Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2018, xxii + 187 pp., paper, $16.99.
We believe we know what we want, but do we know what we need? One of my mantras, created from personal experience, has long been: want nothing, and the universe will give you all needful things. From an Eastern viewpoint, the metaphysics of thought is more than just wanting something and expecting it to manifest. A danger in wanting is that we will get what we want rather than what the universe knows we need, which can pull us away from our true spiritual path.
Wanting generally comes from the ego, which “thinks it knows best for you. But your ego does not know what is best for you,” writes Jason Gregory in his beautifully written book, Effortless Living, which takes us down another path—that of the Tao and the practice of wu-wei, “the natural state of our consciousness.” As Gregory says, the teaching of Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism, is one of “naturalness”: no forcing, no striving to control life and outcomes. Wu-wei means nondoing, nonaction, or effortless action. It is, he says, an “effortless psychological experience” of “‘allowing’ a state of ‘intelligent spontaneity.’”
That is similar to what we find in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which defines flow as “the ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it” and “is a very rare gift.” People who can go with the flow have “unselfconscious self-assurance . . . their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously,” writes Csikszentmihalyi.
Trust is an important element in going with the flow and allowing natural harmony to exist. “To trust the universe means to let life be without trying to impose our will over it in any way,” Gregory says. “When we trust completely, our physical, mental, and spiritual planes of consciousness harmonize with the heartbeat of the Earth.” In that way we can experience the harmony of nature and learn a way of “being” rather than constant “doing.”
Gregory addresses synchronicity, explaining that fate “takes into account the relationship between our inner and outer worlds” and “is diametrically opposed to chance.” Wu-wei involves the harmonization of our inner and outer worlds, trusting in the “unfolding of fate in our lives” and becoming “aware of synchronicity.”
It is this harmony that Gregory discusses in teaching about wu-wei; when we have gone beyond thought and beyond doing to no-thinking and nondoing, we are free to live spontaneously and with grace. In India, he notes, “this grace comes about because of the ability to see that everything is done when left undone.”
Another way of looking at this, from Alexandria David-Neel’s book The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, is “nothing to be done.” Something might be done or could be done, but using the art of nondoing, there is nothing to be done because everything is already perfect as it is in the zone or the flow of the experience. Inserting our will, our wants, desires, and wishes into the world disrupts the harmony of nature. Gregory reminds us that “human life is an intrinsic part of nature because a human being is nature.” Remembering that is important because “the human being corresponds to nature by allowing all aspects of universal life to take their natural course without conscious interference.”
Can there be a harmonization between doing and nondoing? Gregory looks to the Indian sage Patanjali for understanding that “the ‘doing’ of practice is in alignment with the evolutionary unfolding while the ‘non-doing’ of stillness brings one in resonance with the Eternal Self, which is the source of Tao within us.”
Doing is more valued in today’s world than nondoing, “yet the act of leaving things alone allows the Tao to bring harmony into the world without our personal interference,” Gregory says. “Working against the nature of Tao . . . leaves humanity in a place of desperate survival. . . . Disharmony on all fronts is the outcome.”
Gregory’s book gives us the gift and the freedom of no striving and no struggle, and teaches us that often nondoing—seeking the stillness of nonaction—is the better way.
Clare Goldsberry, of the Phoenix Study Center, is a freelance writer and author of The Teacher Within: Finding and Living Your Personal Truth. Her article “A Stranger No More: A Journey through Mormonism” appeared in the fall 2018 Quest.