Posted by: Edward | April 5, 2023

The Wu Wei of Essentialism

Wu wei is not doing in order to let things effortlessly happen.

Often we think of productivity or effectiveness as something we need to do more of, as something we need to add in order to make more happen. And wu wei, doing by not doing, seems like a paradox. But it’s important to realize that we are already doing. There has never been a society so focused on doing over being.

Given that we are already doing so much, and we have a lifetime of doing more to solve our problems, the most powerful thing we could do is less. We could do less of how we’re getting in our own way. We could do less of the things that don’t matter. We could do less of the complicated and overly sophisticated tricks and hacks.

In a Chuang Tzu’s Daoist teaching story of Chef Ting, Chef Ting is successful because he cuts less. He cuts less because he took the time to really learn where to cut. We can do the same.

Stop trying to do more, slow down, and take the time to really learn where to cut. I’m not telling you to change anything, don’t make cutting another doing. Slow down. Rest in mindfulness. Allow yourself to become aware of what you are already doing. Allow yourself to get to know the flow or process of how you go about living.

Cultivate patience and kind curiosity by refraining from changing until you deeply understand how the system currently works. And how it doesn’t. You will start to notice ways you get in your own way. You will notice things that annoy you, things that take too long, things that are too complicated. You will notice things you do over and over again that eat up your time, energy, or joy. You will notice time and energy spent on things that are ultimately unimportant to you.

It is important that I again remind you to refrain. Refrain from trying to fix it. But also, refrain from judging yourself or punishing yourself for what you notice. Look on your behavior with kind curiosity. You are a human being like anyone else doing your best, based on how you’ve learned to be.

You got here by applying the same strategy and solution we’ve all been taught to use, doing more and working harder.

Looking at yourself with curiosity allows you to ask yourself questions like, what am I trying to achieve when I do that, where did I learn to do that, and is doing that moving me towards what matters to me or away from it? You will start to see patterns and connections in your behaviors. You will begin to see underlying issues. You will realize what eats up the most of your time, energy, and joy; either in big disruptions or in the frequency of tiny disruptions.

Now you are ready to make a cut, a decision, that removes a key obstacle.

This first cut is an experiment. In truth, we don’t know what will happen until after we’ve done it. So slow down, refrain from additional action or judgment. Rest in mindfulness and notice what happens with kind curiosity.

Don’t muck about with a bunch of small fiddly changes. Don’t muddy the waters by making another change before you know the results of your experiment.

If you’ve taken the time to really understand the system of your behavior, the pattern of your doing, you will learn a lot from this cut. And if you give yourself the time you need, you’ll know where to cut next.


Essentialism by Greg McKeown

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