Stand up and take a walk from one side of the room to the other. Now, do it again, but this time focus on the technique of your walking. How your hip flexors slightly lift your leg off the ground. How your back foot pushed off the toe and the front comes down on its heel.
More than likely your second trip will be more awkward than the first. It can be difficult to think about an activity while your performing it, and many activities are so ingrained that we don’t need to think about it unless something impedes our normal technique.
This state of action without thinking is a prized possession because of the way it allows our mind to flow freely, and according to many eastern philosophies is the goal of meditation.
Getting there, however, takes the very thing we wish to cease doing, thinking.
Action Without Action
It is when you are uninfluenced and die to your conditioning of the classical response that you can be aware of something totally fresh, totally new.
~ Bruce Lee, from Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee’s Commentaries on the Martial Way
When Bruce Lee was growing up and began to take part in martial arts, over time he began to notice the separated, dogmatic views of the masters of each school of martial arts.
He believed they were too stuck in their own ways, their own traditions and methods. He sought to create a philosophy that countered this, as he thought of it, deadening and limiting view of martial arts. He worked on his own ideas, resulting in his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do.
It is clear, though, when you read his works he is talking about more than just martial arts, he is talking about living in general. Our eventual goal of action is to break free from things that limit our possibilities, shedding ourselves from the shackles of old traditions and techniques.
This focus on free and unbound action is very popular in eastern philosophies, known by most as “Wu-Wei.”
The idea of Wu-Wei means to be in complete harmony with nature and to act in a way that expresses who you are genuinely. It is acting like your authentic self, free from outside influence. Wu-Wei is often made analogous to water because of its free-flowing nature and ability to adapt to whatever container it finds itself in. It is not bound by shape or speed. It can cut through mountains or refresh a young child.
According to this idea, the ultimate form of being is just…being. Like walking without thinking about walking, you live without thinking about living.
Following A Path to Pathlessness
Many eastern philosophies will tell you that attempting to achieve Wu-Wei by using set plans, goals, and classical methods is like healing a knife wound by using a knife. You will only hurt yourself more and end up deeper in the problem.
It is here where I will disagree.
If Wu-Wei is acting in accordance with our nature then we must take some time to understand what that nature is. Human maturity innately means having a coming-of-age time (adolescence and after) where we are challenged mentally about who we are as a person. The things we were told as children and blindly believed because an authority told us so are now put to the test.
In this mess of neuronal explosion, making sense of things is extremely difficult, but taking the time to reflect and to find good teachers are what unlock the abilities to achieve a true authentic self later on down the line.
Finding pathlessness requires a path. The true test comes when this person understands it is time to leave the path behind. When they are genuine enough, Wu-Wei will cultivate itself, it will form of its own accordance, not needing any effort.
Goals and Self-Reflection
Having goals is a great thing and studies have shown that having tough, measurable, deadlined goals results in improved performance.
They give us meaning in our daily life by supplying us with a guide of conduct as well as emotional stake in the events going on around us.
We must remember, though, that goals, while being ends for some time, later become means for later projects. We must not treat them as the final and only path to excellent and meaningful living. Sometimes starting a project without an end goal can result in new and creative things.
Grab a pencil and paper and start drawing. Don’t think of what you want to draw, just draw. Put lines on the paper, cross them, slash them, throw a loop here or there. You may more than likely start to see something begin to form on the page. An abstract face, maybe, or maybe a symbol. Letting ourselves flow naturally results in the most creative outputs.
The same thing occurs when we write. So many times I must sit down and just write before something jumps out at me, something I didn’t see before. Without being concerned for starting on a path, I found one I could follow for awhile and see where it leads. Sometimes it leads to nothing more than a dirt pile, but sometimes it leads to an amazing waterfall.
If you think this way of thinking can only be applied to the arts, you’re not being imaginative enough. Even the most classical and rigid ways of working are looking for ways to light some new creative fire.
So how can we move from Goal-Centric to Self-Expression?
- Find the Sage. The greatest of teachers don’t merely give us information and techniques, they also give us the tools to be critical of the information and techniques, allowing us to see the right kinds of circumstances for which these things must be used. They give us a strong, solid foundation and give us to the ability to build upon that by ourselves.
- Take part in exemplary projects, using goals to get where you want. Involve yourself in the kinds of projects you see as desirable or worthy of your time. Attempt to conquer the “bosses” of these endeavors; create something you can be proud of using the classical techniques.
- Reflect upon your accomplishments. Experience is like a mirror. It shows you things about the world while also showing you things about yourself. You have to take some time out of your day and ask the tough questions: “Is this the kind of person I am or want to be?” “Are these methods truly the best way to go about things?” “Am I too stuck in dogma?” This self-reflection keeps you acutely aware of what you are doing each day and keeps your mind in the present.
Add Your Own Spice to the Mix
Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is essentially your own.
When you have mastered the tools of your trade using goals as a guide of improvement, you will begin to see yourself expressed in your work, without you actively trying.
Since you are comfortable with yourself and what you are doing, you are “walking without thinking,” free to try new things, put some lines on a page and go from there. The mastery of your craft allows for a free flow, an ability to move through your actions handling whatever may come, maybe not with ease, but with a clear mind.
You are not distracted by what others think or by how other experts will judge you.
Having goals gives way to merely being. You are naturally and authentically seeking ends without being so focused on the concept of a goal, letting the traditional ways of handling them get in the way.
The most natural state of being for a human is an authentic one where that person is able to self-express themselves freely and without conscious thought of the process itself.
However, authenticity is not merely something that is handed to us. It is something we work for by rigorous testing of our values, beliefs, and conduct. We mature and take responsibility for who we are. This is a tough path but one that bears the greatest fruit and that allows for the greatest self-expression down the road.
The path towards the cultivation of Wu-Wei includes becoming involved in exemplary projects which define the endeavor we have become involved in. We reflect upon these experiences and how they compare to us as a person. We ask and attempt to answer the tough questions surrounding our actions. With this self-awareness element involved in our life, we come to naturally imbue the classical ways of doing things with an extra spice, our own expression.
Finally, when we come to a mastery of our craft, if we have reflected, we come to a mastery of ourselves.
It is here where effortless action and self-expression are naturally cultivated, and where the need for tradition dissipates.