Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wu Wei We Go!

Diana recently ran across a concept we both like and have taken on as our mantra for the sabbatical. It is a central tenet of Taoism and is called...Wu Wei (woo way).

Fun, right? Such a great combination of fun and serious, as a matter of fact, that I decided to name this blog with it. The link above is to the Wikipedia distillation, which also has references for the extra studious. But why dig through volumes of ancient texts representing thousands of years of accumulated wisdom when you have my distillation right here?

We had already planned this family sabbatical before stumbling upon the concept of wu wei. That is, we didn't do anything differently than we might otherwise have done just because we found some nifty eastern philosophical perspective. I think we liked it because it seemed to sum up nicely our approach to this trip. Also, it makes us sound very wise, which is a nice feeling when you don't always feel very wise about what you're doing.

OK, my take on wu wei.

I remember learning, in my psychology days, of studies on brain waves of accomplished athletes. Brain waves (alpha, theta, beta, zeta...something like that) indicate mental activity. Using archery as an example from the studies, the archer would have regular wave activity up to the point of stepping up before a target, then elevated activity as they focused on the target and pulled back to aim. Then, just moments before releasing, brain waves would virtually cease.

Fascinating, I know. And athletes in many sports all had similar descriptions of this state of mind that usually involve pure action without a sense of one's own self. Wu wei, baby!

I'll steal from the Widipedia reference: "The goal for wu wei is to get out of your own way, so to speak." Not a bad goal for me on any given day.

So we get into this pickle every now and again with people asking why we're doing this. Each trite, and ultimately unsatisfying, piece of the whole answer--getting out of the rat race; cultural perspective for our kids and ourselves; more time together as a family; learn a language--tends to make me feel less noble and confident than just "because it is the right thing for us to do." Sometimes you just gotta say, wu wei.

Now, having said all that, were I to try to describe the relevance of wu wei to ourselves and to our trip another time, I'd probably come up with something completely different (and hopefully less milquetoast). To define or explain wu wei is, almost by definition, to contradict it. So as with much of philosophy, you have to take what you learn and make your own sausage out of it. And remember, we just stumbled upon the idea, so everything I have said about it is anything but academic. It's just the flavor of my own sausage.

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