Non-action is not indifference or sloth. It is not the retirement of Po Chu-i or the idleness of Kenko. It is not sloth or numbness. Non-action or wu-wei enters a sphere or cycle of energy, but the individual does not expend but rather utilizes the energy, the flow of energy around him or her. Non-action is therefore cooperation and harmony with natural cycles and flows of energy, not action in the sense of separate and deliberately autonomous assertions of ego and desire.
Non-action is found in curious places. The epilogue of popular thinker Slavoj Zizek’s recent book, Violence, reflects on the dilemma of what to do to bring about positive change in the social realm given the apparently innate and dogged presence of violence (which he explores throughout the book in many fascinating contexts). Zizek is a post-everything thinker — anti-postmodern, post-ideological, post-deconstructionist — and puts no credence in inherited structures, or at least has no expectation of benignity. He sees that modern society and technology have created monstrous structures that defy change or reform. His book studies modern violence as change expression, from war to revolution to state control and imperialism to psychological expression and cultural symbolism. What, really, is violence except a form of action and intentionality?
Zizek concludes that positive change is virtually impossible on any large scale because we have underestimated what violence is. Violence is not a single or one-sided expression but contextual. Action — regardless of its degree of violence or even non-violence — action itself is intrinsically violent. Even a smile can be more violent than a frown. But he is speaking primarily on a social plane, so we can follow his logic first at this social level, but it certainly has psychological implications, as will be seen. Zizek introduces his idea this way:
The lesson of the intrinsic relationship between subjective and systemic violence is that violence is not a direct property of some acts, but is distributed between acts and their contexts, between activity and inactivity.
Zizek offers an analogy from “one of the more unsettling notions in quantum physics”: the Higgs field.
Left to their own devices in an environment to which they can pass their energy, all physical systems will eventually assume a state of lowest energy. To put it in another way, the more mass we take from a system, the more we lower its energy, till we reach the vacuum state at which the energy is zero.
So far, so good. But the Higgs field is a hypothesized something from which we cannot take away anything “without RAISING that system’s energy” (emphasis Zizek). Thus the Higgs field appears even when the energy of a system is reduced to nothing. There is a system or something which is “lower” than nothing. It is more effort to reduce this something further than it is to stay at nothing.
In social terms, action (such as violence) is only perpetrated by systems with “something,” while actions against systems, states, and structures are intrinsically reactive and have no value, no efficacy. Even when they appear to have legitimacy or efficacy (as in social revolutions), something belies success and reasserts itself even though the opposed system seems to have been reduced to nothing, like Higgs field. Of course, what reassert themselves are essential human instincts and unconscious phenomena reasserted at a social level as power and structure, projected anew onto the subtleties of a social plane which is technically non-existent (given the argument that only individuals really exist).
In a crude analogy, the social “nothing” (the stasis of a system, its mere reproduction without any changes) “costs more than something” (a change), that is, demands a lot of energy, so that the first gesture to provoke a change in the system is to withdraw activity, to do nothing.
Zizek goes on to use the story in Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing as an illustration. In this novel, a populace does not vote for or against a candidate or plebiscite but submits blank ballots; it abstains from voting, from participation, from legitimizing. And it then goes about its daily life, parrying the maneuvers of the ruling powers “with a truly Gandhian level of non-violent resistance,” says Zizek.
Zizek notes that in psychoanalysis, repression (Verdrangung) is simultaneously an acceptance and a rejection. Repression gives credence or legitimacy to the object that disturbs it. More radical, however, is repudiation (Verwurfung), which does not grant legitimacy or being to the thing. Zizek quotes fellow-philosopher Alain Badiou’s assessment that action essentially recognizes what the powerful already know, and in effect gives them recognition and efficacy. “Better to do nothing,” concludes Zizek, “than to engage in localized acts the ultimate function of which is to make the system run more smoothly. … The threat today is not passivity but pseudo-activity. … The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw.”
Although working in the political realm of thought, and with a preoccupation over how to change externals, Zizek’s remarks can nevertheless be helpful in understanding the historical non-action ideas of Taoism and Zen.
The core document for Taoism is Lao-tzu, where a formal presentation of the only legitimate form of power or kingship is in non-action, a guiding or orienting mechanism that brings each person into harmony with nature. Zen inherits non-action more so than any other Buddhist inheritance; in fact, it has been maintained that Zen is more properly a form of Taoism than Buddhism (as Ray Grigg argues in The Tao of Zen).
Non-action is the right tool because it unmasks activity and change for what they really are: a dissolution of personal and social energy and a constant disruption of the context of our reality. This foreground, represented as politics and social conflict in the focus of Zizek and others, can nevertheless be examined and understood, and can prompt withdrawal and non-action in its own way. The result may be a social application to the problem of how to live, but it can sustain a whole theory of appropriate social interaction. That is a first step, but even one which so many people will never take.