If you have ever watched an artist at work or an athlete on the field, you may have noticed how effortless their actions seem. As they paint or sculpt or kick a ball into the goal, they move in perfect harmony, in an almost unconscious, instinctual way.
This is wu-wei, a state of perfect ease, or effortless action, described in ancient Chinese philosophy. Literally, it means “no trying” or “no doing,” but it is far from the kind of “dull inaction” you might find in someone just going through the motions.
Wu-wei is both effortless and effective. It can also be applied to any activity. Under the influence of wu-wei, even the most mundane of tasks can be transformed into an artistic performance as body, emotions and mind are completely integrated.
This state of being is described in a story about Butcher Ding, from a book called the Zhuangzi, an important work of Daoist philosophy. Ding is called upon to sacrifice an ox during a traditional ceremony for the consecration of a newly-cast bronze bell.
Ding dismembers the massive animal with effortless grace, his blade cutting in exactly the right spots and at the best angles. Immersed in wu-wei, his mind is dynamic, spontaneous and unselfconscious. He has moved beyond the need for thought or effort, and transforms butchering the ox into a performance that would rival one by Pablo Picasso or David Beckham.
Looking on, the village master Lord Wenhui is very impressed by Ding’s skill with a blade. After the ceremony, Wenhui asks Ding about his incredible abilities. In the book Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, Edward Slingerhand, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, gives Ding’s response [http://nautil.us/issue/10/mergers—acquisitions/trying-not-to-try].
“When I first began cutting up oxen,” said Ding, “all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. And now—now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. My senses and conscious awareness have shut down and my spiritual desires take me away.”
Ding’s response to Wenhui shows that wu-wei is not an inborn trait, but something that can be developed over time with practice and focus. In the beginning, when Ding looked at the ox, he saw it with his conscious mind—I know this is an ox of such-and-such size, needing to be cut in this way.
Later on, this overt conscious awareness shuts down, leaving Ding’s “spiritual desires” to guide his hand as it holds the blade. He no longer needs to think consciously before he cuts. And as Ding relaxes into the moment, he is able to open more fully to the task at hand.
Reading this story, you might get the sense that there are two separate Ding’s involved in butchering the ox—one that sits back and analyzes the contours of the ox or the angle of the blade, and another that, in the words of the Nike commercial, just does it.
This type of split personality—where a conscious “I” confronts a part of the self that is more autonomous—may be familiar to many of us. How often have we found ourselves saying something like “I couldn’t stop myself from eating three pieces of pie” or “Whenever I talk to her, I have to bite my tongue.”
As odd as it seems, this sense of self-against-other-self is not a misfiring of synapses, but results from how different areas of our brain interact. One part of our brain is fast and automatic, shaped by an evolutionary need for survival. It drives us to seek out food, find shelter and reproduce. We have no direct access to this part of our mind, which means that sometimes our conscious mind may struggle to control it.
Another part of the brain is slow and conscious, concerned with long-range issues. We tend to identify with this part of our mind, because it is the seat of our conscious awareness, our sense of self. It also includes our verbal center. While the slow part tends to have rigid decision-making, the fast part is more flexible and can change its priorities based on new information.
The goal of wu-wei, then, is to convince these two selves to work together smoothly and effectively. As Slingerhand puts it, “for a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful.” With Ding, this integration appears as an intelligent spontaneity perfectly suited for the situation. But it’s not always about letting go. Sometimes Ding’s conscious mind has to step back in when he confronts a challenging part of the ox.
To understand how this coordination might occur at a neuroscientific level, it’s useful to look at the way the brain handles conflicts between thinking consciously and acting instinctively. Psychologists study this kind of interference using the “Stroop Effect” experiment [http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/words.html].
During this task, a person is asked to name the color of several words on a page or screen. The words are the names of colors, each different from the actual color of the letters. This creates a conflict between the visual processing center and the word recognition system. To resolve this, the conscious mind has to override the automatic impulse of the visual system.
This is an example of cognitive control, which encompasses many processes in the brain such as attention, memory, language comprehension and emotional processing. Two areas of the brain that are involved in cognitive control are the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the lateral prefrontal cortex (lateral PFC).
Research on how these areas work is still ongoing. In the Stroop task, the ACC may act like a detector—when it senses a conflict between the word color and the meaning of the word, it alerts the lateral PFC. The lateral PFC decides what action is needed based on its understanding of the task. It then strengthens the visual system to help identify the color and tones down the word recognition system.
This process is not instantaneous, which is why most people hesitate when doing this task. There is also a sense of effort involved, as if the brain has to switch gears. So how does this apply to wu-wei?
When you are first learning a new task, you have to keep a great amount of attention on the task to make sure you are doing it correctly. In this case, both the ACC and the lateral PFC are active as you consciously—and with effort—work through the task. Later on, as you master the skill, the brain’s control becomes automatic, which frees your conscious mind for other tasks.
This was seen in a study [http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0001679], in which researchers did functional MRI scans on jazz pianists, first while they played a simple scale over and over again, and then while they improvised a melody. During improvisation, the ACC became more active, while the lateral PFC turned off.
For musicians, improvisation is a kind of wu-wei, where the conscious mind lets go and the body takes over. This type of release, though, is not reserved for musicians and artists. We can apply wu-wei to our own lives, even to the most mundane of tasks. Instead of striving consciously all the time, if we apply spontaneity to our actions and interactions with others, we can live effectively and with ease.
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