Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stillness within activity

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 or 90’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. There was always a marked difference or conflict between the inner and outer figures. For instance, an outwardly calm person of authority giving directions to an assistant has an inner figure of a baby throwing a tantrum. This 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.

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.

Wei wu wei, effortless effort. Outwardly, 100% effort put into all actions, yet inwardly, 0% effort. This is the perfect stillness within the wildest whirlwind.

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