We program kids from a young age to measure their worth and happiness by what they do rather than who they are. While they’re busy being in the moment, playing in possibilities, what do we do? We ask them, “What do you want to do when you grow up? What are you going to do? Do! Do! Do!” Maybe the ultimate trick question we ask kids is, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” By which we mean, what career are you going to pursue,
I remember being asked that question as a young child, and it was so baffling to me. “Lots of things”, I said to one well meaning adult. “It depends which day.” Yes, but what are you going to do for a living?
“Surf?” I said almost asking for permission. They smiled and I could see in their smile that this wasn’t a good enough idea.
The “what are you going to do when you grow up” question seems harmless enough. But it gets asked so often that we end up indoctrinating kids to fixate on their marketability rather than finding essential worth in who they are. Why do we do this? The crazy thing is that most of us become disillusioned at some point with the treadmill life of striving for more. Still we program our kids to seek the very lifestyle and mindset that has never completely fulfilled us as adults.
So we set in motion another generation of kids who inevitably buy into a worldview, happily perpetuated by the media and retail industry, and reinforced by an education system obsessed with testing. The message is clear- worth is measured by economic productivity. More is better. Nothing is ever enough.
It’s the definition of insanity! It’s insane because we know from experience that it leads to unhappiness. And it’s insane, because it’s not even the most productive way to work, as books like “The Four Hour Work Week” are now testifying.
What is the alternative? How do we get off the carousel of consumerism and constant striving? The famous Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, “Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place.”
Not doing sounds lazy and indifferent to us. It’s more about flowing with the nature of things. It’s like the expression, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Sometimes being slow to act is wise. It gives you a chance to really focus before acting.
Not doing comes from the Chinese phrase wu wei, as in “it’s either my way or wu wei.” Wu wei is also 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. It’s also a kid just being a kid.
Wu Wei is not inaction. It is effective action, action that makes an impact because it comes with self awareness. It’s conscious action. Imagine the state of our world if all the frantic, competitive, striving, even nervous energy was channeled into playful, effective 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.”
Parker Palmer, holistic education guru, uses the Chinese story of the Woodcarver to make the same point in relation to education. The woodcarver prepares to create a bell stand by single-mindedly focusing on the tree, waiting for the hidden potential of the tree to be released in his creative mind. You can read the whole poem here.
Wu wei is seeing the tree in its natural state. The carver sees the wood as it really is, rather than imposing his vision on it. He sees the potential of the tree. Imagine if we approached education the same way! Imagine if we approached ourselves, each other, our work, that way; seeing things as they are, unlocking the hidden potential.
Wu wei is an awesome alternative to constant striving. How do you get there? Stop trying so hard! Trying not to try is not the wu wei way. Just practice taking time before action to prepare, to see things as they are, and then to take mindful action. Sometimes the only thing stopping effective action is that you get in your own way. Get out of wu wei, and unlock your own hidden potential.
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. 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. Your actions become a natural expression of who you are.
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 longer version of Lao Tzu’s wisdom 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.
Merge your actions with the flow of life, living with the purest of motives and the most open mind. When natural, often hidden, creative power is unlocked, the game plays the player, music composes the composer, the poem writes the poet, work finds the worker, 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.
With wu wei, you make an incredible impact in the world, and you have fun doing it. Kids don’t need to be taught this. Adults need to relearn it. We need to stop beating it out of kids. Enjoy the day!