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Wu Wei - Ed's journal
Wu Wei
The drowning man thrashes in the water, and makes little progress, beyond keeping his head above water.
The athletic swimmer glides gracefully, rapidly and effortlessly.

This is to swimming what Wu-Wei is to life. "Wu Wei" is one of the principles of Taoisom, and approximates as 'non doing'. However it is not laziness, inertial or passivity. It is, if you like, swimming with the current of life.

In doing nothing, we can ensure that nothing is left undone. This may seem a contradiction of sorts. But consider that a small change in the right place at the right time is amplified many times before it comes to fruition.
22 comments or Leave a comment
ehrine From: ehrine Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm sure that Friday morning's are not the best time for such "zen-like" statements :)
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
When better. Friday is POETS day after all.
elrohana From: elrohana Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
And its one of the hardest things to do.

I try but fail dismally, every day of my life.

One of the problems I have with Taoism and Buddhism is just this 'going with the flow' - I have too much passion and anger to be able to achieve the ideals that both these belief systems advocate striving for.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
But passion and anger are part of the process as well. The problem comes when you try and second guess yourself as to what is actually meant or needed.
From: sebbo Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
also... you are relying on some benefactor to feed you. If it works... fine, but not in my neighbourhood :)
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 3rd, 2006 01:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know. I mean, 'doing nothing' isn't the literal sense. It doesn't mean you can't work for a living. But then, in many ways, it's the _essence_ of systems admin. Set your systems up right, such that nothing is left undone, and then slack off all day.
pinkzhazha From: pinkzhazha Date: March 3rd, 2006 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Wu Wei" is one of the principles of Taoisom
AND it sounds like a fire engine, and EVERYBODY likes fire engines.

jorune From: jorune Date: March 3rd, 2006 07:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Would you agree that on a temporal and non metaphysical level that the underlying subtext of your note is refering to the self esteem that is gained through mastery of a skill and talent. This ability is engrained into our subsconcious that it operates at a level of action/activity without the need for direct conscious thought and it is this notion that reflects the spirit of the phrase 'non doing'.
purp1e_magic From: purp1e_magic Date: March 4th, 2006 12:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't know much about wu-wei, but that's not quite how I see it. It's more a question of knowing when nothing is the best course. To give an example from raising SA, if you try to teach him it is very hard for him to learn. Instead, you create an environment in which he can learn for himself. He'll tell you what he's ready to know by asking questions, where he might not have understood or been interested in pre-emptive explanations. If you let him draw a picture he'll demonstrate the limits of his understanding by including all aspects of a face in random orientation and position. Instead of trying to teach spatial awareness you just have to suggest that the nose goes above the mouth, and he'll apply it to other aspects of all his drawings.

It has less to do with my competence at motherhood compared to my willingness for things to take a natural course, and let all aspects of the environment play their part.
jorune From: jorune Date: March 4th, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
You make a valid point, there are many times when 'masterful inaction' is the right approach. I'm sure Peter and many other people who work in big companies know managers and team leaders who are stuck in a rut. They 'must do something/must change something' without waiting for the latest change to work.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 6th, 2006 08:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Was that a question? :)

No, not quite self confidence or skill mastery. I'm afraid I can't easily articulate what I mean without digging up analogies, but essentially it's stopping to understand what is, and how to just be, and from there everything around moves smoothly and seamlessly.

So yes, sort of a mastery of talent, but the 'talent' in question would be in 'being who you are' with all that implies, rather than "how to do things".

I suppose the management analogy is a good one - the best manager does nothing, and yet leaves nothing undone. Trusting and understanding those around you to be who they are, and understanding what/who it is that they are.

Serenity and wisdom allow us to flow in harmony with life (the Tao if you like), seeing the things around us, remaining content to be and accepting and riding with whatever comes.
mcnazgul From: mcnazgul Date: March 4th, 2006 07:48 am (UTC) (Link)
That which Kolb names 'unconscious competance'.

I'll see your zen and raise you a Japanese anecdote.

There's a Japanese story about a rice farmer who offends a samurai known for his skill with his sword - only exceeded by his arrogance and bullying ways. The samurai dishonourably challenges the farmer to a duel - a problem as the farmer has no idea about swordplay and farmers bearing weapons in Japan at that time lost their heads. Not good for the farmer.

A soldier friend of his visited and they had tea. Said farmer had a gift for this sort of thing and the soldier observed that he must have practiced many times. The farmer agreed and said he found it relaxing when he did so; a contrast to how he felt about the upcoming duel.

The soldier smiled and gave him his sword and asked the farmer to try a few swings. The farmer proved he was no swordsman. Then the soldier asked the farmer to hold the sword and pretend he was making tea. The contemplation on the farmer's face made the soldier smile - the farmer was ready.

The day of the duel arrived. The samurai stood bristling in his armour as the farmer arrived. The farmer laid his hand on the hilt and looked at the samurai, his face serene. Faced with a vision of confident readiness, the samurai saw the farmer had no fear of him and the expression of a master.

Believing he was hopelessly outclassed he threw the duel and left the court in disgrace.

While wu wei is a wonderful principle, the amount of practice you have to get to achieve this state is often too much for most people and overkill for many things. While you can fake it till you make it as the rice farmer did, exclusive reliance tends to land you in very hot water indeed.

The trick as always is finding that balance between the two.

Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.
After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.
Or something like that.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 6th, 2006 08:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't think it's quite the same as the zen-like skill mastery. As you say, to become a 'master' is much practice and training.
I think it's more a question of serenity, composure, focus and understanding. The skills that make one a master of all things.
From: apostle13 Date: March 6th, 2006 09:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Not quite the same, yet not quite different either.

After all, once you've mastered one thing, you've effectively mastered all things, since it is then essentially a case of (albeit time-consuming) wash-rinse-repeat in the other areas.

Serenity, composure, focus and understanding rarely come upon a person by accident or chance. There's usually a lot of work involved somewhere along the line, if only in learning what to cast aside.

For all its simplicity, wu-wei should not be mistaken for an easy way out i.e. non-doing is not simply doing nothing, as has already been frequently stated (but is worth repeating, I think!). And you cannot have non-doing without doing, after all.

To consider the unconscious competence approach, it's reasonably valid, since first you have unconscious incompetence (doing nothing), followed by conscious incompetence (a moment of realisation), then conscious competence (the "doing"), and then unconscious competence (wei wu wei). It is a fairly natural progression, and I can't really think of anything off the top of my head that really defies it (but I would be interested to hear of something!).

It's a common scenario in the martial arts (where both Buddhism and Taoism have played important roles), where you must first learn a style or two devised by others before you can truly achieve your own style, or the Japanese "mind of no mind", or Bruce Lee's art of "fighting without fighting", or whatever you want to call it.

To reconsider a few of the qualities in a slightly Buddhist sense: serenity comes from letting go of anger, focus from letting go of distractions, and understanding from letting go of ignorance. None of these accomplishments is EASY to achieve, BUT ultimately all they require is letting go of something - the wu wei of the Taoists, I suppose. But as the Taoists tend to say of the Buddhists, we've "almost got it" ;-)

So no, it's not quite the same as skill mastery - perhaps more the setting aside (or letting go) of incompetence ;-)

After all, that was Zen, this is Tao ;-)
jorune From: jorune Date: March 4th, 2006 10:36 am (UTC) (Link)
To second mcnazgul's comment:

The drowning man and the graceful swimmer are one and the same person, it is time that separates and links them. The wise man is constantly open to experience and must always be an initiate. In search for wisdom, initiation is always just beginning.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 6th, 2006 08:39 am (UTC) (Link)
One day the swimmer might panic and start to drown. It is wisdom that separates, but the source of that wisdom is in letting go and accepting what may be. It is quickly obvious that to thrash leads to exhaustion, and to relax leads to good swimming, if you're not so caught up on the fact that you're drowning.
From: apostle13 Date: March 6th, 2006 09:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that sentence encapsulates so much of it all:

"It is quickly obvious that to thrash leads to exhaustion, and to relax leads to good swimming, if you're not so caught up on the fact that you're drowning."

Very true, but also very difficult not to get caught up on the fact, so again "letting go" or wu-wei is not as "easy" as it might appear.

Likewise, it is obvious that to become angered leads to hostilities, and to be patient leads to good relations and serenity, if you're not so caught up on the fact that you're pissed off.
It is obvious that to waste time on numerous trivial matters leads effectively to idleness, and to concentrate on that one important thing leads to efficiency and focus, if you're not so caught up on the fact that trivial things tend to be easier and often seem like more fun (and how often is it that we can't see the wood for the trees, eh?).
It is obvious that to fixate on a narrow point of view leads to ignorance, and to be open to alternatives leads to understanding, if you're not so caught up on the fact that you really like your point of view, and you don't really like those of anybody else.

Obvious? Pretty much, yes.
Easy to do something about it? Seemingly not!
And what really needs to be done? Very little, simple letting go. Wu-wei.

Whoever would have thought that something so effortless would seem to take so much damned effort ;-)
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 13th, 2006 11:43 am (UTC) (Link)
That's actually one of the things I like about the concept - it's not so much about learning something, as unlearning. Or perhaps learning to let go.

In theory, a very simple step to take :).
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 13th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Bah, silly logins.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 7th, 2006 10:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually I've always believed the principles of wu-wei are less about sitting back and just letting it happen and more about really focusing on the positive aspects of life and making the most of all the many opportunity's around us.
We tend to get what we expect out of life so if we can really convince ourselves we are worth a whole lot of good stuff then that is what we are more likely to receive, accept that bad stuff may happen but we will survive and learn from it, grow from it then let it go as holding on to the negative will only ever damage us and achieve nothing.
Focusing on the good in life, moving with the flow and letting go of the negative all require a great deal of hard work and energy as it is actually somewhat harder to do than dwell upon our issues, though as with anything else it becomes practice and the energy become positively re-enforced.

Wu-wei is about looking forward.
Imagine life was a river and we were caught in it's flow. We can spend out time looking behind us, struggling against the current and getting our backs bashed against the rocks or, if we accept that we are always going to be moving down that river, we can face downstream let the current carry us as we use the odd stroke to work with it and aim for the clearer calmer water.
pinkzhazha From: pinkzhazha Date: March 8th, 2006 10:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Oops, that was me by the way, My box ticking slipped up.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: March 13th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC) (Link)
I have the same problem with logins :).

I interpret wu-wei as a sort of mix - 'inaction' it isn't, but more ... focussed action. If you like, to recall "for the want of a nail" and the chain of events leading to disaster, being at the nexus point such that chains of positive events, rather than negative occur.

22 comments or Leave a comment