Wu wei – action without effort

Granny Weatherwax moves between raindrops and never gets wet.  Federi moves between bullets and never gets hit.  Various clever protagonists have the ability to melt into their surrounds (without dripping), and become invisible by escaping notice.  I did too, yesterday:  My son walked right past me where I was sitting phoning someone, and I didn’t even lower my voice, and he never spotted me – and he was searching for me!

The concept of Wu wei (“effortless action”, not “action without action” as per the WP theme :-D) is to align so nicely with the energies around you that things “just happen” in a very smooth way.

The greatest obstacle to achieving Wu wei is, surprise surprise, the human ego.

That is not to say your self-image.  Your self-image is a critical part of your “toolkit” of being yourself.

If I ask my youngest, who is 10, if she’s a clever girl, she’ll answer “of course” without a trace of conceit.  This is accurate:  She is clever, according to the tests she passes with merit in school on a regular basis.  If I ask her whether she is pretty, she’ll answer “of course” with the same total lack of self-consciousness.  Ask my teenager the same two questions and you’ll get negations, blushing, self-consciousness.

In case 1, ironically, it’s a healthy self-image.  In case 2, it’s a typical teen blend between a self-image that took a hammering and a teen ego awakening.  Both put rocks in one’s way.

I’ll give you an example.

You remember, when you’re on your way to work, and all stressed out because you’re late, everyone cuts in front of you and every traffic light turns red just ahead of you?  That’s exactly it.  You are stressed because you’re late, and that stress puts you “at right angles” with everything around you.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t get roadhogs when you’re relaxed.  But somehow they don’t impact on your mood in the same way.  And…  when you are relaxed because you have time, everything smooths out, traffic lights are all green, …  you get the drift.

Another example:

Years back, a colleague asked, “when I do an analysis [microscopic], what must my attitude be?  Do I think of myself as a good analyst, or do I think of myself as someone who is always improving, or what…”

Boss’s answer:

“You don’t think about yourself at all when you analyze, you simply put your full focus on the analysis.”  (This may sound obvious but the lab was going through a patch of team-building etc, and attitude was the buzz-word.)

So here’s the key:

Your attitude must be the subconscious platform from which you work.  It’s your support structure.  The painter on the high-rise building only ever thinks of the scaffolding when he is ascending it, or when it wobbles.  If you need to wear your attitude like a coat of armor, you haven’t yet internalized it.  And things will work; but they won’t be wu wei yet.

The mood factor:

My brave little monkey is one of my two exam students this year.  And she’s shooting for a distinction (why shoot lower, ever?).  But when she practices, she comes across the typical violin troubles (every instrument has its own) :  Things simply won’t work the way she wants them to.  A slide into third position is out of tune.  A fast run stumbles into a mess.  The bow squeaks.

And she loses her temper.  Cholerics are the people who get things done.  But they need to release their pent-up energy at something.  They have so much energy!  (Oh how I envy them. 🙂 )

But a temper tantrum will not get you results on the violin. Better to see the difficult part the same as a piece of stuck-on gristle that won’t come off when you wash the dishes.  You don’t lose your temper; you simply increase the intensity of your scrubbing and add more soap.  And magically, suddenly it works.

Is that wu wei?  I believe so; because the second you take the anger out of tackling a difficulty, it stops being intense effort and becomes a project instead.

Try to practice wu wei for a day and come and tell us how you fared!  🙂


11 thoughts on “Wu wei – action without effort

  1. That’s so interesting. I used to hide from my daughter in plain sight by doing something similar. We used to joke about it being like “Bert” on an ancient TV show called “Soap.” Bert thought he could turn invisible.

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