Wei-Wu-Wei: The practical guide on how to become unbusy and cultivate a calm mind

Somewhere along the path, "busy" has become the defualt answer to the question, "how are you doing?"

And the response isn't any better.

"Oh, well that's a good problem to have," or "Some people would feel blessed to have the problems you deal with."

But, if we dig deeper into the depth of this busyness that has seeped into every corner of our lives, we might be surprised at what we find.

To be fair, there are a handful of people who might be up to their eyeballs with busyness that is warranted. The man leading the SEAL task unit Bruiser in the Battle of Ramadi has his handful. The women pulling a back-to-back shifts in the ICU saving lives has a full plate.

These types of situations demand an unrelenting level of focused hustle.

But for the rest of us, including myself, the busyness that we have heaved ourselves into is largely self-imposed.

We say yes to projects we can't deliver on.

We sign up for community service that we feel strong-armed into volunteering for.

We commit our kids to soccer, piano, jiu-jitsu, and CrossFit all at once.

We get into debt because of emotional purchases that force us to extend ourselves at work.

And then, we lump this existence into a box called busyness.

This frantic, quasi-humble busyness we have clung ourselves to tends to make us more busy without anything to show for it. The result is fatigue with no substance to back it up.

We've become ceaselessly busy because of our own ambition. And because of that, we're as scared as a jack-rabbit who has just heard the howl of a wolf to come face-to-face with the absence of busyness.

So, we busy ourselves.

We'd rather keep pouring into the cup even though it's full instead of exploring what life would be like with some intentional margin.

At some point, we've got to ask ourselves, "is all this busyness making my life better?"

Some stats might point to the answer.

Over a one-third of all Americans claim to be living with extreme stress daily. Downtime, leisure and aimless wondering is becoming extinct - our nation is populated with people who work like robots. Three-quarters of American parents say that are too busy to read to their children at night.

This is a problem. But there is also some irony in this situation. A large amount of us are claiming to be so busy, but data shows that we are working less as a country than ever before. For more on this, click here.

The ease of distraction and the increase of choices has made us feel busier. Arguably, our abundance has sparked our ambition into a wildfire of expansive shallowness.

We're losing the capacity to go deep with anything - life, work, heath, spirituality, love.

We try to be everywhere, and do everything without ever being content or present in the moment in front of us.


What Wei-Wu-Wei Can Teach Us

Eastern cultures have long held the importance of a calm, but focused mind. In America, the concept of calm and focused working together is not as commonplace.

Instead, focus is usually attached to intensity of effort. Sometimes, it also leans towards recklessness - something like a monkey with a machine gun.

But what if we could train ourselves to weave calm into our daily approach and not lose the edge?

The Tao Te Ching is a Chinese text that advocates Wei-Wu-Weiwhich can be translated as inaction in the action.

At first glance, this might come off as some new-age riddle. But, before you write it off as non-sense, consider these examples for a moment.

Have you ever witnessed someone handle a crisis or difficult situation in a way that demonstrated inner poise while accepting the appropriate external reality?

Have you ever watched an athlete perform under enormous pressure while maintaining a posture as cool as the other side of the pillow?

Have you ever seen someone intelligently debate without losing their head and attempt to verbally stab his opponent?

All of these examples point at Wei-Wu-Wei - preserving calmness during the midst of action.

Why is this important?

We live in 2016, and the desire to be idle or stress-free is over-reaching. In other words, it wouldn't benefit most of us to retreat and live in a hut with no internet or deadlines to meet.

Things have to get done. We've got to pay the rent. Proposals must be sent. Blog posts must be written. Sales must be made.

All that stuff. You get it.

The question I've been wrestling with (and maybe you have as well) is this: Can we be as ambitious as a law student who just graduated without getting pummeled by physical and emotional burnout?

I think so.

Before I aim to support this by leveraging Wei-Wu-Wei our daily lives, lets look at a story that'll help you wrap your mind around why all this stuff can be really beneficial for you and me.


The Standford Duck Syndrome

Carole Perofsky is the director of Wellness and Health Promotion at Standford. Her observation of the student life transcends GPA's and course electives:

On the surface, the students look like peaceful ducks, serenely gliding along in the sun, contentedly basking in the splendor and grace of their success. However, if you look under the surface, there is a dark underside: the ducks' legs are furiously pedaling as they struggle to stay afloat and keep moving.

Does that sound familiar?

Maybe you're not a student in the conventional sense anymore. Perhaps, as a student of life, you're pretending that everything is all good. But internally, you feel like a duck who is pedaling furiously just to keep your head above water.

And it's getting tiresome.

You don't know how long you can sustain it. Life feels like the pedal is to the medal at all times. Even small tasks feel life-threatening and painfully urgent. You've somehow crafted the ability to manufacture emergencies in all things.

The only reason why I can write those things is because I battle with all of it too. I'm not shouting at you from a distance - I'm in the trenches with you.

But a while ago, I decided to do something about it. One of those strategies is using the power of Wei-Wu-Wei into my daily habits.

All that really means is cultivating calm into your day as a daily practice. I like to keep things practical. Not only for me, but for you as the reader too.

Reasonably speaking, there are three ways I've found to be effective in cultivating calm into my days without slipping in productivity or drive: Mindfulness meditation, breathing and walking.



Mindfulness meditation is predicated on the idea that you don't have to be at the mercy of an untamed mind.

It's something like this: Imagine a wild stallion at the helm of your thoughts. And with unending stamina, the stallion drags you thorough every thought with reckless abandon.

If you know what I'm talking about, you understand what this feels like.

It's marvelously fatiguing. And it feels like you have no control. Moreover, this scattered mental state also feeds into the busyness trap.

One of the most practical and accessible means to manage an untamed mind is through mindfulness meditation.

Think of it as a personal trainer for your brain, but there aren't any sit ups involved. Extensive research backs up the benefits of mindfulness meditation including:

  • Improved self-control and willpower
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Higher levels of empathy and benevolence

Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, it has entered as a secular practice of meditation in American mainstream over the recent years.

You don't have to move to Tibet and wear a robe to reap these benefits either. You can start exactly where you are. And, you only need 10 minutes a day to get your feet wet with the practice.

I personally used headspace.com. They truly embody their own tag line of, "Meditation made simple."

Keep in mind, your mindfulness meditation deepens with practice. Surely, it's a tool, but with consistent practice the value accumulates. At some point, it shifts from being a tool to a state of being.



For decades, the art of breathing has been a staple used by Yogi's in order to calm the mind and shift the physiological state to manage emotions more effectively.

Long used as a spiritual practice, more research in the field of neuroscience  is revealing that breathing exercises are another accessible way to cultivate calm in your daily life.

Pierre Philippot, a Belgian psychologist performed a study that showcased how influential breathing is in relation to your emotional state. In his study, he measured the breathing patterns of the subjects when they felt depressed, sad, angry, happy, excited, and calm. He found that emotion was highly correlated with a certain way of breathing.

When we're anxious or angry, our breath is fast and shallow. When we're calm, the breath is slow and deep.

Furthermore, Philippot wanted to know if the breath could influence physiological states rather than simply observing the distinct types of breath when the emotional state was already in play.

In other words, when he instructed subjects who were in a neutral state, and told them to take deep, slow breathes, they felt calm. When he instructed them to take fast shallow breaths, the felt anxious or angry.

Why is this important?

Because breathing can change your emotional state.

When we're stressed and busy beyond belief, anxiety and overwhelm tend to take up a lot of real estate in our minds. It's hard to think yourself out of this emotional state.

You've got to change your physiological state to manage your emotions. A simple breathing exercise is a practical way to do that:

1. Inhale through your nose, expanding your abdomen. Count to five.

2. Hold and count to three.

3. Exhale slowly from the nose and a slightly parted mouth.

Start small with this habit - a few minutes twice a day is a good jump-off point.



We don't have to look far to find some prescriptive information how we need to get to the gym more. It'll point us to strength training programs, CrossFit, boot-camps, TRX.


But what we don't find much of is the simple suggestion to walk more. Perhaps it's too simplistic and it can't be packaged up and sold at a 300% margin.

Walking is arguably the most accessible, yet most overlooked way to cultivate a calm mind and improve your overall wellness. Regular walking has shown to offer the following benefits:

  • Improve memory and attention span up to 20%
  • Boost creativity
  • Lower cortisol
  • Induce involuntary attention creating space for reflection and increased awareness
  • Boosts endorphins which can reduce stress hormones

The optimal medium of walking is outdoors. Whether you're in Manhattan, Sioux Falls, Austin, or Laguna Beach, getting outside for a walk is accessible for most people. And it also happens to be a free tool that can help you cultivate calm in our daily routine.


Wrapping Up

Becoming unbusy and purposefully focused is possible. It's a choice.

For a small number of people, quitting their job and moving to Costa Rica to run a consulting business from their laptop accompanied by an ocean view is an option.

But what about the rest of the people?

Learning how to cultivate calmness in the midst of action is the answer.

Mindfulness, intentional breathing and walking are three tools we can all use to harness the power of Wei-Wu-Wei.

With practice, these tools become a state of being. We gain control of our emotions and are able to navigate ups and downs objectively. This points to the art of acquiescence - the acceptance of reality without protest.

There are things we can control and things that we cannot control. Busyness has a natural aptitude for influencing us to consume ourselves with things that we cannot control.

Busy makes us fight tooth and nail for things that we have little power over.

Invest in yourself. Become unbusy. And if you're afraid of losing your edge, busy will always be there - you can always jump back into the river.


End notes:

Thanks to Emma Seppala, PH.D., for helping prompt this piece.

The Happiness Track

Boost Your Immune System, Shake Off Stress by Walking in the Woods

Why is America the "No-Vacation Nation?"

Three Quarters of Parents are too Busy to Read Bedtime Stories

Can Meditation Make You a More Compassionate Person?

Mindfulness Meditation Practice Improves Electrophysiological Markers of Attention Control

Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Effects on Anxiety and Stress Reactivity

Green Spaces Reduce Stress Levels of Jobless

Going Outside - Even in the Cold - Improves Memory and Attention