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Wei wu wei
Spontaneity vs Willpower and Self-forcing
为无为, often translated as “doing without doing”, is the central teaching of Daoism. The words are framed as a paradox, but the instruction need not be confusing. It’s certainly not a call to passivity, but rather an invitation to let spontaneity reign over deliberation.
Will is the power to make decisions. All day we make little decisions. How will I spend the next minute? Will I have breakfast before making my bed or make my bed before breakfast? These generally do not involve conscious deliberation. Occasionally we make big decisions — who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue.
We value rationality, and seek to apply reason to these big decisions. The more emotionally charged the decision is, the more likely we are to consciously reason it out, listing pros and cons, anticipating the probable consequences of one choice vs another.
Psychologists tell us it is likely that the feeling of making a conscious choice is largely illusory. Our decisions are being made at a different level, and the reasoning is being invoked as a rationalization for a fait accompli.
为无为 is simply to refrain from conscious choice. Instead of thinking of yourself as the “decider”, think of yourself as the “witness”. Instead of identifying with the person who is weighing options, you can allow that process to happen and watch it, as if you were reading a novel; or if action is forthcoming without deliberation, you can watch that as well.
Notice what you are thinking. Notice what action you take. Notice deeply. Notice yourself noticing. Resist the temptation to anything that feels like an act of will, but, at the same time, expand your awareness of what you are actually thinking and what you are actually doing.
Present example: You may be thinking, “Enough of this. I’ve got the basic idea. I’ve wasted enough time surfing the morning’s emails. It’s time for me to get on to doing [whatever].”
That’s fine. Maybe I’ve already lost you, and you’re not reading this. But if you are tempted to summon an act of will to pull yourself out of reading and get yourself back to the day’s work, 为无为 would suggest that maybe that is not necessary. Just wait a few seconds longer, and the impulse will take you there without any self-forcing. Or maybe it won’t. In either case, your role is only to watch.
You are the witness. You are the watcher. It’s not your job to do anything, but only to watch over this marvelous brain and body which you have been given, to observe what that brain and body do, to approve and encourage and appreciate, above all, to trust in this instrument and the decisions that it is making without your having to force or coerce or even to nudge.
It’s a truism from Heisenberg’s physics that the observer affects the observed. It’s a finding from experimental psychology that people make better decisions when they are being observed. And every doctor and therapist knows that the light of attention facilitates healing.
Inhabit your physical self not as lord and master, but instead as guardian angel. Love yourself; trust your process. And if nothing is happening, watch and trust that it will happen in the fullness of time.
Perhaps you fear that, failing willpower, you will be taken over by habit. If you don’t take control, you will end up doing the same thing that you did yesterday.
That’s a perfect thing to be thinking, and it’s perfectly wrong.
It’s true that almost everything you do is conditioned by habit. It’s true that destructive habits (a.k.a. addictions) are most corrosive of our wellbeing. The twelve step programs that have become standard of care for addiction and recovery emphasize the role of grace — we cannot break an addiction through force of will alone. In many cases, the deliberation, the conscious decision-making has been coopted by your habits, and your conscious rationality has become an agent of your habits in ways you may not be aware of.
The way to break a habit is not to make a Resolution and deploy your willpower to act in a new and different way. The way to break a habit is to shower your attention on it until it changes. There are paradoxical practices where you choose to surrender to the addiction or even intensify it, so you can watch what it feels like and ultimately move on.
Or not. You must be open to the possibility that the habit will not wither and die in the sunshine of your attention on the schedule that you had hoped for.
Common meditation techniques include attention to the breath or the body, mantras, chanting, prayer, holding physical postures until they become uncomfortable…My favorite meditation practice is simply to adopt the perspective of the witness. Whatever is going on in your mind and your body, choice points will arise when you realize you have the power to direct your attention. When you have that choice, choose to observe broadly, not to direct but to become aware of the internal and the external, sensations in the skin, sounds in the ear, thoughts in the mind, whatever recommends itself to your attention from moment to moment. Thinking is ok, but be the person who’s watching the thinking, not the person who’s thinking.
Thus, meditation is a rehearsal for life.
(Note: For those who are new to meditation, I issue the classical advisory — most people find that these opportunities to direct the attention come along less frequently than we might have thought. Many minutes of un-watched thinking may go by before you once again realize you have the choice to adopt the perspective of the witness.)
A common theme among diverse mystical traditions is that the boundary between you and the rest of the universe is illusory. You have less control over yourself than you imagine, and more control over things that “happen to you”. Where do the thoughts come from that appear in your head? You would like to think that they arise from your own brain, but there are other sources
We are social creatures, so attuned to the ideas and opinions of those around us that we often take these as our own, sui generis.
The science of public relations (advertising, propaganda, attitude-shaping) has been highly developed for 100 years. Almost all the media that we read, watch, or listen to is paid for by someone who wants us to think in a particular way. Major newspapers have CIA agents on their editorial boards. Hollywood movies are subsidized by tobacco companies and the US military. The most effective propaganda is in hidden assumptions, deliberately biased search engine results, the facts that are not mentioned, the stories that are not covered. In today’s world, maintaining autonomy of thought requires conscious attention to what may be manipulating us, and a deliberate effort to seek out news sources that we disagree with.
Telepathy is real and it is ubiquitous. It is denied or underplayed by modern reductionist science, but lab experiments demonstrate that it is a powerful presence. I believe that the lab experiments underrate the influence of telepathy because they deal with subject matter that has neutral emotional content. Our brains are transmitting and receiving thoughts about those subject that affect us most deeply.
The other half of the equation is that you have more control than you imagine of events that are wholly “outside” you. You are a sender as well as a receiver of telepathy. There is a core of truth in the message of a thousand self-help gurus that tell you you create your own reality, and you can manifest your heart’s desire.
Just as I counsel trust in yourself — your process, your intuitions, and the instinctual acts that you may not understand — the converse is to trust the universe. The world outside is caring for you. Help comes at just the right time. Random synchronicities offer gentle guidance when you wander from the path that you, in cooperation with the universe, have chosen; and unforeseen events may shove you rudely back in line should you become headstrong.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
— Dao De Jing, Mitchell Translation
You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen. You must learn to wait properly. The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. — Eugen Herrigel
We live from one thought to another, for our thoughts and affects do not flow quietly as a stream but they occur to us; they fall into us like stones. If you observe yourself accurately, you feel that the soul does not change its colors gradually, but thoughts jump out of it like numbers out of out of a black hole. If you are attentive, you can even sense the instant between thoughts in which everything is black. This instant, once recognized, is nothing else but death for us. — Robert Musil
The book may get written, the peacebuilding documentary might be edited, but usually there must first be a latency, a time of doing something for its own sake, a time of inward focus on the goal... The magic comes from that place. From there, the synchronicities flow; there is no sense of forcing, only of participating in a larger happening that seems to have an intelligence of its own. You show up in the right place, at the right time. You respond to practical needs. — Charles Eisenstein
Synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer. Synchronicities have a life of their own, and they can use you for higher purposes of which you may not even be aware. — Carl Jung
Doing a meditation like Dynamic or Kundalini or whirling, suddenly one day the meditation will go on but you will not be identified. You will sit silently behind, you will watch it — that day meditation has happened; that day technique is no longer a hindrance, no longer a help. You can enjoy it if you like — like an exercise, it gives a certain vitality, but now there is no need. Now the real meditation has happened. To meditate means to become a witness. — Osho
‘Substantive’ and ‘Transitive’ States of Mind. — When we take a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings. The rhythm of language expresses this, where every thought is expressed in a sentence, and every sentence closed by a period. The resting-places are usually occupied by sensorial imaginations of some sort, whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing; the places of flight are filled with thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest.
Let us call the resting-places the ‘substantive parts,’ and the places of flight the ‘transitive parts,’ of the stream of thought. It then appears that our thinking tends at all times towards some other substantive part than the one from which it has just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another.
Now it is very difficult, introspectively, to see the transitive parts for what they really are. If they are but flights to a conclusion, stopping them to look at them before the conclusion is reached is really annihilating them. Whilst if we wait till the conclusion be reached, it so exceeds them in vigor and stability that it quite eclipses and swallows them up in its glare. Let anyone try to cut a thought across in the middle and get a look at its section, and he will see how difficult the introspective observation of the transitive tracts is. The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can rest it. Or if our purpose is nimble enough and we do arrest it, it ceases forthwith to itself. As a snowflake crystal caught in the warm hand is no longer a crystal but a drop, so, instead of catching the feeling of relation moving to its term, we find we have caught some substantive thing, usually the last word we were pronouncing, statically taken, and with its function, tendency, and particular meaning in the sentence quite evaporated. — Wm James
We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living. — Thich Nhat Hanh