“You know, I like this Taoism philosophy,” a friend once remarked, “but it’s not always easy to understand and I’m not sure how applicable it is to real life.”
I had heard comments to this effect quite often. In this particular case, he was referring to wu wei — a linchpin of Tao philosophy. It was sometimes translated as “non-action”, which to the Western mind seemed to be the same as doing nothing. How could that possibly be a profound teaching?
On this sunny Saturday afternoon, we were on our way to Santa Monica Beach for some much-needed exercise. As I drove us onto the freeway, my friend continued to voice his perplexity: “It’s too abstract. I’ll bet I’m not the only one who doesn’t get it.”
It was true enough that wu wei was not well understood. In the East, one interpretation of wu wei was “acting without purpose” in the context of true altruism — in other words, doing good deeds without expectation of personal benefit or recognition. While this was certainly a valid take and a laudable goal, it was only a subset of the overall teaching.
Wu wei as an ideal can be more easily understood from the polarities we observe in life. Taoist sages have noted how fools or amateurs struggle mightily toward a particular goal but achieve little, while masters of any discipline seem to practice their craft effortlessly and achieve outstanding results. Why is that?
We arrived at our destination. Just south of Santa Monica Pier there stood many rings and bars out in the open air. It was all freely accessible to the public, so anyone who wanted to could get a great workout while enjoying the sun and maybe a little people-watching. We took in the sea breeze and felt great.
True martial arts masters understand wu wei as “spontaneous action” or “effortless flow”. You may know that Bruce Lee founded Jeet Kune Do, a style that, like the man himself, is imbued with an emphasis on speed and power. But you may not know that he also founded Wu Wei Gung Fu, a fighting art that expressed his ultimate philosophy: “Learn technique. Practice technique. Forget technique.” At the highest level of this discipline (as well as other martial arts), the warrior becomes one with the flow of reality around him. In that state of oneness, he is able to act without the necessity of volition. To the bystanders, he doesn’t seem to do much, and yet he delivers the exact minimum of impact at the exact right time to accomplish what needs to be done and not one iota more.
Stephen Hays, one of the top practitioners of Ninjutsu in the world, explains it this way: “Literally dwelling invulnerably in the heart of the danger, the advanced spiritual warrior is in effortless command of his surroundings at all times.” Also: “From the ninja’s exploration of the rarified levels of advanced taijutsu capabilities comes his realization of a grander form of effortlessness in accomplishment.” You can see that these are extremely accurate descriptions of the state of wu wei, even though Ninjutsu practitioners may not use that exact term.
An American master by the name of Vernon Turner demonstrated the wu wei principle in a legendary public spectacle twenty-five years ago. Without formal training in martial arts, Turner challenged top fighters in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia to a trial by combat. In this contest he faced seasoned black belts in quick succession, at one point even against six black belts simultaneously. In a matter of seconds and using only one finger, he defeated each one.
How did he do it? Turner described it this way: “I was but an instrument, grass blown by the wind: the grass is taking the bows but the wind is doing all the work.” He insisted that the force behind his moves was not himself; he was merely one with the flow and going along with it. “When I stand on the mat rooted in the grace of this awesome experience,” he wrote, “and see my opponents fly through the air and fall at my feet without conscious effort on my part, when I feel my body rise and fall like the cosmic breath, I am humbled by life.”
My friend and I discussed this as we stood by the rings, waiting for our turn. A girl by the name of Trisha was going through her routines. Her movements were strong and graceful. She was a natural acrobat and by far the best athlete on the beach. Several years ago a Hollywood agent discovered her at the rings and started her on a career as a stunt double for major movie stars (she performed on-screen somersaults for Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses and also for Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns). We weren’t nearly as talented as she was and so had to work harder at our own routines.
The concept of wu wei isn’t limited to Kung Fu. Every creative individual has experienced a certain “flow” at one time or another. It may be most evident when you paint or play a musical instrument, because these activities make it quite easy, indeed natural, to slip into this non-physical river of energy we are trying to describe. When you are immersed in the flow, you experienced timelessness and you let go of the idea of “self.” Your awareness expands to encompass all aspects of the activity you are engaged in, and your hands seem to develop a mind of their own, no longer requiring your conscious direction. You can even settle back in your mind, enjoy being a spectator for a while and marvel at this work that seems to be coming out of nowhere. Much later, long after the experience is over, you may realize that while within the flow, you were suffused with a pure bliss. This is all part of the power of wu wei.
Wu wei is a state in which one is relaxed, free yet focused. It is the antithesis of strife and struggle. We only struggle to do things when we are emotionally attached to the outcome. Wu wei is all about effort without attachment. In this light we can easily see how it applies not only to martial arts and creative endeavors, but also to I-Kuan Tao’s interpretation of giving without expectations. When you give of yourself by going with the flow, you benefit others according to whatever comes naturally and feel absolutely no need for rewards or any sort of peer approval. In this realm of true altruism (which the cynical among us would argue does not exist), there is no room for concern about what other people may think. You let go of any desire to be seen as a Good Samaritan or a philanthropist, and this frees you to focus on doing the right thing.
“That’s all fine and dandy,” my friend said, “but the bottom line is, can you use this principle whenever you want to? It’s probably easier said than done to apply it consistently.”
I admitted I could not. Occasionally I could glimpse, or even be one with, the effortless grace of wu wei for a few fleeting moments, but I couldn’t even come close to being able to call upon it consistently. That would require a level of mastery well beyond my grasp.
Let’s all ask ourselves this question: is it possible for us to apply wu wei in pursuits other than martial arts or creative endeavors? You and I don’t spend all of our waking hours dancing or painting or playing music or breaking bricks with our bare hands (even though some of us may want to), so how do we use wu wei in more mundane areas of life?
Let’s think about it. Wu wei is all about approaching oneness with the flow of reality. That flow is omnipresent; it exists everywhere and everywhen. We define it as the underlying current of existence, thus by definition reality can not function without it. The flow is present when we conduct social interactions with other people; it is just as present when we undertake any kind of activity… such as exercise, for example.
It was my turn at the rings. I tried to dismiss all thoughts of techniques and body positions from my mind – I had already learned them well enough through countless practice. I just needed to trust that I knew what to do and relax / surrender into the inevitability.
Yes. The flow of the motions formed a pattern, a rhythm. The seeming paradox was that you could tap into it only when you weren’t trying to tap into it. Without conscious effort I swung from one ring to another.
In that transcendent state, the difficult became easy, the impossible commonplace. I flipped from one ring to another. I changed hands in midair at the apex of my flight. My friend was stunned, as were the others waiting in line. They had not dreamed that these moves were possible.
When I dismounted, the landing felt right, like the last note in a musical composition. I then became aware that a large crowd had gathered around the rings. They burst into wild applause, taking all of us by surprise.
“Dude, I love the way you did that,” said one of the onlookers. “You make it look so easy.”
He probably didn’t know it, but he had just paid me the highest compliment imaginable.