Gotta not-do what you gotta not-do

Today's writing is about wu wei - "effortless action".

Wu wei comes from Taoism. I don't know very much about Taoism. I do not have a plan to become a thought leader on Taoism. My only personal connection to Chinese philosophical tradition is that I learned Tae Kwon Do as a teenager and I got curious about the "way" teachers description that the roots of these are not "martial arts" but a "philosophy (or way) of movement".

I was intrigued by this idea that "attaining perfection (of movement) through practice" was not for becoming be perfect fighter, but to attain wisdom. I went on to read Tao Te Ching, I Ching, and while I did not understand much, I became sensitive to these topics. [A friend at work, big fan of martial-arts, laughed at me for taking this philosophy stuff seriously - but then, "If the Tao would not be laughed at this way, it would not be the Tao!"]

The point is, you don't have to be an philosopher to appreciate that the idea of effortless action is one that is found in many forms and cultures. It's a pattern easy to observe, if you have the eye for it.

Take "flow or "being in the zone". There are three conditions for flow to occur:

  • Goals are clear
  • Feedback is immediate
  • A balance exists between opportunity and capacity

This resonates with the programmer working on a software artifact, with the amateur musician playing a piece on the piano, when doing sports (I am going to stop here). It also resonates indirectly, think of a manager who wants to create a productive environment for their team.

The analytical, self-conscious and doubtful mind takes a back seat and you "become one" with the thing you are doing. There is a view of taoism where this is not only at the individual level, but also at the level of society; this is what is described in the Tao Te Ching and I Ching (and discussed in the wikipedia article on wu wei).

It should be intuitive (if somewhat illogical in the realm of words) that "effortless action" requires to put in some effort. The programmer had to learn many things in order to get flow state, hacking away at this code. The musician had to practice countless hours in order to be able to play the piece. That effort is not felt in the moment of flow. You are building up capacity.

Building up capacity, if done right, is subject to compounding effects. You don't want to only learn, but also watch your rate of learning. Is there a better method? Am I still working towards the same goal?

Now, when we think of "goals" we are slightly at odds with "effortless action" and the Taoist ideal, since setting a goal can already be "forced." "Effortless action" is not forced, and also not goal-oriented.

Effortless action and taoism in general are not concerned with values or morality. Taoism features the theme of man's inability to force changes upon society. This is a bit revolting at first sight, since today's society is full of injustice. Black lives matter!

Things start making a bit more sense when one thinks of the attempts to shape a society or the world by ideology, this is bound to fail or become unsustainable (let's count capitalism as the ideology of $$$ here). You can have the best law, it is not by itself going to guarantee justice. Or, when you think of some software to help with some process, it is helpful to look at those things that do not need to be specified - because it is hopeless to specify them and you need to rely on "common sense" or some norm or culture. Also related is: "There is no way to peace, peace is the way"

The effort on the society level could be framed as "building the capacity and opportunity for justice". So an abstract, non-descript goal, direction, objective like "justice" or "I want to be good at X" is ok and not a goal in the sense of forcing some direction; we call it a goal since we live in times where we have an extraordinary freedom in choosing what we want to do with our lives. Choices do not preclude wu wei. I'm inclined to think that wu wei is related authenticity and focus; not getting distracted in futile matters, not doing something because you feel you have to, not doing something for purely "political" (tactical) reasons, but focus on the essence. Another quote that comes to mind here, "Never mistake activity for progress."

There is a lot more to find out about this. I am not an expert on Taoism and I still do not intend to become one; but maybe there's a reminder here for looking at one's own patterns of doing and not doing.

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