Wu Wei is the Taoist/Chinese principle of action without action, or going with the flow. Wu wei is not about non-action, laziness or passivity. It simply encourages us to take actions that are in alignment with everything else in nature, creating a beautiful harmony that makes your life simple, effective, happy, and stress free.
1 – Swimming Upstream
I started practicing wu wei before I ever heard of the concept. I was working so hard, forcing my life towards the course I desired. Yet, the success wasn’t coming. I figured I just needed to work harder. Give that cycle a few years and you can imagine how burned out and frustrated I was becoming.
It didn’t work.
I looked at my reality. All my hard work had gotten me nowhere. Struggling and forcing my way through life wasn’t helping me achieve my goals. I was exhausted, stressed, and tired of putting so much effort into my life. Life really shouldn’t be this hard, I kept thinking.
This was like standing by the side of a flowing river, getting in, and trying to swim upstream against the current. Even with a slow-moving river, I was splashing and struggling just to stay in the same place. Then I would get out and check my progress: I was exactly where I started! Only then, I was much more exhausted.
2 – Getting into Alignment
I was stubborn enough that it took me years to realize how easily this problem could be fixed. One day, sitting by the side of that river, totally confused about why I hadn’t made any progress, I started thinking…
“What if I got back in the water and just lightly floated in the direction of the current? The only ‘effort’ I’ll make is to keep myself pointed in the right direction so that nature can do its work. I mean, my results couldn’t get any worse, so let’s try that.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is wu wei at its finest. Instead of using your own effort to force results, you simply recognize the movements of nature and get yourself in alignment with them. You flow down the river with the current.
Sailing is the classic example of wu wei. You use the power of nature (the wind) to get where you want to go. The boat moves with nature towards your desired destination. If you were to try making this happen with your own effort, it would be a joke. Yet by aligning with the laws of nature, the boat glides effortlessly through the water.
Notice the roles here. Your role is to get yourself pointed in the right direction on the river. It is the role of nature to make the river flow. This is wu wei – action without effort. You aren’t “doing” anything, and neither is the water. It is the mystery of nature – things happen without a visible happener. Stop swimming upstream and allow yourself to become a part of that powerful process.
Notice, too, that sometimes the winds will be calm. You might sit in the boat and not move very far. Sure, you can get out the oars and start paddling, but the gains won’t even be worth the energy it uses. When the cycle of nature ebbs downward as it always does, accept that. Move with the cycles of nature.
“Lucky” people are those who know how to align with the patterns. Sometimes nothing will happen for a while and you accept that. It might even seem like laziness from the outside. Then, all of a sudden, the winds pick up and you begin moving towards your destination. To those who don’t understand, it seems like you got lucky. But going with the flow of nature will almost always take you most effortlessly to your destination.
3 – Tacking the Sailboat
This is all pretty simple as long as you want to sail in the direction of the wind, but what happens when the wind is blowing from the north and you want to travel north? This is where the skilled practitioners of wu wei get clever. Using even more nature (wind + bernoulli’s principle), the sailor can tack his sailboat, which allows him to use the wind’s power to move against the wind itself.
At first it may seem like wu wei encourages you to release control over your life and float wherever the river takes you. This is a good first step and a great place to start experimenting, but it is not the end of the game. Just like good sailors, those who understand wu wei can use the principle to go wherever they want to go without putting forth too much effort or struggle.
A classic example of this is the win-win situation. Using wu wei, you can create a situation where everyone in the room wants something different and they all end up getting their desire and helping each other in the process. Each person can follow their own nature and thereby help all others do the same.
When you want to sail against the wind in your own life, try this process:
- Define where the wind is coming from. (Define how nature is influencing the current circumstances)
- Know where you want to sail. (Clearly decide what your desired outcome is)
- If the two seem conflicting, find a creative third solution. In sailing, this involves using bernoulli’s principle to create low pressure in front of the sails. In your life, you might try to incorporate another element that makes the first two work together. In a business deal where two people have conflicting interests, for example, you might bring in a third person who can also benefit from the deal.
Recognize that there is usually a way to use nature’s current forces to get where you want to go. Even when they seem contradictory at first, you can find a creative solution that makes everything work in harmony.
4 – Out of this World
In western society, we typically refer to ourselves as “coming into this world.” But it is more accurate to think of ourselves as coming out of this world. Like a mushroom quickly shooting up out of the soil, we too are created and sustained by our environment.
This is an important understanding within the context of wu wei. Why? Because forcefulness can only be applied from an external source. A rod of steel alone in a vacuum cannot make itself move, the force must come from something else (thanks, Newton).
The mistake, then, is to see ourselves as an external entity that “showed up” on this planet to dominate it. Want to see how connected you are to your environment? Try going into space for just a few hours without any equipment. The only way to leave this planet is by recreating its conditions wherever we go. People don’t exist separate from this world, we are engrained in the planet just like all other pieces of nature.
Why does this matter? Because an unbroken stream of water flows easily. The wu wei practitioner sees himself as a piece of that stream and flows along with it. With this understanding, you aren’t really taking advantage of the water, you simply become part of the flowing process.
See, the smart sailor knows that his boat and the wind are one united entity. Thus, as the wind moves, the sailboat moves as well. When you become a piece of nature, not a conqueror over it, wu wei happens all on its own.
5 – Paying Attention
All of that was a bit theoretical – I know you don’t actually want to float on any rivers. The rivers are just analogies for the paths and circumstances of your life. The fun comes when you put these principles into action to make your experiences happier and more effective.
I had written a bunch of practical examples to add here, but none of that is necessary. While wu wei is an extremely difficult subject to describe with words, it is fairly easy to put into practice once you understand the patterns of nature.
When you see the river rushing along, it’s fairly easy to jump onboard. The hard part is finding the flow of the river in the first place. The only way to do that is by paying closer attention to your life.
Conscious awareness is the glue that makes wu wei stick. To harness the effortless power of nature in your life, become more attentive to all that is happening around you.
- Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings
- Pay attention to the people around you
- Pay attention to your event and circumstances
- Pay attention to the process of nature
Wu wei can improve your life, your health, your relationships, your success and more. But the interesting thing about wu wei is that there is nothing you can do for it to take effect. But there are things you can undo. You can loosen your grip. Let people and circumstances go. Find the path of least resistance. Be happier and less stressed. You can breathe, smile, and go with the flow.
The Art of Controlled Accident
There is a fantastic little book called Zen in the Art of Archery. It is a biographical account of Eugen Herrigel, a German who traveled to Japan in the 1930’s to study the art of archery as a way to understand the deeper spiritual dimensions of Zen. Each page is packed with timeless wisdom.
This book shows how Japanese archery (kyudo) clearly illustrates the principle of wu wei, action without action, or the art of controlled accident.
For example, when Herrigel was trying to learn how to release the arrow at the proper time, he kept struggling. His arms would tremble and the shots would go in every direction. He finally went to the archery master for advice and was told this:
“You must hold the drawn bowstring”, answered the Master, “like a little child holding the proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think ‘I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing.’ Completely unselfconsciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not equally true that the things are playing with the child.“
In other words, the master’s advice to Herrigel: release the bowstring without letting yourself know that you’re doing it. Let the bowstring use your hand to release itself, not the other way around.
Alan Watts calls this The Art of Controlled Accident. To illustrate, Watts often tells of the short story by von Kleist where a man was fighting a bear. Except, this bear could read the man’s thoughts and kept blocking every move the man tried to make. The only way to defeat the bear was to hit him without knowing you were going to hit him.
When you approach life as a macho wo/man who is in complete control, able to use your will to bend the Universe to your desires, the arrows go off course. Even when they hit, it is not a fulfilling victory because something feels off. What this philosophy of controlled accident (or wu wei) suggests is that when you recognize the playful, fun, purposeless nature of what you’re doing, things start to have a kind of ironic order and flow:
“The right art”, cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed … What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”
“What must I do, then?” I asked thoughtfully.
“You must learn to wait properly.”
“And how does one learn that?”
“By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”
“So I must become purposeless on purpose?”
Yes, Herrigel, you must become purposeless on purpose. In other words, your purpose is to be purposeless and you should take that purpose very seriously.
Wu Wei and the Art of Controlled Accident
We can draw many similarities between this process and that of wu wei. In many ways, the controlled accident is the expert’s adaptation of wu wei.
As you begin to practice the process of wu wei, where you let yourself flow easily downstream, you may notice something interesting: YOU are still directing yourself down the river. The river itself does the heavy lifting, but it is still your action that gets you on the river and steers the boat. The process is neither active nor passive. It’s both at the same time.
In reality, the correct process is active passiveness, effortless effort, or a controlled accident. We might not be able to understand this process logically or intellectually, but we can feel it. There is a beautiful element of flow to this type of (non)action and things usually work out better than we could have imagined.
Yes, you have to get yourself on the right river. You have to choose the path that you want to follow. Yet, even that has an element of spontaneity to it. Even in choosing and directing your path, there is an element of controlled accident.
Creating Controlled Accidents: A How-To Guide
Activating the controlled accident in your life is difficult. The process is simple, but making it happen can be hard. Beyond just the practical benefits, it is a spiritual journey that takes you to the depths of who you really are (more on that in a minute).
In the archery example, the process works like this:
- Surrender your control and let go of your need to be the commander of the arrow.
- Don’t think about hitting the target. Try to find the purposeless purpose and flow with that.
- Breathe. Taking deep breaths is important as you hold the string tight.
- Observe how the arrow is released by your hand and simultaneously releases itself from your hand.
In practical terms, let’s say you have a big goal to improve your sales. Your efforts over the past few months of trying to force sales have actually lowered your numbers. Now, you’re ready to create a controlled accident in your life. How?
- Surrender your control over the sales numbers. Further, surrender the misconception that you, and you alone, can make these sales happen. Unless you’re buying up your own stock, there are other elements at play beyond your control.
- Don’t think about hitting your numbers. Whether you succeed or not is no big deal. Find your biggest “must” behind making the sales numbers happen and blast it to pieces. If you wanted sales to impress other people, blast that apart. If you wanted more money to buy more toys, blast that apart. (You’ll find that this is clearly the hardest part).
- Breathe. Start your day at the office with a 5-minute deep breathing exercise and continue it throughout the day. When you meet a client, instead of focusing on making the sale, focus on your breath. Seriously. Go into the meeting with the goal of being a successful breather.
- Observe how sales seem to make themselves with you as just one natural component of the sales process. Also observe how some sales aren’t made and your results aren’t perfect. That’s okay. In those situations, have the wisdom to see that something wasn’t quite right with the deal. Maybe you couldn’t meet their needs as well as someone else can, or they would be more trouble than they’re worth. Trust in the wisdom of the process.
There’s a fun way to practice this in small-scale. Grab a pen and hold it out at arm’s length. After a few deep breaths, let it drop without telling yourself to drop it. Think about what just happened. Was there a clear signal from your brain to your hand to drop the pen? Try it again and see…
I’ve done this many times and I can never find the sergeant in my head barking the orders to drop the pen at exactly the moment it drops. It almost happens on its own. Yes, I have the pen in my hand and I drop it, but it is equally true – if you pay attention – that the pen is using my hand to release itself.
After all that, what’s the point? Why would someone want to go to this much trouble just to shoot an arrow more effectively? It is really HARD to surrender your control – aren’t their easier techniques to get what you want? While those are great questions, they miss the point.
The controlled accident is not a productivity technique, it is more about the deepest motivation behind your action. Like all zen practices, the goal is not to help you hit the target (although it does help with that), the goal is to break down the barriers between you and everything else. This can be terrifying, but so worth the effort.
You never lose your identity as the shooter of the arrow, but you see the interconnectedness between the two. One cannot succeed without the other. You and the arrow are working together. Thus, on a deeper level, you may not be as separate as you think.
Do you see the connection between learning to let life move through you and living the art of controlled accident? Many times, you won’t know where life wants to lead you. So, you wait for the direction. You wait for the time that the arrow in your life wants to be released. When life is ready, the action happens. It’s totally spontaneous. Even you don’t always know where your life will lead.
The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep. – Chung-Tzu
Learning to let life move through you as much as you move through it can be a wonderful way to experience your world.
3 Ways to Understand the Art of Controlled Accident
Now, to someone steeped in our modern western, take-charge, fight, struggle, steal-the-oil, frack-the-earth, and command-the-world-into-submission-with-weapons mindset… the idea of being purposeless on purpose, or allowing life to act through you, sounds like utter nonsense. Thankfully, those people are no longer reading this article. But if you’re still here, you may have a hard time grasping how the controlled accident works in practice. Here are a few illustrations:
- Artists. Art is perhaps the easiest way to understand how the controlled accident works. A professional artist has to produce work if he wants to make a living, so there is pressure to create. You must have control. Yet, art by its very nature is spontaneous. There is nothing more unartistic and boring than controlled art. The master artist learns how to setup a situation or environment where he can create art spontaneously on purpose.
- Writing. I cannot force blog posts. Much like artwork, when I try to control my articles, they turn out jumbled messes that no one understands. My best and most useful posts come from a place of spontaneous, effortless flow. Yet, I cannot wait 2 months to find that flow – you need articles! Working on a balance of control and spontaneity to produce epic content on a regular schedule is by far the hardest thing I have ever done.
- Children. Children are masters at the art of controlled accident. They are happy to jump from one thing to the next, swaying with the flow of life. This is the best evidence that we are all supposed to live this way: children are 139.6 times happier and often more successful at reaching their goals than adults. It is only when the adults get in the way do children become uncomfortable. As when the grandparents come over and the parents tell the child to “play” so the grandmother can see. The child gets totally confused by trying to force the art of play.
I feel like I have used 3,500 words to say nothing and you read 3,500 words to learn nothing. Even if you paid great attention, tomorrow you probably won’t be able to explain what you read here. In normal terms, that would be a failure, but isn’t that the best example of the controlled accident in action? It doesn’t get you anywhere and it passes away to make room for new things tomorrow. It’s purposeless on purpose.
Image Credit: Gunboat