The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tsu espoused a philosophy of quietude, noninterference, being centered in the moment and understanding how things work.
As opposed to our contemporary go-go society, he observed that inactivity often could accomplish what busyness cannot, for example, how a muddy pool is best cleared by just letting it settle.
I got to thinking about the health-promoting attitudes of Lao Tsu after a couple of conversations at a friend’s 70th birthday party.
One gentleman, a marine biologist, shared his hobbies. One was growing bonsai trees and another breeding a unique line of blue colored gold fish favored by his wife.
Each of these required immense patience, gentle guidance and noninterference. In 2008, Hurricane Ike wiped out his 30- or 40-year-old bonsai trees along with his breeding tanks of carefully developed blue gold fish.
Still, he appeared remarkably serene and philosophical, a man content and at peace.
Another friend at the party was the CEO of a successful nonprofit. She shared how she often felt overwhelmed by an unending tide of more than 400 emails daily.
As a practitioner of transcendental meditation, she was still able to maintain a calm center in the midst of this maelstrom of activity.
Both of their stories are powerful symbols in our world. The bonsai master found peace in the midst of waiting patiently for years to see the fruits of his work.
The CEO was a bellwether of alarm that many of us can relate to. The incessant flow of email, blogs, tweets, news, texts and so on in multiple noisy media formats all clamor for our attention and action.
Lao Tsu championed the virtue of being in harmony with the world around us by doing less, not more.
Our contemporary society seems geared just opposite to this.
We see people of all ages, their faces buried in their phones, even while driving or as they walk past each other unaware.
In the gym, I get blank stares from friends who are plugged into their ear buds and don’t hear my greeting as their routine is accompanied by a flow of music and messages from their phones.
I sit down to check my inbox and end up deleting 80 to 90 percent of the content, and that is after the junk mail spam filter already has pulled out dozens of useless messages.
Is such constant activity healthy for us? Is Lao Tsu’s advice to remain still, to breathe deeply, to practice quietness and noninterference realistic in today’s world?
I would argue that his approach is more relevant than ever.
He used the example of a wheel, the spokes of which provide structure but the empty hub at the center which makes it useful.
The spokes are our activities, the empty hub our center of gravity making them useful.
Perhaps some of us crafted well-intentioned resolutions last week.
Maybe some attention to doing less rather than more in the year ahead might be a partial solution to stress, strain, hurry and worry of our often overbusy lives.
Here are some simple practices to consider adopting in the year ahead:
Notice the small things happening in the present moment by bringing your attention to them, the scent of the rain, an emerald green blade of grass, a flower.
Breathe deeply from time to time to center yourself in the present and create an island of relaxation.
Rest occasionally from constantly checking messages, texts, news and take time to reflect on those things, people, and activities you have always valued the most.
Enjoy the sunset, the seaside, the fresh breezes brushing your skin, the things that remind you that you are alive.
Quiet the mind through meditation, prayer and sitting.
Find contentment in who you are and what you already have rather than striving so hard to expand your accomplishments or possessions.
To close with some final words from Lao Tsu, “Practice non-action. Work without doing. See simplicity in the complicated. Achieve greatness in little things.”
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.