How’s your Wu-Wei?

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I came across a fascinating book this week by Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia, and a renowned scholar of Chinese thought.  It’s called “Trying Not to Try:  The Art and Science of Spontaneity”.

wu wei

It aligns so well with the ideas that I’m sharing these days in my workshops and coaching.

You’re probably familiar with Mihaly Czikszenmihayli’s pioneering work on “Flow” – which points to that precious state of consciousness where we feel a deep and total immersion in our lives and creative work – forgetting the passage of time and even physical needs such as hunger or thirst.

There’s a growing acceptance that perfectionism kills creativity and excessive goal-setting can limit our happiness, and even our success.

Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with a lovely illustrative example:  a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver.  Two players sit opposite one another, each wearing electrode-equipped headbands that register general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball to the centre of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins.  There is a twist, of course, because the motive force – measured by each person’s electrodes and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table – is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed:  the more of these brain wave patterns you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball.  Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm!

Apparently, it’s fun to watch – the players are visibly struggling to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures.

Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like a massive game of Mindball where we can get caught in this loop or trying so hard that we actually sabotage our own efforts.  Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we can spend our lives preoccupied with effort, working, striving and trying and controlling.

But I have noticed so often in my own life experience that, if I can be fully present, relaxed, clear and ‘Home’ – it’s all much more effortless. The excessive ‘striving’ is actually counter-productive.

I see that I don’t need to ‘win’ – that winning has nothing to do with my well-being anyway… but paradoxically, when I see this, I seem to win more often.

I’m reminded of the quote by Hugh MacLeod

“The best way to get approval is not to need approval”.

There’s an ancient Chinese concept called wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way).  It literally translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing’ but it’s not at all a dull inaction.  In fact, it’s the dynamic, effortless, and unself-conscious state of mind of a person who is optimally effective.  It’s a high-performance state – very similar to Flow.

People in wu-wei feel relaxed and happy, and may simulatenously also be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a tricky social situation, or coming up with a fantastically innovative business idea.

We have been taught to believe – at least in Western cultures – that the best way to achieve a wonderful life is to set challenging goals, and then strive continuously and consciously to achieve them.  Turns out this is terrible advice.

Most of the states we really want – like happiness, spontaneity, love, wisdom, creativity – just happen all by themselves when we stop striving and come ‘Home’.

How’s your wu-wei today?

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