Column: The Taoist and Confucianist concept of Wu wei

Originating in ancient China, the principle is centered around “effortless action.”

“Stop worrying so much.”

This advice is both annoying and infuriating. When you are trying to achieve anything — be it winning a competition, finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, getting a job or passing an exam — you are often so nervous about achieving it that you lose your once-cool head. Your anxiety gets the best of you.

Sadly, this isn’t uncommon. It’s part of our human nature to worry about these things. In order to rid ourselves of this, we need to learn to live spontaneously, to actually stop trying so hard. We need to try not to try.

This is the central idea to the concept of Wu wei, the Chinese term for effortless action or literally “not doing.” Pronounced “ooo-way,” it is one of the central ideas of Taoism and Confucianism. Wu wei is the flow of being “in the zone.” It’s often described as lively, effortless action, with elements of thoughtlessness and natural spontaneity.

Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some world leaders have charisma and some large industry leaders insist on getting wasted before sealing a deal.

The idea of effortless action in ancient China focused on training the mind to guide and control the body. While this is technically incorrect, it can be taught today by focusing on two systems: a slow and cold conscious and a fast and hot unconscious. When we fret over our actions and ground ourselves in thinking of the consequences, we are using the cold, slow system. Though, beneath this system is another self that is much bigger and more powerful: the subconscious.

The blood flowing through our bodies, our muscles contracting and even breathing are all examples of this subconscious. These functions are not the only factors the subconscious controls. It is also the controlling force responsible for whenever you think of resisting that delicious ice cream from the dining hall or whenever you debate about skipping that morning class because you can’t get out of bed.

The goal of Wu wei is to get these two selves to work together without struggle. For a person in the Wu wei state, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful. The two systems — hot and cold, fast and slow, conscious and subconscious — are completely in unison. The result is someone who has intelligent spontaneity and is one with their environment.

Chance is, you have already been in a state of Wu wei without even realizing it. Whenever we play a sport and start making goals effortlessly, it is Wu wei. When we have sent applications to every workplace and only get the job whenever we have given up all hope, it is Wu wei.

Whenever we are in a social situation and know we should be relaxed and confident, thinking about it more and trying harder is counterproductive. There are a lot of areas in life where it is impossible to succeed unless you’re not trying.

Worrying about the outcomes of our actions does little for us and hinders us from obtaining what we desire. But when we accept the way things are and are able to keep our cool, it can be surprising just how easy life is. The only way to live life is by going with the flow. Only then will we be the embodiment of Wu wei and be truly content.

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