Life does not have to be as effortful as I make it. When presented with a “difficulty” – that is, anything slightly different from the anticipated smooth and successful navigation of the river of my life – my mind leaps into action. It worries. It imagines scenarios and plans responses. It holds imaginary conversations with real and imaginary people. It argues with itself. It draws fears around itself like a shroud. It whispers demonically how things are all my fault. It whispers self-righteously that things are all somebody else’s fault. In short, it acts as a perpetual motion machine, burning mental energy at an exhausting pace, leaving itself without the resources to respond naturally and appropriately to an actual situation.
At the heart of Taoist philosophy is the idea of wu-wei – a combination of Chinese characters that literally mean, “not-doing” or “non-action.” This phrase is an expression of the Way the Tao, as it moves in all its Cosmic manifestations and responds to situations without undue strain or conscious effort. It is behind the idea of Flow – of the way water moves with fluid power over, under, around, and through obstacles.
I have always been an advocate of wu-wei but not always a very skillful practitioner of that process. I use Qigong and Taiji to assist my body in remaining relaxed, fluid and flexible. I’m not as attentive to keeping my mind relaxed, fluid, and flexible. I realize now that wu-wei must begin in my mind or it will not truly manifest in my external world. This means that I must return to Lao-Tzu’s advice in The Tao Te Ching of, “Can you wait for the mud to settle and the water to clear and right action emerges by itself?”
My mind is not used to waiting. It is conditioned to be impatient and to see the almost infinite stimuli it receives as, “extremely urgent.” To just sit without imaginary conversations, scenarios, and alternative plans until I see clearly, drives my conditioned mind crazy. This practice, however, is the only way for effective action to occur. Action without clarity is the norm in my culture and is the way I have learned to respond. Clarity is almost unknown because it requires hours, days, even months of calmly waiting for the conditioned mind to quiet and for the Tao Mind to see, know, and act. The conditioned mind wants to act immediately and the tragic results fill our world with violence, pain, and ecocide.
When I enter a situation having rehearsed countless scenarios, conversations, and responses I am unable to see and respond to what is actually happening in the moment. I superimpose my projections on the situation or person and respond to that projection. I miss the reality of the person and of the context. My actions are seldom helpful and lead my conditioned mind right back to the, “I should have said …” or, “I should have done …” process and the cycle begins anew, only now reinforced by yet another layer of self-punishment.
I can’t use the same process to quiet my mind that is used to clutter it. That strategy ends up with imaginary conversations and plans about being still and quiet. The classic advice is to patiently wait and the mind will naturally quiet itself. As frustrating as it might seem, it is the only effective way to a wu-wei mind because quiet mindfulness is the natural state of the mind. It has taken us a lifetime to be trained to forget this truth. It will take great patience to return to it. I find that meditative sounds and mantras can help, but all techniques require a quiet accepting patience. If we learn to let the mind quiet for a few seconds we are on our way. Then we’ll find that we can be still for a minute or two. Eventually we will be able to enjoy wu-wei stillness as a habit Then we will find that our mind is ecstatic with relief at finally being itself again and our actions and words will emerge from a place of quiet competence.