Philosophy for medical students – Part III

Written by Shan Leung c2018, Photograph by Giuliana Guarna c2019


Philosophy for medical students – Part III

This entry is the third in a four part series that will explore the value of philosophy to medical students, using the works of specific philosophers as examples. It will aim to be equal parts thought-provoking, accessible and concise.

Lao-tzu and the Tao of Medicine:

“Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt. …Do your work and step back. The only path to serenity.”

–        Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation

Lao-tzu lived between the 4th and 6th centuries BCE and is the reputed author of the classical Chinese text the Tao Te Ching. The first thing to know about Lao-tzu is that he probably never existed; instead, the Tao Te Ching was likely written by many authors over many years. The second thing to know about Lao-tzu is that non-existence is the highest fulfillment of his philosophy. How clever of Lao-tzu, therefore, to not exist: a true inspiration!

One of Lao-tzu’s teachings is the principle of Wu Wei or not-doing. To achieve Wu Wei is to be in harmony with the natural flow of the universe. In such a state, the actor disappears and action becomes effortless. To illustrate, consider two butchers: a novice and a master. The novice butcher must carefully consider each cut. Her work is slow and she makes mistakes. The master butcher, meanwhile, can carve an animal without as much as a thought. Her work is fluid and flawless. The master butcher has achieved Wu Wei. At the end of the day, it is almost as if she does not exist; the work has done itself.

The principle of Wu Wei is often attractive to surgical specialties. It can conjure fantasies of becoming a “master” surgeon. But Wu Wei is equally relevant to other fields of medicine. Consider that motivating positive change in patients is less often a matter of assertive force (effortful action) than it is a matter of passive redirection (effortlessness action). Or as Lao-tzu puts it, “When the master governs, people are hardly aware he exists. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it all by ourselves!’”

Finally, Wu Wei may be helpful in conducting our own lives. Remember that Wu Wei emphasizes harmony with the universe. It rejects the grandiose and complex. It sheds the need to insist and control. Instead, Wu Wei encourages us to be like water: elemental, flowing, unhindered through even the lowest and smallest of spaces. Water does not demand anything of the world. Yet, water shapes all things. In this, it has mastered Wu Wei.

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