Wu Wei is a Tao concept which stands for knowing when and how to act, and the ability to act without friction.
My uncles and mother are cleaning out the attic of my grandmother’s old house. She is currently living in a retirement home and her house will be sold next year (talk about bad timing…). But the stuff she left behind… And her five kids have to figure out what to do with it all. What to throw out, what to give away, what to keep, how to divide her stuff fairly, what to sell (and how to sell it).
As the oldest grandkid, and the last person in the family to live in that house, I get to watch it all up close.
When we talk about right action in the West – we are usually talking about morality. I’ve talked about karma as a moral law on here, for instance. But the Buddhist concept of right action is so much more than that – and the Tao concept of Wu Wei illustrates that perfectly (isn’t it great that these philosophies complement each other?).
Timing is everything – an uncle of mine threw out old plates (with chips off and stuff) a few months BEFORE Christmas. He apparently forgot, or ignored, that we were scheduled to celebrate Christmas – kids and grandkids and partners all – in that old house this year. For the last time. It would have been much less fuss if the plates had still been there, however chipped. Worse: one of his brothers turned out to want the china, chips and all, for his new house.
Was it bad action that my uncle threw out those plates? Well, it was not morally bad in my book. That same uncle does more for my grandmother than the rest combined (as the rest lives further off). But the timing was off and it would have been nice if he had communicated about it. Of course my other uncle could have Emailed everyone that he wanted that china: that would also have prevented this.
Wu wei – choosing just the right action, at the right time, so there isn’t any friction… How hard is that?
The family is going through several processes right now:
- Letting go of the old house
- Letting go of my grandmother as a competent adult (she has Alzheimer’s disease).
- Dealing with a portion of the inheritance
Some of the family want to just do things as quickly as possible. Others have a tendency to just postpone any decision. Everybody is emotional about it, but each person deals with those emotions differently. Avoiding friction is simply an impossibility.
One thing is clear: planning works only to some extent. People will disagree. People will act before it’s time and others will want to postpone all action. Communication helps. And it helps that no one is in this only for themselves, everyone cares. It’s what my mom calls a warm conflict. Right now, actually, it doesn’t feel like conflict at all – but a year ago it certainly did. That’s when I was still living in that house and therefor in the middle of it all.
Moving out six months ago was right at that time, but looking back it might have been easier if I had moved out earlier. Then again, we weren’t ready earlier.
Right action is not just about timing, it’s also about taking all the forces in a situation into consideration – and then finding YOUR path through the mess. My path, as a grandkid, was to step out of the process and let my grandmothers kids figure it out among themselves.
This time of year – the days after Christmas, the new year not yet begun, is a good time for cleaning out the attic. For taking stock of your life and letting go of responsibilities that are best left to others. Or perhaps for stepping up to the plate and taking the responsibilities that are part of your path in life. In this world – with financial institutions all over the world having taken hit after hit – we are collectively taking stock. Collectively we need to clean out the attic and find out where each of us stands. So each of us can figure out where to go next.
That takes time and in the meantime our economies will slow down. This is alright. A hospital patient needs to take it slow for some time after an operation. Similarly our economies need to slow so that the functioning parts can become visible and the redundant stuff can die off. Poverty levels will rise.
Those who can afford to can start sowing the seeds for the next spring – knowing full well that seeds don’t immediately turn into grains to be harvested.
So I wish you all wu wei for the new year: the knowledge of when and how to act without friction.