23 Feb Uncarve Yourself
In our last newsletter, I introduced some of the basics of Daoist philosophy, including one of its “three treasures” – the concept of Jian, which means simplicity. The foundation of this simplicity is the understanding that the virtuous qualities we so strongly desire, yet often pursue in misguided ways – peace, love, freedom, joy, wisdom, etc. – are actually already present in our natural, unadulterated state. This un-manipulated self is called Pu, which means “uncarved block.”
Most humans live in this “uncarved” state as small children, but, gradually, we become shaped by our social conditioning and accumulated beliefs. And this can profoundly limit our life. Rather than being immersed in the imminent experience of each moment, a portion of our attention (often a large portion) is immersed in our thoughts, memories, anxieties, and analyses about our experience. Eventually we can lose touch with our natural state. We may feel clueless about how to get back to a carefree way of life. But, deep inside, we have always known that the answer is simplicity itself: let yourself live in that carefree state.
Check out our free Rituals For Living Peace Movement for soul-nourishing activities that will remind you to choose this carefree state.
As I explained in last week’s article, this is not a matter of adding or acquiring a carefree attitude; it requires letting go of what’s in the way – a subtractive process. While I hesitate to take issue with the sage wisdom of Daoist philosophy, perhaps an uncarved block isn’t the perfect metaphor for this state. After all, once a block is carved, there’s no way of un-carving it. It can never be whole again. But, pu is indeed an achievable condition.
In contrast to the way most of us live, getting back to the uncarved block doesn’t entail more carving and shaping of the life we’ve been given. We don’t have to manipulate life to have it be peaceful and loving. Unfortunately, despite how little doing is required, for most people this shift is quite difficult, because old habits die hard.
The way back to our true nature is an approach called Wu Wei, which means “without doing” or “without effort.” It is also referred to as Wei Wu Wei “doing without doing,” or “acting without effort.” It is a hard concept for the mind to grasp, mostly because it’s not a mental exercise. In fact, it is usually easiest to understand when the mind is out of the way.
Most people have had an experience of Wei Wu Wei while engaged in some athletic activity, playing music, dancing, or doing a project we enjoy. We could be cycling up a mountain, sweating gallons, but we have the feeling we are not actually doing the action. The pedaling is being done and we are just along for the ride. We might feel music moving through us as our fingers glide over the keys of a piano, and its as if were just a conduit for a stream of creative energy. Even more mundane tasks, like washing dishes, pulling weeds, or digging a hole, can happen with ease and fascination, as we watch them being executed through us, yet without feeling attached to them as the doer who gets credit or blame.
In fact, work and relaxation are not mutually exclusive. This was the central teaching of my esteemed tai ji quan (tai chi) master, the late Sifu Fong. Indeed, the ability to simultaneously work and relax is a foundation of most traditional martial arts. Sifu Fong explained that the amount of power a person can deliver through a punch or kick – or any other task – is directly proportional to how relaxed one is. Most people are familiar with tai ji quan’s serene and graceful movements, but not everyone knows that accompanying this state of serenity is a great deal of internal work. The most demanding workouts of my life have been tai ji quan classes. Yet to an observer, this balance of work and relaxation, the embodiment of Wu Wei, may look like nothing special.
Wu Wei is often described as being like water. Living it is a matter of allowing ourselves, like a river, to be guided by the contours and trajectories of life with minimal resistance or effort to control the ride. Water is formless and yielding, yet it has the power to cut a canyon in solid rock. And, as the Dao De Jing explains, it is “content with the low places.” If we’re only satisfied with the “high places” in life, we’re bound to experience a lot of discontent.
“Without effort” means relinquishing the habit of efforting and controlling our experience. Unclenching around life.
Practicing Wu Wei does not mean we have to quit our job and sit around on the couch all day. If Wu Wei prompts us to quit anything, its our attachment to being the center of our own attention. Much of our stress comes from our focus on ourselves as the doer and controller of our life. We have thoughts such as, It’s all up to me. I get credit if its good. I get blamed if its bad. I carry the burden of it. I need to live life the right way. Me. Me. Me. In Wu Wei we let life live itself through us.
If you wish to try this practice, here is a recommendation. Choose a short period of time at the beginning, like 15 minutes to an hour, to dedicate to your practice. During this period, your task is see everything as an opportunity to let go – to relinquish the habit of being the doer. Some of the main things you’ll have the opportunity to let go of . . .
- Let go of control.
- Let go of judgment.
- Let go of avoidance of what is uncomfortable.
- Let go of clinging to what is pleasurable.
- Let go of resistance.
- Let go of struggle.
- Let go of attachment to the outcome.
- Let go of manipulation.
- Let go of identifying yourself as the doer of what is done through you.
As you notice, in each moment, what is at hand that can be let go of, you may find that there is an opening or ease that follows each release, and then, probably, a reflexive clenching or tightness that signals the next thing that has come up for you to let go of. Over time, you may begin to perceive a lengthening of the space, of ease, that occurs between each instance of letting go. If you’re doing something physical, see how hard you can work while staying internally relaxed. If you lose your relaxation, stop and reset yourself before continuing. And, remember, while there’s nothing wrong with hard work, it’s always wise to choose the path of least resistance. It’s worth engaging to the fullest because, well, this is your life; but, there’s no reward for needlessly giving your energy away. Find the balance.
Dr. Peter Borten