Inner Space
Hi, I’m Diana Demco and this is the Inner Space newsletter about my reflections on living an examined life. If you're new, you can find old editions here. You're getting this email because you signed up on my website. If you'd like to unsubscribe, click here.
You're probably heard of the concept of flow, coined by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. It's a state of intense absorption in whatever you're doing, making one lose track of time or even of one's self. The direct coupling of the subject to their environment makes this state extremely real and meaningful, and the perfect balance between skill and demand guarantees an intense state of focus.

Flow is directly linked to meaning in life and increased well-being. Experiencing flow is not optional - you need it in your life.

But this state has a distant relative in the East, originating from ancient China. I say distant relative both because they're separated by time, but also because there are crucial differences between them. I'm referring to the concept of wu-wei. The closest translation for it would be non-action or spontaneous action. It's a way of being that brings about the desired results in accordance with nature and with one's values, without forcing anything, without desperate action.

Here are some of the similarities between the two states:
  • loss of sense of self and time
  • highly enjoyable
  • deep concentration
But when we get to the distinctions, we can tease out a larger divide between East and West thinking and philosophy. As Edward Slingerland notes in his excellent book on wu-wei, Trying not to try, probably the most essential distinction between wu-wei and flow is the connection to something larger, which ancient Chinese people called the Dao (or the Way), that is central to wu-wei.

Spontaneity in the West is typically associated with individuality—people just doing whatever they want. Wu-wei, on the other hand, means becoming part of something larger: the cosmic order represented by the Way. Sages from Confucius at age seventy to the Daoists describe wu-wei as a state of “fitting” with the universe.

While flow is concerned with an ever-evolving complex relationship between one's skills and the task at hand, wu-wei is a much relaxed state, where one gets to be fully absorbed into something larger, and let his actions flow naturally in accordance with nature. What that something larger is, depends on each individual and their belief and value systems. For a religious person, it can mean their faith, for a secular humanist, it can refer to the broader set of values one holds.

However, wu-wei has a paradox at its heart. How does one produce effortless action? How can one strive for something that should flow unconsciously? As Slingerland puts it, how does one try not to try?

Much of the writing on spontaneity from ancient China was concerned with getting around this paradox. What's more vexing though, is that often times, trying to bring about a certain effect will produce the exact opposite one. Modern researchers have called this phenomenon paradoxical intention.

[Scientists] have amassed a large body of evidence suggesting that we get depressed when we’re consciously trying to be happy, anxious when we are trying to relax, and distracted when we’re trying to concentrate. When we try to consciously forget something, we remember it more clearly; when we try to make ourselves sleep, it makes our insomnia worse.

So how can we attain this elusive state of effortless action?

Different schools of thought emerged trying to offer a path to achieve wu-wei, a way of life and practices that would help cultivate it. Among the most prominent we can identify the Confucian way, the Laozi way, the Mencius way or the Zhuangzi way.

Confucians advocated for rigorous training that paid close attention to how one conducted oneself in different situations, and tried to imprint the perfect action through studying the "masters" and undergoing a strict regimented way of life. Although this seems counterintuitive, the Confucian logic holds that you'll become more spontaneous if the appropriate behavior becomes second nature.

Laozi, on the other hand, advocated for a totally opposite strategy: let go of trying and just embrace your fundamentally good nature. He thought training was futile and excessive, and believed people need to adopt a simple way of living that fosters the achievement of our innately good tendencies.

Mencius, a follower of Confucius, promoted a view close to our modern understanding of utilitarianism, making moral decisions a matter of simple calculations. He thought wu-wei could be achieved through some effort, but not too much. In his view, we already hold the "seeds" necessary for cultivating a proper way of life. And if you're wondering what does morality have to do with wu-wei, the answer is a lot. As I've noted above, wu-wei is closely related to how you position yourself in relation to the external world.

Zhuangzi, labeled along with Laozi as a Daoist by modern historians, upheld a much more relaxed view of how to attain wu-wei. Disciplines of Zhuangzi don't hold any strict rules and display more flexible attitudes. The greatest "sins" in his view were letting your mind be the only driver of action, thus ignoring your body or unconscious inclinations, as well as not questioning the social norms of the day.

Unfortunately, thousands of years of thought and debate didn't manage to get us closer to a "recipe" of wu-wei. So should we just give up?

There is much more I could say about cultivating this kind of spontaneity, but I'll leave you with this 2300 year old quote:

You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong.

Timeless Content

The Awkwardness Principle
Oliver Burkeman | 4 minute read
If you've ever endeavored to change something about yourself and how you do things - be more assertive, wake up earlier or set strict boundaries - you must know how awkward it feels. It's like going against your nature. That's because you actually do. As Burkeman notes, every day we're training to become who we are. When we attempt to change, the whole complex system we call our "self" gets in our way.
While reading this short article, I got reminded by a quote I heard from Sam Harris: "you are the world champion of being who you were yesterday."

Picture of the Week

Quote I'm reflecting on

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.
(Laozi, Tao Te Ching)

Question for you to ponder

What can we infer about our culture given that we have no direct translations for wu wei?
Thank you for reading.

Until next time,
To respond to this email, just hit reply. I'd love to hear from you.

If you think someone you know might enjoy this newsletter, feel free to share it. If someone else forwarded this to you, you can subscribe here.
Email Marketing Powered by MailPoet