The Art of Sailing through life: Wu Wei

There are three approaches to life.

Chances are, you’ve used all of them as some point.
But you probably have a dominant way of navigating through life.

But before we jump into it, I want to introduce you to the Phoenicians.

Facing the Mediterranean Sea, Phoenicia was a federation of coastal city-states located along the coast of today’s Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel. Phoenician city-states began to form over 5,000 years ago and dominated the Mediterranean coasts for over a millennium, establishing trade routes and spreading new commercial tools (like the first widely-adopted alphabet).

I digress.

The Phoenicians moved from a few coastal cities, and settled across Mediterranean Europe and Africa, traded across the whole coast, and even reached the British Isles and West Africa.

Fast forward 1000 years, and another sea-faring civilisation expanded its horizon, settling over most of Northern Europe, Iceland, the British Isles, Normandy (in Northern France), the island of Sicily and the south of the Italian peninsula, and going as far as settling in Greenland and exploring what’s now North-East Canada: the Vikings.

One more?

Fast forward another 500 years or so, and we get to 1522, the year in which Ferdinand Magellan‘s expedition made the first voyage around the world, circumnavigating the whole globe. Boom. It was the so-called Age of Exploration, marking the beginning of modern globalisation (as well as mercantilism and colonialism).

There are more examples, such as the Ming dynasty in China, the Chola empire in India, and the Polynesians. What links these extraordinary leaps in civilisation and human history?

The Art of Sailing.

Three ways of navigating

Whether you’re exploring continents or moving through life, there are three ways to navigate your way: drifting, rowing, and sailing.

Drifting is easy. There are no skills required. Drifting is total passivity.
Lie down. Look up. Eventually, you’ll find yourself somewhere else. Or in the same place.

Because drifting is easy, it is hard.

At some point, you’ll either regret not taking the more difficult choices, or have to compensate with a sprint to sort things out. To finally move to a better landscape. To avoid a waterfall.

Then, you have to row.

Rowing is simple. It requires brute force. Rowing is forcefulness.
Set a destination. Get rowing. Or look at at the waterfall. Start rowing away from it.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a different place. Will you keep rowing?

Because rowing is simple, it’s exhausting.

At some point, you’ll want to stop and take a breath. Stop rowing against the current. Stop focusing on avoiding the waterfall. Finally enjoy the scenery.

Or you can sail.

Sailing is effortless. It requires harmony. Sailing is dancing.
Set a destination, and let the winds take you there. Go with the currents, not against them.
Move with the obstacle, not against the obstacle. Observe, then learn.
Eventually, you will get to your destination. You were there all along.

And you’ll know that the journey is the best part.

Effortless action (Wu Wei)

There are a time and a place for each style.
If you’re close to a waterfall, row. Get out of there.
If you need a nudge to get you in the right direction, row. Do it.

If you realise you’ve been rowing in the wrong direction, it’s ok to drift for a short while. Take a break.

But only sailing will take you to new horizons.
Only sailing will make you dance with the winds, not shiver.
Only sailing will let the currents help you, not fight you.

Wu Wei (无为), is a core concept in ancient Chinese philosophy.
Non (Wu) Forcing / Doing (Wei).

Action of non-action.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s the art of aligning your actions with your environment.

It’s judo, not fist fighting.
It’s acceptance, not forcing.
It’s bigger picture, not short-term.
It’s dancing, not sprinting.
It’s talking, not picking up.
It’s appreciation, not expectation.
It’s enjoyment, not neediness.
It’s trust, not worry.

It’s sailing, not rowing.

— Matt

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