Wu Wei Effortless Effort
By Moshe Katz

June 26, 2012

Wu Wei – Effortless Effort, A Contradiction in Terms

As is this a Krav Maga blog I rarely discuss Chinese martial arts or philosophical concepts. As a lifelong student of the martial arts, however, the Chinese and Japanese arts certainly have their place and their influence. That is why we have Chinese characters on our T shirts, along with Hebrew and English.

When one reaches a more advanced level of martial training, somehow the "penny drops" and we "get it". We realize that all we needed to do was try less hard.

Certainly, as male martial artists our tendency is to work harder, push harder and increase our efforts until we achieve our goals. We have an expression in Hebrew, "What does not go with force, will go with more force." The difficult part is to teach students that sometimes, in order to get the technique, we need to try less hard. This goes against our instinct, and sometimes takes years to achieve.

Some students achieve it almost immediately, I guess it is like the Buddhist concept of enlightenment; it can happen in one swift moment. This is in sharp contrast to Western thinking where it takes years of book learning to become enlightened.

In Krav Maga many techniques depend not on strength but on fluidity of movement, and the only way to achieve this is by learning to relax. This did not come easily to me and I know it is a real challenge for many practitioners.

The Chinese concept of Wu Wei is very different from our Western thinking. Wu Wei means effortless effort, a contrast and a contradiction in terms according to Western thinking. The idea is that without really trying actively; things get done, all in the proper time. Some things cannot be forced, like a plant they take their own time. No matter how hard you try you can not make the tree grow faster. (I have tried).

We want control over our environment; we want climate control, and light and sound control. There was a time when the fall of darkness meant it was time for our bodies to rest, but no longer. With modern lights we can work, or party, all night long. This causes our bodies to be out of sync with our needs. Like a plant we need times of light and times of darkness, we need to sleep and we need the morning sunshine. Wu Wei; allow things to flow and take their natural course. All will get done in its proper time.

This is not different from the traditional Jewish approach. We do what we can, we make our human efforts known as hishtadluth, and the rest is in God's hands. How can we worry if ultimately it is in His hands? Rabbi Yisrael Meir used to say it was like getting out of the train and pushing it in order to try and make it go faster. The train has its own speed.

So I look at my students, I know they want to get that technique perfect, right here, right now! I know they are trying so hard but the harder they try the farther they are from their goal. They must relax and let the body do its thing. The body must flow with the technique and it can not do this if you are tightening up and blocking the flow. You are your own stumbling block.

I feel their frustration, they are looking at me and thinking "Easy for you to be relaxed, you have perfected the technique, you have your black belt." I look at them and I tell them, "Trust me on this one, try less hard, it will flow better, it will be stronger; less will be more. The only way to achieve the results you want is to let go a bit. The way to get faster results is to not be in such a hurry."

I tell them, take my advice, I am a man of experience and I know this works, and then I turn around and tell myself the same thing.