I was talking to an ex-student recently about the elusive Chinese art of wu-wei, or ‘effortless doing’, as it is sometimes translated. It seems to coincide with western cultural notions of ‘flow’, wherein high-performance levels in any given skill seem to correlate with a sort of easygoing disengagement (real or apparent). We perform at our best with no strenuous effort, and even with a dash of sprezzatura, or melancholy detachment.

Bronzino 4

It is, of course, an illusion where flow is concerned. Flow is a state which is difficult to achieve and presupposes some hard-won mastery. Sports people refer to being ‘in the zone’, but you can only get in the zone if you have spent your 10,000 hours (as we are told) perfecting the art in sweat and blood.

But if I have understood correctly, wu-wei, a Taoist discipline, actually internalises the requisite carelessness. Part of its meaning is that you should not attempt to wrestle control of your fate from the hands of the world. You should, as the saying goes (and confusingly in the context of this post) ‘go with the flow’. If you allow life to guide you, and do not stuggle and kick, you will attain the hallowed state of wu-wei.

In language learning, wu-wei corresponds to that nirvana of accomplishment which we call fluency. Fluency is not mastery: mastery of a language requires conscious knowledge and control, and you can be fluent without having fully mastered the language. But equally, you can master the language without ever attaining true fluency, that happy state where you open your mouth and your thoughts flood out like birdsong. You need only limited language resources to become fully fluent, but you also need to attain a certain detached mental state, a certain sprezzatura, where you watch what you are doing as though it were happening to someone else.

Perhaps I should work a bit of wu-wei into the curriculum.