Wu-Wei

A Powerful Spiritual Practice

It’s been a grievous week for the United States, and in those families here who are politically divided. This and the next two blog posts describe spiritual ways to manage the emotional upheaval of our society and the intimate relationship systems which make it up.

Wu wei, the principle of non-action, is a Taoist principle that can help us accept reality as it is, rather than how we want it to be. Defined, wu-wei

“is not to be considered inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity…. [I]n the context of Taoist writings [wei] clearly means forcing, meddling, and artifice—in other words, trying to act against the grain…. Thus wu-wei as ‘not forcing’ is what we mean by going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming in the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer…. Wu wei is thus the lifestyle of one who follows the Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence—that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them. But this intelligence is…not simply intellectual; it is also the “unconscious” intelligence of the whole organism, and, in particular, the innate wisdom of the nervous system. Wu-wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all one’s actions. It is not the mere avoidance of effort” (Tao: The Watercourse Way, translated by Alan Watts, 1975, pp. 75-76).

The concept of wu-wei can be particularly helpful when it’s not just raining, but pouring. Perhaps you found your house to be divided in this election cycle. Wu-wei acknowledges that you can’t change anyone. You simply have to observe who the other is, and decide if you can adjust to that or not. This is part of what it means to “go with the grain,” practically speaking.

Noble Truths

The concept of wu-wei reminds me of the second and third Noble Truths in the Buddhist tradition. The second Noble Truth says that we create our own anxiety and suffering by our cravings, and the third Noble Truth says that we can end our suffering by surrendering our cravings. Wu-wei requires that we identify our cravings, the ways that we are trying to force life to be something it’s not, and to lay down our fight to make it so.

The truth is, we have a President elect that half the country opposes. But we live in a democracy, which means that those who disagree with the outcome of an election still have to live by the will of the majority. The question for those of us who find our new leader to be repulsive is how to do this.

Trust the Process vs. Make a Cat Bark

Wu-wei helps us to trust the process, to accept reality as it is so that we can put our energy into thinking outside the box rather than resisting what we can’t control. In relationship and in society, we don’t always want the same things at the same time, and we have different ways of approaching conflicts. We can try to make the other see things the way we do, but that only draws out even more resistance and places more distance between factions. An offensive approach is like trying to make a cat bark. No thanks. Though sometimes excruciating, it’s actually more productive–and less painful–to simply accept that life isn’t the way I want it to be right now.

Internal Resistance Before Acceptance

I wish I could say that accepting the fact that life isn’t always the way I want it is my default mode. In reality, I have to pass through some pretty staunch internal resistance before I can get to the acceptance stage, which is always characterized by tears of both sadness and relief. I hope I’m learning to go with the grain more quickly these days, but my resistance is still pretty strong much of the time. It still bothers me a great deal that I don’t have complete control over the circumstances of my life.

That said, I can attest to the experience of peace that wu-wei living brings. Strangely, perhaps counter-intuitively, practicing the paradox of surrendering control to gain back one’s personal power brings us to a spiritually transcendent reality.

A Karate Lesson

In karate, trainees are taught not to fight offensively, but to move with the punch of the opponent, drawing him off balance. When we live life this way, life’s blindsides lose their power to permanently punish us. They may leave us reeling for a bit, but in the end, we’ll gather ourselves together and muster the courage to face the dragons…and maybe even befriend them.

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