I couldn’t have been more than 19 when I learned a lesson I would recall today during morning meditation.
I was sitting at a lecture in Introductory Psychology. Professor Weinert called for volunteers and I came forward and sat down. I’ve forgotten what the demonstration was supposed to illustrate, but I haven’t ever forgotten the demonstration.
“Try to pick up the stapler” Professor Weinert said.
I pick the stapler up.
“Don’t pick up the stapler, try to pick it up” he clarified.
I pick it up again. He repeated his previous instruction.
I laugh, I make some grunts. Inwardly I am frustrated. The directions seem simple...and yet impossible
Once more the game repeats and then its over. I get to go back to my seat. I’ve been a good sport.
When it comes to wu wei, that demonstration often comes to mind. Today, with the aid of the Force and a helpful, listening audience, I was able to peice together the last bits of what a practical understanding of wu wei might look like for me
First, what do we mean when we say the word “try”? For today, try might be substituted for the word “strive” or, according to a quick search “to move heaven and earth”, an arduous task if ever there was one.
And we can recall Yoda’s words to Luke “Try not. Do or do not, There is no try”.
However, I’d like to suggest that the space between not picking up the stapler and picking up the stapler is the space of “try”. We don’t notice the space between because the task is simple, so it comes off as a 1-2 motion. The more complicated or arduious the task, the wider the “try” space. If the space is too wide, which is often indicated with assertions like “I’m trying”, the action needs to be rexamined.
I find that my biggest “try” spaces aren’t concerning things which are physical, but more often with things that are spiritual, emotional, psychological or intellectual. Most would agree that one could not set out to run a marathon having never trained and some might even be able to draw up a plan to go from point A to Z, but its less apparent in other areas. How do we “try” to listen? How do we “try” to forgive? How do we “try” to meditate? How do we “try” to mediate? How do we “try” to compromise? How do we “try” to be a Jedi.
All of those things, though fitting, are taxing and there is no real roadmap for how each of us can do them. This increases the “try” space.
Add to this the idea that our culture may prize action and vilify what it considers to be laziness, that we are currently in a space that prizes instant gratification and we are in a difficult spot indeed.
It's in moments like these, when the “try” space is big, that I like to remember Tao te Ching 15
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.
They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.
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?
The Master doesn't seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
What do we learn about “The Masters”? Not what they did but what they looked like. They were careful, courteous, fluid, shapeable, receptive, clear. But a “virtue” taken to the extreme can become a vice. It's why I believe they did not overly exemplify these traits.
Here is where we get into wu wei. The author asks us a question: do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear? There are spaces that need us careful, courteous, fluid, shapeable, receptive, and clear and it helps to know what and when those are.
One thing that blocks wu wei is impatience. If you must respond, must act, must be, take heed because your action may be out of alignment and you may end up regretting it; here I speak from personal experience.
Another thing that blocks wu wei is seeking fulfillment. What does that look like? I would say that its different for every person, but it has been my experience that the quest for fulfillment can be based on a space or time, even in the past which was not fulfilled. Do you need to be “right”? Examine whether you are trying to account for spaces and times in which you were shamed for being wrong. Do you need to be “strong”? Examine a time in which you were shamed for being weak. For every need to be fulfilled, there may be an unexamined root. Unless we are aware of them we cannot stop them from directing our actions.
The last thing that blocks wu wei is expectations. They can be of ourselves or of others. The fact is, whenever we have an expectation it is because we already have an image or ideal. Any time our reality deviates from that image we experience dissonance. We try to create the idea in our reality, but the truth is we need to work with reality. We can become victims of black and white thinking if we have this ideal which is separate from our reality, especially as we continue to be rebuffed by reality when we try to shape it. If it “has” to be this way, that's an indication that wu wei may not be in the picture.
Question: How is wu wei blocked in your own life? In recent actions? In past actions?
We have come to a choice. We can continue to act in a way that is out of alignment with wu wei and values immediacy, fulfillment and expectation, or we can wait until we can see, letting go of the need for things to fit our paradigm and letting go of our own needs for fulfillment.
I would say its a lifelong journey toward wu wei because there are always going to be times we go back to what made us comfortable, go back to our base desires; in those moments we always have the opportunity to return.
May the Force Be With You All