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

22874-050-5AD45A3D.jpgPoet 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!

The power of loving your fate

1_cd429541-9c5e-47c7-b33b-df935d8d3ca8_530x@2x.jpgDaily Stoic Store – Medallion

Much that happens in our lives is beyond our control, to our everlasting dismay. We welcome everything good with a stupid, expectant grin, arms wide open and fingers stretched, ready to greedily receive every deserved delight. If we catch the slightest whiff of something adverse, it’s greeted by a suit of armour and a speedily turned back, regardless of their laughable ineffectiveness. Our nature dictates that we seek positivity and shun negativity, and while this normally makes sense, when it comes to events that are outside of our control, it can pollute our mental health.

There’s so much that we can’t control – our partner’s love for us; a substantial annual pay raise; the train turning up on time. Rallying against these events is as futile as shouting at rainclouds to go away – you have zero control over such situations, so the most sensible thing that you can do is just accept them. Nietzsche, everyone’s favourite moustached-German, tried to encapsulate this in his philosophy with the beautiful Latin phrase amor fati, which translates to a love of one’s fate. You don’t have to be a believer in fate to benefit from this concept, you simply have to realise that, whether you think that life is predetermined or not, there are some things that you can’t control, and it’s much better for you to accept them instead of fighting them.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.” — Nietzsche

This philosophy takes a lot of practice. For many of us, the natural reaction to a negative event is to squirm and whine about it, which only serves to make us unhappier. The goal isn’t to magically label everything as good and welcome such things like brain-dead idiots, but rather to recognise that negative events were not chosen by us, and to accept their inevitability. It should be made clear that this is not fatalism, and that we should by no means accept unsavoury events that are within our control. You obviously shouldn’t accept someone repeatedly sexually harassing you, because there are actions that you can take to prevent this from happening. What you should accept in this situation is the fact that some people are fucking arseholes, and there’s nothing you can do to change what has just occurred. Then do something about it.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” — Nietzsche

Amor fati is a salve for our wounds, which while undesired, are a necessary part of living in a dangerous and often painful world. The inescapable torment that attacks us on occasion can be neutralised by an attitude of stoic acceptance, of absolutely everything that comes our way. Imagine the unyielding contentment that you’d feel if you were able to accept everything that happened to you with grace? When we fight the negative aspects of our existence, we’re behaving like comically impotent life-deniers; we want to block out the bad and only receive the good. The irony is, we only recognise what’s good because of the existence of what’s bad. If you remove everything bad from your life, the good has nothing to contrast with, and just becomes a flat-lined meh. Amor fati encourages us to affirm, not deny, our lives, by teaching us that life is more delightful if we have the courage to accept every circumstance, whether it be a lottery-win, or a car-crash.

“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny.
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch; and still must follow.”
— Epictetus

When we recognise that something could not have been otherwise, and learn how to accept it with harmonious dignity, everything that was once dreadfully painful will lose its potency, and we’ll develop an infectious enthusiasm for our lives. The guarded disposition that has tainted our lives will fall away, restored to a receptive, accepting openness. Fate doesn’t discriminate, it throws itself at us without thought or care; a battle without triumph.

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.” — Cleanthes/Seneca

Let amor fati be the philosophy of your life, and bring uncompromising fate over to your side, as a friend, not a foe.

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The trouble with expectations

One of humanity’s greatest feats is our ability to predict the future. Like star-emblazoned, crystal-wielding psychics, we can consider the elements of a situation and conjure up a relatively accurate forecast. This propels us towards things that are likely to be rewarding, or retract from what’s damaging, like Homer gently reversing into an immersive hedge. The ability to envision and expect outcomes is one of the main reasons we’re such a successful species. But wonderful as it is, it comes with some pretty big drawbacks.

As much as we’d like to be hocus-pocus prophesiers of the future, our crystal balls aren’t particularly clear. Expected outcomes are often wildly incorrect, and we writhe in pain instead of celebrating success. The problem is that the world is damned complicated – there’s way too many variables for our simple minds to compute in order to make fool-proof, diamond-studded predictions. Constant failure to foresee the future is inevitable, and learning how to accept that is one of the greatest skills you can master.

Holding tightly to expectations can cause much damage in our lives. We become so hypnotically focused on the outcome, acquire such a degree of tunnel vision, that we end up missing much of the experience. Our senses are trained solely on the future, numb to what’s happening here and now, which is the part that really counts. By clinging to desired outcomes, you’re missing out on the adventure itself, like trekking to the dizzying heights of Mount Everest with your eyes closed, and only opening them when you reach the top. This kind of goal-focused behaviour is necessary,  affecting brain processes such as attention, interpretation and memory, but when we become overly attached to the end result, we’re reducing the excitement in our lives, and permeating it with disappointment.

Think of a time that your usually-outstanding partner does something to piss you off. There’s a good chance that your annoyance was caused by an expectation of how they should be behaving. But you can’t control what they do, no matter how satisfying that might be. In fact, knowing how your partner is going to act all the time would be tantamount to standing in the world’s longest post-office queue – boring beyond belief. Much of life’s excitement comes from surprise. Hopefully, the person who you choose to spend your life with has a unique and compelling mind of their own, so they’re always going to do things that don’t meet your expectations.

Exercise regimes are another expectation-clad occurrence. The chimes of Big Ben have hardly stopped reverberating before we’re swearing an oath to develop a body better than Arnie and Dwayne Johnson’s lovechild. The surge of motivation that we feel after our declaration rarely persists into the future, and before you know it we’re slumped across the couch, stuffing an endless amount of cumberland sausages into our fat mouths.

Our daily output at work is also suffused with expectation. No matter how hard we try to create timeless masterpieces, sometimes we end up with uninspiring mediocrity. Failure is just as important as success when trying to improve. Wallowing in the aftermath of an unmet expectation is immature and foolish; you’re clinging onto the unrealistic idea that your foresight is infallible. You can’t always get what you want. Those boozy angels knew what was going on:

“Expectations are premeditated resentments” – Alcoholics Anonymous

Life is much easier if we go with the flow. Instead of balking at an unanticipated, dissatisfying outcome, remind yourself that the future isn’t unreservedly predictable, and that it would be extremely boring if it were. Existence and all that it entails is a weird and wondrous adventure, cannoning down a white-water river in a vessel that can sometimes be controlled, and sometimes not.

“Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” ― Lao Tzu

If this blog hasn’t been persuasive enough to convince you to casually shrug off unmet expectations, then maybe the world’s greatest basketball-dunking werewolf can:

“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” – Michael J. Fox

The next time things don’t work out the way you expect, leave your dismay at the door, and let go of what you can’t control.

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The dangers of approval

Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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The limits of your control

Philosophy has a tendency to be dry, complex, and abstract. For a heterosexual male who has little experience of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is tantamount to being faced with Helen of Troy sporting a penis. An unbounded amount of confusion ensues.

Thankfully, there’s an exception. When you consider the company that it keeps, Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. Its most famous proponents use straightforward language, and simple logic. Many of its core tenets seem desperately needed in today’s society, whose people appear riddled with anxiety and doubt.

One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if something that is outside of your control upsets you, then you’re suffering needlessly. It’s like wailing in self-pity every time the sun rises; howl all you want, it’s still going to rise. This knowledge might be so common as to be a cliche, and it’s the very reason that we need to examine the idea more closely, in order to realise its power.

To be more precise, the idea can be broken into three distinct categories:

  1. What’s entirely in your control
  2. What’s partially in your control (the Stoics call these indifferents)
  3. What’s outside of your control.

The vast majority of your efforts should be based on what’s entirely in your control, some of your effort might be put into what’s partially in your control (i.e. what you can influence), and no thought at all should be given to what’s outside of your control.

What does this look like in the real world?

Entirely in your control

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. What he experienced is more horrific than anything we can imagine, and yet he was able to maintain a calm and heroic attitude. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.

In a more familiar world, if a colleague says something to intentionally piss you off, what could be worse than reacting negatively? They’ve got the result that they wanted, and you’ve become a little unhappier.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius

You certainly can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be a calmer, happier person. Our habits are what make us.

The values that you choose to live by are just as important. This earth that we’re lucky enough to live on didn’t come with pre-written values. It’s up to each and every one of us to look into our souls and discover which values are important to us, and then to live them as best we can. Existing in this state is the most honest and fulfilling way to be.

Partially in your control

This category might be thought of as nice to have. If you can get whatever is in here, good for you. But if you don’t, it has slipped into the outside of your control category, and so should fail to perturb you. It’s packed with what most people strive for in their lives – being attractive, wealthy, successful, and smart; a person who people gravitate to during parties because they’re so funny and captivating. A person who other people want to be.

To the Stoics, these are welcome, but ultimately inconsequential. If you lose them, you can choose whether to bitch about it, or handle it with cool-headed equanimity. Gas leak blew your French chateau to smithereens? No big deal – it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Wife ran away with a Brad Pitt-looking motherfucker? Screw it, it’s her decision, and her loss. Happen to be a Jew living in Warsaw in the 1940’s? Your luck is awful, but you can still choose your attitude.

Outside of your control

Nothing in this category is worth getting emotional about. Instead of whinging, it’s best to just shut up and accept what’s happening. This includes any negative emotion – being sad, frustrated, or confused. Our first instinct is to escape, and by doing so we often intensify the feelings.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

We must train ourselves as masters of composure; unflappable black belts. Adversity? Hah! We laugh in its ludicrous face.

This training can only occur by encountering problems, and being mindful of yourself. Each problem that comes your way should be considered a blessing; an opportunity to fortify an iron will. Even sufferers of chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness. They’re mindful of the pain and experience it fully, but they realise that it’s wholly outside of their control, and that puffing themselves up about it only serves to make it more potent.

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“What did he trust in? Not in reputation, or riches, or office, but in his own strength, that is to say, in his judgments about what things are in our power and what are not. For these judgments alone are what make us free, make us immune from hindrance, raise the head of the humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich with unaverted eyes, and into the faces of tyrants. And this is what the philosopher could give; but you will not be departing with confidence, will you, but trembling about such trifles as clothes and silver plate? Wretch! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?” – Epictetus

During a time when surviving were unquestionably harder, the Stoics knew how to live a good life. We’re fortunate to have access to their wisdom. So the next time you’re bristling with rage due to some external event, act as a Stoic would, and let go of what you can’t control.

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The folly of impressing others

In Western society, a great deal of concern goes into our appearance. The inescapable advertisements that bombard our senses (supposedly up to 5000 a day) are filled with the kinds of celebrities that marketers have decided we want to be like. They’re promoting the idea that if we buy a cologne, we could be as chiseled and perfect as Mr. Depp. The skincare product that costs a day’s salary will almost certainly make you as desirable as the flawless Cheryl Cole.

It’s absurd, of course. The fragrant liquids that we slather onto our faces will not remove the additional chin that we’ve spent years acquiring. We’re being sold an unattainable reality, completely removed from the truth, and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Standards of beauty are set by those who want to sell us something, not by people who have our mental health in mind. They’re giving us what we want, and not what we need.

How do we prevent this from affecting our self-esteem, when it’s so ubiquitous? The answer may lie in a 2000-year old philosophy called Stoicism.

The Stoics believed that you shouldn’t worry about anything outside of your control. This includes how people feel about the way you look. While it’s important to fit in (you can’t go around dressed like a chicken and not expect some roadblocks), it’s utterly meaningless to try to impress, because you can’t control people’s reactions to you. If somebody is rude enough to point out that your nose looks like a pickle that has been rejected by the local supermarket, it isn’t the insult that has caused hurt, it’s your judgment of it. Such a comment is merely the words of an idiot to a Stoic, because they have decided to place value only in what they can control: their reaction. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare

Being able to suspend your judgment in such situations seems superhuman. Even Marcus Aurelius, once Emperor of Rome, and one of the most famous Stoics, struggled every day to adhere to his own philosophy. His Meditations is an insightful and compelling personal diary about his life as a Stoic, and the difficulties he faced.

The idea seems based on solid ground though, despite its demanding nature. Consider how many of your behaviours are influenced by wanting to impress others, and what your life could be like if it were no longer a factor? You could look and act however you wanted (to a certain degree), provided it wasn’t causing others harm. You’d have a more peaceful, less anxious mind. There’d be a great deal more honesty about you. The people who you choose to spend time with would value you for the person that you want to be, not who society thoughtlessly applauds.

The sentiment is echoed by countless others. Michel de Montaigne, a refreshingly forthright French Renaissance philosopher, encourages us to be more like the animals: totally comfortable and ignorant of ourselves, and how we appear to others. Further East, Confucius believed that:

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.” – Confucius

So the next time you find yourself engaged in something that is purely to impress, take a moment to realise your mistake, and remember to let go of that which you can’t control.

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