Wu Wei is a concept in Chinese philosophy that translates into “inaction” or “effortless action” and promotes inner harmony, stillness, and letting go of the need to control everything. Let’s talk about the ways to practice the art of non-striving to get rid of everyday stress.
The Busyness Pandemic
Have you ever felt like your brain is a revved-up engine that’s constantly running? Your mind is racing, moving from one thing to the next. It’s difficult to complete a task without being interrupted by a text, your social media, or some other distraction.
There are not enough hours in the day to get it all done. Nor is there enough energy to complete everything you want to do. You put your head on the pillow each night looking up at a dark ceiling with a list of things you didn’t get done and creating tomorrow’s incessant list in your head.
If you are experiencing this, you are not alone.
However, there’s only so long you can put up with this level of busyness. Regardless of your ability to “push through”, ultimately, your body will tap out. Your mental health will decline. Your feelings of joy and fulfillment will plummet.
You may be thinking there’s no alternative. Bills need to be paid. There are responsibilities that cannot be ignored… And, perhaps the most debilitating, the fear of disappointing people can weigh you down like a ton of bricks.
There has to be another way.
Two Approaches to Stress: Striving vs Stillness
It’s important to note that prolonged stress—which leads to burnout— is a trauma to your nervous system. Your internal circuitry is in survival mode.
That is why you constantly feel like a revved-up motor or a dormant volcano that could erupt at any point. Your body is in flight or fight. Like anything that requires a change, you must become aware of, and acknowledge the problem.
You might be thinking:
Where do I even begin? How can it change? It’s all too much.
Take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders. Release your jaw. Unclench your fists.
I have good news. It starts right now, in this moment, with one question:
What if every decision you made came from a place of stillness rather than striving?
How often do you make commitments or agree to additional responsibilities that you don’t truly have the energy for? How often do you do things out of “should” or guilt? How often do you say yes to something that you really, truly didn’t need to say yes to?
Have you ever considered checking in with your own energy reserves before committing to something or someone?
In a society that praises productivity, perfection, and performance, it can be really easy to lose sight of balance and well-being. It can be easy to forget that we are human beings, not human doings.
We have needs that must be tended to. Rest is not a luxury. It is a basic need. We need restoration, nourishment, connection, joy, and purpose in our everyday life. You are so much more than a robot going through the motions.
So what does it mean to listen to the stillness and be guided by it?
What Is Wu Wei?
Let me introduce you to the philosophy of “effortless effort” or, as the Chinese call it, “Wu Wei”. This philosophy has the ability to change your life by changing the how and why of what you do. Wu Wei is about “achieving more” by doing less. It’s about letting go of striving and leaning into stillness. Sounds too good to be true?
Let me get this straight: Shifting to a mindset of non-striving does not mean you never do things you don’t want to or don’t work hard for the things you dream about. It’s about simplifying your life and putting your energy toward the things that align with your values and dreams.
Non-striving does not mean laziness or passivity. Non-striving is about not forcing, controlling, or manipulating an outcome, but rather, embracing and allowing things to unfold naturally.
If you are aligned with your moral compass and make decisions from that space, you will be able to achieve what you desire without the exhaustion and misery that comes with constant striving.
How to Practice Wu Wei – the Art of Non-Striving
Below are 4 tips to live out Wu Wei to overcome stress and anxiety and connect with the stillness inside you:
1. Take a Step Back
Zoom out the camera lens on your life right now and take a deep breath. Everything becomes so much clearer when we take a step back.
When we’re zoomed up so close into our life situation, emotions, relationships, responsibilities, job, it’s impossible to have perspective. It’s like looking at one speck of sand when we have the entire beach and ocean landscape right in front of us.
Suddenly, what seemed like the end of the world, becomes a mere glimpse of our one, beautiful, precious life. While it’s important not to downplay the big tragedies of life, it’s important not to magnify them, either—which is very counterintuitive. Big or small, you must acknowledge what you are struggling with. Big or small, you must release your grip and surrender.
What is at the forefront of your mind? What keeps you up at night or jumps into your brain first thing in the morning? Either write it down or call to mind what this is for you. It’s time to implement the power of surrendering. It is your gateway to freedom.
Take a nice long inhale becoming fully aware of the landscape of your thoughts and emotions. As you exhale, feel and envision the tension and anxiety releasing out of your body.
Anxious thoughts tighten our physical body. Allow this sense of surrender to be embodied: soften your tongue to the bottom of your mouth; relax your shoulders; sit up a little taller. Breathe. Set a timer and practice this for 5 minutes.
If you’d like to take this a step further, you can even use the tightening and loosening of your fists to bring a deeper sense of letting go. As you inhale, become aware of your thoughts and clench your fists. As you exhale, imagine, visualize and FEEL yourself releasing the grip of both your mental and physical tension.
2. Find the Flow
Wu Wei is often described as being “in the flow” or “in the zone.” It is likened to the mental focus and efficacy of an athlete or a musician. In order to be in the flow, one has to be focused, relaxed, and detached from the outcome.
For example, you can’t be grasping, clinging, or striving while in the flow. You are one with what you are doing. This is the art of “effortless effort.” This is how athletes achieve incredible athletic feats without “trying.” So what does this have to do with recovering your nervous system?
Recall a time, a memory, or an activity where you completely lost track of time. Nothing existed except what you were doing. It could be painting, cooking, running, teaching, etc. It could have been with someone or by yourself. This is the “flow.”
The flow comes from connecting with that stillness within. It’s a wakefulness, an aliveness; it is within the deepest part of you. That is the real you. You may find yourself thinking,
“I’m not trying to set a world record, I’m just trying to get my life together.”
The importance of connecting with the flow is that it reconnects you with your inherent ability to be relaxed and focused, while also bringing a sense of energy, excitement, and aliveness. Think of it as re-circuiting your nervous system. This is where all good change emerges.
Take time today to find the flow, even if it’s just 10 minutes. Don’t force anything, just allow it to happen. It’s about creating a space for you to enter into the flow, and then letting go of the outcome.
3. Feel the Stillness
Now that you have taken a step back and gotten a sense of what the flow feels like, you’ve tapped into a very powerful internal resource you have: stillness. Stillness is not passive. Stillness is present. Stillness speaks in the subtleties of what makes us feel joyful, depleted, energized, and strained.
The things that make the human spirit awaken is that internal stillness. This is the voice you must listen to. The part of you that notices a beautiful sunset—that’s stillness. The part of you that is moved to tears by witnessing an act of kindness—that’s stillness.
Next time you are faced with a decision, whether it’s taking on a responsibility, a commitment, or a bigger life choice, before acting upon it, ask yourself:
Is my determining factor coming from a place of striving or stillness?
Fear or peace? Get quiet. Listen inward. Just like Wu Wei, the answer will come to you when you release the need for an outcome, or in this case, an answer. Bring to mind your choices or whatever it is that you’re considering and then surrender it.
Breathe deeply and slowly. Perhaps go for a walk. Don’t try and “force” an answer. Just be. From this place, ask yourself:
What would make me feel most at peace?
Stillness always direct
Below are common signs that striving has taken hold of the steering wheel:
- Making decisions based on “should”
- A sense of dread
- Feeling drained
- Feeling conflicted with yourself
- Doing something to please other people at the expense of your own peace
- Feeling a need to perform to earn your worth
Signs that you are being guided by stillness:
- An overall sense of relief
- The decision or choice you are making allows you to take a deeper breath
- You feel a weight has been lifted off
- Even if the decision requires courageous action, you feel a sense of calm and truth
4. Choose the Truth
Stillness reflects the truth that sometimes gets lost beneath the chaos of emotions, stress, pressure, and anxiety. This is why it is vital to find a way that steadies the turbulence of the mind.
Sometimes we know what to do but trick ourselves into thinking that we don’t know what to do. It’s a remarkable way of hiding from our own selves! It can be scary to follow what will bring you peace when it requires change because change takes courage.
Ultimately, though, sabotaging your own self, your energy, depleting your reserves, leads to letting yourself down the most… which trickles into every nook and cranny of your life. Time to get honest with yourself.
In what areas do you feel you are striving? What is it in your life that makes you feel exhausted and brings a sense of dread and heaviness? What is in your control to change those things?
Think big. The answer may not be easy, but striving never leads to freedom, contentment, or joy. Remember, striving is a mindset. It’s a way of doing things; it’s the energy and strain behind the action. It’s time to let go of that habit. Exchange striving for stillness and allow your life to transform!
I hope these Wu Wei tips encourage you to create more balance and joy in your life. You deserve to thrive. You deserve to feel your best so you can show up in the world at your best. This is the power of using stress as an opportunity to lean into stillness. The magic is in you!
- Wu Wei: 4 Ways to Use the Art of Non-Striving to Transform Your Stress into Stillness - April 7, 2022
- 6 Eye-Opening Life Lessons to Bring into the New Year - December 29, 2020
- Ikigai: How the Japanese Live with Joy and Purpose (and You Can Too!) - July 2, 2019
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