The hard-to-describe Magic of Wu-Wei (無為)
I rolled out of my twin bed and stumbled into the common room. As I started the coffee maker I started thinking about my day and had a feeling of emptiness.
I had nothing to do.
It was sometime in early September in 2018. I had just moved across the globe to Taipei. I was technically a self-employed freelancer but didn’t have any clients. I was single and had declared to my friends a month earlier that I was going to embrace a life path as a “cool uncle.” I had one friend in town but he had a job and other things to do so he could only be my chaperone so many hours.
A year later I would be planning a tiny wedding with my girlfriend, figuring out what to do next with the accidental business I created, realizing that writing was an important part of my life, and most of all trying to make sense of a newer, deeper appreciation for life.
Don’t worry, I’ll answer some of your questions but first I want to talk about non-doing.
To not do things can be scary.
Growing up in the US, we are constantly aware of the perception of others and that if we are not doing enough, we might get called lazy.
You always want to avoid being called lazy.
I’m not here to convince you that being lazy is worthwhile but instead to argue that our fears of being perceived as lazy keep us from experiencing a much different feeling which is better explained by a term from another culture, wu-wei or 無為 in Chinese.
In Chinese this literally means inaction or non-doing but does not necessarily mean “doing nothing.” The desire to “do nothing” often shows up for people as a reaction to spending a lot of time doing things you want to escape from.
Being in a state of non-doing, you are not escaping anything. Instead you are doing things that come naturally and with a spirit of light-hearted playfulness.
Walking around in Taipei was the first time I experienced this feeling. When I was living in New York or Boston in the previous ten years I might be wandering around the city doing very little but it was always in tension with the predominant culture that I should be doing something, that I might have forgotten something, or I might not have done enough.
In Taipei, that feeling evaporated. I didn’t yet know the cultural scripts or expectations around me. I was both in a state of not-knowing and non-doing.
And I felt okay.
Picture yourself floating in the middle of an ocean and all you can see is the horizon all around you. You have no idea where you are.
Sounds terrifying right?
Now picture you are not worried about where you are. There is no where to go and deep down you know you will be okay. This is the feeling I’m talking about.
The best description I’ve seen of this is from the Tao Te Ching, written in China in the 6th Century BC:
In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering
Nothing to do and nothing left undone.
Non-Doing Puts You In Tension With Modern Reality
When I first experienced this feeling in Taiwan I was not transformed. Given enough time, feelings of guilt and shame appeared. In my head were voices shouting “you lazy bastard,” “you’ll go broke,” or “you can’t just do this forever!”
Yet guiding me was a line from from a Rebecca Solnit book I had read, “that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”
Embracing a state of non-doing felt like being lost. So I kept leaning into it.
Over time this enabled me to have a little more comfort with the underlying uncertainty of life. While we can never fully overcome this it is more clear to me now that no amount of action will ever give us the sense of control we desire over life.
The hardest thing about this is the tension it creates with others. When you shift away from moving towards things, progressing towards extrinsic goals, or doing things in exchange for something else, it can raise alarms.
“Don’t you want _____?”
“Don’t you want to grow your audience?”
“What do you mean you aren’t focused on making more money?”
“How could you not want to go? Everyone’s going.”
…and this is the rub. The degree to which you can be content depends just as much on embracing a state of non-doing as the tension and distance between you and your environment.
Legible Goals are the Least Interesting
In my writing I’ve been exploring how non-doing overlaps with our current culture of work. The short answer is that it doesn’t.
Our current work culture and our global economic systems incentivize almost everyone to orient around the idea that more and bigger is better.
This has led to the bizarre scenario where profitable businesses are sometimes called “lifestyle businesses” while “serious” businesses can be losing billions of dollars a year.
In my past work life I was a successful worker in the prestigious world of strategy consulting. To break in and to succeed in this world requires a certain level of business insight, awareness of how to make money, and an ability to decode the paths of how to get there.
With this perspective, my rational brain is tuned to identify extrinsic goals that I know I could reach with a certain amount of discipline.
While these path are not certain they are more comfortable to pursue than embracing the unknown and thus can be nearly impossible to reject Yet as I’ve found when you do say no and create a space, more interesting things emerge.
Non-Doing Is The Space Where Interesting Things Might Happen
You are probably saying, “yes Paul, this is great, but how the hell did you end up married?!”
When I tell the story of meeting my wife I tell people that we met at a time when I was wandering around Taipei and reading books in random parks.
What I was really doing was embracing a feeling of non-doing and seeing where it took me.
I could whip out a bunch of cliches to summarize that story but I think that would hide the deeper truth that when we create space in our lives the things that matter to us seem to show up.
By saying no to the default goals that everyone else expects and accepts I’ve also stumbled upon the fact that I love writing. When I write it feels like something that fits into the flow of life. Something that matters to me. Very much in the spirit of non-doing.
I feel similarly when I am able to get up on a random day and go explore with my wife. Over the last two years we’ve gone on more explorations together and spent more time together than many married couples might in the first five years of their relationship.
Most people see the wisdom in pursuing these things but in practice, grappling with the insecurity of non-doing typically convinces people to opt-in to sub-optimal things and to spend time trading the present for future outcomes.
I spent most of my life in this mode and while other people seem to praise the outcomes of some of my efforts, I don’t think I became much wiser.
I’m a big fan of reading books with advice of people near the end of their life or who have gone through hell and lived to tell the tale. Almost all of these books seem to have the same advice:
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get caught up in extrinsic goals. Love the people that matter. Don’t put off bold risks. Have fun.
Embracing a state of non-doing gave me the clarity to see the things that matter and belief that its worth non-doing them now rather than some day down the road.
If you like writing like this, check out Paul’s weekly writing on boundless.susbtack.com.
Originally published at https://think-boundless.com on December 29, 2020.