“Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear.” ~ Buddha
It’s happened again. I’m at yet another cross-roads, uncertain which direction to go. The genesis of my most recent ambivalence was the kind suggestion from an editor that I “put aside” my memoir and try my hand at fiction. Reading her letter, I felt the energy literally ooze out of my body and onto the floor. Surprisingly, I wasn’t upset, but I was disappointed. Deflated. Now what? I wondered. Multiple thoughts tumbled out one after the other. But then I remembered the Buddha’s words and I decided to be like the muddy water and do nothing, at least for a while.
In the larger scheme of things, this is hardly a crisis. I’m not hungry or homeless. My life is not hanging in the balance. Perspective is important. Still, this is my life’s path and it matters to me what I do next; it’s not life or death, but it will affect who I am and what I do. This is a sort of crossroads.
There are all sorts of crossroads, any number of “Now What?” moments that pop-up throughout our lives, some big, some small. There’s the Now What when your house is wiped out by a flood, or the one when you’re diagnosed with cancer. There is the Now What of losing someone you love, losing your job, or losing your direction. But regardless of the nature or magnitude of the crisis, these turning points can be some of the richest, most potent times of opportunity that we can experience, provided that we receive them with grace and receptivity rather than fear and panic.
What I’m talking about is, in Taoism, called Wu-Wei, which means “non-doing” or, translated another way, effortless action, or receptivity in action. In the West we tend to think of non-doing as lying on the sofa, mindlessly scrolling through six hundred TV channels. But in truth, being open and receptive requires tremendous energy and awareness. Non-doing in this sense means heightening your sensitivity and receptivity to the subtle changes at play in and around you.
The philosophy of Taoism is that the more we place ourselves in accord with the natural movements of the universe, the more we flow in harmony with the intuitive intelligence that guides and informs all things. (And here if it serves you to think of this intelligence as God or Allah or the Great Spirit or your own soul, it’s one in the same.) The fundamental principle is that all things are one, everything is connected. Therefore, to fight against the flow of the universe – or just as detrimentally, to languish in passivity or avoidance – is to waste precious energy and to miss the point entirely. And the point is that something else wants to happen.
Wu-Wei flies in the face of American sensibilities: it teaches us not to struggle to figure things out but to allow things to reveal themselves to us. And how do you do this? With patience, openness and receptivity. Of course, you still have your feelings about what’s happening, and you should. You might feel disappointed or fearful, angry, depressed or all of the above. Welcome all your feelings, invite them in for coffee. Entertain all these visitors and let them have their say, but remember, it’s your house: you don’t have to let them move in permanently. Let the feelings wash in and out and if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything: don’t run away, don’t fight, don’t panic. Just wait, receptive and open and knowing that the answer will come and one day you will just know what to do. You may seek guidance from within or without, and that can help too, but ultimately the answer is within you and when the time is ripe, it will appear.
I love the wisdom that Ranier Maria Rilke wrote on this topic in his Letters to a Young Poet. He said:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Sometimes the best effort we can make is to wait, attentively and patiently and trustingly. Take it from someone who spent a lot of years earnestly seeking, fighting, trying, resisting and otherwise mucking up the water whenever she was at a crossroads. Wu-Wei makes a lot more sense. It works. It works because it puts you in harmony with the natural flow of the universe. So if you see me walking around town this month looking like I’m doing nothing, I’m actually quite busy being receptive and open to the next clue that will lead me in a new direction. I’m Wu-Wei-ing.