Some of us may have come across, at one point or another, the ancient Chinese concept of Wu Wei, loosely translated into non-action or non-force.
It’s a concept that runs counter to many of the Western qualities that we hold close to our chest — assertiveness, determination, dominance. While, in all actuality, Wu Wei can actually complement and supplement many of these qualities, it’s ostensibly looked upon as a passive and indifferent method of maneuvering through the many nuances of modern existence. This need not be the case at all.
“That’s not how the Force works!”
— Han Solo to Finn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This essay isn’t necessarily about Wu Wei, for this concept needs more than just a pre-ambling introduction to adequately describe its efficacy as a philosophy. This is, rather, about the wave of ease that some people demonstrably ride with fluid efficacy, signalling that there’s something worthwhile to be gleamed from their blasé approach.
Generational athletes come across and demonstrate their aloof domination of a sport — Sugar Ray Leonard, Tim Duncan, Patrick Mahomes — along with their uncanny abilities to stay calm under pressure, to make even the most flabbergasting moves look easy.
This idea of not-forcing something doesn’t seem, on its face, a wholly useful endeavor to undertake and a viable quality to adopt until we dive deeper and realize that it’s actually steeped in some very interesting logic that offers to payout a worthy dividend.
How can the idea of not-forcing an outcome help us in our day-to-day? How can non-force prove to be a force in itself? The modern context that we find ourselves living in demands results and goes as far as to bubble up anxiety as soon as we begin to lose control over situations. Non-force, intuitively, floats against the winds of the ways by which we functionally operate with work, with relationships, with life in general.
Because, in reality, to force something means that we coerce an outcome that’s not coming easily to us, to create friction where none exists.
To wade through more effervescent waters, we can also say that to coerce an outcome that’s not meant to be is, well, something that’s not supposed to happen. We’re running against the grains of fate, but such is an argument that may best be left for more idealistic circles.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that if something’s not meant to be, we exert much more energy into forcing it, either through instilling meaning where none should exist or through bending all surrounding circumstances to our will.
Arguably, it can be said that such is the nature of any human enterprise — any action we undertake is meant to create friction. But we’ve all experienced instances whereby some actions come easier than others, some outcomes and resolutions are much more fluid and, well, just feel inherently right.
In other words, while we may be willing to move mountains, why not first explore the streams that lead around them?
“You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance. We all do — all human beings and all of nature. It is important to know that. You may try to change the direction of your own flow in certain areas of your life — your eating habits, the way you work, the way you relate to others, the way you treat yourself, the attitudes you have about life. And you may even succeed for a time. But eventually, you will find you return to your original behavior and attitudes. This is because your life is determined, insofar as it is a law of nature for you to take the path of least resistance.”
― Robert Fritz
As soon as something feels forced, we lose interest. As soon as we depart from genuine interest in a business venture or as soon as we begin to, intentionally or not, frame something enjoyable as an obligation, then the magic dwindles instantaneously. Try as we might to replicate a particular joy or compel a sentiment that arose from a certain set of spontaneous circumstances, we may never effectively reproduce that essence.
And herein may lie the key — spontaneity.
Non-force seems to call upon the spontaneity of the moment. It seems to draw leverage from each unrehearsed response, each fluid maneuvering and each impromptu action.
To embrace the freedom of the moment, to naturalize our behavior rather than attempting to influence an outcome that’s not necessarily in the cards — this is a philosophy worth noting.
“It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean, how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question.”
― J.D. Salinger
To go back to the earlier example of generational athletes. Should a play break down, Patrick Mahomes can improvise in that moment and draw success. Should a round go south, Sugar Ray can flutterstep his way to a knockout through unplanned means. Should his team lose hope, Tim Duncan could swing momentum back in their favor through unrivaled calmness in clutch moments.
Many of the encounters we find ourselves in are unplanned; many accidents demand quick thinking on our feet that, despite all the preparation we can undertake, require spontaneous responses.
And, truth be told, it’s a daunting way to live because it requires that we give up the reigns of control and let the cards fall as they may.
As the curiously diverse creatures we are, we traverse all of life’s paths in innumerable ways. Some of us run, some walk, many fear to walk alone and others yet decide they’d like to be carried. Some choose to skip, some crawl and others inexplicably run circles or block others.
But in all walks of life, what matters most may be the awareness of our individualized methods. And, while many of the points above can prove contentious, let this essay, at the very least, prompt a moments thought as to whether it may or may not be worth, sometimes, taking the path of least resistance rather than generating unnecessary forcefulness.