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Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Easy Way to Understand Wu Wei

Question: Derek, I am having trouble with the concept of wu wei. My friend says it means doing nothing and going with the flow. But my question is, what if the flow won't take me where I want to go? What if my life is headed for disaster? Should I do nothing and let myself move toward destruction? That makes no sense at all!

Answer: Wu wei is often misinterpreted. The easiest way to understand it is to think of surfing. You'll see that wu wei makes a lot of sense - even if you don't know how to surf!

Imagine what you would do if you were surfing. You wouldn't want to fight the wave - that would be foolish and futile. This may be the part where people get the idea that wu wei means going with the flow. They may not understand the other equally important part, that you also wouldn't want to stand motionless and let the wave wipe you out. That wouldn't be smart either.

What you really want to do is ride the wave. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of your body and the surfboard. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To the crowd at the beach, your movements seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

It is the same with life. You don't want to waste your energy in a useless struggle against the way things already are. At the same time, you also don't want to be a couch potato. People who are apathetic and indifferent won't stay on the surfboard for long.

Ride the wave of life. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of yourself. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To other people, your actions and progress in life seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.

The art of surfing is no different from the Tao of living. This is the true meaning of wu wei.

Note: Ancient Chinese sages did not know anything about surfing, but they understood wu wei perfectly, as Chuang Tzu demonstrated in his story, The Waterfall.

7 comments:

Michelle said...

Hi Derek,

This does tend to be confusing to many people. You've supplied a fine explanation.....Thanks!

A.V. Michaels said...

Good one Derek. It's a good analogy, isn't it? :)
Peace

Derek said...

Angela, you are the *real* expert on this topic. You've been talking about it way before anyone else!

Sir Martin said...

You're absolutely right!

A lot mistake wu wei for recklessness when in reality it requires a lot of discipline and awareness. Just like that surfer -- riding that board requires practice, perseverance and focus.

Most of my students can't get this, especially those who insist on being in full control of their lives (such are teenagers after all). To them, I say that wu wei is more like letting go -- admitting that there are some things we can change, and some that we cannot. Be like water so we can shift course easily, unlike the insistent and stubborn who are like the stones at the bottom of the riverbed.

Derek said...

Discipline, absolutely. This is always emphasized in authentic Asian traditions of the Tao.

To me, the tragedy is that this essential part of wu wei gets ignored by people who think it's cool to be into the Tao... but don't like the idea of having to discipline themselves to do anything. :)

Michelle said...

Derek, your comment about discipline brings up something I have often wondered about. (Maybe this is a topic for the forum, and I have pondered asking there as well....)

There are various products, usually audio CD's, that promise you can meditate as deeply as a Zen monk at the touch of a button and get all the benefits the "Masters" receive in just days or weeks of meditation instead of having to practice for years.

Putting aside whether these programs work or not, there is the self-discipline aspect.

If a person is actually cultivating any sort of spiritual enhancement through meditation, if a person recieves that heightened awareness or benefit so quickly, I wonder if they will be prepared to handle it.

Sort of like the people who win the lottery and suddenly have several million dollars...they don't know how to handle this new wealth, and I have heard that they often lose it one way or another, mostly because they were not prepared to properly handle the wealth they received.

I thing there is a lot to recommend the idea of going more slowly, developing the discipline, developing the maturity through experience to the point of being ready to handle the sort of heightened awareness that comes with the practice.

Attaining too much too soon may not necessarily be a good thing.

Derek said...

> Attaining too much too soon may not necessarily be a good thing.

Definitely, this is very true. There is similar a Chinese saying that translates roughly as: "To achieve success at a young age is a great misfortune." Sudden wealth and fame are actually very bad things for someone who does not have sufficient maturity to handle them.

For real-life proof, we only need to turn our attention to the tabloids...