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Wei Wu Wei
Wei Wu Wei
by Ross Robertson
Wei Wu Wei

Way back in the '70s, as an adolescent I was introduced to the Tao Te Ching. I read it through a number of times, and would also occasionally select a chapter at random and see what was in it. I have no doubt that it, and related works such as "The Gospel According to Zen" influenced my world view considerably.

One of the ideas that lodged in my mind was the Chinese principle of wu wei. It became a worthwhile puzzle, and I liked to look for instances that I thought might qualify as exemplars. I suppose it was only natural that I would develop a fascination with the martial arts, most readily the western popular appropriation of kung fu (thank you David Carradine). I never pursued any training, however, and my only exposure to the martial arts outside of entertainment media was occasional attendance at tournaments and demonstrations (hapkido particularly caught my eye).

Still, it wasn't until my early college days that my brother introduced me to aikido. I wasn't particular about the country of origin, but I knew there were a lot of arts and styles that did not appeal. The first time I saw aikido in action was at Bill Sosa's old dojo on Jefferson in Dallas (not the newer one, where I also trained). David Leibs (forgive any misspelling) was the instructor of record that first day, and I thought I'd found magic.

Nothing was said about wu wei, but I could see it there in its fullness of (empty, non-) action.

Now, decades later, I've seen countless styles and instructors of aikido. I've witnessed and experienced a very wide diversity of hard and soft, decisive and nonchalant. I like it all, more or less, but the expression and experience of wu wei retains for me its original appeal.

Yet, oddly, I never really hear it being discussed within aikido schools, except perhaps in passing. Yes, I understand that this is a Japanese art, and wu wei is a jewel of Chinese thought. But still.

There are related concepts, certainly. Mushin pertains, as does dochu no sei. Probably the "ju" of judo was conceived in the same spirit. No doubt there are many others, and hopefully my readers can point me to schools where it is a central feature of their training.

But I've gotten around a bit by now, and I can't say that it's been common in my experience. So where is it? (Insiders may joke that it's everywhere, and one need only look under a rock or to split wood to find it there. I don't disagree.)

Some of O Sense's remarks can easily be interpreted as hints toward wu wei. But I would have some concern that that's just a confirmation bias, seeing and interpreting something just because we want to.

I'm tempted to tentatively conclude that, for the most part, wu wei is simply not a central concept in the practice of most aikido. As I say, I welcome the exceptions, but it will take some convincing before I accept that it is commonplace.

This mystifies me a bit. That doesn't stop me from continuing to develop my own art along such lines (and occasionally with significant help -- thank you again, Henry Kono). But it sometimes leaves me feeling that much of what I see in the realm of aikido is -- oddly foreign.

Confirmation bias may have been at work when I first saw aikido. I didn't consciously think to myself, "Wow! Just look at all that wu wei out there!" But it triggered that sense in my bones that I was seeing a fundamentally different quality of action, and I wanted it.

Regardless, my immersion in aikido has without a doubt made me who I am. There is much more to aikido in particular, and oriental philosophy in general, than just wu wei. I feel quite wealthy from just the few pebbles I have in my pocket, even while I stand in awe at mountain ranges of crystals and gems.

Mostly though, this is just me wondering aloud: Does wu wei exist intrinsically in aikido? If so, is it explicit or implicit? If not, why not?

What do you think?

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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Old 06-01-2017, 02:32 PM   #2
Dojo: Roswell Budokan
Location: Roswell GA
Join Date: Nov 2010
Posts: 145
Re: Wei Wu Wei

It's funny. We routinely talk about teaching flow in Aikido.

If we use the sports psych meaning of Flow (aka "being in the zone"), you would think we are doing Flow in Aikido which is considered to equate to at least a subset of wu wei. Yet, it seems we emphasize or only recognize the physical manifestation instead of the all-important "being in the zone" version of flow. Harmonizing or blending or whatever with the "energy" of any given situation would seem to require that mental flow in addition to the physical. That seems like a strong manifestation of wu wei.

Personally, I have always been an "in the zone/flow/wu wei" kind of person just naturally, without thinking (pardon the pun). So when as a young adult I first encountered the concept described in the Tao and then spelled out in a book about "Flow", my initial response was - "Right. I'm good with that. I'll keep doing that then." It was then that I realized to my great surprise that most people didn't operate that way.

While I think learning physical flow might help teach the mental flow, I think mindful pursuit of flow might be required to get there. But is that possible or contradictory? Not sure. I don't mindfully practice - I just "do" which some folks will complain means I am not properly focused. But I will argue that I am just "in the zone" which doesn't require any additional effort on my part to create focus. If anyone is familiar with the works of Stephen Brust (a fantasy writer), I am precisely a Dzur.

I definitely think we fail to talk about this mental aspect in our discussions of flow in Aikido. I think people DO it - but is not discussed or emphasized compared to technique, structure, physical flow or whatever.

Just my thoughts...

All paths lead to death. I strongly recommend taking one of the scenic routes.
AWA - Nidan - Started Aikido training in 2008
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