As the Zen archer raises his bow effortlessly, it bends into form like long grass in a gentle breeze. The aimless bow is intentionlessly drawn back in an action that happens entirely so of itself, before the arrow flies through the air to strike the target without fuss. Now, you may watch this and say, “There’s no way I could ever do that – he made it look so easy!” But the truth of the matter is, that it’s every bit as easy as he made it look.
The secret to his skill comes from a Zen principle called “Wu wei”, a principle inherited from Laozi’s early Daoism, that is of such importance to your everyday function that you couldn’t possibly be reading this without it. When you read these words, how much of the imparted information are you actually processing yourself? And just how much are you yourself interpreting light with all of those rods and cones in your eyes to even see these words? You realise you’re doing nothing at all, yet everything still happens automatically. This is precisely the literal translation of Wu wei as “non-doing”, but as you can see, it is not a principle of mere passivity, rather, a kind of “Effortless action”. Laozi said of Wu wei, “The Master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.”, and it is this ability that Laozi refers to as “De” – a kind of ‘virtue’, or ‘power’.
He continued, “The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.” We live in a society where everyone is plagued with a kind of chronic faffing. We constantly try to analyse what we’re doing while we’re doing it, interfering with ourselves out of self consciousness. This is actually a documented phenomenon known as the centipede effect, referring to the short rhyme, “The Centipede’s Dilemma”,
“A centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how to run.”
The antidote to this dilemma is Wu wei. A complete trust in the combined system of yourself and the task at hand, combined with a minimal use of effort. Notice how this is complete reversal of the Centipede’s Dilemma. That’s because the dilemma is due to a disruption to automatic action by conscious effort. In this way, you could say that Wu wei is a kind of unconscious, effortless way of action – the very same kind of action that is characteristic of an athlete in the state of flow. To explore this connection, we’ll take a look at the neuroscience behind this.
In American neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book “Incognito”, he explains,
“Automatization permits fast decision making. Only when the slow system of consciousness is pushed to the back of the queue can rapid programs do their work. Should I swing forehand or backhand at the approaching tennis ball? With a ninety-mile-per-hour projectile on its way, one does not want to cognitively slog through the different options. A common misconception is that professional athletes can see the court in “slow motion,” as suggested by their rapid and smooth decision making. But automatization simply allows the athletes to anticipate relevant events and proficiently decide what to do.”
Eagleman then explains the importance of energy efficiency,
“In one study on efficiency, researchers used brain imaging while people learned how to play the video game Tetris. The subjects’ brains were highly active, burning energy at a massive scale while the neural networks searched for the underlying structures and strategies of the game. By the time the subjects became experts at the game, after a week or so, their brains consumed very little energy while playing. It’s not that the player became better despite the brain being quieter; the player became better because the brain was quieter.”
Wu wei can also be translated as an “Intelligent use of effort”, which manifests as the kind of Spock-like pragmatism that you would expect of a Zen master. Poet and buddhist writer Rick Fields spoke of his close friend Roshi (Zen master) Shunryu Suzuki in a story that perfectly illustrates this aspect of Wu wei,
“Once everybody at Tassajara took some tools and climbed a long hot dusty mountain trail to work on some project. When they reached the top of the mountain they discovered that they had forgotten the shovel and began discussion about who should return and get it. After the discussion had ended they realized that Roshi wasn’t there. He was already half-way down the mountain trail, on his way back to pick up the shovel.”