The legacy of the West is, as I have so often stated, a nearly maniacal pursuit to control external and internal reality, and to continuously enhance or extend that control whenever possible – environmentally, socially, politically, economically, psychologically. This has led the civilized world headlong into an unrelenting pursuit of domination over nature (William Leiss) as well as into never-ending battles for dominion over our fellow man (Saint Augustine). The spectacular unfolding of historical consciousness that coincided with the still muted beginnings of urban life in the ancient Near East nearly six thousand years ago, triggered a hyper-rational obsession to make sense of the recent past and get the anticipated future well in-hand, providing the controlling historical narratives and autobiographies of our lives, collectively and personally.
This overriding obsession with command and control was given first voice – and satisfied in large measure – through elaboration of a highly idiosyncratic mode of reasoning, as I have previously suggested; this led systematically to the “discovery” of controlling natural laws to manage external events, and the enactment of social laws to manage human behavior. The syllogism would emerge as the centerpiece of this methodology, giving rise to both the natural and human sciences. Control thus lay at the very core of the Curriculum of the West. We are, collectively, born to manage or be managed, going back as far as the late Neolithic. Even those of us who are more retiring in demeanor find it nearly impossible to live with the apparent uncertainty born of the terror of historical consciousness. Thus, both the anxiety and our need for control emerged simultaneously in that fateful moment. It began, in part, with the early Israelite belief in a transcendent deity’s promise to his chosen (i.e., historically relevant) people. This very hope and focus on the salvific future would be more fully fleshed-out down through the early centuries of what ultimately became our great cultural legacy – the canons of Western religion, politics, science, and technology.
Just look around you, the signs and symbolism of control are everywhere. They reside in your smart-phone, on your laptop, in your calendars, watches, and your clocks. Control is found on the evening news, in your speculative investments, and in hedging your bets. But that is not all; no that is not all. Not only do we seek to forecast the weather, we want to manipulate the weather itself, bend it to our demands, our desires, our military needs. We push without respite to control all that is still wild and yet untamed, to domesticate every inch of the natural, including our feral inclination to shun the very hierarchies that seek to repress and restrain us.
This control is present in news leaks, military hardware, sales forecasts, and loss leaders. It oozes out from your insurance policies and finds its voice in your claim adjusters’ adjustments; it is the assumed authority brandished among the police, the lawyers and the judges; it runs like a vein of fools gold through the army, navy, air force and marines; it is built into the principles of management and leadership – planning, scheduling, assigning and adjusting; everything we do is about control. The very institutions and hierarchies we have erected are the embodiment of this singular and overriding obsession.
One could argue, of course, that this preoccupation with control is not a modern (i.e., civilized) phenomenon at all; that indeed, our Pleistocene forebears themselves sought the comfort and certainty of controlling authority as well. Some might argue that we can gather this from a simple review of hunting practices, shamanic rituals, or the apparent evidence of primitive magic/art in pre-Neolithic paleontology and archeology. However, I would not jump too quickly onto that bandwagon. I would simply note that if there appears to us moderns what may be signs of the exercise of pre-civilized magic (for example, in controlling the hunt), perhaps such practices could be interpreted in other ways, and not necessarily as attempts to manage outcomes, as we moderns understand it. Needless to say, such practices (if they were meant to control) would have been minimally invasive to the natural workings of the cosmos, in comparison to our satellite-directed drones or our hell-fire missiles, our enforced economic servitude or our nuclear power plants. In any event, our pre-civilized forbears certainly fit into their landscape, if not the sacred game of predation, far better than we have. Well, you get my drift.
Even our ancient alchemist, pictured above, sought ultimately not control in our sense, but a restoration of that perfect balance among the various base elements in order to achieve inner tranquility and/or an outer harmony with nature. On the other hand, we have done so much to exercise control that some scientists predict “imminent irreversible planetary collapse.” The most absurd of ironies rests in this very fact: that the struggle for predominance has led to the most untenable and uncontrollable of circumstances one could have imagined. Rather than perfecting our dominion over the earth, we have driven it and ourselves to the unmanageable, even powerless, brink of extinction. So what are we to do? How are we to overcome the unsurmountable obstacles we have placed in our own way?
Of course, the problem with any psychological proposal to solving our looming crisis most often rests itself upon the presumption of individual culpability. The psychologists will always encourage us to take control of the situation and work actively to correct it. They will encourage us to avoid the easy path of denial, and work diligently to solve the problems we have created. Again, this leads us into the same trap as the methodology that created our problems in the first place. It assumes the right to dominion, to self-determination, and an anthropocentric view of life. Which is more quixotic, tilting at the windmills, or building them in an attempt to escape our chosen fate?
Wei wu wei, the Taoist idea of acting through non-action, is first and foremost about overcoming this obsession with control, manipulation, management, domination and dominion; it is a call simply to let go of the incessant pull on our energies, the will to direct all activities, and define all outcomes. It is about forgiveness, openness, amd spontaneity. It is reflected in the German philosophical term often used by Martin Heidegger in his later writings: Gellasenheit. It refers to a state of “openness” to being, of “releasement,” a lack of willingness to control or define the outcomes — a mode of non-interference. In this condition we can feel the world not as a series of objects for manipulation (things-present or ready-to-hand); but rather as a horizon that opens to us, wherein truth (aletheia) shows itself; where the forgetfulness of being is overcome and we recover our sense of wonder.
Have we lost our spontaneity, the art of artlessness? Becoming attuned to the cycles of nature, the proprioceptivity of our own bodies, the natural balance felt by letting go of attempts to control, learning again to act naturally, with ease and spontaneity; is all of this now so foreign to us?
This is the meaning of wu wei – the undoing of controlling intentionality. In this light, wu wei, is not just “doing nothing” but rather acting without the intention to master or control. It is suggestive, rather, of the spontaneity, the artlessness of nature herself. It simply participates nature; and acts in concert with her.