For some people life seems tought! No matter how much they struggle, they cannot reach their goal. If you can relate to this, maybe you are trying too hard!
Wu Wei is the art of letting your life flow without excessive effort. It means being flexible enough to adapt yourself to ever-changing circumastances. Like a flexible tree branch that bends under the weight of the snow and remains intact.
Wu Wei is one of core principles of Taoism. Lao Tse repeatedly mentions it throughout his well-known Tao Te Ching. Wu Wei means “non-doing”, however, despite this literal translation, it does not refer to “doing nothing”. Lao Tse’s advice is to live life without anxiety. Wu Wei refers to acting according to the circumstances with a serene attitude and regardless of their outcomes.
In other words, Wu Wei is a practice of detachment. Let’s say you have a goal. Once you decide what you want, you begin taking actions toward your goal. However, your actions and thoughts are free from the anxiety of achieving it. You work toward your goal without excessive effort.
This may sound like a paradox. You may ask, “How can I achieve a goal with this principle of non-action?”
Let’s see an example. Most smokers who give themselves an ultimatum, have a lower probability to succeed. I-must-quit-or-else- attitude generates anxiety that sabotages their goal. It works better when smokers make a firm decision to quit but are relaxed about the outcome.
Lao Tse encouraged people to live their lives spontaneously. Instead of forcing the situations or getting upset and anxious when the circumstances don’t turn out as you wish, you can let it flow!
“Tao invariably takes no action, and yet nothing is left undone. If the lords can keep to this, all things will transform with spontaneity.” Lao Tse
After almost a year of separation, Joe, a thirty year old man, and his wife signed the divorce papers. What must have been a relief became an anxiety-producing event for Joe.
After signing the papers Joe and his ex wife went for a walk and had lunch together. She, who had been acting distant and cold since their separation, showed a warm and nurturing attitude toward Joe.
For most people her kind attitude would have seemed normal. However, her kindness caused Joe much confusion because suddenly he felt attracted to her! The same woman, who, according to Joe, had caused him much suffering, now was so kind to him. Joe felt that he still loved her but wasn’t sure about his feelings.
This anxiety and confusion were the reason Joe contacted me for an online session.
I recommended Joe to avoid talking or writing to his ex for couple of weeks. This would allow him to reflect on his feelings and clear up his thoughts in order to make the right choice.
Men are Clueless
Usually men are clueless when it comes to read women’s subtle messages. It’s like opening a safe without either the combination or the key! Unfortunately (for men) women do communicate with indirect cues and non-verbal messages.
Several studies have shown that men mistake friendliness with sexual interest. Women’s communication is rich with emotional subtleties that female friends are good at deciphering. However, most men lack the skills of reading female’s non-verbal communication.
Joe, an emotionally vulnerable man, who has been suffering mainly due to loneliness, suddenly receives kind attention from a woman who once loved her. Joe, an emotionally hungry man, was confused because he failed to recognize that the attitude of his ex was not love, but kindness.
First of all, most women are polite with their ex. Secondly, it’s possible that she felt pity for Joe. She must also felt guilty. Politeness, pity and guilt were the main ingredients of her attitude to nurture a broken man.
Joe, however, interpreted her attitude as a green flag to get back together. This “lost in translation” phenomenon was the cause of his anxiety. It’s beside the point that she clearly communicated her desire to have a separate life by signing the divorce papers! Joe, like many vulnerable men, distorted the reality and saw what he wanted to see.
Tom, a 30-year-old man sought my help for anxiety relief. He was crying every day and didn’t know what to do about his anxiety.
The following is a portion of the conversation I had with him:
Tom: My wife left me one week after our wedding day! She said that she had rushed into the decision of marrying me.
–How long were you two dating?
Tom: We were living together for about three years. Everything was fine. I just don’t understand it. I cry and cannot stop it. My mother is distraught and doesn’t know how to help me. I feel so bad crying in front of her.
He told me that if he tried not to think of her but lots of things remind him of her ex. If he heard a song that she liked, he couldn’t control his tears.
Tom: I still love her. We talk on the phone and I cry and tell her how much I miss her.
–How does she react when you cry and plead?
Tom: She is cold and insulting. She tells me that I’m weak that I cannot get over her. I can’t help it, I still love her. We do lots of texting to each other. I’m so polite with her but she is rude and demeaning toward me.
Tom told me that his ex had hired a lawyer to process the separation and divorce. He knew that it was over but he couldn’t help loving her. His mind knew that this relation was over but his heart wanted her back!
–Blaise Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing.”
Tom smiled and understood that it would be useless to fight his feelings or trying to control them with his rational mind.
Tom: You are right, I cannot reason with my heart. But what should I do?
I gave Tom a task to be able to express his emotions. I also ask him to do an experiment for a week. I asked him to change his attitude toward his ex from being warm and available to being cold and distant. He agreed to carry the task out for one week as an experiment. He would, among other things, avoid responding to her messages immediately, and when he replied, he would use few words and maintain a serious tone.
One week later
Tom was bewildered! He said that he had to go to pick up his belongings and through the half an hour he was there with his ex, Tom acted very distant and cold. He said that it was difficult not to plead as before and cry pleading her to come back but he was firm and said few words.
At one point his ex hugged Tom from behind and talked to him with a gentle voice telling nice things to him! Tom was shocked! He couldn’t understand why his ex had changed her attitude. When Tom was pleading her and crying, she acted cold and said nasty things to him. However, when he acted cold and distant, she was warm and gentle.
The next day Tom did an experiment on his own. He acted as before: replied her messages immediately; used a warm and polite tone when talking to her and expressed his desire to have her back in his life. To Tom’s amazement, his ex responded rudely and insulted him.
Tom: I learned my lesson. I decided that I don’t want to be around someone like her. I deserve better.
Have you ever had a violent thought toward a close person? Maybe you thought of hurting someone you love; stabbing them; pushing them; or acting in other horrifying ways. If one of these thoughts has popped into your head without your control, you are not alone. You are not a bad person. You are not mad. You are not a criminal.
These thoughts are called “intrusive thoughts”. They are inappropriate images that enter your mind without your volition or control. They are basically stupid thoughts without any reason behind them.
Intrusive thoughts are common among those who suffer from anxiety disorder. However, these unwanted thoughts do appear also in the mind of those people who are not necessarily struggling with anxiety.
For most people these violent thoughts and images are fleeting moments of anxiety. People get very scared when they cannot dismiss them mainly because they fear they might actually put them into practice.
Avoid These 5 Mistakes
Before you learn what to do about these unwanted thoughts, let’s see five most common mistakes people make when they try to get rid of intrusive thoughts.
The first mistake is searching for the origin of these thoughts and asking, “Why do I have these thoughts?” The more you search for a logical reason, the more difficult it becomes to find a solution. These thoughts are useless and stupid.
Second mistake is trying very hard not to think of unwanted thoughts. However, our brain cannot forget by will power. You cannot not to think of something because not thinking is thinking with more intensity!
Fyodor Dostoevsky, the nineteen Century Russian author, warned us about this mistake with the following challenge:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Social psychologist Daniel Wegner put Dostoevsky’s advice to test. In his study, the participants were divided into two groups. The first group was instructed to think of white bears for five minutes. The second group was asked not to think of white bears for the same period of time. Then after a short break, both groups were asked to think of white bears again.
Wegner found that the members of the group that were told not to think for five minutes and then were asked to think, they thought of white bears more often than participants who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. The results of this research confirmed that Dostoevsky’s was right: you cannot banish a thought forcefully.
The third mistake is trying to resist the negative thoughts. Some therapists claim that whenever you have an intrusive thought, you will be able to control them if you say to yourself “Stop!” This thought stopping technique is not an effective way to get rid of unwanted thoughts because it’s a variation of the first mistake.
The forth mistake is also another variation of the first inefficient strategy. Some people try to distract their mind. Distraction may help you focus on another topic; however, it will not eliminate the intrusive thoughts. Later they will pop up into your head.
The fifth mistake is to try to convince yourself that you would never actually do such things. Although this seems a logical strategy, it does not work because by reasoning with these thoughts, you are paying attention to them. Whenever you search for a rational response to unwanted thoughts, it’s like running away from a monster as well as feeding fresh meat to eat! It will become stronger.
How to eliminate intrusive thoughts
The first step in eliminating intrusive thoughts is becoming aware of the above mistakes and avoiding them. They are ineffective strategies that could actually make the problem worse.
There are two specific strategies that can help you eliminate intrusive thoughts:
First useful strategy:
Every time you get an unwanted thought or image, say to yourself: “This is a stupid thought”, “ It doesn’t deserve an intelligent reply”, and “I can block my reaction to it.” As you can see, this is a different approach than trying to stop the negative thought or not thinking. You have no control over a thought that involuntarily comes to your mind. Once you have an image in your head, you cannot get rid of it.
Where is your domain of control? The answer is: your own reaction. You can control how you answer these thoughts. So, instead of focusing your attention on the unwanted thoughts, focus your effort on your reaction to them.
For few weeks practice ignoring these thoughts by avoiding giving them rational replies. Stupid thoughts do not deserve intelligent answers.
Second useful strategy:
If the first strategy is too weak for you, then you can use one of the Chinese principles of Tao Te Ching. Lao Tse, the author of this classic book of ancient wisdom, writes:
“What is in the end to be weakened,
Begins by being first made strong.”
This means that if you want to diminish or eliminate the unwanted thoughts, first you must encourage their flow. You can let intrusive thoughts to come to your mind without trying to stop them.
Allow yourself voluntarily to think of all these nasty thoughts. There are some rules to doing this correctly. You decide when, where and for how long you think these thoughts. It is done in a controlled fashion: it has a beginning and an end.
This exercise will help you control the uncontrollable because it’s a paradoxical approach. Reflect for a minute! The more you try to control your thoughts, the more you lose control of them. To overcome this paradoxical impasse, you apply a counter-paradox. You let go of control in order to gain control.
This idea may be scary at first but will help you channel the intrusive thoughts. After two weeks of this paradoxical exercise, the unwanted thoughts will be less likely to come back into your mind.
A good way to tame these negative thoughts is to write them down. In a previous blog post I explain in detail the step-by-step of this assignment. You can set an alarm to write for 30 minutes all your intrusive thoughts that you voluntarily can conjure up. Then write whatever comes to your mind as you express freely any emotion that you feel. Perform this task alone in a room so you would feel free to cry if you feel like it. When the alarm goes off, stop writing and tear up the papers into pieces.
“What you deny, subdues you. What you accept, transforms you.” Carl Jung