Wu Wei – 無爲

I am almost certain that I’ve at some time mentioned studying Taoism as a monastic temporarily, and then transitioning back into “modern” life. It’s also while you’ll see lots of references to this particular branch of philosophy in my writing.

One of the things that “gets me” is that despite all of my training and study, I forget basic principals in my actions quite often. It’s rather absurd. I can even point back to my time when my practice was going well and in those moments I was at my most content. The issues that I have is clearly distinguishing study from practice.

Study of Tao = Lots of Reading. Practice in cohesion with Tao = Life is Smoother.

It’s an easy distinction to say, and not particularly hard to do, but the best I’ve been able to come up with is “I do not learn very quickly.” Thus, I get to go back and forth through cycles where I lose myself to obsessions and attachments to concepts and things, and then simple concepts remind me that I’m the one who’s making it harder on me.

Let’s look at the principal of Wu Wei. In the most literal sense, it means “Non-doing.” Like many of the concepts presented in Taoism, though, it can be viewed in different lights. Consider the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching:


The word “Tao” itself can be either “path” or “word” so when we read these lines There’s a good bit of repetition of characters. You might even be able to say that we start with “The path that can be path-ed is not the enduring path. The word that can be worded is not the unchanging word.” In much the same way, we must come to be able to appreciate the poetic nature of the information being presented.

Wu Wei, then, may be understood as “non-action” or even more precisely “effortless doing.” Consider this story from Chuang Tzu:

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

This is perhaps the best way to come to truly grasp the concept of “Wu Wei,” the best way to cut is to allow the pieces to go where they need, and to not force it. For those of us who struggle with anxiety, if we were truly honest with ourselves, how often are we trying to solve problems that may not really even exist? How often do we force ourselves into our own struggles? I would be willing to admit that for me, it’s that my mind is on how many things are “wrong” or “may go wrong” or “might be bad” and almost never is it on “what is happening right now.”

I would hope that the concept of “letting things happen naturally” and wu wei makes sense, but it’s not up to your rather poor author to describe. Even if I did offer my own understanding totally, “The path that can be path-ed is not the unchanging, eternal path.”

Paradoxical Cognition

What is and what is not create each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Tall and short shape each other. High and low rest on each other. Voice and tone blend with each other. First and last follow each other.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, From CH.2

We believe many things. Oftentimes they are helpful in some way, perhaps not in others. It is increasingly difficult to make absolute statements about what we “know” as it seems to be a moving target. Consider for a moment the “standing desk.” Desks and chairs were originally created to allow the user to rest while working on things, but we have come to find that perhaps it’s harder on the body to sit all of the time than to stand. As we learn, our understanding shifts.

The “truth” then, may find less resistance as we come to adopt paradoxical cognition. To give that a simple definition, it is the capacity to hold two concepts simultaneously that are apparently in contradiction with one another. While logic would dictate that this would be the opposite of fact, it has far more to do with perspective and the understanding of fact.

There is a good bit of discussion on business circles about the fact that strategic management can benefit a from applying paradoxical cognition. Business strategy isn’t something that I am particularly well versed in, but it does stand to reason that those who look at how the state of something may change across time would be more open to altering their methods to change with the tides.

I recall Thich Nhat Hanh speaking to a group of children and asking them regarding his tea cup. “Do you see the cloud in the cup?” His reference was to the fact that clouds make rain, which is collected to boil and make tea with. There’s a certain wisdom to this perspective, and it has value in that while something may not be one thing right now, it will perhaps be that in the future, or has been it previously.

By embracing possibility, we may not only un-trap our thinking, but the results as well.

The Power of “Nah, I’m Good.”

The Emperor sent his men to bring the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, back to the palace so he could serve and provide good counsel to the Emperor. Of course, Chuang Tzu declined the honor when the soldiers found him sitting in the dirt at the foot of a shade tree.

The soldiers demanded he explain his refusal and Chuang Tzu replied, “Do you recall the massive tortoise shell on the wall above the Emperor’s throne? That turtle was sitting in the mud when he was captured and taken to the palace to be sacrificed.

“It was, of course, a great honor. But don’t you think that turtle would have preferred to be left alone in his pool of mud?”

“Of course,” replied the soldiers.

“Than leave me in my pool of mud,” Chuang Tzu replied.

One of the most powerful tools in our “mental health” arsenal is the ability to decide what we care about. This, in theory, is simple…but practice is significantly harder. Everywhere we look, someone is metaphorically screaming for attention. Regardless if it’s an advertisement telling you to buy the newest gadget, or best clothes, or perhaps it’s someone asking you to devote time and energy to caring about their political stances, someone is looking for you to devote your cares to theirs.

While this may all seem well and good, it’s a huge drain on our sense of well-being and energy. Most of us do not reach a place of mental strain because we’re apathetic. On the contrary, it may often stem from the fact that we care entirely too much.

There’s a few articles and books about the different aspects of the psychology of “no” as a statement and how it can be done in a compassionate way if you struggle with being a “yes person.” Personally, I’d think that the most important thing to consider is that a lot of times, we say yes to things that we know we don’t want. I personally have taken a job promotion before when I was perfectly content where I was. It took about 1 and a half years before I was looking for a new career, because the commitment level was entirely higher than my own priorities dictated.

Perhaps, we could all do to say, “Then leave me in my mud,” more often.

The Lens of Perception

क्षीणवृत्तेरभिजातस्येव मणेर्ग्रहीतृग्रहणग्राह्येषु तत्स्थतदञ्जनतासमापत्तिः॥४१॥

“A tranquil mind is like a crystal—it assumes the color of whatever is in its proximity, be it an object of concentration, the process of concentration, or the pure consciousness that witnesses the inner functioning of the mind.” – Maharishi Patanjali, Yogasutra 1.41

That’s a rather wordy translation, but it’ll do. If you like study, here’s a more literal take. Taken rather simply, it’s in reference to the state of perception, and how it the tranquil mind sees the object, the one seeing, the process of seeing, and the inner workings of our own sensory interpretation.

This implies the “non-tranquil mind,” which would be what your author is working with 99% of the time, colors perception through a lens of interpretation. This is focal basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that it is often not a situation itself that brings us unhappiness, but our framing for what it “means.” Quite often, we not only assign meaning where there shouldn’t be any, but we make ourselves miserable in the process.

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

Effectively, this kind of wisdom could also be seen as how we feed our own unhappiness. Often, it isn’t an experience itself that causes us to feel depressed or anxious, but our rumination upon it. We feed the feelings with more thoughts that only serve to extend our own suffering. So, how do we stop this?

We must begin to analyze our initial reasons for understanding things in the manner we do, and then…stop. By removing our preconceived notions about how to value things, we can see them in a way unfiltered by our own biases. The first question should be, “Does my thinking on this help?” We often work long hours trying to understand things that we simply cannot control at all, and that…that help nobody.

As we do this, we should work to still the mind so that it can perceive its own processes as well. It’s more than thinking, but being aware that thinking itself is a part of the complications.

Where is the Mind?

Recently, I ran across some articles from and in reference to Dr. Dan Siegel where he defined the mind. His usage and understanding for those working in therapeutic fields is useful, and for our usage here, unites the more esoteric views with those of modern science very well.

The definition is as follows: “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational, that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.”

This is a very powerful observation about something that we probably all “know” at some level, but it’s that the “us” that “we are” is not defined only by our brains, but by all of the experiences that we experience and relationships to others that we interact with. This would also include the relationships within the body itself. As anyone who’s ever had a toothache can confirm, it’s hard to think about anything else when pain is interfering. This though, changes the subjective experience, which will then ripple out into all interactions around the person experiencing it.

Consciousness, then, cannot be defined as simply brain activity, but by the brain, the diet feeding the body, presence or lack of chemical inputs, all experiences that are tied to memory, current input and interactions, and many other varied points that make up all we can have contact with.

This concept strongly supports the approach that I take in my own experiments with my own mental health. It allows that perhaps depression isn’t as simple as a chemical balance that can be fixed with a pill, but rather a lifetime of conditioning to explore how to unravel. It certainly is a real disease, but like dealing with any complex system, there could be fractal responses to any one change. We must explore any work with the mind as such, and realize that to “change our mind” we may need to change the conditions around us, our own habits, and perhaps much more.

Cheng Man Ching on Temperament

When I was a young man, I had a sense of justice, but recklessly disregarded the consequences of my actions. I had the ambition to study hard to reach the highest level, but my physical energy was low.” -CMC

I will readily admit that martial arts have been a huge portion of my life. I have ranked above Dan ranking in 3 different Japanese arts, and have spent the last 10 years almost entirely devoted to the Wu-dang Chinese styles and derivatives. As you’d likely expect, I have read a good deal of the classics.

This particular excerpt comes from “Cheng Tzu’s 13 Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan” as authored by Cheng Man Ching, the first half of which is very much as exploration of his own journey 30 or so years into practicing tai chi chuan. While the specifics of how he altered the art in ways different than his teacher Yang Chen-fu is well outside of what we are generally discussing here, the way he views the benefits is not.

Cheng Man Ching (CMC) was a poet, calligrapher, professor, traditional doctor and later Tai Chi teacher. He was particularly well known for shortening the form and using it to work through his own battle with tuberculosis. He claims himself cured through his work in traditional medicine and tai chi. If nothing else comes from it, there’s value in the fact that he practiced daily, and seemed in very good health as an older man.

The art and healing aside, though, he has some very powerful words on the subject of a regular meditative physical practice: “Even if I don’t have perfect peace and calm within, I have eliminated my reckless and uncaring attitude. I do not expect the change of temperament to be as great a change as a thorn becoming an orchid or an owl becoming a phoenix, but I think that if your spirit and physical energy are low, then even if you are young, you will be weak, and even if you are strong you will be sick. When you become weak and sick, you will not be able to improve yourself, even if you want to. You cannot effectively discuss change of temperament.”

That is a far cry from suggesting a “miracle cure” or anything of the sort, and is quite practical. Professor Cheng, and many others, have seen the benefits of tai chi chuan, and it’s well within reason that there are very few downsides to a practice that is both meditative and physical exercise.

So, with all of the other things I am working on, I will be adding a single round of the CMC37 form to my own daily practice. I can spare 7 minutes a day, as can most of us for something that should be helpful.

Upsetting the Hedonic Treadmill

The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” Robert M. Pirsig.

To explain the escape from the Hedonic Treadmill, it’s probably important at first to define it. As a concept, it is the part of our adaptive process that quickly returns our sense of happiness to an already established level shortly after either a major positive or negative life change. I use the terms “positive” and “negative” as they might be interpreted subjectively, as it’s very hard to determine what value life changes may have if they do not result in an increase in happiness by those who experience them.

One of the easiest to spot traps here is that of money. Research shows that how much money someone has is in fact a very poor indicator of happiness. There are certain patterns that can be seen on the acquisition of material possessions, primarily in the “want -> work for -> get -> enjoy briefly -> become bored with -> find a new thing -> want,” pattern. It was actually posed by Albert Camus that the working towards a thing was the only real state that brought happiness.

While we may never come to agree on the “meaning” of things, it’s generally supported that once someone is above a base level of poverty, wealth plays very little factor in their sense of well being. What does seem to matter is how much time someone feels they are in possession of. It one study it is posed that perception of time scarcity increases stress levels, which has adverse effects on health.

Understanding that time and money are on a sort of quid-pro-quo scale does not really help either. Certainly what people enjoy doing with their time does seem to play a factor in the happiness it brings. Still, the hedonic treadmill scenario applies here too. Doing something you enjoy in smaller quantities has a greater impact on joy than doing it all of the time.

What does seem to be of very high value is personal experiences and a type of gratitude that comes from within the one who is experiences them. While it is easy to become distraught that your “brand new car” is not quite as nice as someone else’s “brand new car,” experiences are more abstract. I personally greatly value my time in exploring monastic living, and comparing that to someone else’s beach vacation makes no sense at all. We might differ in what we enjoy doing, but not in that we enjoy doing things.

This type of understanding also increases the amount of generosity we show towards others. We can stack all of these points together, and come up with a rather simple viewpoint.

We need enough of anything so that we do not feel impoverished, but the best use of our excesses is in freeing ourselves to do what we love, and in giving to others so that they may do the same.

Exercise: Climbing training + Wim Hof + Yoga, Diet: Much cleaner, spinach and chicken salad with olive oil.

Input Manipulates Output

Finally, we touch on the subject of Alchemy, and how we may look to the roots of natural science to better understand the philosophy of discovery itself. Alchemy (Greek: khēmeía:χημεία…Lat: Alchymia), while often seen as a magickal way of thinking, is very much based in practical observations of the natural world from the perspective of worldviews that were far more magically-minded than our own.

The ideas that formed the basis for alchemy in the west (as opposed to the Taoist and Indian variations) were closely tied to the area of Alexandria which was a social hub that brought together ideas from Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Stoicism and Gnosticism. The core ideas of the practice extended well beyond any one worldview or belief system.

For our use here, what I mean to lean on is that it began to explore the “really real, reality.” The one that seems to persist outside of our mood, our feelings, our individual perspectives. While we can share thoughts on these matters, it becomes practical, Ad Has (Lat: “To These”) only when we apply it. To apply it as the early alchemists might have, we turn to self-experimentation.

So, in the cases of dealing with our mental states, we should certainly turn to modern science where possible. Essentially, to have a condition such as depression, OCD, anxiety, PTSD, and the myriad of other conditions, we have already admitted to some degree that what we believe may not be totally reliable.

But why would I believe something that wrong? Not ME!” – Ven Thubten Chodron

For this particular work of transmutation, I’m using me. You should use you. What actually works? Well, there’s lots of studies on these topics, but when we’re in the midst of dealing with mood disorders it is very difficult to talk ourselves out of bad habits. I cannot easily share how many people I know who have used self-medication for symptoms, and those are almost always a bad idea…yet, many people persist in simply doing things that are certainly not helping. Your author included many, many times over.

So, what does help? What to iterate over next? How about intake? Time and time again we read about sugar and caffeine with anxiety symptoms? Still, I personally consume around a pot of coffee a day and then wonder about why I have panic attacks. That’s rather absurd and certainly worth exploring. So, for iteration F(2) we will add to the exercise plan: I will cut caffeine out, opting for herbal tea and lower my sugar consumption to less than 30g per day.

The results should follow in the next few weeks of post-ends.

Exercise + Wim Hof method + Reductions in caffeine and sugar.

You (+desire/will) Are Enough

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” – Henry David Thoreau

I don’t want to hear from them who know they can buy but can’t put on my clothes.” Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam

One of the things that we see suggested again and again for people struggling with depression or anxiety is that they get more exercise. This is a solid idea, because well, exercise is good for the treatment of depression and anxiety. The flip side of this is that asking someone with generalized anxiety to go to a gym is going to be a social challenge, and someone with severe enough depression may struggle with the motivation to leave their house.

I’ve thought a good deal about this, and I actually understand the social pressure to fit in can be daunting for someone who would most benefit from actually going to work out. The year 2020 has made going to a gym even harder due to social distancing rules and regulations for non-essential businesses. There’s really only one thing to add to that…

…don’t let that stop you.

There are tons of things that can be done in the home with minimal to no equipment. Most of my own climbing work comes down to a board that supports my stairs and some nylon straps thrown over a support beam. I do have some dumbbells and a few things that I have made or “acquired” (such as large stones) that I may use in addition to the above tools, but they’re not nearly as important to me as stuff that essentially had nothing to do with fitness in their original design.

That isn’t to say that I have not previously used modern gyms or more complex weight systems. Truth be told, when I was really into powerlifting, I had a very nice rack in my garage..with the little resistance bands so I could emulate Westside Methods and I had about 3300# of iron weights. If you’re training to be as strong as possible in a few competitive lifts, this is a great system. That doesn’t mean it’s a requirement for the kind of work that is being discussed in the above article, though.

What matters, perhaps more than anything else, is the drive to keep going even when you just don’t want to. Finding that is a type of zen practice, and one that actually required that I get rid of all of the things and get back to what I really wanted out of my own practice. When I was training for powerlifting, I was actually at one of the lowest points in my own mind. I went from hitting up the gym regularly to simply staring at the mass of expensive equipment and asking myself, “Why do I even bother?”

Intrinsic motivation is a very fluid construct, and realizing that I didn’t care that I won big trophies and what I really wanted was to be capable of moving myself through nature in challenging ways was a huge mindset change. Now, I personally do it so that I can share these moments with my own children. In hindsight, I wish I had known then what I have learned since.

It isn’t the fancy clothes that help. It isn’t the pictures of your meals on social media. At the most serious levels of training, all of these things stop mattering anyhow. The best martial artists I’ve ever met train in cut-off sweat pants. The best lifters train in the same, normally with an old band t-shirt with no sleeves. Yoga? The most notable masters train naked. Bouldering? You need a pad to fall on, chalk, and a brush. Climbing shoes are very nice, but…you can accomplish tons without specialized gear.

I’d even go so far as to say “You get extra-credit for making due with non-manufactured gear. A chalk bag from REI is cool, but it isn’t “A chalk bag made from an old plushie you got at a thrift-store” cool.

In the end, you’re enough. You + Desire and the Will to accomplish are all that is ever required. If you lack ideas of ways to make it work, a brief search online will lead you to tons of free or inexpensive ideas.

RossTraining is putting a book out there right now on being “never gymless” for a $1. I haven’t read it, but I have read his stuff before and he seems like a pretty cool guy.

Nerdfitness has provided a simple plan for bodyweight work.

Onnit has their recommendations as well.

If those and your own searching still leave you with questions, then hit me up. We’ll figure out what progressions serve your goals. Now, I’m not some famous super trainer, but I’m also not asking for anything in return. None of this is super complicated, but what is complicated is making yourself stick to it when you really don’t want to. For that, something deeper and more spiritual needs to be manifested. Do you want to feel better, not just physically but mentally as well? Do you have goals that require you work towards them?

…then get on it. No new clothes are actually required.

Diet: Lean meat at lunch with cheese. Need more vegetables. Exercise: Let’s Simplify This,

Wim Hof, An Overview

Through Kundalini practice, Pranayama, etc. I was introduced to Wim Hof and his method of breathing and cold exposure. I’d consider myself a “cautiously critical fan.” There’s certainly value in the practice, but at the same time, it’s valuable to not put too much emphasis on any one teacher or method.

Wim Hof was born in 1959 in the Netherlands. He’s notable as a Dutch Athlete and has broken multiple records for farthest swim under ice, fastest half-marathon in ice and snow barefoot, and his own record for longest full body contact with ice many times over. These feats are impressive, but the studies on his abilities to use his training to improve his immune system is where things begin to get more than casually interesting.

In one study, a suppressed stress hormone response was noted. Another showed a visible control over autoimmune response, and another showed that there is notable suppression of inflammation due to the training.

Considering my previous writings on pneuma, it should come as no surprise that I’m fascinated by these studies. At least I’m interested enough to have been doing the method now on and off for a few years. While it’s yet to show up in my own studies, I do normally feel less depressed when doing it regularly. There may be a psychosomatic element involved, but mental illness is a very different situation than many other diseases. If someone told you the cure for stage 3 cancer was square dancing, and you go square dancing and feel better, you still likely have stage 3 cancer. If the same was said about depression, and you do so and feel better, then it works.

For what is essentially a disease of feelings, feelings hold far more sway than elsewhere. That’s certainly not to downplay the validity or seriousness of mental issues. When your mind is working against your better judgement, you make decisions that can very well lead to many other issues. The most severe situation would be suicidal thoughts, where the psyche is in a position to suggest that death is an acceptable solution. Very few other diseases will cause the patient to simply not try to get better.

So, the takeaway that I have is that perhaps not all of Wim’s claims about the miracles that his method provide are as simple as he makes them sound. I do not doubt that he believes it, and there’s some weight to that alone. What is worth noting is that it does seem to be based in some level of facts, and that it can help those who find themselves in need of something extra in their lives.

….and if it doesn’t work, you’re less likely to be bothered by a broken hot water heater. wimhofmethod.com

Exercise: Yoga, Wim Hof Method, Hangboard work. Diet: Christmas leftovers, turkey wraps FTW!