Have you ever wondered how some people appear to move effortlessly through life and always land on their feet, whilst you’re busy breaking your neck to get the next job done and hit another deadline. Well, according to Edward Slingerland, if that’s the way you feel then maybe you’re trying to hard.
Slingerland is a professor of Asian studies and he suggests that early Chinese wisdom has much to teach us about how to be calmly successful in life. The art of ‘wu-wei’, focuses on a dynamic, unselfconscious state of mind.
Wu-wei literally means “non-doing”. It’s an important concept of Taoism and means natural action, or action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu-wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life.
Wu-wei is apparently experienced by people who feel as it they are doing nothing while at the same time might be creating original art or smoothly dealing with a complex social problem. When in this state, an individual’s behaviour is effective and flows spontaneously and automatically from them without the need for exertion or thought. That’s not to say that they’ve not spent time cultivating this state, so it may be that there is a fair amount of work that goes in to achieving wu-wei that goes unseen.
What Slingerland seems to be describing is a form of ‘flow’, the state described by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi, some twenty-five years ago. For Csikszentmihalyi, flow was about being in the zone, when you lose yourself in a task, like Nadal striking a tennis ball, or Darcey Bussell performing ballet. But there is something different about wu-wei, in that it’s not about striving for individual success, it’s about connecting and immersing oneself in a greater, shared and valued whole. It’s about belonging and meaning, so it might be found in a walk in the park, watching the ocean or enjoying dinner with friends.
And apparently the Millennials, those born between the early 1980’s and around 2000, are engaging in wu-wei, more than any previous generation. It would seem that Millennials are more concerned with finding rewarding, meaningful work and a sense of community than accumulating wealth and possessions. This differentiates the Millennials from the generation that preceded them through the individualistic drive of the 1980s where everyone seemed to be out to further their own cause.
For the Millennials and others connecting with wu-wei, there is a recognition that we are all connected and are social creatures, who in some ways are more dependent than we ever have been on that connection for us to thrive in a way that is meaningful to us as a community.
And, as Slingerland points out it is that feeling of being connected to a larger, meaningful whole that is one of the key components of our psychological well-being.