Monday, April 07, 2008

Effort, "wu wei" and nature's problem solving method.

"Wu Wei" is a Daoist term and the translation I like best is: "effortless action." Simply put, if your work feels too hard you probably won't sustain it. A better approach is where your work feels effortless and balanced. I'd like to share some thoughts about "wu wei," because it's an idea that has helped me bring beauty and ease to so many areas of my life, almost wherever I remember to apply it.

The typical metaphor is that of water, which doesn't have to do anything to find it's way to where it's going. It just is. Or you might say wood doesn't have to work to be useful, its inherent properties make it so.

Another metaphor might be evolution: nature doesn't toil to solve it's problems. So those are the two basic metaphors we're going to juggle: water and "nature's problem solving method."

It's no coincidence that water's effort and nature's problem solving method, (evolution) look very much alike and it's no coincidence that the best of human problem solving methods, such as the scientific method look a lot like evolution.

And sages from so many traditions have taught us about this pattern. It may very well be wise to apply it to most of our problems. Here's the attitude as I see it:

1. Go with your natural inclination.
Be useful like water, like wood. Follow your curiosity. Our brains are amazing computers: if you're curious about something, there might be a good reason why! Many of us have stopped being curious because we stopped "wasting time" listening to it. So many of our human activities feel like they drain us of our energy. But when you follow your curiosity, it can give you energy Back. Find those things that you jump out of bed in the morning to do. In Buddhism they call that "wind horse." The metaphor is the sun--which, in its burning, creates its own fuel.

2. Reclaim the spirit of playful experimentation and notice how much easier things seem. How?

--Try many solutions. Evolution and water go outward in (seemingly) random directions. That's how they find the best solution. In work, in yoga practice, try new things. Experimentation keeps us from feeling in a rut and you never know when you'll find something new that's a perfect solution.

--Try to make mistakes. Natural evolution explores randomly without labeling its mutations as "good" or "bad." Water fills the low places, not the "good" ones. That natural diversity enriches the whole. One year I set a goal for freelance work to increase the number of rejections I received. Somehow, it removed the stress of the rejection letters and kept me from burning out. I also took more risks in applying for jobs I normally didn't think I could get. And of course, I got more acceptance letters that year too. In Yoga practice, that attitude often gives us the chance to learn new things and remove the critical thoughts that keep us from fully experiencing asana.

3. Permission to be unfocused.

Evolution isn't afraid to pursue multiple solutions to a problem simultaneously.
There's a myth in our culture that a focussed drive in one direction is the best way to be successful.
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
Archilochus (7th-century b.c.e.)

But when I examine all of the people I really admire, they followed their curiosity wherever it lead them. People forget that Einstein, for example, was a great musician, organizer and social activist!

4. Let weak branches wither.

There are, however constraints to following whatever whim you may: time and recourses. Allow yourself to relax and trust that these things will work themselves out if you free yourself to follow your genius. When nature finds some branch of life is no longer successful it doesn't persist in a dead-end direction. It lets that branch wither without attachment. We humans, on the other hand, can build irrational attachments to to an empty mine. We build ourselves a comfortable rut that's so deep we can't see outside it. Rather than abandon it, we would follow that path to disaster.

Don't be afraid to jump the rut. Fear the rut instead.

5. Build good habits slowly, not in some Herculean effort.
The metaphor is the grand canyon, right?

Or in nature, we have the saying "life makes good for life." Nature builds up a food chain slowly, first establishing organisms that convert the basic resources available in the ecosystem--it's minerals, it's heat, it's sun-energy. And as it establishes those, it builds complexity on top of them. Soon, there's a complex ecosystem including microorganisms and bugs and plants that can support, for example, elephants. That is a sustainable effort. But too often, we try to start with the elephants!

But if we can take time out of the equation and do what we love--we can take advantage of conditioning (yeah, like Pavlov's dogs) we can cultivate a love for what we do.

If we do work we enjoy, we learn to associate work with joy. If we start with a yoga practice or exercise plan we enjoy (even if it doesn't seem as effective as we'd like) we learn to associate that effort with joy. That's a foundation we can build on and after a while, we've got the elephants.

(Note: though intended to stand alone, this was part 3 of a series on "effort." You can read the others by clicking the effort label bellow.)

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