Thom and I just returned from a vacation. Spanning 12 days, we attended a wedding, visited with family, stayed in six different hotels, drove over 1,600 miles, hiked in three national parks, and explored parts of five different states in the Southwestern United States. To accomplish this our trip was an orchestration of coordination and planning—as well as an ongoing intention of the Taoist principal of wu wei. While most people lean one way or another when taking a vacation, I believe that the best of them include a delicate dance between the two. Much like the Tao symbol of yin and yang, wu wei and planning blend the two aspects of action into a harmonious whole. In fact, including wu wei in your travel plans just might be the best way to travel on vacation-–or through life itself.
Just what is wu wei? Wu wei is considered a guiding tenet of Taoism (pronounced Daoism).
Originally from ancient China, Taoism is a philosophy/religion that combines both earthly and spiritual dimensions to simultaneously create order, harmony and wholeness to all. This emphasis on wholeness includes simplicity, inwardness, naturalness, health, healing, compassion, moderation and of course, “wu wei.” Wu wei basically translates to “action through non-action” or, “effortless doing.” In other words, instead of attempting to control or change the natural state of conditions around us, wu wei suggests that we flow with the natural order of the experience, work in harmony with it, and see the perfect wholeness always present.
So how does wu wei affect vacation planning—or life itself? First, some background. Those who know me are aware that I’ve been a planner since the day I was born. It comes naturally to me and I think I’m pretty good at it. I enjoy orchestrating details and connecting them all in ways that add up to numerous benefits. Just like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, there is something extremely satisfying to me when all the pieces fall together as planned. I’ve also seen the regrettable outcomes that often happen when people don’t plan at all. Not only do they frequently miss things that need to be taken care of, they also end up taking whatever is left over from those of us who do plan.
However, I also recognize that excessive planning has a dark side. Every now and then I can get so sucked into
the details and obsessing about choices and decisions that I make myself a bit crazy. One time when planning a trip to France I spent days trying to pick between a bed and breakfast in the country, and another one in a quaint hill town of Tuscany. Not only did both offer numerous (but different) benefits, I was also attempting to please my husband Thom, as well as imagine which would be quieter at night. In the end I asked Thom to choose—because I was frozen in indecision.
There have actually been a number of books that highlight the paralyzing problem of too many choices. In our age and culture, most of us have a dizzying array of choices available to us all—everything from little things like what toothpaste to buy, to big ones like who and when we will marry.
According to Professor of psychology Barry Schwartz, and author of “The Paradox of Choice,” a good way to approach the problem is to get comfortable with the idea of “good enough.” After all, seeking the perfect choice in anything is a recipe for misery—and is definitely not the wu wei way.
And that’s where wu wei steps in to help. Wu wei is the idea of taking action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. While in some cases wu wei may indicate no action whatsoever, in most cases it is action that flows easily and effortlessly out of whatever experience lies right ahead. And because wu wei is a process of effortless action, when I am moved to “plan” a vacation or even a blog post, as long as the action flows naturally out of me,
then I am practicing wu wei. It’s sort of like the old Al Stewart song that says, “Nothing that’s forced can ever be right, if it doesn’t come naturally, leave it.”
But even more important than whether or not to plan or not plan any experience, is the value of wu wei when things don’t match our expectations. Again, wu wei is the avoidance of struggle or excessive effort. On any vacation, or any day of the year, we are all confronted with things that don’t go according to our plans or desires. Even with the best of intentions, things go change. Wu wei proposes that the most harmonious and whole approach is to flow with what ever comes along.
For example, no matter how careful a person is when selecting hotel rooms, there is always the chance that the room will be other than expected. Instead of complaining about or resisting the is-ness of the situation, choosing to be grateful for a bed, a roof and sometimes even air-conditioning is the most wu wei thing possible. Or what about roadwork? Several times our trip was delayed by work crews maintaining roads we were attempting to travel. Instead of fussing about the delay, it was much more enjoyable to stay appreciative that we had good roads to travel on, and a vehicle that worked smoothly and efficently when the time came. Sure, sometimes we ended up eating in unexpected restaurants—but often that turned out better than we could have planned. And although there were substantial groups of people everywhere we went, the service was ample and the beauty and inspiration of the locations exceptional.
My point is that even when things don’t go according to plan, or when we think things should be
different, wu wei is a great way to bring ourselves back to remembering the good that is present in the now. It is the philosophy that everything is happening exactly the way it is supposed to, and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Plus, wu wei keeps us open and receptive to the gifts that lie in the unexpected that we may have missed completely. No matter how great the “plan,” the unforeseen experiences we encounter with wu wei just might turn out to be the very best that could ever happen.
Lastly, wu wei isn’t about trying to fit into anyone else’s way of living or even traveling. As long as my planning is effortless and increases the
enjoyment of my experience, it works for me. Another person could be the exact opposite. We only get into trouble when we struggle against the situation, hold too tightly to our expectations, close down to new possibilities, or get attached to any outcome other than what is happening in the now.
Regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of wu wei or even Taoism before, learning to trust and flow with the experience of life is a SMART way to travel. Next time something unexpected happens, consider the wu wei way.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”~Lao Tzu
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” ~Tao Te Ching