Another missed basket. It was my 5th of the night and right on schedule, I was immediately taken out of the game to spend the remainder of the night riding the bench. I was a sophomore in high school and like most kids who grew in Chicago during the 90’s, I lived, breathed and ate basketball. I idolized Michael Jordan and dreamed of one day playing in the NBA. Yet as I sat in the stands watching the game in frustration, that dream was fading quickly.
I was always good when it came to practices, pickup games outside of school, or any type of situation without a crowd. But when it was game time, I played terribly. With my parents in the stands, cheerleaders in the sidelines, coaches just a few feet away, the pressure got to me. I wanted to impress them all and the burning need to play well always messed with my game. It was incredibly frustrating because I knew what I was capable of, but when the time came I couldn’t bring it out. I’m often reminded of this Tranxu quote looking back at this time:
“When the archer shoots for no particular prize, he has all his skills; when he shoots to win a brass buckle, he is already nervous; when he shoots for a gold prize, he goes blind, sees two targets, and is out of his mind. His skill has not changed, but the prize divides him. He cares! He thinks more of winning than of shooting, and the need to win drains him of power.”
You may not realize this, but when you were born you were equipped with everything you need to create the life you want. A life where you’ve actualized your potential in your career, health, relationships, with everything. Yet few of us have realized what we’re capable of. I sure as hell didn’t in my short-lived basketball career. What’s stopping us from bringing our best selves to the table?
Oftentimes it’s simply a matter of getting in our own way. It’s the over-thinking, the micromanaging, the outcome dependence that cuts us off from our highest selves. The burning need to control the outcomes in our lives brings us the very outcomes we’re trying to avoid. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti “The controller becomes the controlled.” And it’s this very roadblock that prevents us from tapping into our potential. Here’s a few examples to illustrate this issue.
Take dating. Attempting to impress someone and gain their approval almost always backfires. In fact, this behavior is a natural repellant in the dating world. When you try hard, over think, and conjure up the perfect things to say, you’re at your worst. It’s only when you let go and be yourself (flaws and all) when people become naturally drawn to you.
Take relationships. When one person is dissatisfied with certain qualities about their partner, how successful are they attempting to change them? We all know this never ends well. If your partner is on the lazier end and you force them to be more ambitious, chances are this does the opposite. Not only are they more stuck in their ways, the relationship takes a massive hit as a result.
How about parenting? If you’re a parent, chances are you want your kid to be the next great surgeon, lawyer or senator. For many parents, they try to mold them in that direction. They control what she says, what she does, who she’s doing it with. They make her go to piano lessons, on top of Mandarin lessons, on top of pushing her to get the perfect grades in school. Eventually it leads to the kid rebelling and feeling a mountain of resentment towards her parents.
If you’re in any creative field you know how destructive outcome dependence can be. When you force the perfect notes for a song, words for a paper, strokes of a brush the work never comes out well. Whenever I try to write the absolute best articles for Warrior, I always struggle. It’s only when I write for the fun of it, where my best work come from. Tim Kreider once wrote “Because the essence of creativity is fucking around; art is that which is done for the hell of it.”
Yet this is rarity in our world. Our inability to simply let go and allow things to naturally unfold as they will holds us back. From our relationships, to our careers, to our overall happiness and wellbeing – forcing life gets the best of us. Again, the controller becomes the controlled.
An Introduction to Wu-Wei
But why is it so difficult for us to let go and allow? What’s getting in the way?
Us humans are unique animals in the sense of us having an extremely well developed prefrontal-cortex. The prefrontal-cortex controls what is known as the “executive functions” of your brain. Unlike any other animal on the planet, this function allows us to plan, analyze, imagine, replay movies of our past, project future scenarios of our future, etc. No other animal is able to do this at the level of a human.
For the most part, having this ability is incredible. It’s like having a super computer in our brains and one of the main reasons we’ve prospered for as long as we have. But the downfall of this ability is your mind will start imagining how reality should be, and begin rigidly holding onto this construct. This creates a disconnect between the reality in our heads and the reality in front of us. Ram Dass once wrote “As long as you have certain desires about how it ought to be you can’t see how it is.” When I played basketball I was clinging onto an idea of how my game should look like, and not letting the game come to me. This created a blockage in my flow. It’s something we’re all guilty of.
But if we could just step back, let go, and allow our bodies, minds and hearts do what it already knows how, the very best outcomes comes out of this space. It’s our heads that prevent this from happening.
Over 2,500 years ago a man named Lao Tzu pinpointed this dilemma. One of the central themes of his legendary Tao Te Ching is built around a concept called Wu-Wei. There isn’t a direct translation of this word in English, but can be roughly translated as non-action, non-doing, not forcing anything. Wu-wei means going with the flow of nature, opposed to forcing your will against it. It means allowing things to arise naturally, rather than through brute force.
Alan Watts shares a metaphor in this lecture which illustrates this idea perfectly. Think of a river. The water has a natural flow to it; a natural movement. Forcing outcomes in our lives are akin to swimming against the current. The guy trying to impress his date, the parent attempting to mold his kid, the creative forcing her art – energy is spent against the flow of the river and as a result, it gets them nowhere. But it’s the rare individual who drops his pretenses, let’s go of an out outcome, and swims with the current who suddenly acquires the power of the river behind every action he takes. Effortless. Without force. Moving with the natural flow of nature. It’s a beautiful concept and can be seen in wide variety of instances…
Examples of Wu-Wei
Just a few years ago I got into golf. Initially I took lessons and was fortunate enough to have an amazing teacher. The first lesson or two, we learned the mechanics of holding the club, swinging, etc. But once that was out of the way, the majority of our time was spent learning how to loosen up and relax. The tighter you hold the club, the harder you swing it, the more you try forcing your game, the worse you shoot. It’s only when you drop your need to shoot the perfect shot and let your body take over where your game is at its best.
Music works the same way. If you play an instrument, you know how important it is to lose yourself to the music and let your hands flow. The more you’re in your head, the more you try to force the music, the more mechanical it sounds. That’s why the best musicians have a natural fluidity to their style. The best drummers don’t hit their notes exactly with the metronome like a robot. They’re loose and have a certain swing to their rhythm. They don’t try to be perfect and move their sticks naturally. In doing so it brings the music alive.
Take dating. It’s only when you stop trying to be Mr. or Mrs. Perfect when your best self starts rising to the surface. As Mooji once said “Why try to be special, when you can simply be yourself?” When you drop your need to impress, let the quirks of your personality out, and if anything play a little hard to get, partners starts naturally pursuing you.
How about business? The very best businesses typically don’t force novel product ideas onto a market. They go with the current, and create a solution that matches the existing needs of an audience, rather than rigidly forcing products they think the audience should need. Half the battle in business is is finding a perfect product to market match. It’s learning to find the current of your market, and moving with it.
Happiness is directly tied to wu-wei. Have you ever noticed self-help junkies obsessed with happiness, never seem to actually be happy? The harder you try, the less likely it’s going to happen. A big realization for me over the year is the fact that happiness is uncaused. It comes not from addition, but more from subtraction. Your heart knows how to bring it out, but your thinking is just getting in the way. It’s only when you drop your burning need to be happy where you get a lot more of in your life.
How To Incorporate Wu-Wei Into Your Life
As you can see, Wu-Wei applies to virtually every area of life. But this eastern concept may be difficult for us westerners to wrap our heads around. Our culture values strength, action, being proactive. We hear things like non-force, non-action, and think it’s weak. Many people hear this concept and feel disempowered. They say “Wait… So you want me to just sit around like a monk and wait for things to happen?” That’s not at all what we’re talking about. Wu-wei does not mean being a doormat. It doesn’t mean being submissive, being passive, being lazy. It simply means trusting yourself and getting the hell out of your own way.
Chuang Tzu, a legendary Taoist philosopher once said…
“If the eye is unobstructed, the result is sight. If the ear is unobstructed, the result is hearing. If the nose is unobstructed, the result is smell. If the mouth is unobstructed, the result is taste. If the mind is unobstructed, the result is wisdom.”
Wu-wei is learning to unobstruct yourself. But how is this accomplished? How can you incorporate Wu-Wei into your life?
It starts with awareness. You can’t manage what you’re unaware of. So you need to stay alert and spot your monkey mind when it starts meddling. You need to catch yourself when you’re trying too hard to behave in a certain way, think a certain way, force a certain outcome. Say you have an important meeting tomorrow morning and for some odd reason you can’t fall asleep. You’re laying in bed in frustration, trying for the life of you to relax but it’s only making things worse. If you’re aware of your mind trying to force the issue, that’s a great first step.
Once you spot the weed in your mind, let it be. Just watch without the need to change anything. Again, this would seem like passivity but it’s far from it. What you resist, persists. Trying to meddle with your meddling mind only pours more fuel to the fire. Acceptance is the doorway out of the predicament you’ve found yourself in. Accept that you can’t fall asleep. Accept that you may be exhausted in the morning. Accept that things aren’t ideal right now. Ironically, this is when you’re able to finally relax. Oftentimes the best course of action is non-action. The Bhagavad Gita says “The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action.”
Your mind will attempt to force things, over think, micromanage. And that’s okay. There’s not much you can do to stop these knee-jerk reactions from popping up in your mind. All you can control is how you view it after the fact. The more you try to control this process, the worse it gets. Drop your need to be the controller and you’ll suddenly reap the rewards of Wu-Wei.
You’ll be more creative, happier, live with less friction, and find yourself experiencing peak performance in all areas of your life. I’d like to leave you with a poem by Naomi Long Madgett called “Woman with Flower” which captures the spirit of Wu-Wei beautifully. Enjoy:
I wouldn’t coax the plant if I were you.
Such watchful nurturing may do it harm.
Let the soil rest from so much digging
And wait until it‘s dry before you water it.
The leaf’s inclined to find its own direction;
Give it a chance to seek the sunlight for itself.
Much growth is stunted by too careful prodding,
Too eager tenderness.
The things we love we have to learn to leave alone.