The Philosophy of Flow and Wu Wei | TAOISM

The Philosophy of Flow and Wu Wei | TAOISM

Hi everybody welcome to this episode of Enlightenment
Today, I’m Jason. In this episode I’m going to speak about being
in a state of flow and its original ancestor known in Chinese as wu-wei from ancient China,
which is a concept at the heart of Taosim and martial arts. Most of us are familiar the term flow but
not so much with wu-wei. But as I mentioned, flow is a much older concept
going back to the Warring States period of ancient China which I will discuss shortly. The term flow was first coined and popularized
by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi who is a Hungarian psychologist. He wrote a fascinating book
called Flow back in 1990. When we think of flow we think of an athlete,
musician, writer, craftsman, or any artist when they appear to have this laser-like focus
and precision which is equated with them being in the zone. But our understanding of flow and how to induce
it is at a very novice level. You can tell this by how the word is loosely
thrown around in popular culture. You hear people say all the time that “there
in the zone man” or more to the point “I’m in the zone” or “I’m in the flow” which actually
implies you’re not in any state of flow if you have time to speak about it. We often hear athletes state after a great
performance that they felt they were in a state of flow where all the other noise of
the world was crowded out. They had tunnel vision. We all know that to be highly effective at
our chosen skill we need to enter a flow state of consciousness. But the problem for most of us is that we
have no idea how to get in a flow state. Most of us incorrectly think that this dimension
of effortless skill and peak performance is a state of mind isolated to world-class performers. You need to eliminate this way of thinking
and really absorb the information I am about to give you. So you could say in this episode I am going
to give you the inside dope how to understand and achieve a flow state. First and foremost, cultivating skill and
reaching peak performance, in other words entering a state of flow, really depends on
how we understand the mind and body. This is not some new radical way of thinking. This was actually the primary focus of numerous
great thinkers throughout history. It doesn’t whether East or West, understanding
human thought and the minds function has been a central focus for as long as we can remember. We’ve always been fascinated with why cultures
and traditions developed, why certain religions were born to bind community, and why someone
is more skillful at a particular craft than someone else. The process of thinking and how and why we
think, is at the foundation of philosophy, science, religion, and art. Both in the East and West there has been numerous
systems for understanding the mind for thousands of years. Some have stuck and many have disappeared. But for as long as we can remember there has
been a persistent myth pervading human civilization: that myth is mind-body dualism. This dualistic model of mind and body has
become the standard template for which we study the mind and the body. And the result of this myth is that it is
common for us to feel this split within us which is evident in our language and actions. This dualistic model of mind and body is the
big reason we don’t understand what flow is. We tend to feel we are these rational minds
in these completely irrational bodies. This mind-body dualism is the disembodied
myth embedded in our modern thinking. This myth has led us to focus and believe
firmly in an abstract rationality, where reason trumps all. So we end up believing we are these disembodied
rational agents imprisoned within this meat suit we call a body. This disembodied myth is a philosophical hangover
from Plato down to influential philosophers such as Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Philosophers such as these three propelled
the dualistic model of mind and body along based on vague intuitions they had about a
distinction between people who have minds and the physical world, which apparently doesn’t
have a mind according to them. Their metaphysics led to a dualism between
a disembodied mind and a physical world of things. In post-Enlightenment Europe and its colonies
rational thought was portrayed as the essence of human nature. Reason became something completely disconnected
from the physical world around us. Our mind, and its rationality, is thought
to be superior and distinct to the body and its emotions. This disembodied myth has implanted a split
within us that confuses us to no end. We have bought into the disembodied model
of mind without questioning its validity. Science also has suffered from the disembodied
model. Cognitive scientists in the mid-twentieth-century
treated the human mind as a brain in a container. Many experiments were concerned with abstract
information processing which led them nowhere. It wasn’t until the past few decades that
cognitive science began to change its perspective. Cognitive science is slowly moving away from
the disembodied dualistic model and instead is beginning to treat human thought as fundamentally
embodied. Cognitive science has shown through extensive
research on embodied cognition that we are not the paragons of reason we assume to be. Though, science is only just catching up to
this perspective. Many sages, artists, philosophers, and even
athletes have questioned the overuse of rationality because the actuality of their experience
tells a whole other story. This also might be why many artists, writers,
and philosophers are usually considered as having eccentric behavior by the general public. Many sages from the East, on the other hand,
are often suspicious of rational people because rational people often think too much about
everything. An artist would say being overly rational
destroys beauty and truth. Just ask yourself what is rational about a
lot of art? Or even for the beauty in sport for that matter? Beauty is intrinsically in the performance,
it is not something you have to think about, but instead it is something you appreciate
and are inspired by. And yet, though the embodied state of mind
may be the normal perspective for sages, artists, philosophers, and athletes, cognitive science
has developed a sophisticated model for understanding the mind-body integrated system. This model is known as dual process theory
and it is based on two systems of cognitive function. Psychologists like to create unique terms
which define them as different from the rest of the scientific community. So these two systems are known as hot cognition
(or System 1) and cold cognition (or System 2). The hot system is the cognitive function that
is automatic, spontaneous, fast, effortless, mostly unconscious, and what is the primary
driver of emotions. It is located in the more unconscious regions
of the brain. Hot cognition operates automatically and is
fast and spontaneous, with little or no effort required. In the hot cognitive process there is no sense
of voluntary control. Cold cognition, on the other hand, is the
cognitive control centers within our brain located in the prefrontal cortex. The cold system is self-conscious, slow, deliberate,
effortful, and it is the part of the mind we refer to as ourselves, the “I.” So cold cognition is associated with the subjective
experience of agency, choice, and concentration. In our growing world of rationality we have
overcompensated for the cold system and we don’t realize that both systems have their
benefits and flaws. We need to understand that even though we
feel as though we are these subjective agents who have conscious control, hot cognition
is still driving us mainly. So when we speak of expert skill it is ultimately
the result of the hot system. The time and practice spent on a particular
craft cultivates ingrained skill. From the NRL legend Johnathan Thurston’s ability
to kick a winning goal in the dying moments of the game to the NFL quarterback Tom Brady’s
ability to throw a touchdown pass under pressure, onto the ability of someone like Ida Haendal
to play the violin, all of their skill is as ingrained a process as opening and closing our hand, well
for those three individuals anyway. This is expertise. This is where the skill has become embodied
and the cold function of thinking and analyzing has temporarily shut down. Spontaneity takes over and as spectators we
can appreciate the natural beauty of their skill. Not only does hot cognition bring the spontaneity
of our natural movements to life, but it also brings the peak states of skill to the forefront
of humanity, making our world much more beautiful than if we had to think and analyze everything
we do as something that should be rational. Both systems are required to function optimally
to develop skill. In music, you need to learn music theory over
and over again to the point it is like reading your mother language. On top of this you need to learn how to manipulate
the body to make the noise coming out of the instrument to sound like a melody rather than
a dying cat. For violin you need to train your body to
hold certain finger positions and also how to hold the bow. For drums you need to learn how to hold the
sticks and how to hit the drums while your feet simultaneously press down on the pedals
with a beater attached to hit the bass drum or kick drum in other words. Like most things, learning any musical instrument
takes time. But after a while the skill becomes embodied. The musical instrument ends up being an extension
of your body, like a fifth limb, because it becomes as easy and unconscious as walking. It is the constant focus and repetition exercised
by a strong cold cognition that ingrains any particular skill into our hot system. To explain a strong cold cognition it can
focus on a task for a good length of time while a weak or lazy cold cognition is prone
answer questions with the first thing that comes to their mind which leads to intuitive
errors. Also other characteristics of a weak cold
system is impulsivity, impatience, and a desire for immediate gratification. But coming back to ingrained skill, once we
download the cold cognitive physical application and theory of a particular skill into our hot cognition,
the skill becomes spontaneous and can be accessed without having to consciously think about
it. This process is constant in cultivating skill. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this
cognitive phenomenon by stating that “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy
diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern
of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions
involved.” Those of you seriously dedicated to a craft
will continue to develop skill. This process teaches us to disengage from
our cold cognition as well, and this is really important to understand. Even though world-class performers use cold
cognition to learn a certain skill, once it has become embodied cold cognition is like
kryptonite to the effortlessness of the hot system. For example, a musician will perform without
the sense of “them” doing it. What I mean is when they start to think about
what they are doing you mess everything up. We, as the cold cognitive conscious self,
are in our own way. When we are out of our own way, meaning our
cold cognition has downregulated, we are in the zone. Keep in mind downregulate is a word for decrease,
diminish, or turning the volume down. So the dizzying height of skill is to be able
to remain in this state of the zone for longer periods of time. Our cold cognitive concentration gives way
to a much deeper level of focus. If you are focused, and not thinking, your
cold cognition will slowly downregulate and you will be in the zone, in a state of flow. The effortless cognitive ease we feel when
we are in the flow is when the lights are on but nobody is home, meaning the slow cold
thinking function that we mistaken for who we are, has shutdown. As a result, the aesthetic beauty of the natural
world comes alive through your skill. Understanding this modern science of flow
demonstrates how human cognition is embodied. So the methods for cultivating skill should
be approached with the new embodied model of the self rather than the hangover of an
old and dusty disembodied model of the self. And yet, though the embodied mind may appear
new to cognitive science, it is only catching up to an embodied model of mind which is much
more ancient. To sufficiently understand how to experience
flow we need to understand the wisdom and science behind the development of skill first
explored in the East. The embodied model of the self was the primary
viewpoint during the Warring States period of China, and also other parts of Asia. But it was in China especially that we discover
the embodied mind model. During the Warring States period there were
numerous philosophers and sages whose names we still know today. Most notably Lao-tzu, Confucius, Mencius,
and Chuang-tzu. Though their philosophies may somewhat differ,
their way for understanding the mind and body was the same. Their view of human nature was mind-body holism. Their philosophies, social systems, religions,
and ritual practices reflect this holistic view. From centuries of ancient Chinese people following
their philosophies and rigorous training to cultivate harmonious dispositions in the self,
there is no doubt according to them that human cognition is embodied. Any other model, such as mind-body dualism,
was shown the contempt it deserved. If in ancient China the embodied model of
the self was understood to be how humans are hardwired, then we can see why a healthy skepticism
developed towards mind-body dualism and its rational agents. In the East, in general, this skepticism shown
towards rationality is culturally held firm. The battle within us, then, is not between
a rational being attempting to lord it over an unruly body. But instead it is a tug of war between an
allocation of function between the two systems of hot and cold cognition. In the West and modern developed world, majority
of our energy is allocated towards the function of the cold system trying to control the natural
hot system. But in the ancient East it is absurd to try
and overemploy the cold system, especially when you consider the main driving force within
us and our essential nature is within the hot system. The focus then in ancient China was more about
ingrained skill and shaping our character because they can both be cultivated in our
hot system as natural and spontaneous. Eastern thought then, especially the ancient
Chinese embodied model of the self, is an essential corrective to the way modern Western
philosophy has a tendency to focus on the cold cognitive aspects of conscious thought,
rationality, and willpower. As a result, the modern revolution of embodied
cognition in cognitive science was inspired partially by Eastern thought, especially ancient
Chinese thought. The main focus of many ancient Chinese sages
and philosophers during the Warring States period was the concept wu-wei. Wu-wei literally means non-doing, non-force,
and effortless action. The effortlessness of wu-wei is ultimately
a state of intelligent spontaneity. And I believe intelligent spontaneity is a
more accurate term than flow when we are talking about that effortless state of mind. Keep in mind though that the concept of how
wu-wei is achieved differed slightly among each philosopher and sage. Chuang-tzu’s focus was on effortless skill
or effortless action, which actually adapts perfectly to modern cognitive science. We can understand the effortlessness of wu-wei
when we think of those times we try too hard to achieve something. When we are often trying too hard we are not
allowing for life to naturally happen. For example, when we put a key in a lock and
try to turn the key too fast we feel resistance. To open the door you need to be loose and
relaxed and when you jiggle the key ever so softly the door opens effortlessly. So by not forcing you effortlessly moved through
the task of opening a door. The key and door analogy is not only about
how expert skill is effortless but it is also a metaphor for how we move skillfully through
life. No other sage or philosopher during the Warring
States period explores skill more than Chuang-tzu. The Chuang-tzu text is like a manual for cultivating
skill and training spontaneity, upon a lot of other things really. And this is why Chuang-tzu synthesizes well
with modern cognitive science. The skill emphasized by Chuang-tzu in the
Chuang-tzu text is not only about expertise but also life skills which are supposed to
contribute to developing harmonious dispositions in the self. Chuang-tzu, on a subtle level, examines the
science of skill and how to reach peak performance to the point of explaining what the actual
experience is like. Chuang-tzu understood that spontaneous skill
comes from the deeper, more evolutionary ancient hot system. Somehow we need to ignite the spontaneity
within the hot system naturally. The cold system interferes with the spontaneity
of life. Even in ancient China people overly identified
with the cold system which gives one this sense of being an isolated self. Chuang-tzu explains that our real nature,
the authentic self, is beneath the rational cold cognition. He articulates this through skill stories
that exhibit this transfer of functional allocation from the cold system back to the hot system. He uses the craftsmen as an example to explain
how skill and virtues can become so much a part of us that they are instinctive and spontaneous,
they are hot. One of the most famous stories in the Chuang-tzu
text is about a butcher called Cook Ting (or Butcher Ting). The Cook Ting story setting is a traditional
religious ceremony where an ox will be sacrificed in public for the ruler Lord Wen-hui and a
large crowd of onlookers. Cook Ting is the center of attention for this
religious event. This ritual of animal sacrifice demands the
difficult skill of using a blade with precise timing and perfect execution. But this is not so difficult for Cook Ting. He slices and dices the ox up so effortlessly
that Lord Wen-hui is astonished. Lord Wen-hui cannot believe such a mundane
skill can reach the heights of beauty similar to an artistic performance. He approaches Cook Ting to ask how he can
cut an ox up so effortlessly. Cook Ting explains that after years of cultivating
skill he now encounters the ox with his spirit and it spontaneously guides him in the right
direction. Cook Ting says: “What I care about is the
Way (the Tao), which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I
could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole
ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t
look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to
a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike
the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or
tendon, much less a main joint.” So Cook Tings ability to allow spirit to move
where it wants from a contemporary perspective is the spontaneity of the hot system naturally
functioning without the hindrance of cold cognitive analysis. When Cook Ting says, “Perception and understanding
have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants” what he is really saying is when
I have stopped the cold cognitive thinking apparatus, the spontaneous nature of the hot
system takes over and moves effortlessly with the environment. And yet, this ability of Cook Ting’s expert
butchery was something that took three years to master. From years of repetition and discipline, the
skill of butchery was as effortless, instinctual, and spontaneous as walking. The need to think about what he is doing evaporated. All that is left is a movement of effortlessness
which feels no resistance in mind, body, or environment. Cook Ting and his skill as a butcher are one
because the skill is so ingrained in his hot cognition that it is as effortless as walking
for him. His embodied mind has reached the height of
skill, which is a state of intelligent spontaneity. Intelligent spontaneity is a common experience
for the skillful craftsmen. The story of Cook Ting is about how we effectively
move through the world with skill and not feel resistance. Reaching your optimal potential is also the
same, meaning you attain expert skill in your desired craft and that extends out into life
in general. This feeling of effortlessness, or flow and
wu-wei, is a state of psychological ease we feel through our whole body. The goal of wu-wei, then, is to effectively
move smoothly through all aspects of your life, where even unexpected events in our
life are dealt with spontaneously with intelligence. No obstacle is too big or even really perceived
as an obstacle anymore. In a state of wu-wei you don’t press up
against obstacles, but instead you act in the same fashion as the gentle key trying
to open the door, which means you may absorb the pressure of an obstacle but because you
don’t resist it you overcome it without forcing the outcome. This absorb and action technique is one of
the foundational pillars of traditional martial arts. Modern martial artists, especially mixed martial
artists, often use the word flow. It is used when someone appears to be very
lucid and in the zone. Yet as I mentioned common understandings of
the concept flow are at a novice level and this goes for a lot martial artists. The spontaneous nature expressed through us
in a state of wu-wei is the deeper and more powerful raw material of our hot cognition
functioning optimally. When there is no interference from the over-analytical
cold system, you express the spontaneity of human nature intelligently. Intelligent spontaneity, then, is a fully
embodied state of mind where one is perfectly calibrated to the environment. The environment essentially becomes an extension
of your skill. For example, when you are in a state of intelligent
spontaneity in martial arts you are perfectly calibrated to the obstacles you face with
an opponent. The opponent will try everything to land a
blow but you see it almost in slow motion. As a result, you act spontaneously without
it feeling like a reaction because there was no conscious thought driving it. And even if you do absorb a blow you move
with it, which is a technique in the Korean martial art Hapkido. This technique makes the opponent overextend
and lose balance, where they usually fall to the ground. In Chinese thought this approach is explained
by the concepts yin which means the feminine and passive energy of the universe and yang
which means the masculine and active energy of the universe. In Chinese thought yin nourishes yang. This means that when we are intelligently
passive, or have poise in other words, we give birth to correct action minus aggression. This is a key point, correct action minus
aggression. So we usually overextend in Hapkido or in
any martial arts and life in general when we are full of aggression and emotions. Essentially, if we are not receptive enough
we will be hard and rigid. And someone hard and rigid is easily overcome
by someone who is soft and flexible because they have poise and are fully present in the
moment. As Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water my
friend.” This effortless cognitive style is similar
to the movements of a graceful dancer. Intelligent spontaneity is not only the effect
of a dancer being perfectly calibrated to the environment, but it is also the essential
goal of martial arts, or any skill for that matter. In a state of intelligent spontaneity we approach
life with a mind of no deliberation. An expert craftsman embodies this effortless
state of mind. The craftsmen integrates the two systems into
mind-body holism and so they are perfectly adapted to the world around them. But, to cultivate expert skill and skill in
life we have to understand how a craftsman disengages from the cold system to allow the
hot cognitive virtues of nature to spontaneously flower. The expert craftsman is a perfect example
of how both systems function together to evoke intelligent spontaneity. Their mind absorbed in their craft is a metaphor
for how we too can be absorbed fully in life through a chosen skill. A skilled craftsman’s integration of mind
and body back into its original holism is the result of years of training their embodied
cognition to be as natural as nature itself. The craftsman moves effortlessly through their
skill and this is applied to life in general. When the two systems function naturally it
is totally normal to be perfectly calibrated to the environment. This integration of both systems means that
the mind is embodied and the body is mindful. To make the two systems integrated and working
together we need to develop the ability to concentrate for extended periods of time which
will eventually evoke a deep level of focus that arises from the hot system. A skilled craftsman can evoke this ability
spontaneously anytime if it is needed, to the extent that it is as normal as chewing
food for them. The way the process begins is through the
long and arduous training which is required to call on a skill upon command. The process of learning a skill to this heightened
degree is dependent on a strong cold system to begin with. A strong cold system is dedicated to the theory
of a particular skill and the discipline required to make it embodied. We have all tried to get better at something
which requires practice every day. Usually we don’t want to use a lot of effort
but something inside says “stop being a weakling. Suck it up and push forward.” That inside dictator is of course the cold
cognition, and it is a strong cold cognition if the message is taken on board to push forward. When a craftsman strengthens their cold system
and becomes a dedicated student to whatever skill they’re learning, they are ever so
slowly downloading the subtle nuances and theoretical details of that skill into their
hot cognition. As a result, the skill begins to unconsciously
manifest. The hot systems ability to fine tune a particular
skill continues when a strong cold cognition has an iron will to reach beyond the known
limits. As this process continues the craftsman invariably
encounters an unexpected snag, which is that the cold system begins to inhibit flow states
of consciousness. So once a skill has become ingrained in the
hot system, the cold system is a hindrance because of its tendency to analyze and over
think. When a skill has become embodied, the primary
way to get better is to continually perform that skill through constant repetition. But this cannot happen if the cold system
is still functioning, meaning when it is essentially in the way. From a contemporary cognitive science perspective,
this is what it actually means when we say we are in our own way, meaning the cold system
is in the way of the hot system naturally expressing itself. If the cold system cannot be downregulated,
it inhibits intelligent spontaneity. The effortlessness in a performance, no matter
what it is, is ruined when we begin to over think about what we are doing. As a result, we regress back into mind-body
dualism training. The natural flow of expert skill and peak
performance result from embodied cognition, so mind-body holism. The problem in trying to attain intelligent
spontaneity is we don’t know how to temporarily shut down cold cognition. What you need to remember is that when we
are fully engaged in what we are doing cold cognition is naturally downregulated because
parts of the brain are not activated when they are not necessary. And when intelligent spontaneity comes to
life cold cognition is not activated because it is not part of nature’s spontaneous beauty. When the spontaneity of the hot system is
expressed, through a skill or otherwise, cold cognition is downregulated. When skill is ingrained in the hot system
we access, more often than not, a deep level of focus where the sense of “you” doing
“something” has evaporated. You have merged as one with the activity. There is no distinction between you and your
skill, they are one. As a result you are one with the terrain your
skill has to navigate through. This experience is commonly referred to as
“being in the zone.” The real reason you are in the zone is because
your cold cognition has been downregulated to let the spontaneous nature of life come
alive through you. Essentially, there is no “person” because
the cold system has downregulated. Remember the cold system is where we identify
with ourselves as a person. Just this very small part of brain in the
prefrontal cortex. We are much more than that. So in the experience of intelligent spontaneity
we come in contact with a deeper level of existence beneath our personality within our
hot system. This deeper level of existence is where the
naturalness of life spontaneously arises. This spontaneity arising of itself is the
Chinese concept of ziran. Meaning nature is fundamentally of itself
and your skill can become as nature is if you discover that flow state within your chosen
skill, which in turn trains you to extend those skills into every day life. This is the end goal of intelligent spontaneity,
or flow and wu-wei, because your skill is your second nature in the sense that it is
as effortless as opening and closing your hand. Now you truly understand what flow is. So now its up to you to enter that flow state
so that you can bring your ingrained skill forth to inspire the world.


18 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Flow and Wu Wei | TAOISM”

  • Here's a quote on flowing 🙂

    Do not struggle. Go with the flow of things, and you will find yourself at one with the mysterious unity of the Universe. — Zhuangzi

  • seems like a very effortful presentation. I think the Wu wei slipped out of the video somehow. I would make sure to use a net of some kind for the next vid so it doesn't happen again 😉

  • spittin bars yo, in the flow, yo, hoe, im in the zone, wu wei is my second name hey, look at my water like strike yike never been smoother than a sub woofer drippin rhymes without slippin slippery watery floor cos I flow like a bowling ball yo.

  • Damn this guy just perfectly articulated why i hate western philosophy on the nature of selfi im gunna have to quote this lol

  • Ok so hes talking about music in relation to hot cold concisness if you want to hear the diffriance look up john coultrians "gient steps" coultrian had been wood shedding the cord progressions for a year before he droped that song on his pick up band for recording it so the pianist was in cold consciousness and had no idea what to do in his solo because no one in jazz had attacked the circle of 5ths like coultrian did with that song and when that paino solo ends coultrian hits with lightning speed in the perfect employment of hot concisness

  • Joey Smallwood says:

    Hi Jason, irie vibes my friend, thanks for all your work, especially the tea time, I shared it with my class at University of New Mexico, and we all loved it.

  • Chris Summers says:

    Wu-wei – flow

    Most of people don't know how to get to the flow state

    What is rational about a lot of art?

    Rational people think too much about everything. Destroys beauty

    Spontaneity takes over.

  • Leonardo Romanelli says:

    I wrote a book in Japan on my experience about Wu Wei; it is on amazon : "Wu Wei Journey" by Leonardo Romanelli

  • one of those when the studnet is ready the master appear… excactly the piece of tthe puzzle I was looking for…. good presentation as well

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