Right in the midst of our busy life the mind can be like a pool of water, glassy, without a single ripple on its surface.
There is an ancient Chinese phrase for it: wu wei. “Wu” means “no”, “not” or “without”, and “wei” means “action”, “doing” or “effort”. So, wu wei literally means “without action”, but the spirit here is “natural action”, that which is not pre-meditated. This phrase is sometimes expanded as wei wu wei, “action without effort”. This is one of the main tenets of Taoism: “effortless effort” or “stillness in the midst of activity” is the culmination of the spiritual life, when we live in perfect harmony with the all–encompassing Tao.
This harmony may be easier to understand if we first look at its opposite. It was nicely illustrated in cartoons during the 1980’s called “The Inner Child”. They contained characters drawn as outlines, involved in some particular interaction with each other. Inside the body of each was drawn another figure, in a posture that reflected how they were feeling at the moment. Often there was a conflict between the inner and outer figures. For instance, an outwardly calm person of authority giving directions to an assistant might have an inner figure of a baby throwing a tantrum. His struggle to remain calm while taking action could be called “effortful effort”.
After seeing several of these, I came across a cartoon that had an old monk as one of the characters. This one was different in that the monk had no inner figure drawn within his outline – he was completely empty. The outer posture was the only one, so there was no conflict between inner and outer – just clean, natural action.
When the outer world doesn’t match our inner view of the way we want it to be, we feel the difference between the two as a kind of dissonance. We feel agitated, and set about changing the outer circumstances to align with our inner ideal. If we succeed in this we feel great. But when we don’t, or worse yet, if we do succeed but the world then changes away from our ideal again, we feel the suffering that Buddha referred to as dukkha. Dukkha has been translated as “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness” and “stress”, and it is the result when we refuse to accept the outer world as it is. The Inner Child characters give us a handy image of this dukkha.
The alternative is acceptance of circumstances as they are right now. When we drop our likes and dislikes the dissonance disappears because we’re no longer comparing the world as it is with what we desire it to be. With that desire gone there is only the “real” world itself, so, like the old monk in the cartoon, whether we’re resting silently or running to catch the train, there is no inner emotional turmoil.
That turmoil is like the waves rippling the pool – when they stop we can see clear to the bottom. The surface becomes transparent, as if it wasn’t even there. When we let go of what we’re hoping or fearing will happen, the “surface” that separates our inner and outer realities disappears and we naturally open up to the stillness that is the background for all the goings–on of our life, whether sitting at rest, interacting with our boss, or racing to stop an emergency. In all cases, even in the midst of the most energetic activity, we are in harmony with our surroundings.
This doesn’t mean having no interest in improving our world! What this means is complete acceptance of our situation as it is in this moment, which includes all our impressions of what is working well and what is not, along with our insights into how it can be improved. Now it’s time for the effort – use those insights to take action!
Wei wu wei, effortless effort. Outwardly, 100% effort put into all actions, yet inwardly, 0% conflict. This is the perfect stillness within the wildest whirlwind.