Wu Wei: My reflections on being a dead fish…

A few weeks ago I had a Twitter exchange with Alexsandar (aka @trishaman).

It all started with one of his Random Thoughts of the Day (#RTOD):
Only dead fish go with the current.

To which I glibly replied: “Well, what about “going with the flow” or Wu Wei…”

Wu Wei…

Wu Wei is from Chinese Taoist philosophy, which I was first introduced to when I was a sophomore in high school (I was 14 at the time).  Sophomore year was the year we had an Asian history focus.  At my school we had a “studies” option where we could combine the required history and literature classes, plus art, into one year long course where the subjects were taught together in context.  Studying everything together in its context means that I have retained lots of random pieces of knowledge from all those years ago.  So in sophomore year Asian Studies we started with China.  In September we had mooncakes and celebrated the festival of Kuan Yin.  Probably around the same time of the year as now we learned about Lao Tzu and read translations of the Tao Te Ching, the key text of Taoist philosophy. 

Is it crazy that a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds were studying Taoism?  Taoist philosophy is that life, the universe, and nature exist in a state of perfect harmony – maybe one of the earliest environmental philosophies?  Digging deep into the memory banks, we learned that according to Taoism man is the source of disruption to nature’s harmony.  And we learned that with a conscious practice of Wu Wei or “non-action”, we could reconnect with the world.  Through acting in harmony with our environment we could achieve equilibrium and balance – a sense of being at one with the world around us.

To hammer home the lesson, we were sent outside to reflect on Wu Wei.

With the words “go with the flow” ringing in our ears, we headed to the lily pond.  What a great way to spend a class.  Sitting by the lily pond, just thinking about what Wu Wei means…  Maybe the treat of spending class time at the lily pond is why I remember this so vividly…

Photo taken from http://www.honolulurealestateviews.com

Now, back to the Twitter exchange.  It seems that both Alexsandar and I have continued to think about the meaning of Wu Wei.  He published his blog on the topic on October 6th.

This is a great piece, stating very well the difference between simply being passive and being actively aware and thus able to work with and harness the energy that arises from the “flow” around us.

To quote Alexsandar:

“This is where a significant distinction became apparent between being purely “passive” or “dead” and the very different approach of being “relaxed” and “coming into sync with natural rhythms”. A surfer is a very good example: If the surfer is passive and non-responsive they will likely get crushed with the wave and drown; conversely if they sense the awe-inspiring power & movement of the ocean, synchronize their efforts and actions with it, and come in tune with the natural rhythm and engage a true “going with the flow” they are able to masterfully find a great ride – what most surfers would liken to liquid enlightenment: balanced and purposeful, active and relaxed.”

I think my own interpretation (and dare I say practice) of Wu Wei may go one step further.  To me Wu Wei – going with the flow – does not result from and is not soley about being balanced, purposeful, and in harmony with our environment.  More important for me is the ACT of and ART of being CONNECTED.  Wu Wei – non-action or going with the flow – is about tuning into ourselves, our world, and those around us, so that we KNOW (and LEARN) how to move with and benefit from “the flow”.

When I read Alexsandar’s piece, I started thinking about my experiences.  When I was 17 we went to the beach (nothing unusual there), heading up to the north shore in April or May.  At that time of the year the waves can be unpredictable. 

No longer the monsters of the winter time…

Image of Ken Bradshaw on a 45 foot wave taken from surfline.com

But at the same time, not the north shore of the summer, which is placid, still, flat and welcoming… 

I love the north shore, where the sand is actually small eroded pieces of shell and coral. And I completely respect and hold in awe the ocean…  You see, I got caught in one of the random, larger shore break sets during that beach trip all those years ago.

What to do?  Be aware.  Hold my breath.  Float.  Use no energy. Connect.  Relax.  I became totally disoriented.  I am sure what in my mind seemed like 10 minutes was probably only about 2.  I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I got bashed around by the waves.  But I wasn’t injured, not at all.

Why?  Because I tuned in. I sensed the right thing to do was nothing. I paid attention to the breaks between waves to catch my breath.  I waited out the set from the bottom of the ocean.  Like a dead fish. And I learned…

Alexsandar continues…

“For myself Wu Wei and “going with the flow” implied a utilization of natural rhythms and forces to gain momentum – an effortless effort that creates a synergy that is greater than the sum of the parts. I believe we all encounter it from time to time – those blissful moments when outside inspiration, natural eagerness, our energy, circumstances and time all melt together into a perfect “flow” where we completely lose track of time or any sense of “struggle” and simply “ride the wave” toward accomplishing amazing things. Sometimes these moments are simple, when we apply our self to a simple task, other times these moments are grand when we work for hours on end toward a major project or other goal. What sets them apart is the sense of “Effortless Effort” or what I believe to be the true “Going with the Flow”…”

(I love Alexsandar’s thoughts!)

For me, Wu Wei, Non-Action, Going with the Flow…  It’s not just about exerting effortless effort and achieving momentum from the energy around us.  Rather, for me Wu Wei is about CONNECTING.  LISTENING for the signs and ACTIVELY CHOOSING A PATH in harmony with my environment thus enabling me to be in a state equilibrium with what surrounds me.  PAYING ATTENTION to the signals, to the cues… DISCOVERING when to swim with the current, when to ride the waves, learning how create effortless effort – and knowing when to relax and play dead at the bottom of the ocean. 

Ideally the paths I choose would be always be the paths of effortless effort or non-doing.  Ideally my choices would always result in that blissful merger of time, energy, and effort that Alexsandar so perfectly articulates…

But… One of the keys of Taoist behaviour (and wu wei) is the notion of releasing control – understanding that it is impossible to control things that you can’t, and that through the release of control and going with the flow a state of harmony can be achieved.  And this is where I fall down. I am exerting control over my health and fitness.  It is not an easy path.  Not often do I feel like everything comes together in “a perfect wave” – I often find myself at the bottom of the ocean, riding out the barrage, timing my re-entry. 

I guess seeking to control myself in this way – pushing my limits and redefining my capabilities – well it’s not very Taoist of me… Looking at it differently, perhaps I have taken Wu Wei one step further.  I go with the flow. But when I choose not to, I make sure to connect with myself and environment, to be aware that my choice may not be in harmony with myself or my surroudings, to pay attention and learn.

This is my TRY-DO-LEARN-REPEAT cycle.  It’s what I write about here – my journey, my thinking – cooking, living, exercising, experimenting – my consultations and reflections – my self and real debates – and my choices. 

This my Wu Wei.  My attempt at being CONNECTED – even at the times when I am inactive rather than choosing non-action, those times when I find myself floating downstream rather than gliding along with the current…

Those times when I may act like a dead fish… Knowing it is just an act…

Links on Taoism and Wu Wei:

Wikipedia entry on Wu Wei

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