Archive for June 2013

Wu Wei In Action

Or is that inaction?

Wu Wei can be a complicated principle in Taoist philosophy, because it can be translated in different ways, presenting various meanings to English speakers.

Wu Wei can be translated as “non-action.”

Or as “actionless action.”

Or as “not doing.”

The overall sense is that something is not being done, even when something is being done. That's close to the truth, for Wu Wei signifies the opposite of how many Westerners attempt to accomplish their goals...we tend to grit our teeth and roll up our sleeves and grunt our way through an activity, attempting to physically force our way through mental activities, and to mentally force our way through physical ones.

The logic behind Wu Wei is very simple: Life is natural, and what arises from the universe arises naturally. Insofar as everything is natural, there is little reason to rely on much force (except when that force is also natural) to push things, or to make events happen in unnatural ways. If something is meant to be, it will occur on its own.

The human body is the best example of this, for the lungs act as a bellows and without our effort they provide the body's cells with oxygen and remove impurities from the blood. The brain operates without our forcing it to, and in fact works best when relaxed—as if it was a muscle—and exerting too much force in thought is often counterproductive to thinking. The muscles, and bones, and ligaments, too, operate efficiently and do what they evolved to do without our forcing them to do anything. Simply letting the body work in its own way is usually the best way for it to work.

If we let go of controlling our bodies and let them react to the world around us, we will find that our bodies are better prepared for survival and growth than “we” are—the we that is poorly designed for survival and growth is the Ego that insists only It can do things right, and that it needs to be there pushing everything else to do better.

This is likely what the ancient Chinese observed: that stopping the Ego did not stop the body, or even the mind, but that both mind and body operated more efficiently without the Ego barking orders at it.

On another level:

On another level Wu Wei is a trust in the process of the Universe. It is trusting that through practice, mastery will naturally be achieved, and once mastery is achieved, there is no need to do anything else, anything outside of the task at hand.

If one has mastered something, it's not the conscious mind that has mastered it, but the subconscious. That knowledge is not necessarily visible to us, but comes to the conscious as an intuition to rely on when needed. We can react in the best way in every situation, so long as we let intuition guide us and not second-guess the process.

Wu Wei is trusting that everything will work out if left alone, that the grass will grow, that the sun will shine, that society will function, that children will grow up.

If I study, I will learn. I do not have to over-think my actions, but simply read and learn.

If I am human, I will have relationships. There's nothing special that I need to do, no special effort I must put forward to attract people to me, or to keep them by my side, other than being myself. I don't have to “put on airs” to impress anyone.


Not only is Wu Wei about trusting that the world will work itself out, it's also about finding the most efficient course of action. Wu Wei is sort of a law of conservation. Like water seeks the lowest place, flowing with gravity, but never fighting itself or attempting to go over (or through) mountains it can go around, human beings can also find the easiest route through a task.

If I wash the dishes, they will become clean. There's no trick or special effort that I must put into washing them. Gentle, consistent strokes with a rag will clean dishes better than intense effort, pressing the rag as hard as I can against the glass. The difference is in the energy I've saved.

This is true of much of what we try to do in life. There's an efficient way to do anything and everything, and this is “not doing.” It's simplicity in action. It is practical.

When we run, it's best to move as little as possible (a simple motion instead of flailing) and in a straight line. It's best to relax the body so that it flows fluidly, to smile instead of frown in intense effort.

This benefits us by giving us more energy to sustain activities for longer periods of time. In athletics, in intellectual pursuits, in the daily grind of work, in relationships, in parenting, in politics, and in every other aspect of life we devote ourselves to. Finding the path of least resistance to a goal—not the path of least resistance away from adversity—is what Wu Wei is. This is embodied by the story of the butcher who never sharpened his blade because he always cut between the spaces where the meat connected to the bone.

The Universe goes its own way, and Wu Wei suggests going with it instead of trying to carve our own canyon out of it. Wu Wei is about accepting what exists before us now and working with what the Universe has given us, rather than to try to take what isn't there, or to manipulate reality into something unnatural—something that will not last despite our efforts.

Wu Wei goes hand in hand with our knowledge; not our conscious knowledge of facts and figures, but the unconscious knowledge of ways, of roads, of Tao.

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Book Publishing Debate

To be honest, I wish this were true:

“Self-published authors and their insistent need to spam social media and pump out a copious amount of horrible ebooks is ruining the modern online bookstore.”

In such a situation someone with a well-written book—a rare sight these days, no doubt—with a lighter marketing touch could steal the show. I know people who would be millionaires already just by supplying the market with something it wants but doesn't have enough of: great fiction.

Is that happening?

Of course not.

__ Subjectivity __

How much spam you see related to book selling depends on where you're at online. Some people go for the hard sell, and lavish their followers with their latest book link. When I was using Twitter I saw a lot of this, and to a certain extent it was common on Facebook (within certain groups), but elsewhere even when there's a large group of authors, marketing is rare or even taboo (yet discussion of writing in general trends upward).

There are authors who use social media only to market their products, but the degree to which this detracts from the rest of the industry is limited, because a social network is a voluntary interaction. It's very easy to tune someone out. It's my choice who I pay attention to online, and some people (spammers are among them) aren't worth my time, but I have still bought self-published books from friends who will drop a link from time to time or who regularly discuss their story rather than try to sell a product. And I will do so again.

__ Reality __

Reality: there are many talented writers working on their own (or under an independent label). Competition to be noticed is stiff, sometimes impossible to deal with.

If it were really the case that “95%” of self-published books are “insufferable” then any talented author would have easy access to a readership crawling up walls for a decent book to read. Any self-published author who could put together a well-edited book and a consistently entertaining story would have thousands of readers eating out of the palm of his or her hand.

But most don't.

__ Professionals __

There are professionally published authors on social media who only talk about their books. But just as a few semi-amateur writers aren't jeopardizing self-publishing as a whole by being obnoxious, the “professional” authors aren't convincing readers everywhere to stop buying from the big publishing houses.

On top of that, self-published authors aren't the only ones putting out poorly written books. Professionally published authors may have better edited books, because they have the resources of the publishing house behind them, but as far as story goes you're really kidding yourself if you think all the good tales are found in the bookstore.

From the article:

At a recent publishing conference in London, Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, blasted authors who self-publish. “The overwhelming majority of self-published books are terrible—unutterable rubbish, they don’t enhance anything in the world.”

Here's a secret, if Mr. Franklin is listening. Most books are terrible rubbish, and don't enhance anything in the world. They even have a genre for books that are so worthless: pulp fiction. Even among the literary genre many books fall flat on their face by sacrificing story for the prettiness of the prose.

Most books are never written for the intention to change the world or to be intellectual. They're written for teenagers, (YA), or for women (romance), or for men (action and adventure). They're not written to change anyone's mind about anything, or necessarily to educate, but to entertain, and as far as that goes they're going to be two-dimensional, stereo-typed, full to the brim with cliches and lazy writing because to most readers of genre fiction (and especially to most writers), delectable writing isn't necessary.

And as with all forms of entertainment, most people end up liking specific genres or formats and believe “the rest” is shit they shouldn't concern themselves with.

I personally do not like 95% of books on the market, no matter who published them (or wrote them). Why should I be when I'm not interested in reading them?

Likewise, why should I go out of my way to trash one medium of entertainment because it doesn't suit my needs and interests?

__ Quality Control __

Quality control starts and ends with the reader. The publisher can't tell the reader if he or she will like the product on the shelf; the reader must read the book to know for him- or herself. I doubt I have truly enjoyed half of all the books I've read, and I've gone out of my way to read books I thought I would be interested in. I've read fiction on blogs that read better and had a better story than much of the fiction I've read in the library or bookstore.

As a reader, I have my work cut out for me going forward to find those books I really love—those books I'd want to own and read again.

Self-published books offer variety. I will gladly dig through some trash to find something I can use, and even if self-publishing must live or die by the axiom “one man's trash is another man's treasure,” I don't see why that's so bad.

__ Value __

“One thing indie authors have done is devalue the work of legitimate published authors. You know the type that write for a living, who have an editor and are considered accomplished, or at least well-read. The average indie title is $0.99 to $2.99, and the average publisher price is $7.99 – $12.99. Book buyers have been so conditioned to paying as little as possible that often they will not even consider a more expensive book. ”

Self-published books are cheap because self-published authors have little to no overhead. Professionally published books can cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to move from publisher to bookstore—depending on how much time and marketing a book publisher puts into a certain book—and yet self-published authors and professional authors make about the same $2.00 on each book they sell.

And yet professionally published books have not been devalued. The book market has actually stabilized, and the independent market share has stopped growing like it has grown in the last few years.

Not only have book buyers not been conditioned to pay less for books, they're actually paying more for them. Even self-published books will eventually go up in price, and the new price-point will shift from $2.99 to $3.99 and $4.99.

But the most important thing is that books are quite unique, as are the authors who write them, so that readers will go to where their favorite authors are. Readers aren't going to suddenly abandon well-known and well-liked authors in order to buy up cheap self-published novels, because that's not how most readers operate. Most readers become fans of certain authors and stick with them. That's why it is so important to build a fan base and to continue pumping out good books. 

Ironically, when the pressure to put out more product mounts, quality can slip. It has happened before with talented authors, while under pressure from their publishers to write more stories, wrote inferior stories to meet crucial deadlines.

__ Fear __

I think there's a certain level of fear involved with the emotionalized debate between the two types of publishing. But the fear, nor the debate, should detract from the authors out there writing well-written, entertaining stories.

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