Fundamental to Taoist philosophy is the attitude called wu-wei (the Japanese say mui), meaning 'noninterference', ‘non-striving', ‘non-pushing'.
This is not mere inactivity. One of the most marvelous illustrations of wu-wei is jujitsu (or judo), a very active martial art. But you do not oppose your opponent. You take him as he comes and lead him to his logical conclusion. In fact, jujitsu is a practical application of Taoist philosophy. So we are not talking in this respect about a 'relaxed' attitude to life as the word is currently misused.
Many people think that to be relaxed is to be like a damp cloth on a clothes line. The key to relaxation in Taoist thinking is balance - the harmonious balance of yang and yin. When one moves an arm, for example, what happens? When we flex our muscles this way, the biceps contract and the triceps relax. It is a relaxed movement, even though it involves both relaxation and tension, both yin and yang. Oddly enough, in our medical nomenclature, the biceps and triceps are called 'antagonistic' muscles, whereas they should be called 'complementary' muscles. If we make them fight, we get paralyzed. The Taoist would make the point that paralysis is inevitably the result of taking a 'God Almighty' attitude towards the universe.
In the Tao-te Ching, Lao-tzu says:
The great Tao flows everywhere,
both to the left and to the right.
By it all things come into being
and nothing is rejected.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.
it lays no claim to them.
Instead of controlling events it acts like the judo principle, like water. We might almost say 'it stoops to conquer’, but 'conquering' is not the right word; it collaborates, rather. The Tao-te Ching was written as a book of advice for rulers, and many of its chapters advise the emperor how to conduct himself. A delightful saying is: 'Govern a great state as you would call a small fish. Do it gently.' Another is: 'When I see a man take the empire in hand, I know there will be no end to it.' Lao-tzu is warning the ruler that if he alters something that looks as if it ought to be put right, two other things will go out of kilter; they will have lost their adjustments, and he has to move quickly to correct them. But that means he will also have to alter this... and this... and this.
Our world is complicated today because we take a 'God Almighty' attitude and have to control every detail. Yet as an organism, we came into being without our conscious interference and with a very small amount of co-operation on the part of our parents. We happened without being directed; we grew in the womb. The food our mother ate was transmuted, in a process quite unknown to her, into nourishment for us. This elaborate and marvelous structure, intricately ordered, came into being without our knowing how we did it.
The whole philosophy of Taoism, its wisdom about the nature of humans, is based on watching, on observation. Yet this observing is not what most people think of when told, 'Pay attention, be aware'. When Western people first study Oriental philosophy or start practicing yoga they learn that the essential prerequisite is concentration. They give themselves headaches by staring at buttons and so on.
When they find their attention wandering, they say, 'Naughty, naughty! Come back to the point.’ And all of it is like smoothing waves of water with an iron. This imperious state of mind - the attitude that says, 'Don't wander - is not what is meant by huan, the Chinese term for the kind of contemplation, or watching, I'm talking about. To be aware is the natural state of one's nervous system, of one's senses, of one's mind (whatever that may be). It does it all by itself, spontaneously (tzu-jan), just as your stomach digests food by itself, your eyes receive light, your tongue tastes and your ears hear sounds.
If you want to be aware of something, all you have to do is to look at it. It requires no muscle strain, no gritting of the teeth - just a simple assumption that something put in front of your mind, or your mind's eye, will stay there until moved. And it will stay, if you are not trying to force it. This basic attitude is the source of Taoist wisdom about the nature of the individual. When we observe these goings-on, we begin to learn that our organism is not only sufficiently intelligent to have constructed itself but also smart enough to do almost everything necessary to function and adapt to its environment.
That is to say, we know very well that if we get cut, various healing processes immediately go to work to get rid of infection. When infected, our temperature rises in order to boil the bugs out of our blood. In the days when medicine considered fever to be an illness and tried to rid the body of fever, the treatment often ended up killing the patient. We learned later in medicine to trust the fever and co-operate with it.
This attitude, of course, does not mean that we leave everything up to the organism inside its skin. We can also help by making certain motions outside the skin, as long as we co-operate with what is already going on inside. And just as our temperature rises to boil out the bugs, so it goes with the play of our feelings; they, too, are a kind of homeostatic self-adjusting process.
We are often tyrannical about the way we feel. We are taught that there are 'good' feelings and 'bad' feelings. If we are depressed, this is a bad feeling; we should do something about it. Anger is also a bad feeling that we should fix, because we are afraid that if we let ourselves be angry we will punch someone in the nose. This is because we really know nothing about our feelings. We have never had this attitude of huan ('aware contemplation') towards them.
Take the previous example: 'I feel furious.' If I say 'naughty, naughty' and sit on the fury, it may go away, but, as we know, it will emerge elsewhere unconsciously, making us intolerable to our friends in a manner of which we ourselves are unaware. It's tricky. Another quick way of getting rid of anger (because we can't take it) is to hit someone on the jaw. That dissipates the anger. It is something quite different to watch the feeling and see what it truly is. We get this hot-under-the-collar feeling and quickly jump to the conclusion that it is anger. How do you know it is anger? Why not watch it to see what it really is instead of knowing how to classify it? Let's observe this boiling sensation inside us, say, and see what it wants to do. You never know - if you watch, it may boil and boil and then stop boiling. And that will be that. And you'll feel better, because your feelings are an ingenious process of adaptation - a stream of sensations, of psychological adjustment.
Breathing and quieting
Now I want to speak particularly of the Taoist attitude towards breathing, a fundamental process of the organism, which is central to what we might call the Taoist style of yoga. All schools of yoga involve breathing, but they take many different approaches to it.
Some schools of Taoist (and Indian) yoga say that the object of breathing practice is to stop the breath. In other words, the practice is a kind of marathon to see how long you can hold your breath until you eventually break the record. That simply is not the point. To stop the breath is to go against the first principle of Taoism, wu-wei ('let go'). So the quietness, the non-breathing is simply a metaphor. It is as if there is no breath. There is no whistling or grunting or straining. You sink naturally to an even flow. Because our organism is mind-body, because there is no rigid differentiation between the psychic and the physical, as the breath goes, so goes the mind. Left alone, it settles into a kind of quietness.
This quietness must be carefully understood. A quiet mind, in the sense of Lao-tzu's pool, is the deep pool that reflects everything that crosses it without distortion. In the sense of the special Zen term wu-shin ('no-mind') the mind is quiet when it is to itself as if it wasn't there, just as your eyes are working properly when they don't see themselves in terms of spots and blotches in front of the eye. It is not a negative quietness, an exclusive quietness that rejects the ordinary things we think about in our daily business. Those things can come and go, and the quiet mind is perfectly happy. As the sun, moon and stars can orbit in the tremendous silence of space without creating any turmoil, so the mind, when it is no-mind - when it is quiet - becomes like a space, which includes everything. This psychic process is developed hand in hand with the so-called physical process of breathing. Just as we see by a reference to the first principle - wu-wei - the true way of breathing is the way of no special way.
The whole process is parallel to every teaching about the quest for God, for mystical experience or for satori. He who seeks shall not find because he pushes it away, so the attitude of not seeking must be fundamental. Yet remember the apparently tricky paradox: when you try to renounce seeking, you are still seeking. It always comes back to this paradox. If you engage in activity - walking, standing, sitting, lying, breathing, eating or loving - with a preconceived notion of what you think ought to happen, then you are not open to surprise. A wise old fellow I once knew said that gnosis (wisdom or spiritual truth) means to be surprised at everything. When we know what we are going to get, we are seldom surprised.
Searching for Satori
We may in the past have had marvelous spiritual experiences - almost everyone in this world is lucky enough to experience satori once in their life. Perhaps it occurred when you were an adolescent; or perhaps you were having an operation and received the right kind of gas. Maybe you took LSD. Ever afterwards, you search for that experience again: 'I want it that way.' You once had a wonderful girlfriend, and now you want another just like her. That way of thinking blocks the possibility of a meeting with life. This is why meditation for Zen practitioners and Taoists means affirming that your everyday mind is the way - not the mind you ought to have or the mind you might have if you practised acceptance or concentration. We want you to look at it just the way it is right now - that's Buddha. Just like that.
Of course, many will say this is nonsense. 'The way I am now is degraded, ordinary, unevolved, not spiritual, decadent.' Yet remember this phrase from the Zenrin poem: 'At midnight, the sun brightly shines.' All right, it is midnight now. This, at this moment, is the awful dark thing we think we are. Yet the poem also says, 'This is Buddha.'
What you are now is the very point. There is no goal because all goals are in the future. There is only the question of what is. Look and see; see how, of its own accord, it comes to your eye.
From Zen: The Supreme Experience, text copyright Alan Watts 2002, published in the UK by Vega.