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C O U R S E 
Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science
Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Wu-Wei, Dao, Tien and De
Notes taken on November 14, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
wu wei [OO-way]
an important concept in Taoism that means "without effort" or "without control" or "effortless action", the way beings in harmony with the Tao behave,
in a completely natural, uncontrived way, which is the goal of spiritual practice for the human being
the attainment of a purely natural way of behaving, as when the planets revolve around the sun
engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement
wu wei is often translated as "without action" or "no action"
not a very good translation because often people who are in wu wei are actually very active
very it is just that their action is effortless and natural
people who are in a state of wu wei often emerge having done something amazing not even realizing at the time that they were doing anything
like being "in the zone" in sports
the sense of "being in the flow" an idea popularized in the 1990s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
lose the sense of yourself as an agent
get absorbed into your activities
lose the sense of the passing of time
forget that you are doing something in particular
however, there are important differences between wu wei and the flow
flow is about complexity, challenge, and the need to be constantly ramped up
if an activity is too hard we get frustrated
if it is too easy we get bored
flow is a channel, a sweet spot right between these two extremes
most athletics and highly skilled activities fit this description
wu-wei captures a broader range of activities
what distinguishes wu-wei from other states is being absorbed in something larger than yourself
this bigger thing is something that you value
something that is normatively positive, something you believe to be morally good
you become very effective in the world
people who are in wu-wei are in a state of spontaneity
but the English word spontaneity has too much of a sense of arbitrariness
wu-wei is focused
but it is not you that is doing the focussing
you are no longer the acting agent
you can think of wu-wei as an integration of hot and cold cognition
it's body thinking, no conscious thought is necessary
wu wei represents being harmonized with a greater whole
a path, or road, or way
beginning with Confucius is begins to mean the way of the universe, the proper way
when you are in a state of wu-wei, you are acting in accordance with the Dao
heaven, or heaven's will
when you are in a state of wu-wei you are in accord with what heaven wants
de [pronounced unfortunately "duh" as in "no duh"]
means Virtue
a better translation is "charismatic power"
a power that you emanate when you are in a state of wu-wei
attracts people to you
as a Confucian ruler, it's what makes people want to follow you without you having to force them to follow you
the paradox of getting to wu-wei
explained through a game called "mindball"
goal is to relax more than the opposite player
the more you slow down your brain activity, the more you relax, the better chance you will win
the goal is to push the little metal ball to the other side of the table
if you get it there, you win
the way you push it is through relaxing and thus producing alpha and beta waves, which is what the electrodes pick up, and thus move the ball
it's all the extraneous thoughts that you have to get rid of
you win mindball by not trying to win
a good microcosm of this problem of how you can try not to try
it turns out that trying not to try is not very easy
we all face something like the mindball tension in our everyday lives
choking in sports is a version of the paradox of wu-wei
how do you make yourself relaxed when you're not feeling relaxed
it's hard to relax when you feel like you should be performing, being someone who the other person will be interested in
each of the thinkers who think about wu-wei suggest a tension to be wu-wei and get de
it is a real paradox so there isn't one solution to it
the way ancient philosophers dealt with this tension of trying not to try has bearing on our everyday lives
where we want spontaneity but find it elusive