The Balance of Power

November 2nd, 2010

Power hangs in the balance in American politics. Doesn’t it always? That’s the pendulum of democracy. Absolute power corrupts, but balanced power corrects. It’s the same with personal growth. Power always hangs in the balance. It rests in the middle. There is no absolute power, just a balance of sometimes competing interests. The pendulum swings between acceptance and change, conviction and doubt, optimism and despair, nature and nurture. Peace lies in the elusive resting space in the middle.

Are you anxious about the results of the elections, maybe contemplating your biannual move to Canada? What do you do with this anxiety? How do you face massive social problems without becoming paralyzed and inactive? How do you have firm convictions without becoming judgmental? How do you balance being and doing when the “to do” list is so long? Can you take resolute action without absolute knowledge? These are some of the questions raised by the balance of power.

There is a time and place for introspection, simply being. But there comes a time when to use the words of William Shakespeare, we must be “as good in act as we have been in thought.” The point is that your thoughts and your actions need to be in harmony. Action without thought is like shooting without aim. Thought without action is like staring at the sea and wondering why you’re not crossing it.

There is also a time and place for non action. Maybe you have heard the expression, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Sometimes being slow to act is wise. The phrase also hints at the quality to action that keeps you balanced. Stand firmly grounded in who you are at your core before, during and after action. This is balanced action.

Balanced action is nicely captured in the Taoist phrase wu wei, as in “it’s either my way or wu wei.” Wu wei is best translated as effortless effort. The Hindu scriptures, the Vedanta, uses a similar phrase “playful action.” Wu wei is a bird in flight or a horse at full stretch. Wu wei is a Roger Federer backhand or a Tiger Woods swing. Note that it’s possible to have wu wei in certain areas of your life and very little mastery in others.

Wu Wei is something I aspire to practice more often in my life and in more areas of my life. I aspire to action that is effective and makes a difference, but action that also increases the peace rather than adding to the drama. Imagine the state of our world if all the frantic, nervous energy around these elections was channeled into playful action.

Peruvian Shaman, Carlos Castaneda described effortless effort like this-”If a warrior is to succeed at anything, the success must come gently, with a great deal of effort but with no stress or obsession.”

The Bible’s creation story offers a beautiful example of wu wei. There’s something playful about the whole story. The Creator warrior of Genesis seemed to have effortless effort down pat. Psalm 104 got it in one sentence, describing the Creator “stretching out the heavens like a tent.” You have to have a sense of fun to parallel the creation of the universe with pitching a tent. All I can say is that we’re very lucky that I wasn’t the creator. If you had seen some of the tents I’ve pitched in my time. The universe would be collapsing back in on all of us in the middle of a rainy night. Creative energy manifests beauty out of raw imagination and whatever resources are available at the time.

Wu wei is clearly something we all aspire to, but rarely achieve. Don’t beat yourself up. Trying not to try is not the wu wei way. You don’t have to solve all the problems of the world. You don’t even have to get close to it. Just take one step in one area of your life and make it a goosestep to remind yourself that this can be fun. Sometimes the only thing stopping action is that you get in your own way. Get out from under your own feet, and get active.

How can you tell if you are acting with too much effort? You see it in the mirror and you feel it in your body. You look and feel miserable. Maybe you even need to feel miserable to purge your guilt. Wu wei is action that is pure joy to perform. You aren’t purging any guilty conscience or fearful karma. You aren’t trying to prove you are a good person, and you don’t need to be thanked for effortless effort. You often don’t even realize you’ve done anything.

A story out of the Taoist tradition captures wu wei- a woman accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for her life. Miraculously, she came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked her how she managed to survive. “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”

The Tao Te Ching says, “The Master can act without doing anything and teach without saying a word. Things come her way and she does not stop them; things leave and she lets them go. She has without possessing, and acts without any expectations. When her work is done, she takes no credit. That is why it will last forever… For those who practice effortless action, everything will fall into place.”

Seize the moment with passion and conviction. Act decisively without fully knowing the personal cost. Trust your wise knowledge that can tell the difference between what can and should be changed NOW, and what is best left alone, at least for the time being. Your effortless action is an antidote to despair. Playful actions make your life long dreams a present reality.

Merge your actions with the flow of life, seeking the purest of motives and the broadest of compassion. When creative power is balanced, the game plays the player, music composes the composer, the poem writes the poet, you can’t tell the dance and dancer apart, the dream and the dreamer become one, subject and object merge, and all of life gains a natural flow. Action becomes easier, less anxious, more joyful. Wu wei open doors you never imagined and hadn’t even seen.

If Election Day has left you feeling all at sea, take a long look at the oceanic wisdom that resides deep within you. Stand upright and strong at the shore. Then dive in. But make sure it’s a cannonball or a can opener, or even a belly flop. It’s got to be fun, or else you could make a big splash with little effect.

You’re making a difference in the world, and you’re having fun doing it.

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  1. Steve Platt says:

    Ian,
    Food for research.  I was taught that the darker, female part of the circle was uppermost as it was earthy and descending to be counterbalanced by the male white half ascending upward.  The two in homeostatis, i.e. dynamic equilibrium.  Anyway I like the thought that life is a balancing act of powerful forces.

  2. Daniel says:

    Many thanks for creating the effort to discuss this, I feel strongly about this and like learning a great deal more on this matter. If feasible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your website with a great deal more details? It’s extremely helpful for me.

  3. Antoine says:

    I’ve also been meditating on the similar idea myself recently. Happy to see another person on the same wavelength! Nice article.