Being Human and the Art of Wu Wei

JaniceGillBeingIn a culture where excessive doing has somehow become glamourized, the forgotten art of non-doing and simply being seems to be drifting further and further from our reach. As a recovering Type-A overachiever and excessive doer, whose worth has been incessantly tangled within society’s obsession with “What do you do?” I have worked hard over the past couple of years to challenge the dominant discourse around what makes someone a “good,” “worthy,” or “productive” member of society. And, a challenge, it has been! It’s hard to explain to people why you have quit your fulltime job, said good riddance to financial security, and packed your bags for an open-ended trip abroad with no concrete plans in place. While their words said, “That’s brave,” they could not hide the “That’s insane!” that was marked by their facial expressions. But the unknown is scary for most people. Structure, routine, plans, and certainty bring a sense of safety and security and dare I say it, a sense of control.

I recently learned of a Chinese concept, Wu Wei, which is central to Taoism that literally translates to ‘non-doing.’ Different from ‘doing nothing,’ it is more about aligning with the natural flow of life. Embracing Wu Wei means embracing the natural energy of pursuits. It means minimal effort. No stress. No struggle. Reflecting back upon a decade or so of travels, I can see that I have intuitively sought experiences that lent themselves to my encountering the essence of Wu Wei. Time and time again, I would go away, get in touch with my innermost authentic self and re-align with the natural flow of life, only to return back home and be slapped in the face with my old habitual patterns and behaviours. It wouldn’t take long for the excessive doing to rear its familiar, old, ugly, head. Ugh. What happened to “Travel Janice” or “Summer Janice?” I would wonder. According to Lao Tzu, the ultimate expression of Wu Wei is not in the recoiling from the world but rather, in the way we live in it. In light of this, my recent intention has been to find ways within my life to embrace Wu Wei that doesn’t require an escape to the sea or mountains. That being said, I feel the need to be transparent and share that I am leaving for a 3-week trip to Costa Rica in March! (Insert: Sideways smiley emoji here).

This continues to be a personal journey and, quite frankly, a challenge for me. However, at least I now have the awareness and tools I need to ‘work’ on doing things differently. I also have the confidence (most days) to assertively state that I really don’t know where I’ll be this time next year or that I took the morning to rest and relax on the couch. Gasp!

I am still passionately curious though about the origin of this notion: That somehow, what we do defines who we are. That our worthiness is determined by the number of degrees we possess or by the number of hours we work in a day. I see this show up in therapy, particularly with young people in their early to mid-20’s. I hear about how they feel lost or how they are not measuring up. And, about how it seems that everyone (at least, as far as they can tell through social media) seems like they are “doing so many things” with their lives. As a result, they end up locating the problem within themselves- assuming that there must be something wrong with them. They have come to believe that they are just lost, lazy, or lacking ambition. But they are not where the problem is located. We, as a society, are where the problem lies. If there were more of a focus on Wu Wei or perhaps on the kind of person one wanted to be- their values, beliefs, passions, desires- as opposed to “What they are going to do with their lives,” I truly believe that the rest would just fall into place.


So, how can we learn to do without doing? And, allow ourselves and others the space and time to be? Well, for starters, we can exchange our relentless quest to find out what people are doing with their lives and shift the focus to what kind of person someone is or how they felt today, as opposed to what they did. We can spend more time getting to know ourselves, through meditation, reflection and quiet time. We can practice and embrace Wu Wei and trust that the natural flow of life will always take us to where we need to be. We can become mindful of our egos. We can spend time in and take lessons from nature, and observe how everything is seamlessly accomplished with minimal effort. We can take breaks when we need them and not feel guilty about it. And, finally, we can believe in our inherent worthiness that is not contingent upon our occupation or productivity.

All those in favour of Wu Wei, say “Aye!”

Janice Gill


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