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3 phrases from an ancient Chinese idea that can help us use our energy correctly

Moment of truth in the kitchen

It all started with a jam jar I needed to open. I looked at it with scepticism. And a healthy dose of distaste. Some of the jars are so tight that I can never open them without angry red welts rising on my palm; and lots of cursing. But sometimes, if I am lucky, a new thought forces its way into my mind. The universe is randomly kind that way. So, I thought, “OK, I am going to forget about all those other bottles that didn’t open. This one might be different.” In just my third attempt, the bottle opened (a notable achievement, trust me). I was surprised. Now, maybe this bottle had simply not been as tightly screwed on as the others. But it got me thinking. Did it work because I chose to forget about My Persistent Ill-Luck with Tight Bottles (and Life?), while still applying the necessary effort to open it? Can that approach solve problems more complex than tight jam jars?

Wu wei

The incident and my unexpected response to it reminded me of wu wei. An ancient Chinese concept, it literally means ‘doing nothing’. It does not ask us to be passive, though. Instead, it asks us to seek a “perfect knowledge of the situation” so we may execute a “perfect economy of energy”. In the Analects, Confucius is quoted as saying: “Was it not Shun who did nothing and yet ruled well? What did he do? He merely corrected his person and took his proper position as ruler.” In other words, “There is a lot of energy in you but we need only some of it for this task.” And the rest of the energy? We forget it. It is not useful.

The idea seems simple. And yet, we find it profoundly hard to work this way. Because our minds are not programmed for selective action. The compartments that contain our logic, our emotions, our beliefs, our memories (and even our trauma) are porous. That makes us unimaginably creative and empathetic. But it also means we get infected by needless energy. When trying to open a jam jar, we remember previous un-openable jam jars. We remind ourselves we are stupid. We remind ourselves we are, again, failing. Old negative energy is so agile. It can enter a room through a peephole.

The three phrases

But, if we go back to wu wei, and to what Confucius says about Shu, we may find a framework for change. I find three very interesting phrases there to think about. “Perfect knowledge of the situation.” “Corrected his person”. “Took his proper position.” Three mysterious phrases that may constitute the essence of wu wei and lead us to our goal, “perfect economy of energy”. Let’s look at an example.

Your team member is diligent and reliable. Unfortunately, he has a temper problem. When things don’t go his way, he can be cantankerous and egoistic. He then stops communicating for a while. As a result, you get annoyed and try and make him see the frailty of his actions. This vexes you.

Let’s consider this example through the lenses of the three phrases.

Perfect knowledge of the situation

If you think you have perfect knowledge of the situation, think again. You probably haven’t considered all your emotions and thoughts. How do you feel when your team member gets egoistic and withdraws? You feel anger, yes. What else? Do you feel fear? It is likely. Why? Because you could be thinking, “This person is stupid. He is going to ruin the project for me. I need to set him right.” The truth is he may not be stupid but merely aware of something you are not. He cannot ruin you; you are quite alright the way you are and will be alright for a long time. And you do not need to set him right; you are not his parent. There is one other thing. From past experience you know this person tends to finally do what is necessary, after venting his anger. If this was not the case, you wouldn’t still be working with him. Now, your knowledge of the situation is, well, a little more “perfect”. What next?

Correct your person

You can now consider the needless energy you are bringing to the table. Your anger. Your fear. Your belief. And you can correct your person. How? Be aware. Understanding what you’ve been feeling and thinking can bring clarity. And compassion. Not just for others. But for yourself. This allows you to actually ask him why he is angry. What is bothering him?

Take your proper position

It should now be a little easier for you to crack the key to it all: taking your proper position. What is your proper position in the above example? You are not the fixer. You are not even the guide. More importantly, you are not the defender of your way of life. What is your position? You’re just an inquirer. Ask him why he is angry. Don’t want to engage? Fine, then take another position. You are just a rain watcher. You are looking out the window at the rain of someone's bad mood. Sooner or later, the rain stops. And you can continue. Either way, there is a good, if not perfect, economy of energy. Because you “did nothing”. Which we now know really means “You used the energy that the situation needed and nothing more”.


Different situations might require different corrections and positions. Sometimes we are the inquirer. Sometimes we are the healer. Sometimes we are the emperor. By spending time with the three phrases, we can increase our knowledge of the situation, correct our person, and take the right position. This can be hard. The human mind is a beautiful, messy swamp of emotions, hormones, skills, fears, hopes, resentments and dreams. So, we may have to practise a lot. Until the spirt of the three phrases becomes more spontaneous for us.

A friend just called. She boosted a post on Facebook and was worried she wasn’t seeing traction. “Does this happen to you?” she asked. Yes, I thought, feeling anxious and annoyed. It does happen. I thought about the last post I boosted. It did not get the traction I felt it deserved. My writing may not be as good as people say it is. Social media is a trap. I should warn her. Then I thought of the needless energy I was bringing to the table. I took my proper position. When I was ready, I told her, “I have observed that after boosting a post, it can take a few hours to see responses. If you don't see results even after a couple of hours, try changing the audience specification.” “Ah, thank you,” she said. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Do nothing.

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