There is a concept in Taoism called ‘Wu Wei.’ It’s hard to translate, but it means something like ‘action without action,’ or ‘getting things done without effort.’ At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense, especially to a Western mindset, steeped as it is in the puritan work ethic. Don’t we have to work hard to get anywhere in life? If you want to build muscle, you’ve got to workout, right? If you want to pass an exam, don’t you need to study hard? If you spend all term watching TV you’re going to fail your exams!
Well, this isn’t quite what ‘Wu Wei’ means. Effortless doesn’t mean lazy or indolent. It means getting things done naturally, since the natural way is the easiest and the best. Does grass make an effort to grow? It takes energy and it takes time, but it hardly takes effort. Planets move around the sun, but they do it naturally and without effort.
Nature has certain characteristics, and we would do well to take notice of them as we seek to turn our dreams into reality.
There is a natural grain to everything
When I was a boy, my father taught me how to chop wood. First, you have to have a sharp axe. But second, and just as important, is that you need to cut along the wood’s natural grain. If you line the axe up along the grain, the wood will fall apart more easily, but if you try to chop at right angles to the grain, you’ll end up with a blunt axe, sore arms, and a badly cut piece of wood.
All life has a natural grain to it; things happen in a certain way. Organizations have a certain culture. People have certain ways of thinking and doing things. Governments have particular ways of operation. It may not be the way we like, but it is what it is. As King Canute showed to his courtiers, we cannot stop the tide from coming in; we can try, but it will only carry us away.
Nature is naturally cooperative and synergistic
In nature, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you place two plants near to each other, their roots will intertwine to make the soil richer for both of them. The organs in your body don’t compete with each other – they cooperate at a deep, intelligent level. Ecosystems contain a natural harmony, each part fitting into the overall scheme. When people in organizations work together instead of being defensive and competitive, new and innovative solutions to problems emerge. When you work with your spouse in a cooperative and open way, your relationship can flourish; couples that become mired in defending their positions and attacking each other can only fail in their relationship.
Things are cyclical
Nature follows cycles: day follows night follows day, Autumn follows summer, spring follows winter, fields need to lie fallow, animals hibernate, birds migrate for the winter and then come back again. Plants appear to die in the winter, but really they are following the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth. Eastern cultures tend to recognize the cyclical nature of things in their philosophies – cycles are at the heart of Hindu and Buddhist world views. But in the west we have tended to see things in a more linear way.
We need to recognize that things ebb and flow, like the tide. This is natural and normal. There are times in our lives that are very productive and full of success and energy, and other times that are dormant. But dormancy is not a bad thing – it is not death if it is a natural rest and preparation for the next phase. At the end of a hard day’s work, there is nothing nicer than a deep, restful sleep, and without it we cannot be effective the next day.
Everything has its time
We live in a culture of instant gratification. Many of us have a tendency to want things right now. Impatience is a disease in our society. But all good things take time – wine, cheese, a friendship, a marriage; these things deepen in quality over the years. Fruit can only be eaten when ripe; if you try to eat it before this, you will just get a sore belly. Grass grows in its own time but if you keep pulling it, it will just die.
The P/PC balance
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey writes about the importance of finding a balance between production (P) and the capability of achieving that production (PC). A tree produces fruit only for a season and then rests; most animals have a mating season which lasts only for a short time each year. We need to take a lesson from nature, realizing that without rest and rejuvenation, our capacity to be productive will decline. We need to stop cutting down the tree for a while to sharpen the axe, otherwise the tree will never get cut down however much energy we expend. We need to keep our bodies and minds in good condition; we need to keep ourselves skilled and educated; we need to be rested. Only by ‘sharpening the saw,’ as Covey writes, can we continue to be effective. This may take time away from other activities, but it is time well spent.
Go with the flow
You can have anything you choose and you don’t need to sweat blood and tears to get it. There is a natural and easy way to get there. By learning from nature, we can be abundant in every sense with the least expenditure of effort.