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jing symbolIn working with folks with substance use issues for over 40 years, the serenity prayer was always central part of recovery. And it is useful for all folks regardless of what an issue might be. We change what we can, accept with grace what we can’t change, and ask for the wisdom to know the difference. We don’t beat our heads against walls, real or imagined. We just live in this moment with a sense of curiosity and what it can teach us.

In Chinese arts such as calligraphy, taijiquan, and qigong, we practice jing, or quiet mind. Jing is a primary principle of taijiquan. You can call it inner peace or serenity or calm or any similar label. When you are in that state, there are no words. And in Chinese philosophy, it is not something you can force. You just flow into it – wu wei. I love the Chinese character for quiet. Chinese characters tell stories and the one for quiet brings the sense of letting go home. It is a two part character. The left part is word for a beautiful blue sky – the kind of blue I associate with the deep blue sky in New Mexico. The right part of the character is the word for dispute or fight between or disagreement among people. When put together, the character says to let go of arguments and disagreements and gaze at the beautiful blue sky. Let your heart-mind, your xin, be quiet, calm and peaceful. Suvana Lin writes in her book on Chinese calligraphy of the Chinese proverb, “Jing yi xiu shen.” Quiet thoughts heal the body. Close your eyes and flow, and let go, and find peace in the beauty of the blue sky. In the words of the Navajo proverb, may you walk in beauty.

Maui 2008 178

One of the sticking points with some folks in AA is the step that says you will surrender to a power greater than yourself. Surrender is not the American way, or maybe more accurately, not the Protestant work ethic way. You must give 110% even though that is not really possible. For example in running, you bonk before your glycogen levels fully deplete. Your brain takes care of you by telling you to take it easy. Think of what happens to the motherboard on your computer when you overclock the processor to increase power. You overheat and fry it. And yet, if we don’t succeed we are encouraged to keep trying to the point of attempting to get out of a hole by continuing to dig. I think of it as a Vietnam syndrome – just keep sending troops and keep bombing and victory will inevitably come. Somehow we didn’t learn much from that experience.

In Chinese philosophy there is the concept of wu wei or nonaction, trying not to try, or effortless effort. A similar state in western psychology is the flow state described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It is when you are in the zone. You cannot force yourself into flow or wu wei, you have to let go – surrender – and just be with it. When you become aware you are in that state, you are out of the moment and you lose it.

We have known for a long time that outcomes for people diagnosed as mentally ill have better outcomes in third world countries than in the west. People are treated differently in the “less advanced” cultures. In the west, we also put labels on people and then try to force them to behave in what we consider socially appropriate ways. For over 50 years the work of Brown, Birley, Vaughan, Leff, Wing and others found that the expressed emotion in families was a primary causative factor in rehospitalization in psychiatric facilities. Behaviors that got on family members’ nerves were more likely to cause trouble than the psychiatric symptoms. I came across their research in the late 1970s while working on a rehospitalization factors study at a state hospital. Expressed emotion was not touted as a factor in causing mental illness – no schizophrenogenic mother theory. It was just that when someone is criticized in certain ways, even when caring and concern are at the heart – sometimes feeling judged and pushed does not lead to the outcomes that are desired by the one expressing concern. And that is true regardless of whether one is ill or not.

In the recovery movement, the shift is to treat people with dignity and respect. Ezra E. H. Griffith has edited a comprehensive book that covers issues like involuntary commitment. It is called Ethics Challenges in Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology Practice. It is an excellent read addressing all the variables we face in social control when we treat people with psychological problems differently than those with physical problems, for example, diabetes.

It also got me to wondering about how wu wei might come into being when treating those considered chronically and seriously mentally ill. The July 1, 2016 Invisibilia episode has an intriguing take. You can listen to it here. It is called The Problem With the Solution. It starts with an American dream kind of product invention, and then looks at solutions in mental illness. It reminded me of Scott Miller saying that once something is defined as a problem, it gets worse. Could a reframing, a surrender into acceptance, be one solution? The podcast looks at the story of Ellen Baxter and her search for understanding with her family. That search took her to college and to Geel, Belgium, where people diagnosed with mental illness live with foster families who accept them for who they are and have no idea of the person’s diagnosis. Does Geel, Belgium have a humane, kind and respectful solution? Baxter began a project in New York called the Broadway Housing Project. It is not only humane, it is also cost effective. Also mentioned is Jackie Goldstein and Voices of Hope. You can read more about Jackie Goldstein and Voices of Hope here. Be sure to listen to the bonus story of William Kitt at Invisibilia. Information about the Broadway Housing Project and Ellen Baxter is at http://www.broadwayhousing.org/. There is also this 1993 New York Times article – https://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/19/magazine/ellen-baxter.html.

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