Effortless Action


Deep River by Johndan Johnson-Eilola

In my last blog I talked about the different modes of seeking and non-seeking, and how helpful it is to find a balance between then two. The concept of non-seeking, non-doing or just being, isn’t an easy one to get your head around, especially if you’re as much of a doer as the average Londoner, so I thought I’d explore it a bit more here.

When I help people switch into non-doing, they often describe it as a relief, an absence of tension, of problems and of thoughts, being very aware of everything they are sensing in the here and now such as sounds, the room, sensations in their body and feeling very calm.

The Taoists have a specific word for it, ‘wu wei’, meaning non-action or non-doing. Perhaps a better translation is ‘not striving to do’ or ‘not trying too hard’. Lao Tse, in the classic Taoist text the Tao Te Ching, compares wu wei with the effortless action of the planets revolving around the sun: without any force, control or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.

OK, I know this is sounding very theoretical at the moment, so here are some more quotidian examples. Initially, when I was exploring non-doing with a group last week, it seemed to them that work couldn’t possibly be compatible, because you are always trying to achieve something, to get somewhere, to make something happen.

But then the civil engineer in the group suggested that when he’s drawing a model, and he’s fully immersed in it, it is non-doing because everything falls away and it’s just a moment-by-moment unfolding which feels very calming and present. Another aspect of it is enjoying or appreciating what you’re doing.

Someone who works in wine said that when he’s doing a tasting and really paying attention to the smells and flavours, he has a sense of wu wei. A copy-writer said that when her writing is flowing she has the same sense. Being in ‘flow’ is another word that’s often used for it, and another analogy is that of a river.

A river flowing is effortless action. If it comes up against a stone it doesn’t try harder and harder to push the stone out of the way, it finds the route of least resistance past it. Over time It wears away the stone, thus demonstrating that this yielding, flowing state is actually stronger than the rigid state that refuses to budge.

I remember in my first proper job out of uni, I was trying to get something done, which I thought required the cooperation of a certain member of staff who was known for being both curmudgeonly and ineffectual. Imagine Eeyore being head of student accommodation. She was on sick leave half of the time.

The more I tried to get her to do what I wanted her to do, the more frustrated I got that she didn’t do it. I kept thinking about it, fretting, talking to people about my consternation. They all held their hands up and said she’d always been like that, so good luck to you.

Finally I realised there was a way around her. I could get the same thing done with the help of someone else, and suddenly it happened, effortlessly.

Life, work, relationships, shouldn’t be a struggle. If it feels like they are, then take a moment to question whether you’re head-butting a large rock, and whether there might actually be an easier way through.

Find out what practical steps you can take to improve your happiness on an eight week course called Exploring What Matters, which I’m co-facilitating. It starts Monday next week. More details are here.

If you’d like more wu wei in your workplace, get in touch for a taster session to experience how mindfulness can help.

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