Wu Wei is a way to you
A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.
10 years, said the Zen master.
What if I work really hard, double my effort?
20 years, said the Zen master.
When the cool spring water collides with the excessive summer heat, anything can happen. Yang need yin to produce ten thousand things, this nature metaphor resides within you.
Of all the concepts I teach, the Taoist concept of Wu Wei is perhaps the most foundational and useful. This concept shakes up our mind and hearts when we are under duress and creates a framework for understanding how this may have began, while offering us not only another perspective, but another set of values to which to enter into experience through, a more fluid and easy way to get things done.
I would like to write a short introduction to the concept here as I find that though the concept at fist encounter seems to make sense, it takes much contemplation in order to fold it into your being and begin to live Wu-wei.
Despite our best efforts to technologize our lives, there is no escaping nature and its cadences. In fact, when we distance ourselves from natural processes we create thousands of more problems. Through the value of ‘force at all costs’, our limitations become somehow more obvious and our threads begin to fray at their ends.
The American Zeitgeist asserts stark and uncompromising value system that has led to a current state of disintegration and separation from natural processes, this worldview even manufactures more desire to distance ourselves in any way we can.
“When you arrive at Wu-Wei nothing is unfinished.”
Lao Tzu asserts that the world needs no intervention, it will take care of itself. Wu-Wei teaches us something else profound. Most of your life is going well because nothing is happening. It often the case that when you don’t feel things that they are working properly. We don’t feel our hair growing, or our nails lengthening, and if you do, then somethings likely going wrong. The same goes for a crop. To grow seedlings you locate viable seeds, give them the correct soil and water, but mostly you do nothing, you wait in idle. This patience and gentle approach illustrates principles of non-force, or action through non-action, trust through patience and a withdrawal from frustration that the seedlings aren’t growing quickly enough…
Wu Wei has no direct translation, some call it effortless action, action without action, doing through not doing, or, effortless work, though no one can arrive at a consensus of meaning. This is because Wu-wei has multiple dimensions in how it might inform our lives for the better, and asks us to contrast Wu-Wei to the effort we are trained to expend in the world in order to produce, or become productive members of society.
We have all worked jobs because that’s what you do, we emphasize work as a collective value, and yet we have all worked jobs that are either completely defunct and contribute nothing to the world, or aspects of it seems to strike us as uneccesarily producing bureaucracy, confusion or just plain bullshit. Often our goals revolve around prestige, fame and income, and the work itself is inconsequential. It matters not what we do, but how hard we do it. We are shown images of the gratifications of work and the joy fame and prestige with comport us towards. We marry “up” and turn a blind eye to the ills we create as long as our families are comfortable. This performance of hollow effort has been elevated to comical proportions, worn out creatures trying to outrun our fears of inadequacy and lack though the performance of power and control.
Action and effort are not negative traits, but effort, like thinking, is a good collaborator but a horrible master. Force and will are finite reservoirs that need to be replenished often and fully, they cannot be drawn from at all times, ask yourself, why and I tired all the time?
One I had a math teacher that told me not to study before a test. He was the archetype fo the ruffled professor and taught chaos theory. I was having trouble with some of the theorems and was expressing concern as to how to approach the final. With a twinkle in his eye he told me to practice Friday and Saturday, but Sunday to forget everything , go for a long walk and trust it would come together in the back of my mind, I tried is and passed the final.
This is the surface understanding of Wu-Wei.
A larger dimension is the concept of “free and easy wandering.” Another value we are plied with is that of legacy and lineage, the great trajectories of life. Not bad things in themselves, but when life is lead with these as goals solely in mind, we over-determine our actions and find ourselves in strict, unrelenting prisons because the goal is always moving further away. This type of future aggrandizement takes us out of the present, and orients our consciousness to a future that may or may not arrive, and we then train our minds to become accustomed to a state of lack, that we always need to take more steps and one magical day joy and satisfaction will arrive.
This is why we instinctively gravitate towards activities that have no direction or end to them, as a way to counterbalance all the directional energy of our lives. Think about rock climbing, as an example, there is no point, but to climb, which is different every time, the joy is in learning and being present, for if you are not in the moment, thinking about you legacy and prestige, you’ll surely slip and fall. The same goes for surfing, snowboarding, hiking, many forms of dance, music and art. They delight in themselves for themselves, what if we extended this perspective to the whole of our life? If we are deprecated from natural processes we might become aimless, but if we are guided by nature and our true observations of it, a deeper sense of being guided by Tao occurs and we enter a more spontaneous, present way of being that allows us more access to authenticity, humor and relaxation, and we can still get things done and care for ourselves, communities, friends and families.
Ideology, cultural context, community knowledge, an our environment are difficult to escape. And to a certain degree, its foolish to try to , especially in dense urban centers. And the construct of the forcing self that I’ve been describing fits in well in these contexts, the ego has its place in our survival. But just because we play the part, or role of the ego, doesn’t mean we aren’t free to explore other ways of being, and cultivate Wu-Wei in our lives. The point it to understand the ego is a performance and not the whole. There may be no complete whole, but we can choose what currents to follow that might contribute to a greater sense of ease, simplicity and calm, trusting that Tao will do what it needs to and we can receive its wisdom and gifts.