Wu wei and the true self

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Spontaneous action, without contrivance or cunning, is at the heart of wu wei. The concept of the true self in psychoanalytic terms also emphasizes spontaneous, creative expression.

Donald Winnicott explains that the true self is able to be spontaneous and playful. If this sounds childlike, it's because Winnicott, who worked with thousands of children in his career, saw that the essential aliveness of humans is most present in our states of play. The outcome of a successful analysis would be that the true self would emerge and become spontaneous and playful again--no longer a child but resembling the approach to life and energy of one.


“Breath is the mother, and spirit is the child. The harmony of mother and child is the key to nourishing life," Cao Dao Chong 曹道沖, Song Dynasty nun.

The Daodejing offers a description of the sage that's similar to the true self espoused by Winnicott and others in the psychoanalytic tradition. The sage embodies a state of wu wei. Described as spontaneous and playful, it's hard not to believe that what Laozi and psychoanalysts like Donald Winnicott saw as the highest form of psychological health are similar, if not the same. Winnicott's true self is predicated on a mother who is "good enough" to let her child express itself freely without needing to adapt to the emotional needs of the mother. In the absence of a nurturing mother, the child must twist itself to satisfy the mother's insecurities and narcissism--another false self now is born into the world.


When children are taught that their spontaneous expressions are unwanted by the mother, or primary care-givers, they are trained to display a contortion. Akin to the persona of Jung, though not quite the same, a projection of the false is unconsciously learned and reinforced by the environment. Over time, people actually identify with the projection rather than the deeper urges and needs that were never validated. An identity may form of someone who is "an achiever," "gifted intellectually," "an idiot," or whatever role they had to play to satisfy the needs of the primary caregiver's inadequacies.


Long before Winnicott, or even Freud, Daoist nun Cao Dong Chong, expressed the same sentiment in far simpler terms. "Breath is the mother, and spirit is the child. The harmony of mother and child is the key to nourishing life," she said. While Winnicott, almost a millennia later made the claim, "there's no such thing as an infant," meaning that the mother and infant form a unit from which a fully-formed child emerges, Cao Dong Chong observed and attested to as much using Daoist, poetic simplicity.


Laozi, often describes the Dao 道 using the symbolism of the female:

  • The mother of all things

  • The female at Heaven's Gate

  • To know the ancient maiden

  • Giving birth and not possessing

The last example describes the condition necessary for a good-enough mother to produce a child with the best chance of having a true self emerge. The mother who gives birth and possesses, uses the child for her own emotional needs. She rejects the child when it triggers her own emotional immaturity and thinks nothing of shaping the child to constantly seek validation by pleasing the mother rather than creating a safe container for the child to express itself without fear of rejection. The good-enough mother breathes life into the child, producing a spirit where the child can play, explore, and be spontaneous emotionally. This is wu wei.


If we were halted from developing wu wei as a child, we aren't fated to a personality that uses cunning and contrivances to obtain our needs. Unless we are engaging with a superficial psychotherapy that only treats our symptoms, a longer psychotherapy such as Hakomi, psychoanalytic, humanistic, and third-wave behavioral psychotherapies are interested in helping to bring forth what we can consider wu wei, or our true selves. By examining our thoughts, developmental history, and patterns in relationships, we can understand the pollen that floats in our minds, gain insight into it, and then tend to those processes before they are enacted as thorny bushes that create so much more work for ourselves. This attention to minutiae is also the hallmark of the sage and wu wei. It's by handling things when they are like pollen that we live life effortlessly. If we don't tend to minutiae, pollen turns into weeds; weeds turn into thorny bushes; thorny bushes overrun our lives, prick those we care about and cause us to ceaselessly take "actions" that could have been avoided.


To study wu wei is to do the unlearning that Laozi writes of:

Devoted to learning, one increases it daily, devoted to Dao, one decreases every day, decreases and decreases, until one arrives at wu wei. No unnatural actions, and nothing is undone. 为学日益,为道日损。损之又损,以至于无为无为而无不为.

When we unlearn our roles, when we unlearn all the rules and knowledge we sought to feed a neurotic self and just become our natural selves, we are practicing wu wei and becoming our true selves.


When we study wu wei, it can seem mysterious--like psychoanalysis or self-actualization. Let's remove the jargon and mystery and say plainly what we may become: creatures who fearlessly express their emotional needs and creativity, while respecting the rights of others to do the same in relationships where we are both the breath and the spirit of nourishing life. Can we crawl out of the atomic prisons our parents and our consumer, identity-obsessed culture have coerced us to reside within to feed their own insecurities? Are we willing to add one more spirit to the world?

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