The Puritan Work Ethic, Wu-Wei, and Is Life Really Meant to be a Struggle?
By Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D.
"Do every act of your life as if it were your last." --Marcus Aurelius
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." --Aristotle
Or do we? Maybe we're just looking at the whole thing through a pair of smudged glasses.
Puritan Work Ethic
The Puritan (or Protestant) work ethic is a work ethic that was based on the moral values of hard work. It meant that working hard entailed giving service to God. It implies, albeit by inference, that the harder one works, the more moral one is. Hence, having been raised to believe this, some people feel guilty if they are not working hard all the time. It is as though hard work were equated with being a good person, and furthermore, if one works hard enough, one will in all likelihood have a positive result not only in the moral arena, but also in the more mundane, worldly one.
This can play havoc with the manner in which people deal with their vacation or free time, as during such a period, theoretically, one is not working, And yet we've all seen people working on their laptops at the beach, or reading a heavy business tome or corporate financial statement on a pleasure cruise. Are they all workaholics, or simply people who feel guilty if they aren't working most of the time?
This can also confuse your sense of self esteem and accomplishment, because evidently many people work very hard, and are very good people indeed, and yet they are nowhere near financial or professional success.
Thinking Out of the Box
Far be it from the purpose of this article to convince you to slack off and become successful by lounging in a hammock on a palm-studded beach as you sip a pina colada. My intention is not to separate you from your hard-working self. It is simply to help you think out of the box with regards to how you look at hard work. Perhaps hard work is not all it's made out to be. Perhaps we need to focus on working less in order to make our hard work bring greater success. If that sounds like a conundrum, read on.
Wu-wei is a term from Taoist philosophy meaning "non-action" or "non-doing." In Fritjof Capra's Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with Remarkable People, it is referred to as "not working against the grain of things, of waiting for the right moment without forcing anything unduly." Capra speaks of remaining alert and focused on one's purpose in order to achieve success in one's endeavor. You might say that wu-wei refers to working hard at going with the flow, or simply, at going with the flow.
An example from everyday life might apply to someone who is starting a business. Working hard in the Puritan work ethic sense would be to start early every morning and work until late every night, going down every possible road, and if pitfalls arose, to batter through them, to break down any impediment, and to keep on until every avenue were explored. Hardships would be endured, obstacles annihilated, no stone left unturned in order to find the way to make the business a success. Should, despite such hard work, success still be elusive, one might say "well it wasn't for lack of trying."
Going With the Flow
Here's how the wu-wei alternative might play itself out: the same person is starting a new business. Working hard would not necessarily mean the long hours as much as long thinking and being alert to opportunities. Realizing that when one avenue gets blocked, rather than trying very hard to break up the blockage, it might be wiser to go down another, more readily flowing and open avenue, in order to find a potential benefit there. It might mean working hard at becoming aware of what was playing itself out around one, in order to flow with those particular circumstances and benefit from them, rather than going against the flow and having to work so hard to break down obstacles and barriers.
Remaining aware of the focus; remaining aware of the intention, and being open to whatever may open up at any given moment seems to make much more sense than to blindly "plug on" simply because hard work reaps success. The next time you are out in the countryside, watch a leaf floating down a stream. What happens when it gets stuck in some rocks? It allows the current to left it off the rocks, away from the obstacles, and continue down where the water runs smoothly, where it can travel more easily, because it is going with the flow.
Is Life Really Meant to be a Struggle?
Stuart Wilde wrote an extraordinary little book in the 80's called Life was Never Meant to be a Struggle. In it he extols the virtues of understanding that if most of your life you have been told, and then continue telling yourself that life is meant to be a struggle, you will most definitely end up believing that. So then, if something works easily for you, you won't want to believe it's for real... you will mistrust the ease with which you accomplished it, and hence, needing to feel that in order for you to accomplish something worthwhile, you have to work hard for it, you will sabotage your easily won victory. Why? So that your outer life conforms to your inner expectations or beliefs.
Sound familiar? Apply this to business, money, love and relationships, spirituality, health, keeping age at bay, body weight, and any other area of potential struggle you care to name. So what does Wilde suggest?
Identify the causes of struggle in your life, and recognize that struggle is actually a programmed response. Struggle is akin, in many senses, to anguish about the area of life in which you are struggling. Whenever there is a programmed response - in this case struggle - it will take some time and practice to re-program yourself - in this case to a more flowing response. Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) writes "Accept - then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life." (See also my January 2006 Newsletter: Living in the Now: Use it to Enrich Your Life).
Going to a state of instant peace whenever you feel anxious, worried, angry, or afraid moves you from your body to your mind and emotions, and finally to your spirit. Similarly, Wilde says that in order to achieve freedom from struggle, you just need "the ability to place yourself in a non-confrontive mode" with all issues in your life, both internal and external to yourself. As you become more and more positive and balanced, struggle begins to give way to inner calm. "Inner calm allows you to pull more and more opportunities to yourself because energy seeks its own kind." James Allen in As A Man Thinketh says "All that a man achieves and all that he fails to achieve is the direct result of his own thoughts."
Imagine dealing with life and all you do in it as though you were a child playing a game. Is there any reason it can't be like that? Any reason it shouldn't be like that? Imagine if your work; whatever it is you do in life were like an enjoyable game. That every day when you got up, you would be looking forward to playing this game again. And imagine furthermore, that this wonderful game were what gives - in part - meaning to your life! (See also my article Finding a Meaning For Your Life).
So it stands to reason that keeping your thoughts balanced, positive, and energetic will go a lot further towards bringing you that which your strive for, rather than arduous struggle. Achieving inner freedom by getting such a handle on your thoughts will go a long way towards achieving the outer freedom for which we all yearn.