Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wu-Wei and the Dao

The Daoist idea of wu-wei has always fascinated me, the idea of non-action or creative quietude. It is work without coercion, work that is spontaneous and effortless, as well as freed from anxiety. A frequent illustration is the butcher whose knife never goes dull, because the butcher knows where to cut between bones rather than through them.

I knew this principle when I was young and realized that, when I skipped a day practicing the piano, I somehow played better when I returned to the music. My mother just thought I was slacking off.

If I may use a non-Christian principle for church ministry (and I’m going to anyway, LOL), I wonder if some efforts at church growth struggle (or fail) because the effort is forced and pressured. Instead, the leaders behind the growth plan could discern points of resistance (there are many in change agency) and work with the difficulties instead of against them.

I also see this principle in writing: sometimes the writing flows and the creativity is strong, and sometimes nothing is flowing and the resulting prose or poetry isn’t very good.

Friendships are a prime area where the principle of wu-wei applies. If you like someone and want to be friends, it's best to see if the friendship develops in a spontaneously mutual way. Overthinking the friendship is a sure sign that you'll stay acquaintances.

Obviously I don’t want to conflate wu-wei with the Holy Spirit. But this passage in Acts 16 has always intrigued me:

[Paul and Timothy, and presumably Luke and others] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (vss. 6-10).

Why did the Holy Spirit guide them this way---one journey was the right one but others were not----and how did they discern the Spirit? Visions, perhaps (vs. 10). How have you discerned the Spirit? Have you ever felt guided by God in ways you didn’t expect? You probably have---I certainly have! On the other hand, have you ever thought yourself guided by God and then realized, in hindsight, that you were just rolling along as you wanted to?

A key difference between the Daoist principle and the Christian view of providence is that the guidance of the latter is a personal God rather than a quality of the universe that is not necessarily personal. But on the other hand, the Bible does teach that consequences follow actions without attributing those consequences always to divine agency. (The scripture for tomorrow morning, Isaiah 1:1-20, is one example.) Good consequences also result from good and wise, well-approached actions. I like the idea of approaching one's actions via the basic “flow” of life, whereby a person can work without anxiety and compulsion. Hard work that has good results can, paradoxically, be non-effortful.

Here are selections from the Dao Dejing, reflecting some aspects of Eastern philosophy (which of course has differences with Christian theology) as well as the principle of non-effortful work. The reference is at the end.

Chapter 8
The highest goodness resembles water
Water greatly benefits myriad things without contention
It stays in places that people dislike
Therefore it is similar to the Tao
Dwelling with the right location
Feeling with great depth
Giving with great kindness
Speaking with great integrity
Governing with great administration
Handling with great capability
Moving with great timing
Because it does not contend
It is therefore beyond reproach

Chapter 13
Favor and disgrace make one fearful
The greatest misfortune is the self
What does "favor and disgrace make one fearful" mean?
Favor is high; disgrace is low
Having it makes one fearful
Losing it makes one fearful
This is "favor and disgrace make one fearful"
What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have?
So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world

Chapter 16
Attain the ultimate emptiness
Hold on to the truest tranquility
The myriad things are all active
I therefore watch their return
Everything flourishes; each returns to its root
Returning to the root is called tranquility
Tranquility is called returning to one's nature
Returning to one's nature is called constancy
Knowing constancy is called clarity
Not knowing constancy, one recklessly causes trouble
Knowing constancy is acceptance
Acceptance is impartiality
Impartiality is sovereign
Sovereign is Heaven
Heaven is Tao
Tao is eternal
The self is no more, without danger

Chapter 37
The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do....

Chapter 48
Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

Chapter 55
....Knowing harmony is said to be constancy
Knowing constancy is said to be clarity
Excessive vitality is said to be inauspicious
Mind overusing energy is said to be aggressive
Things become strong and then grow old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao will soon perish

Chapter 81
True words are not beautiful
Beautiful words are not true
Those who are good do not debate
Those who debate are not good
Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know
Sages do not accumulate
The more they assist others, the more they possess
The more they give to others, the more they gain
The Tao of heaven
Benefits and does not harm
The Tao of sages
Assists and does not contend (or in another translation, "the Tao of the sage is work without effort") 

(Translation by Derek Lin, from and Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, published by SkyLight Paths in 2006.)

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