The ancient Chinese idea of ‘wu wei’ is inherent in our tai chi, and particularly in the tai chi passed down to us from Cheng Man-ching by my teacher Wolfe Lowenthal. So, what does wu wei mean? Alan Watts in his book: ‘Cloud Hidden, Wherabouts Unknown: a mountain journal’ (1974) explains, drawing on his fascination with Chinese brush writing. He says calligraphy with the brush is difficult, not because it involves sweat and strain, but:
‘…the difficulty of writing Chinese with the brush is to make the brush write by itself, and the Taoists call this the art of wu-wei – which may be translated variously as “easy does it,” “roll with the punch,” “go with the stream,” “don’t force it,” or, more literally, “not pushing” ‘ (Watts, A., 1974, p.39).
Two words that have a lot to do with wu-wei are ‘gravity,’ and ‘flow’. Alan Watts again:
‘The principle of the thing is also recognized by our own surf riders, some of whom know very well that their sport is a form of yoga or Taoist meditation in which the whole of the art is to generate immense energy from going with your environment, from the principle of wu-wei, or following the gravity of water and so making yourself one with it. For, as Lao-tzu himself said, “Gravity is the root of lightness.” (1974, p.43).
Let’s delve a little deeper, again with the help of Alan Watts from his book ‘Tao: The Watercourse Way’ (1975) which devotes a whole chapter to ‘wu wei’.
Watts notes that the principle of ‘nonaction’ or wu wei is not inertia, laziness, passivity or laissez-faire. Wu wei has the meaning of adapting to circumstances, a kind of yielding to force in such a way as not to be defeated by it. A pine branch, being rigid, cracks under the weight of heavy snow. A willow branch yields to the weight and the snow falls off. The willow’s yielding is not limp, but springy.
‘Wu-wei …must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence – that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them. But this intelligence is… not simply intellectual; it is also the “unconscious” intelligence of the whole organism and, in particular, the innate wisdom of the nervous system. Wu-wei is a combination of this wisdom with taking the line of least resistance in all one’s actions’ (1975, p.76).
Wu wei is not simply the avoidance of effort. If you take judo as an example, or equally the partner practices of tai chi, effort is used:
‘But even this effort has a peculiarly unforced quality which is called ch’i, roughly equivalent to the Sanskrit prana – an energy associated with breath’ (p.76).
The peculiarly effective form of effort that arises in one imbued with wu wei, draws its power from chi, and from gravity. And both these ideas are important in our tai chi.
‘Just as water follows gravity and, if trapped, rises to find a new outlet, so wu-wei is the principle that gravity is energy, and the Taoist finds in gravity a constant stream which may be used in the same way as the wind or a current. Falling with gravity constitutes the immense energy of the earth spinning in its orbit around the sun’ (p.77).
Alan Watts is particularly interesting, to my mind, in pointing out that early Taoist and Zen teachers were not at all interested in rigorous practices or exercises designed to lead to enlightenment. Instead they favoured the gaining of immediate intuitive insight into the ‘nature of reality’ resulting from the teacher’s direct pointing in question and answer sessions:
‘…one who had seen into the truth of things simply pointed it out to one who had not – often by non-verbal means, by demonstration rather than explanation’ (p.89).
Someone touched by the spirit of wu wei may well enjoy sitting and watching the world simply for the pleasure of it, without wanting to attain any goal.
‘Taoists do not look upon meditation as “practice,” except in the sense that a doctor “practices” medicine. They have no design to subjugate or alter the universe by force or will-power, for their art is entirely to go along with the flow of things in an intelligent way’ (p.90).
This is a very difficult point for us to grasp, having grown up in a world influenced by the Protestant work ethic.
The moral as regards tai chi is to practise for as long as you enjoy it, but as soon as the body and mind start to rebel it is time to stop and do something else. That way you will not set up unconscious resistance that will ultimately undermine your practice.
Contemplative Taoists do sit in meditation:
‘…for the joy of meditation – the flow of breath, the sound of roosters in the distance, the light on the floor, the susurrus of the wind, the stillness, and, alas, all those things which militant activists of both West and East have, with their frantic purposiveness, learned to disdain’ (p.91).
Neither does Taoist life exclude the pleasure in movement and activity:
‘so that the t’ai chi chuan discipline of bodily movement , flowing and swinging, is as much appreciated as sitting in meditation’ (p.91).
By coincidence I accidentally came across a passage on wu wei yesterday, in a book by the Czech psychotherapist Stanislav Grof, ‘When the Impossible Happens: adventures in non-ordinary realities’ (2006). Grof calls wu wei ‘creative quietude’:
‘which is not action involving ambitious determined effort, but doing by being. This is also sometimes referred to as the Watercourse Way, because it imitates the ways water operates in nature’ (p.66).
Grof explains that wu wei involves sensing the way things are moving and how to fit into them. Instead of focusing on a goal, we focus on the process. We achieve more with less effort because we are not ‘fighting’ against what is, but skilfully flowing with it the way a sailor trims the sail to the wind. Grof notes:
‘I have also repeatedly observed and experienced that when we operate in this Taoistic framework, extraordinary beneficial coincidences and synchronicities tend to occur’ (p.66).
By keeping in the present moment, closely in touch with what is happening, rather than what we want to happen, a sort of intuition about what is possible develops. The ancient Chinese sages used the I Ching or Book of Changes to help them develop this intuition - about the nature and potential of the moment.
The flow of water, which always seeks the lowest level, but can penetrate where nothing else can, is a frequently used image for wu wei. In part it stems from a sense of the transience of life, which permeates Buddhist and Taoist thought. The seeming solidity of the world, Watts argues, is deceptive, just as time-lapse photography makes the growth of plants and flowers appear to come and go ‘like gestures of the earth’:
‘If we could film civilizations and cities, mountains and stars… we would see them as frost crystals forming and dissolving and as sparks on the back of a fireplace. The faster the tempo, the more it would appear that we were watching, not so much a succession of things, as the movement and transformations of one thing – as we see waves on the ocean or the movements of a dancer’ (Watts, 1975, p.94).
Ultimately, we are part of the flow. Even our attempts to resist it, are part of the flow. Then why even bother to consider it, one might ask? Because the very fact that we see this inevitability changes something, Watts argues:
‘Wu wei is to roll with experiences and feelings as they come and go, like a ball in a mountain stream, though actually there is no ball apart from the convolutions and wiggles of the stream itself. This is called “flowing with the moment,” though it can happen only when it is clear that there is nothing else to do, since there is no experience which is not now. This now-streaming (nunc fluens) is the Tao itself, and when this is clear innumerable problems vanish. For so long as there is the notion of ourselves as something different from the Tao, all kinds of tensions build up between “me” on the one hand, and “experiences” on the other. No action, no force (wei) will get rid of this tension arising from the duality of the knower and the known, just as one cannot blow away the night. Light, or intuitive understanding, alone will dissipate the darkness’ (pp.96-97).
After this dizzying excursion into the whirlpools and eddies of Taoist thought, let’s try to bring the discussion closer to home, to our practice of the tai chi handed down to us by Cheng Man-ching. Professor Cheng was explicit that his tai chi was not just a study of fighting, or, important though it is, a way to gain good health. Professor told his American students: ‘What we are about here is a study of the Tao.’
Perhaps the habit that I see the most in myself and fellow students is ‘doing too much’ when practising the tai chi form, sword form and partner work. We are often trying to ‘do it’ instead of relaxing into the present moment, relaxing into the flow, and allowing gravity to align us, to aid us to sink and borrow the power of the earth. As my teacher, Wolfe, sincere student of Cheng Man-ching says:
‘The will will interfere with the heart’s mission to let go into the ground.’
Don’t force it. Gentle the will. In some rather mysterious way, allow the calligraphy brush to write by itself, the form to do itself, the cut, when fencing, to happen of itself.
An attitude of forcing is the opposite of the intuitive intelligence of wu wei. Forcing equates to muscular tension, which blocks the flow of the chi. Instead we must learn to relax, to let the body open, so that the bones, muscles and tendons can naturally align under the influence of gravity in the optimum functional fashion. Wu wei resides in the ability to flow – the softness of water, not the hardness of tension and resistance.
And, relaxation of the body is dependent upon a relaxed mind. Ultimately, the Taoists maintain, tension in the body-mind arises from a sense of separation from nature, from ‘all that is’, from the Tao. The Tao is hard to pin down, being essentially ineffable and undefinable:
‘The Tao can be roughly thought of as the flow of the universe, or as some essence or pattern behind the natural world that keeps the Universe balanced and ordered… The Tao is usually described in terms of elements of nature, and in particular as similar to water. Like water it is undifferentiated, endlessly self-replenishing, soft and quiet but immensely powerful, and impassively generous’ (Wikipedia).
In order to ‘get out of our own way’ when practising any of the elements of our tai chi – form, sensing hands, da lu, sword form and fencing – we must learn to gradually soften and reduce the influence of our ego. This allows a deeper self to emerge, the part of the self that is one with everything, one with the flow of the Tao, or, to put it another way, one with the Will of Heaven. Professor Cheng’s way of talking about this process is to urge us to ‘invest in loss’:
‘Lose, lose, lose until you have nothing left to lose’ (Cheng Man-ching).
Ostensibly Professor Cheng could be taken to be advising us not to resort to the use of resistance and wilful muscular force in sensing hands, to overcome our opponent - so that another force, which resides in relaxation and softness (the chi, or jing) can enter the equation. And indeed he is. But it has a deeper meaning.
For Professor Cheng, letting go of the blocking ego-consciousness is the true meaning of the phrase ‘to relax’, which was repeated so often by his teacher Yang Cheng-fu. Professor Cheng reports that although he had studied tai chi chuan for fifty years, it was only ‘the year before last’ that he finally grasped the meaning of the word ‘relax’ (Wile, 2007, p.95). Professor Cheng explains his epiphany:
‘If we go into a Buddhist temple, the main hall will have a statue of Maitreya, with a big belly, laughing, and carrying a cloth sack. The inscription over the statue says, “Sitting there is baggage and walking there is baggage. What a joy to put down our baggage.” What does this mean? It means that not only are we ourselves baggage, but everything – sons, daughters, wives, accomplishments, fame, fortune, official positions – are all baggage. But the most difficult baggage to put down is oneself’ (Wile, 2007, ‘Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writings on Taijiquan, Qigong, and Health’, p.96).
So it is that in our sensing hands practice, which in so many schools devolves into a pushing and shoving contest in which the strongest, most aggressive student wins, we ‘give up the desperate will to win’ (Cheng Man-ching) in favour of staying soft, attuned to the action in the present moment, the better to be able to sense it’s direction, and influence it.
If our opponent tries to unbalance us with a push, we stick to them, yield before their force and return it to them at the point where they are vulnerable, thus restoring balance to the situation. We don’t resist or attempt to force the outcome, we allow the intuitive wisdom we have developed to influence the situation, or… we accept being pushed without tensing up and resisting. Or, we try to! Over years of such practice, ‘investing in loss’ rather than blocking, resisting and shoving, we gradually come to embody the intuitive wisdom of wu wei, and in the process move towards the expression of our deeper selves.
Our practice is of maintaining softness, the fluidity of water that flows around obstacles; that offers no solid surface for a blow to fall on. We relax our will. Lacking any goal or set intention we can attune more closely with the present moment. For a set intention commits us to a certain course of action and means we are not open to flow with events as they arise, and change.
I have in the preceding passages talked about tai chi’s partner practices, about the wisdom it develops in dealing with an incoming push or punch, using softness, relaxation and a quality of connection with the ground - called ‘root’ - that tai chi form practice develops. This martial aspect is the ‘chuan’ in ‘tai chi chuan’, where ‘chuan’ can be translated as ‘fist’.
But relaxing, letting go into the ground – made possible by diminishing and softening of the fearful ego – is inherent in our practice of the tai chi form too. The Chinese term for relaxing is ‘sung’, and for sinking it is ‘chen’. The relaxing and sinking in the form increase our connection with the ground so we are more stable, and allows, after much practice, a force (jing or peng) to rise from the ground, through the relaxed but connected body. This force is a result of the chi of the body, led by the heart-mind, sinking to the dantian, then down to the feet and into the ground where it connects with the the chi of the earth. Any forcing will block this process. Forcing produces tension, and tension blocks the chi.
The relaxation in the form is not just relaxation of the body, but relaxation of the mind – a relaxation which arises from letting go of tension, from accepting and working with the flow of the Tao, rather than trying to force the world into the shape we want it to be. This results in an attrition of the fearful ego which gradually allows a deeper, more natural self to emerge.
Robert Smith reports Wolfe Lowenthal’s teacher, Cheng Man-ching (‘Professor Zheng’) discussing the place of the natural self in tai chi – the natural self that he referred to as ‘the intrinsic you.’
‘Professor Zheng would go on to say that structure and flow together – the technique – make up only 30 percent of taiji. He would then ask, “What is the missing 70 percent?” It is the same as in many arts, in calligraphy – the queen of the Chinese fine arts – for instance. Seventy percent of taiji is naturalness, the intrinsic “you,” which can only come from inside you’ (Smith R.W., 1995, in ‘Cheng Man-ch’ing and T’ai Chi: Echoes in the Hall of Happiness’, p.56).
In Taoist thought, the notion of a natural, true self can be contrasted with a false self which arises from cultural programming.
In writing about the importance of the idea of ‘naturalness’ to Cheng Man-ching, Wile notes:
‘To discover what is natural is to recover our true nature, not our second nature, which is the product of cultural programming. In speaking of naturalness, Zheng is at his most Daoist. Confucians believed in the power of culture to civilize us; Daoists believed civilization was the problem’ (2007, p.80).
The action of wu wei is a product of the natural, ‘intrinsic self’ – the ‘uncarved block’ (pu) of Taoism. This is a state untouched by artifice and human ingenuity, a state before desire arises.
There may be much in the above account of the Taoist idea of wu wei with which we might take issue. Many years ago my psychoanalyst used to argue with me, saying he thought Buddhism and Taoism were about ‘trying not to have been born’ – somehow trying to escape the struggle and suffering inherent in the human condition. He, a committed Christian, said he preferred the image of Christ turning over the money lender’s tables in the temple grounds, to the image of a serene Taoist sage in a mist shrouded mountain hermitage. A sage withdrawn from the suffering of the world:
‘I asked the boy beneath the pines. He said, “The master’s gone alone Herb-picking somewhere on the mount, Cloud-hidden, wherabouts unknown”’ (Chia Tao 777-841).
Though at times appearing abstruse, Taoism is a practical approach to sustaining life, that has proved its value in China for centuries. The founding texts of Taoism have their origin in the Warring States period of Chinese history (475-221 BCE), a time when a philosophy of ‘keeping your head down’ had a survival value.
The core text of Taoism, The Tao Te Ching has its origins in disillusionment with society and the acts of mankind, drawing deeply on the rhythms and cycles of the natural world. Legend has it that the mythic author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, brushed the five thousand characters at the request of the gatekeeper, as he departed the Chou empire, through the Western gate, leaving his troubled social milieu behind:
‘By the year 516 BCE, the old man had seen enough. Now eighty-eight years old, he had been Keeper of the Archives for the ancient Chou dynasty for some decades in the capital of Lo-yang, and over the years had watched the dynasty’s steady decline. For centuries principalities and feudal lords had constantly shifted alliances, titles had been arbitrarily bestowed on those who threw military power behind the aristocrats, stronger states within the empire had swallowed up the weaker ones, and internecine warfare had broken out in the capital’ (William Scott Wilson, Trans., 2010, Lao Tzu, ‘Tao Te Ching’, p.xix).
Perhaps, then, we may conclude that the notion of wu wei can be of help to those of us living in the troubled modern world, to keep our balance, and respond intelligently to the challenges with which we are presented.