true translation. I think the “doing nothing” idea is confusing for a lot of people, because they equate it with sitting on the couch and waiting for something to happen. I know I did for a long time. But then I saw an explanation of it as being more like an athlete who is so in tune with his/her body that the right movement happens effortlessly, without conscious thought. That made sense to me.

    • Ollin says:

      I think it is something like that. If you sit and do nothing and that is what you feel like doing, then usually it means you have not rested and need to rest. But once you do rest, the impulse usually comes to do something else. One cannot, naturally, rest for very long. You get antsy. When I say doing nothing, I really mean be still and quiet so you can listen to the impulse quietly driving you at every moment. The impulse will tell you what to do next. Sometimes it will tell you to rest, but sometimes it might tell you to run.

  8. I’m not sure I fully ‘got’ the message here, but I’m trying to wrap my head around it! This post reminds me of the book ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ by James Redfield. The main character learns over and over not to ‘force things’ or ‘look too hard’ for the answers, as his intuition (and the universe) are already leading him to where he needs to go.

    The book is big on relying on your intuition, coincidences, and hunches. When you embrace those things, you kind of have a finger tip feel for the next step in life and you no longer have to ‘try’. I’m not big on spirituality but I definitely recommend that book, awesome read.

    • Ollin says:

      Don’t worry, it’s one of the more difficult lessons I had to learn and it takes a lot of time and effort to learn it because it basically takes no time and effort to learn it. What a paradox right? It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The best way to learn this is by experiencing it, like I recommended. Take a problem you are facing, that isn’t urgent, then sit down and do nothing. Yes, do nothing. I bet you anything the solution to this problem will come to you with no effort of your own. Try it. And let me know how it goes.

  9. Yvette Carol says:

    Hi Ollin! I love how often I find that the various blogs I follow all somehow echo a similar message week by week. It’s amazing how linked we all really are, whether we know it or not.
    Today I finally got around to watching that wonderful TED video you had posted the other day on ‘vulnerability’ and I was thoroughly transfixed. It so spoke to me about every single aspect of where I’m at right now in my life.
    And this post links in with it. Because to be here, now, and to live mindfully takes vulnerability. To be here now, means to feel. And that is scary. That’s what being vulnerable is all about; being brave enough to be fully present.
    Thanks for the reminder!
    Yvette Carol🙂

    • Ollin says:

      Wow, thanks for connecting all that so beautifully. You are SOOO right. Couldn’t have said it better myself! By the way, do you have a blog? Just curious.🙂

  10. Happy Rambler says:

    Yes, a paradox! We often get scared going the counterintuitive route that we get too pressured to always have an immediate reaction alongside all the “action” going on around us. I was reminded of an article, “14 Action Inducing Lessons from Benjamin Franklin,” i read recently that said, “Never confuse motion with action.” Definitely made me realize how important it is to step back, and learn to listen not only to yourself.

  11. ansuyo says:

    Interesting.

  12. […] particular drew my attention. I hopped on over to Courage 2 Create and began reading Ollin’s post. I was as stunned as Ollin, I imagine, when I read about the quote from the Tao te Ching having […]

  13. Ollin… enjoyed this and included it on a list great posts about listening. Also, you have been tagged. I do not know if you have time ot play but either way, have fun.

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