The Art of Fearlessly Doing Nothing
I have always found the ideals of the East both endlessly fascinating and mystifying. Many Westerners are drawn to the enigmatic beauty of the Tibetan mountains, the peaceful Zen Gardens of Japan, and the sweet smelling incense wafting out of the incredibly vibrant and ornate Daoist temples in South East Asia. Part of the reason why these places are so amazing is because much of the architecture there is directly influenced by the surrounding spiritual philosophy of where the building is located. It is a dreamy mixture of internal spiritual beliefs manifesting in the timeless beauty of art created by the human hand.
What are these spiritual beliefs though and what do they mean? To many Western minds programmed with rational, Eurocentric logic, they might find the nonconcrete and often paradoxical nature of Eastern philosophy both frustratingly difficult to understand and non-applicable to their lives. This, admittedly, is quite a shame. Part of the beauty of Eastern philosophy is its profound simplicity. Although there are certainly beautiful and pertinent principles found in the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, these religions rely on dogma to instill their values and teachings. This could results in excessive traditions that take away from the central spiritual teachings of the religions. Although a lot of Eastern spiritual teachings have turned to more dogmatic practices over the centuries, when juxtaposed with Abrahamic religions, Eastern philosophy is much less riddled with dogma. Humans tend to want to over complicate things in their lives. They often think that wisdom and meaning is found in some esoteric ideal that is only understood by a reclusive guru. Part of the reason why Westerners find Eastern philosophy difficult to comprehend is because of its innate simplicity. Our conscious minds always want to box things in and rationalize things, but a lot of Eastern philosophy works in the realms of the unconscious mind, often preferring to teach about “harmony” and allowing events to flow effortlessly and naturally.
Take for example the Japanese aesthetic ideology of “Wabi-Sabi.” Fun to say right? This aesthetic ideology focuses on the beauty of the transient nature of all things and believes that rustic, natural, humble and perhaps even melancholy characteristics are the most aesthetically beautiful. The meaning of the word “Wabi” originally meant “the loneliness of living in nature isolated from humanity” and the word “Sabi” originally meant “chill and withered.” However, over time, the meaning of the words came to be more understood respectively as “a bittersweet and wistful feeling of solidarity” and “a positive impermanence and nobly worn down aesthetic.” Although the ideals of “Wabi-Sabi” ideology had its origins in the ancient times, it reached an apogee in the 16th Century with a man named Sen no Rikyu, who perfected the aesthetic art in a tea ceremony called “Cha-no-yu” meaning “Hot Water for Tea” . To quote from Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power:
“Although not from a noble family, Rikyu rose to great power, becoming the preferred tea master of the Emperor Hideyoshi, and an important adviser on aesthetic and even political matters. For Rikyu, the secret of success consisted in appearing natural and concealing the effort behind one’s work.
On one evening, while having tea at a friend’s house, Rikyu saw his host go outside, hold up a lantern in the darkness, cut a lemon off a tree, and bring it in. This charmed Rikyu — the host needed a relish for the dish he was serving, and had spontaneously gone outside to get one. But when the man offered the lemon with some Osaka rice cake, Rikyu realized that he had planned the cutting of the lemon all along, to go with this expensive delicacy. The gesture no longer seemed spontaneous — it was a way for the host to prove his cleverness. He had accidentally revealed how hard he was trying. Having seen enough, Rikyu politely declined the cake, excused himself, and left. “
The reason why Sen no Rikyu was so disinterested in this gesture was because it seemed so contrived; so unnatural. It violated one of the key principles of “Wabi-Sabi” which was unadulterated behavior and transience. It felt like a premeditated decision from the host, forced and not spontaneous. This gives a good idea as to what naturalness and flow means from an Eastern philosophical perspective. Letting the conscious mind out of the way and allowing for the present moment to kick in where our unconscious mind is at work. In other words, allowing what we want to effortlessly unfold.
For those of us who are inclined to personal development, our journey often leads us to dive into spiritual and metaphysical teachings that point us towards a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us. During my quest for Truth, I serendipitously came across one of the most profound principles of the world that I now incorporate into my life.
A number of years ago, I had a dream where I was meditating in a graveyard and I was approached by a distinctly Asian figure. Although I could not see this entity, it had a strong and domineering presence; that of perhaps a strong military general or powerful leader. I could feel that he donned an outfit that showcased his power and prestige. I felt my back go firmly erect and I could hear a voice that was stern and unwavering that repeated “I am fearless, I am fearless.” Eventually, I felt this presence start absorbing into my body. As he slowly started to melt into my body, he started to say “I am you, I am you.”
After I awoke, I immediately took out my cell phone to search for the Chinese word “fearless.” Considering that I was studying the Chinese language at my university, I had downloaded an application to help me with translation work. As I typed in the text box “fearless”, the word “Wu Wei” (无畏) popped up. I thought to myself, perhaps this is my subconscious mind telling me that I need to not be afraid of the things that are to come in my life and to approach them with dignity and dauntless action. I felt emboldened and ready to take on the world after that day. Little did I know that I would come to find an even more powerful and deeper meaning to this dream much later in my life.
Years later, I was spending some time traveling through China and I was reading a fascinating and insightful book that looked to find central and practical themes in the teachings of all of the world’s major religions. As I was reading a section talking about the teachings of Laozi and Daoism, I stopped dead in my tracks, dropped the book and exclaimed “Oh my God!” There in black and white on the page were the words “Wu Wei.” I said to myself “could it be the same thing I had heard in my dream years ago?”
I read on to learn more about what Daoism taught and came to find out that one of its central teachings talking about the “flow and naturalness of life” was called “Wei Wu” (为无) meaning “nonaction”. Sometimes it is paradoxically called “Wu Wei Wu” (无为无) which means “The action of nonaction.” I quickly pulled out the same phone from years ago (I know I’m cheap) and furiously pressed away the words “Wu Wei” to see what I could find. Low and behold, only a few definitions under the initial word meaning “fearless” I had looked up years ago was the Daoist Principle of “Wu Wei” or “nonaction” staring me in the face. It had eluded me all these years and now it had all became crystal clear to me.
The reason why many Westerners have trouble understanding the meaning of “Wu Wei Wu” is because the direct translation does not make much sense. To the novice, the meaning of the words “nonaction” could imply infuriatingly pointless passivity, bordering that of being a vegetable and having no ambitions or expectations to one’s life. However, the real meaning is nothing of the sort. The Daoist principle is best understood from the poem in the Dao De Qing saying:
“He who pursues learning will increase every day; He who pursues Tao will decrease everyday. He will decrease and continue to decrease, till he comes to nonaction; By nonaction everything can be done.”
What Laozi is saying is that we have to allow the things to come into our lives. Nothing can be forced. Forcing things is unnatural and interrupts the “flow” of the “universe.” What is interrupting this “flow” you might ask? It is our conscious mind. Always demanding to have what we want, the way we want it and now! We know that it doesn’t work this way. I have come to understand that “the action of nonaction” is better understood by the western mind as “let go, let God” or “the art of allowing.” When we practice “Wu Wei Wu” we allow things to unfold in due course. When we do this, we find all the puzzle pieces fall into place at the perfect time in our lives. The naturalness of this has such beauty and perfection, and is unlike the results of the ego trying to achieve something. Unlike Sen-no Rikyu’s host forcing spontaneity to appease the tea ceremony master.
How does this tie into fearlessness? When we have calmed our conscious minds from our incessant need for results, we allow things to naturally unfold at the perfect time. This does not mean to “do nothing”, but to have faith that everything will work out in your favor. We need to be fearless and let go of our conscious mind’s ego. We need to be faithful that everything works out in the grand procession of life. While we take action to actualize things in our lives, we need to also paradoxically allow it to happen and not force the puzzle pieces in the wrong places.
When we have found this perfect balance of faith and action (or nonaction if you like), then we can truly be fearless because we will have nothing to fear. We will ultimately arrive at where we need to be if we allow the stream of life to take us there.