Wu Wei – aka cleaning out the attic

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:

  1. Letting go of the old house
  2. Letting go of my grandmother as a competent adult (she has Alzheimer’s disease).
  3. 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.

7 thoughts on “Wu Wei – aka cleaning out the attic”

  1. My sweet kindred spirit,
    I love your writing and spiritual musings. My father is going through some of the same things, but my mom is clinging to the notion that she can take care of him. And my family is exactly as you described…some moving in haste, some acting like ostriches. Wu wei is needed, indeed. Perhaps compassion is the “grease” that eases friction.

  2. Beautiful flow and depth to your words….The Feds should pay you to stand in front of Wall St. with a loudspeaker, soothing the materialist with your gentle words and flow ; )

  3. Thank you for pointing out this spiritual concept to me. I realize now that I have been doing this all my life, carefully considering the best options, and their consequences. Then, when the time is right, I dive in headfirst. My friends misunderstand, and think I act hastily. Yet I’ve already planned out everything I can beforehand, and don’t act until necessary.

    Very insightful post!


  4. I do always think of compassion as grease that makes things flow better. But confrontation with facts is also useful in situations like this – simply talking everybody through things. Everybody getting their say, and then making a group decision.

    As for the Feds – I don’t think calm and loudspeakers go together very well… And I would rather see politicians than stock brokers myself.

    I’m hoping that Obama listens to Jeffrey Sachs – the latter was on Dutch tv yesterday and he’s got ALL his priorities in order, seems to me. He knows exactly what the American people need to hear, but don’t want to (infinitely cutting back on taxes does NOT combine well with a government that takes responsibility, for instance).

    I could go on about that subject for an hour: Sachs was very convincing about a number of issues from world wide poverty levels to population explosion to the environment and and the economic crisis as well.

  5. In general, I thought this was a very moving and insightful post. I particularly liked the way you define wu wei! I’ll have the remember that.

    That said, the last 2 or 3 paragraphs bothered me though. It almost sounded nonchalant when you stated, “Poverty levels will rise”. I can tell you that it’s not so nonchalant for those of us struggling to keep a roof over our heads!

    In the next paragraph you write, “Those who can afford to can start sowing the seeds for the next spring…” What about all of those who can’t afford the seeds? Must they go hungry next spring and summer?

  6. Wu Wei – Yes we should all clean the attic and on many levels i to relate to all the strife that comes when things change drastically, my oldest brother is battling brain cancer for the last year and cleaning out and shifting has become a daily grind for most of his family.

    I study the philosphy of many paths to find awakening of self and compassion is a beautiful way of sharing heart or greasing the mechanisms of this human design, but I find that in compassion there is always a clinging that happens when the emotions find attachment… my study has recenlty brought me to self awareness of attachment and how important we find the things in our life are… how much of it do we really need? and in separating during a tragedy how do we find the mind to let go without want?… where is the fine line to let live the love without a need?… Wu Wei a beautiful path, but one shouldn’t clean out the attic and put everything in the garage and forget that there are others that breath the same air within that space…

    Peace to all and may each day of 2009 be like the first of the year resolute that nothing truly ends….

    (excellent Blog by the way)

  7. Hi Rambling Taoist,

    ~the truth of poverty all over the world will not change with me writing about it, unfortunately. I don’t really expect people in that situation to read this blog – I expect they have better things to do, like worrying about the roof over their heads.

    If they are reading this, there is still not much to be said. except perhaps: I hope you aren’t too proud to use fascilities like foodstamps that do exist for people in your situation. For those of you in Africa, I hope that whether you live or die – you can manage to keep things peaceful. I do believe dying with your principles intact is better than living having broken them.

    But I do realize that this is very easy for me to say – sitting in a heated room, with two pc’s running, rich parents (though I’m not rich myself by Dutch standards), and a job application going out in which I will be working precisely the hours I want and growing as a person and a professional as well (obviously: I hope I get it, I think I stand a good chance). Compared to most people all over the world – I have it good.

    For people in the US specifically: poverty in has been rising in the US for decades. 10% of the population is on foodstamps – and most of them were already on them.

    For the richer part of the population this crisis is something new – but for many on the bottom of USA society, it doesn’t change much – except perhaps donations to good causes.

    So if the last bit of my blogpost is troubling to you – you read it correctly. I am troubled by poverty. I am troubled by this crisis.

    And those suffering from it have only one road to follow: minimize the impact on themselves by asking for the help they CAN get, and making sure they change their own lives so that they can get out of this mess. [I’m probably repeating myself saying this.]

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