How the Ancient Art of Wu Wei can Make You Calmer, Less Frustrated, and More Effective

22874-050-5AD45A3DPoet on a Mountain Top, Ming Dynasty

Many of us go through life trying to impose our will on the world. Sometimes it works—we finally get the promotion that we’ve been battling for, after endless late nights and newly-sprouted silver hairs; our animalistic efforts towards a female are rewarded with a wild, no-holds-barred evening in a hotel room, or our headstrong child finally gives in to our relentless requests to scrub the dishes. Often, it doesn’t work. Our snarling, snake-like manager takes all the credit for himself; the girl in the bar with the magnificent breasts sneers at our lowly attempts at flirtation, and our little-bastard-of-a-son blocks us with the noise-cancelling headphones that we paid for.

Life is – as fiery Italian footballer Gennaro Gattuso so eloquently puts it – “sometimes maybe good, and sometimes maybe shit”. It’s the messiest thing we’ll encounter, an enormous, warping ball of the most twisted and wonderful nonsense we can hope to imagine, the taming of which is difficult for even the most skilled circus performer. The world will do what the hell it wants, regardless of our sweaty exertion.

Somewhere in the undulating, gorgeously-green slopes of Classical China, in an ancient time known as the Spring and Autumn period, an insightful, unknown character saw the world’s indifference with perfect clarity, and when combined with the idea that life is easier when you go with the flow, came up with the Taoist concept of wu wei.

Wu wei, when translated literally, means “without exertion”. It’s the idea that each of our actions should be performed spontaneously, based on the conditions of the moment. The staggering number of events that have led up to this moment in your life have created a set of conditions that are almost entirely outside of your control, and by acting in accordance with these inevitable conditions, you’re giving yourself the best chance of success, and not locking yourself into battle with an unbeatable world that, quite frankly, doesn’t give a shit about you.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

Wu wei can also often translated as non-action, which sounds like an advocation to be a lazy deadshit, but is actually the idea of being more effective when you’re not forcing a situation. We cannot hope to persistently control a world that is hell-bent on doing what it wants. Instead, we can take each situation as it comes, and act in accordance with the unique conditions of the circumstances. The alternative is a path to teeth-grinding frustration. The expectations that we bear, and the force that we use to impose them, are the source of much irritation and resentment.

“[Unrealistic] expectations are premeditated resentments.”—rumoured to have originated in 12-step programs

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that kids roughly under the age of seven have a tendency to believe that they can affect the outcome of a situation simply by thinking it, as though the very thought of pushing your little brother off a revolving see-saw would actually cause it to happen. He named this magical thinking, which as adults, is exactly what we’re doing when we have unrealistic expectations. It doesn’t make a shred of difference whether we expect something to happen or not. Going with the flow—wu wei style—is a much more favourable attitude.

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.” —Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969

Wu wei is not a call for unbridled apathy, in which we float through the world like stoned spectres, drooling and desireless, but instead an invitation to let go of our expectations, taking each moment as it comes. It’s turning your boat around and paddling with the stream, rather than against it. So much energy is wasted in trying to mould the world into our desired shape, and while we do have some success, we’re often left frustrated. Though desire, ambition and action will remain as undeniable and important forces in our lives, we must accept that our plans will often be thwarted, and that instead of descending into despair, we might consider adapting to the developing situation in the spirit of wu wei, providing us with an effective and delightful buoyancy in which we no longer have to partake in fruitless battles against an unconquerable opponent.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The concept of wu wei is similar to the Buddhist concept of Upādāna, which can be referred to as attachment, clinging, or grasping. When we become attached to our expectations, in our desire to dominate and regulate our world, we suffer. For the orange-clad, baritone-omming buddhist, the cessation of attachment leads to Nirvana—a liberation of the soul, similar to the feeling one might expect when you finally become free of worries, after a lifetime of carrying them. Timone and Pumbaa were probably buddhists.

Similarities to wu wei can also be seen in the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which teaches the futility of trying to control that which cannot be controlled, as if the statement isn’t already obvious enough, and yet still dismally overlooked by so many us. The stoics believed that you should live according to your values, while preparing yourself for repeated, inevitable disappointment, because most of the time, the world doesn’t play to our rules.

“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” —Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

To be a practitioner of wu wei is to bestow yourself with additional energy, usually wasted on combative, headstrong styles of thinking. You’re no longer paddling against the stream, but using its natural energy to propel yourself forward, and in the process, enhancing your own vitality. Once the unnecessary need to fight has been expelled, you can move forward with increased finesse and competency, towards a brighter, less quarrelsome future.

The East has much to teach us, with Taoism a worthy forerunner. Wu wei, and it’s emphasis on going with the flow, must surely be one of the most liberating ideas to emerge from that mysterious continent, encompassing the ability to relieve a great deal of mental stress, and move forward with an accepting, permissible attitude, in which the hardships of life are efficiently dealt with.

Hooray for wu wei!

Life is easier if you embrace change

greg-rakozy-38802-unsplashPhoto by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Our universe has an insatiable tendency to change. Since the moment of its spectacular inception, in which a singularity of unfathomable density and temperature exploded with the strength of a million gods, the cosmos has undergone endless, beautiful revision.

The formation of subatomic particles – the tiniest specks known to us – went on to form larger atoms, raging stars, colossal planets, and expansive, glittering galaxies, all vacillating from one state to another, without purpose or need for reason. The horizon-spanning landmasses that support our species are constantly shifting back and forth, forging snow-laden mountains that soar into the luminous sky, or deep subterranean trenches that lay forever hidden in the impenetrable darkness. 99 percent of the species to have existed on planet Earth – over 5 billion unique groups – have found themselves extinct, subject to the relentlessly changing nature of our universe, in which each organism plays their short role before relinquishing their atoms to another venture.

The entire universe is, and always has been, in a state of flux. If the cosmos were a sentient being, one might assume that it behaves this way in order to keep things interesting. After all, nothing induces boredom quicker than a stale, changeless situation, lacking freshness and surprise. Variety is what makes our planet so intoxicating, and yet, as a species we have a foolish, unremitting desire to cling onto positive experiences, in an attempt to prevent their escape. We wail and squirm when a period of delight transforms into mediocrity, as if the cosmos will heed our complaints and alter its immutable proclivity for change. We frantically try to grasp onto every morsel of happiness that befalls us, praying that our kitten-like grip will somehow hold on, but failing every single time. We revolt against the inevitably of change, and it makes us depressed.

Two religions of the mysterious East – Buddhism and Taoism – can help us with this problem. Alan Watts – an influential figure who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the West – called Buddhism the religion of no religion, due to its non-dogmatic, practical, and philosophical nature. Taoism has similar qualities. You won’t find a single prayer-receiving god in Buddhism or Taoism.

Buddhists believe that personal suffering is caused by our implacable tendency to become attached to what we desire, whether it be a pleasant emotion, removal of death, freedom from pain, or anything else that we crave. Surrendering our attachments leads to Nirvana, a state of blissful peace and liberation. When you consider the flux-like, constantly changing nature of the universe, this makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s impossible to become attached to anything because it’ll soon change into something else, and by foolishly trying to lengthen the experience by clinging onto it – as though our grasping will prevent its transformation – we’re condemning ourselves to disappointment.

What is required is an unrelenting acceptance of our universe’s fluidity, in which we must enthusiastically immerse ourselves. We can no longer live under the foolish assumption that we can trap our positive experiences in a large jar and climb in with them whenever we’re feeling blue. Agreeable situations will emerge, be enjoyed, and then naturally transform into something else. We suffer needlessly because we revolt against the universe’s love of change.

“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.” — Alan Watts

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
― Lao Tzu

Life is transition – you can’t pause the show and fix things into place, however much you’d like to. Things come and go naturally – resisting this fact pollutes our souls with misery.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” —Alan Watts

Our existence can be considered a glorious, dynamic adventure, brimming with experiences both light and dark, and constantly exciting. We make our way through a chapter and look back over our exploits, perhaps with a tinge of regret that things have to change, until we’re ready to move onto something provocatively brand new.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac

The ultimate change that we resist is our own death. We desperately want to step outside the confines of our changing universe, so that we may dodge its brutal laws and become eternal gods. Our capacity for memory and prediction allow us to delve into the past and future, which are incredible tools for survival, but curse us with the desire to live everlastingly. Before we developed these skills, the only thing that existed for us was this moment. We had no concept of eternity, nor any desire to become acquainted with it. We were free to live in the forever changing now – a perfectly mindful existence. Mental time-hopping may have helped to escalate our species to the top of the food chain, but it’s instilled a debilitating fear of our eventual demise. Funnily enough, most of us have already died many times over. Our cells are constantly croaking and being replaced anew, including the parts of ourselves that we personally identify with – our consciousness-creating brain cells.

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Memory cleverly pulls the wool over our eyes, creating an ongoing impression of your own identity. But on an atomic level, you are not the same person that you were when you started reading this article.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

The atoms that make up our bodies are so copious, durable and replaceable that there’s a good chance of us containing a little bit of past genius:

“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

On an atomic level, we’re all eternal – the atoms that make up our bodies will eventually depart, to become part of a chunky brown baobab tree on the plains of Africa, a humble poo-pushing dung beetle, or perhaps a future tyrannical politician. Though our consciousness expires, we survive. Humans are simply an insignificant expression of our ferociously dynamic universe; a cosmos that shakes and jives, splattering atoms across the face of gleaming galaxies, mixing and merging until something chimp-like emerges.

Change and variation is what makes our world endlessly breathtaking, and by realising that life would become monotonously stagnant without it, we can start to come to terms with our long and imperfect journey. Fear, sorrow and desperation are equally as important as courage, joy and contentment. Without death, we cannot hope to experience an exhilarating, spirited life. Change is what paints the world with luminous, spine-tingling colour; the dark hues are what make the light so gorgeously prevalent. All we need to do is take a deep breath, and plunge into it.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching