Effortless Practice (Wu Wei)

by DT Strain


Many philosophies and traditions use various language to describe the natural laws by which all things unfold, such as the Logos, Tao, etc. These lead to greater orders of complexity, making possible self-order in an interdependent web of causes and effects. These result in a world that is impermanent, but thereby seeded with the potential for all transformation, growth, and consciousness.

As we come to witness this grand scheme of Nature, and come to perceive its beauty and wonder through continued practice and broadened perspective, we begin to ‘get a feel’ for the flow of Nature regarding all things. Just as a surfer becomes familiar with the motion of water and waves, and begins to use that perception to integrate action harmoniously with them, we can learn to ‘move with Nature’ as we go about our lives. When we understand what we control, we are more capable of interacting with that which we do not control. But mainly, Effortless Practice is inspired by the Wu Wei (without action) of Taoist philosophy. If the Stoic notion of ‘living in accord with Nature’ is our aim, then this is doing so taken to its immediate and interactive form; this is communion.

Effortless practice is about knowing when to act, and when not to act, and how. It is action or non-action, based on the recognition that Nature already has its ‘way’ and its harmony, and that we can use the natural course of things rather than brutishly cutting across the grain. Often, the metaphor of water is used to illustrate the point: soft and flowing, but ultimately powerful in its ability to smooth the harsh stone and form canyons.

Effortless Practice has many levels and can manifest in many ways in our lives. This includes the levels of the immediate, the interpersonal, the philosophical, and higher forms.

In the immediate sense, the use of Effortless Practice is similar to the concept of flow, whereby we can perform complex tasks with total concentration, reflexively. We do this by ‘getting out of our own way’. As with meditation, our focus is so grounded, that we have stillness of mind and have diminished distracting thoughts, and thus removed our ego from the equation. Athletes and warriors have used these techniques to perform amazing feats, but the computer programmer, the artist, and the homemaker can use them as well. The result of good Effortless Practice in this sense is a heightened ability to perform the tasks, and a peace of mind – even joy – while doing so.

On the interpersonal level, Effortless Practice manifests in appreciating the natural timing and disposition of others when approaching or dealing with them. People too are natural and their interactions are like the waves upon water. This too requires focus and quieting the ego, sometimes in our immediate interactions with others, and sometimes in the longer term, as we deal with complex interpersonal situations. In immediate interactions, do you sense that slight elevation of excitement the instant someone speaking to you has misunderstood you and misrepresented your opinions? This is your ego which is overly concerned with the opinions of others or with making a monument to your proclamations. This feeling has arisen because you have not attuned yourself to the flow of Nature, and are inspired to interrupt in impatience. You seek to control what everyone thinks and how everything ‘works out’. Do not consider yourself praiseworthy because you stopped yourself from interrupting. That slight internal rise of excitement – if you have been cultivating your mindfulness and are even aware of it – was the failure, because it betrays your deepest perspective is in discord with the flow of Nature and the realities of control.

The philosophical level of Effortless Practice may be of even larger scale, and longer term. It includes our general outlook and perspective when dealing with approaches to systems such as business, government, community, and the overall life planning. In government and economics, for example, there is an appreciation of the organic natural flow of free markets and democratic direction. But the challenge is in integrating such effortless approach with attention to virtue, duty, and compassion. The natural course of things does not absolve us of these, but rather we can look for ways to address them skillfully. In our own lives, long term planning in accord with Effortless Practice will take into account a realistic assessment of our own nature and the nature of others and the world around us, and plan skillfully and pragmatically in accordance.

There are higher forms of Effortless Practice beyond these as well. In these, we aim for total removal of the ego in all activities, acting only in accord with Nature (that is, virtuously), and completely mindful and aware – inwardly and outwardly – at all times. This takes a totality of a whole system of wisdom, deeply and intuitively perceived and integrated into our character, and is therefore broader than any one practice.

These are only some of the many ways of discussing and practicing this highly subtle and profound concept. Effortless Practice requires mastery of the art of patience, which is the natural result when we are deeply aware that our impatience does not increase our control or stop Nature. It also requires a peaceful harmony with the way of Nature, and a kind of confidence that all things will unfold as they will, must, and should. Lastly, it requires a removal of ego such that we are not inspired to act crudely on its behalf when such would be unproductive. As we perfect Effortless Practice, the outlook upon which it is based becomes more deeply seated into our way of thinking, and this has further effects in living the wisdom which many Spiritual Naturalists pursue.