Success does not always come from thinking, trying or striving harder. The ancient Chinese philosophers believed that wu-wei – effortless action aligned with the natural order of things – was the answer. The author explores the brain science behind wu-wei and presents Confucius’, Laozi’s, Mencius’, and Zhuangzi’s ideas about how to access this optimally effective state.
Edward Slingerland is a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, where he also holds adjunct appointments in Philosophy and Psychology. His research specialties and teaching interests include Warring States (5th-3rd c. B.C.E.) Chinese thought, religious studies, cognitive linguistics, ethics, and the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences.
My Personal Story
The past two years I’ve experienced a deep unease about modern society’s glorification of working, striving and trying. This ethic runs deep in my DNA. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that this worldview is not just flawed, but harmful, and have looked to Eastern philosophy for other ideas on the good life. Slingerland gave words to my malaise in his introduction:
“Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called ‘body thinking’: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.”
Does life have to feel like this?
Exercise 1: When Have You Effortlessly Drawn People, Resources and Success?
Living with “wu-wei” and “de” was the goal for ancient Chinese philosophers, so let’s define those concepts first:
“Wu-wei literally translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing,’ but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.”
“De is ‘virtue,’ ‘power,’ or ‘charismatic power,’ a radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them. On a smaller scale, de allows a person to engage in one-on-one interactions in a perfectly efficacious way. If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are relaxed around you.”
Slingerland makes an important distinction between wu-wei and flow:
“I would suggest that the distinguishing feature of wu-wei is the absorption of the self into something greater. That is, whether we emerge from a state of effortlessness and unselfconsciousness feeling energized or enervated probably depends, at least in part, on our values: How does the activity in which we just engaged reflect our larger sense of who we are and what we hold dear?”
So while flow arises from pursuing challenge and complexity just beyond your boundaries, wu-wei necessitates being in harmony with something greater than yourself, whether the Dao or your values.
Before diving into strategies to achieve wu-wei, it helps to reflect on your experiences with wu-wei.
When have you been effortlessly magnetic? Who do you know with effortless charisma?
I see this the most in children. Their movement and emotion radiates with no barriers. I also see it in world class athletes and artists, who have mastered their forms that they become formless, pure expression. Even here we can see a duality of paths to wu-wei: doing nothing vs. rigorous cultivation.
I feel wu-wei the most playing sports, when I forget I exist, and doing activities I love, like salsa. Friends and strangers alike want to join all the time, through no effort of my own.
When have you experienced wu-wei and de? When has the universe seemed to align with you? When have you effortlessly drawn people, resources and success?
Exercise 2: Open Your Wu-Wei Toolbox
Slingerland presents four strategies for attaining wu-wei and de.
- Confucius/Xunzi – try really hard for a really long time
- Metaphor: carving and polishing
- “Wu-wei could be obtained only through a lifelong program of trying, strenuously, to distance oneself from nature and move instead toward a thoroughly cultivated kind of perfection. This is because both of these thinkers were convinced that our inborn tendencies, if indulged, would lead to ugly consequences. In their minds, the only way to achieve a fulfilling life and social harmony was to reshape our nature in accordance with cultural ideals inherited from the past. Their aim was still wu-wei, but this was understood as a kind of artificial spontaneity, a cultural and educational achievement rather than the result of simply going with the flow.”
- Laozi – stop trying
- Metaphor: uncarved block
- “For Laozi, human nature is fundamentally good, and our innate dispositions are the ones we need to follow. Education and training are therefore entirely counterproductive, leading us away from our essential goodness... Like the plain, uncarved block, the fully natural person has stripped away the gaudy paint of socialization and returned to something like his true nature, simple and pure… The state of true de – the ‘highest Virtue, that doesn’t think itself virtuous’ – represents a perfect harmony with Heaven and the Way, which gives the Laozian sage remarkable powers over man, woman, and beast. Because he thinks nothing of himself, he is valued by others; because he wants nothing, everything is given to him.”
- Mencius – try, but don’t force it
- Metaphor: cultivate the sprouts
- “For Mencius, only embodied emotions have the motivational power, speed, and flexibility to guide proper behavior in the real world. The goal of education should not be to teach people logic and self-control but rather to guide them in nurturing a set of positive, innate tendencies into full wu-wei dispositions… Although we are not spontaneously good when born, we tend toward good, in the same way that wheat sprouts will grow into mature plants if given the proper environment and care. Becoming spontaneously good involves merely developing these tendencies, under the guidance of a wise teacher, who plays the same role as a knowledgeable farmer. You need to apply fertilizer at the right times, weed when necessary, and ensure proper irrigation.”
- Zhuangzi – try to forget all about trying or not trying, just go with the flow
- Metaphor: let go
- “The way off the hamster wheel, according to Zhuangzi, is to stop trying harder, learning more, and laboriously cultivating the self. We need to learn to let go. Once we can do this, we will be truly open to the world and to other people, and wu-wei will come to us naturally… If you are to successfully enter wu-wei, your focus should be on the world, not yourself. You have to forget everything—your ego, even your own body—so that you can be absorbed into the larger movement of Heaven’s Way.”
All are centered on the paradox of wu-wei: trying not to try. All require effort to arrive at the state of effortlessness.
Slingerland suggests we should pick a strategy based on our disposition, life stage and situation.
For example, Confucius’ strategy of “carving and polishing” would probably be most beneficial early in life, for skill or habit acquisition. Laozi’s philosophy of “not trying” might best apply when you’re trying to make an impression. Mencius’ “cultivating the sprouts” might be the optimal way to design a happy, meaningful life. Zhuangzi’s “letting go” might be best for performing under pressure.
To me, Laozi and Zhuangzi’s strategies seem best suited for performance and art, while Confucius and Mencius’ approaches make more sense for planning and dealing with change. But one could also argue the opposite!
Pick one area of your life where you seek wu-wei and de. Which of the four methods comes naturally to you? Which makes the most sense for your context?
Exercise 3: Test Drive a Philosopher
This year I am trying on Zhuangzi’s philosophy of “letting go.” Letting go of ego, expectations, definitions, and success. Being empty, and thus open, to new possibilities. The two worlds I know most intimately – business and sports – are full of ego, effort and striving, so that comes more naturally to me.
Yet how many lucky accidents – as opposed to elaborate plans – led to business fortunes?
And when have I attracted the most partners? When it didn’t really matter.
Seems like wu-wei can work…
Yes, it feels scary to drop old ways of doing and being. But why not try for one day, or one event? Why not “try not to try” and see what works.
If you’re awkward at social gatherings, why not take Laozi’s approach and just stop trying? Or model Mencius’ and simply pursue more social activities with which you’re comfortable?
Which ancient Chinese philosophy can you test drive for one night, day or week? Then, what did you learn?
“We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. Unfortunately, in many areas of life this is terrible advice. Many desirable states—happiness, attractiveness, spontaneity—are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment.”
“You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong.” -Shunryu Suzuki