this weekLess Is More

May 31, 2005

Wu Wei

Going with the flow at ITotD

As a student of t’ai chi, I naturally hear and read a lot about Taoist philosophy. The Taoist book of wisdom is the Tao Te Ching, a slim collection of proverbs attributed to the Chinese scholar Lao-Tzu, who lived in the sixth century B.C. One of the central ideas expressed in the Tao Te Ching is the virtue of wu wei, or roughly, “not-doing.” Whatever it means, it is clearly an important principle that readers are urged to follow. But how does one actually make sense of an apparent call to inaction? Doesn’t it contradict common sense? Without doing anything, how will we eat, build houses, write software, and accomplish all the other essential tasks of life? Volumes have been written on those two words, which have also been translated into English using terms like “equanimity,” “patience,” and “nonresistance.” While interpretations differ, the general idea is a context-dependent one: whatever you’re doing, do less. Don’t overdo; don’t panic; don’t exaggerate. The call to “not-do” is not a prescription for laziness or complacency; it’s a recommendation to work with, rather than against, the forces of both physical and human nature. To act in accordance with wu wei is, more or less, to go with the flow.

Such a principle may seem odd in the context of a martial art. If someone’s trying to beat you up, you’re not likely to prevail if you just stand around like a human punching bag. But mindless inaction is not the intention of wu wei. Quite the contrary: alertness and the ability to respond instantly are extremely important in t’ai chi. The goal, however, is to respond without force, using the subtlest actions possible. Wu wei means allowing your opponent’s strength to do the work of defense for you. So whenever my instructor sees someone in the class making extra flourishes, extending limbs too far, or tensing muscles, he says, “Do less. Relax. Let go of muscular strength.” It’s surprisingly hard to do, partly because it’s contrary to our western conditioning, and partly because we have to “do less” while our thighs are burning from the strain of standing on one leg, knee bent, for an hour at a time.

And Then There’s Life
Even more difficult is applying this principle to ordinary life. Almost daily, I encounter situations in which I react with tension or extraneous effort, only to realize after the fact that a gentler, more relaxed approach would have served me better. And lately, I’ve been realizing that when it comes to Interesting Thing of the Day, my effort is far out of proportion to both the need and the result. So I’m looking for good ways to apply wu wei to my work on this site—with luck, preserving my sanity and my health while accomplishing more.

When I started this site, I had no rules except the ones I decided to impose on myself. Nobody said the articles had to appear every single day, or be of a certain length, or adhere to any standards of style or quality. I simply had an idea of what kind of information I wanted the site to contain, so I made and enforced a list of somewhat arbitrary guidelines. As a result, I’ve been spending tens of hours each week writing, editing, and recording articles—very nearly the equivalent of a full-time job (without, I might add, an actual paycheck). Those hours, of course, are on top of the time I spend earning a living! Now that I’ve been at this for a solid year, I’ve collected a lot of information—statistics about the site’s visitors, financial data, comments and suggestions, and most importantly, phenomenological data about my own experiences. The bottom line? It’s obvious that my self-imposed guidelines are way out of step with reality. I’m not going with the flow; I need to do less.

“Less” does not mean “nothing”; it simply means “that which is appropriate.” The site is not going to go away, and I’m not going to stop writing new articles altogether. I am, however, going to move rapidly toward the point where I spend only as much time working on Interesting Thing of the Day as its income warrants. So if the site brings in enough money to justify writing a single new article per month, that’s what I’ll do. Conversely, if the income is sufficient to pay for five new articles every single week, I’ll be more than happy to ramp up my efforts accordingly.

But then, wu wei is not just about quantity, it’s about quality. As much as I dislike the aphorism “work smarter, not harder,” that is another way of expressing the same idea: doing more with less effort—the right kind of effort. So at the same time I scale back on the number of hours I work, I’m going to be spending some of those hours doing different things—especially activities that help to attract more visitors and provide a better experience for everyone who reads Interesting Thing of the Day. I expect that, paradoxically, doing less will actually make the site better, because I produce much better work when I’m not under constant time pressure.

Back to the Future
Of course, all this won’t happen overnight. My first step is to take a nice, long vacation! (During that time, and as needed in the future, ITotD will feature daily articles from our archives—giving readers who are new to the site a chance to read some of the “classic” content.) When I get back, I’m going to roll out some exciting and long-awaited new features; I think you’ll like what you see (and hear). As I adjust to my new schedule in the following months, expect to see, on average, about one or two new articles per week. I’m also going to give myself complete liberty to take vacations (or play hooky) if I feel the need to focus my attention elsewhere for a while—again, filling in those days with older articles.

The wu wei approach says, “Work with it, not against it.” I’ve done a poor job of that recently, but I’m ready to reform! I’m looking forward to the next phase of Interesting Thing of the Day, and I hope you’ll continue to stop by. As always, I encourage you to tell your friends about this site (try the handy “Email this article” link) and contribute your ideas for interesting things you’d like to read about. Needless to say, every donation and purchase of books and merchandise is also deeply appreciated. And remember, of all the things you could be not-doing, reading this site is among the most interesting. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Wu Wei…

If you’d like to read more about wu wei, see Taoism—The Wu-Wei Principle, Part 4 by Ted Kardash, or read Effortless Action: Wu-Wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China by Edward G. Slingerland.

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There are a great many translations of the Tao Te Ching. I can personally vouch for this one, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and The Tao of Power, translated by R. L. Wing.