Wu Wei (Ooo way) is the ancient Chinese art of planned, or practiced spontaneity, an artistic skill many of us should acquire. An article in the NYT science section on Dec 16, 2014 entitled “A Mediation on the Art of Not Trying” described it as “the art of not really trying.” You may know it as, “Relax. Just be yourself. Act Naturally”.
It is when we “flow”, or what we do well seems effortless to others. The paradox is odd. When one tries not to try, one automatically fails at it. The smile looks forced, the speech sounds over rehearsed. The conversation feel forced. We tighten up and often, if it is a sport, we choke.
When we are indeed using practiced spontaneity, we convey an authenticity and charisma. We exude a confidence and competence that fortifies our abilities to do whatever we are doing.
One example that comes to mind is how the NY Knicks continually lose close games at the end of the fourth quarter. Phil Jackson’s, (the Zen Master) Triangle Offense, is a perfect example of practiced spontaneity that is very different than many of the NBA rigid offensive sets and engrained styles of play this group of Knicks are so used to.
So, when their game is flowing when there doesn’t seem to be much pressure on, they actually have learned to do the Triangle fairly well. Flow, as athletes know is that state of being in a zone, when you aren’t trying, but everything works perfectly. As I stated earlier, people describe it as being effortless.
However in the last portions of the last quarter when the pressure to win really is strongest, what happens? Instead of being relaxed and being themselves flowing through the planned spontaneity of the Triangle, they do just the opposite. They tighten up and lose.
According to Dr. Edward Slingerland (his real name) in his book, “Trying Not To Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity”, the three main branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Taoist, and Mencius’s version of Neo-Confucianism have thought about this question for millennia.
The first, Confucianism, bases its path to Wu Wei on “will power and rigorous adherence to rules, traditions, and rituals”.
Taoists, the hippies of their era and what many call the precursors of Zen and the Grateful Dead, believe the opposite. They emphasized personal meditation and “flow”. Note. Phil Jackson practices Zen Buddhism. Taoist said this about Confucianism. “ The worst kind of Virtue never stops trying for Virtue, and so never attains Virtue.” This is also the error of the Corporate, Political, and TFA led version of reform.
In my book, DOING THE RIGHT THING: A Teacher Speaks, I refer to good teachers’ ability to use both planned spontaneity and what Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe refer to as practical wisdom. It is the difference between the scripted Common Core and corporate reform version of lesson plans as opposed to a more Socratic process.
The solution is, in fact, a combination of Confucian and Taoist ways. It is based on the teachings of Mencius, who offered a middle way. To achieve “effortless grace” we must master skills with a great deal of initial conscious effort. Once we have gained proficiency, then it is easier to go with the Taoist flow and to avoid the pitfall of “paralysis through analysis”. As Slingerland suggests, “training yourself to follow rules automatically can be liberating, because it conserves cognitive energy for other tasks.”
However here lies the trap. We must be free to use that cognitive energy to “transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing.” That is what the best teachers do and what the so-called reformers miss when they construct Common core “modules”, scripted plans, unwavering schedules, or standardized ANYTHING.
Mencius tells it best in a parable about a grain farmer who returned one evening exhausted from his labors.
“I’ve been out in the fields helping the sprouts grow,” he explained, whereupon his worried sons rushed out to see the results. They found a bunch of shriveled sprouts that he’d yanked to death.
The sprouts were Mencius’ conception of wu wei: Something natural that requires gentle cultivation. You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves.”
Teachers are both sprouts and the farmers of sprouts.