Getting out of the way
Andrew Rixon shared this quote with facilitators in response to a discussion about the failure of action planning.
“The goal for wu wei is to get out of your own way, so to speak. This is like when you are playing an instrument and if you start thinking about playing the instrument, then you will get in your own way and interfere with your own playing. It is aimless action, because if there was a goal that you need to aim at and hit, then you will develop anxiety about this goal. Zhuangzi made a point of this, where he writes about an archer who at first didn’t have anything to aim at. When there was nothing to aim at, the archer was happy and content with his being. He was practicing wu wei. But, then he set up a target and “got in his own way.” He was going against the Tao and the natural course of things by having to hit that goal.”
This sums up my own frustrations with goals, targets, action planning and what Johnnie Moore calls “commitment ceremonies”. The stress associated with ‘having to hit the target’ seems to take precedence over the actual doing and being.
As a facilitator I get in my own way when I delude myself that I can control what’s happening. I feel the stress when ‘people are not doing it right’ and have to remind myself to let go, and to let be. And nothing drains the energy of a group faster than a superficial ‘action planning’ session at the end of an otherwise productive workshop where people are asked to shoehorn into a commitment they either don’t want or aren’t ready for. Can’t we trust people to do what needs to be done when the time is right? I suspect that monitoring and key performance indicators and milestones mostly redirects attention away from the real work.
Here’s an example of what can happen when you do let go.
This week I’ve been facilitating a workshop with aid workers who have been working with communities affected by a natural disaster. The time is now right to move from disaster response to community development, known as a transition phase. Day four of a five-day workshop: I randomly handed out a Visual Explorer card to each person and asked them to share with another person what they liked about the card, what the card reflects of their experience working with communities, and what is important to remember as we proceed from the workshop back into the field. After a few minutes I asked them to form groups of four and to continue sharing their insights about their cards. This is where it gets interesting.
When I invited the group to share their insights they told a story woven from the four cards that reflected their experiences and their hopes. It was surprising, insightful and moving. I had no idea this might happen and certainly hadn’t planned for it! Who would have thought such richness would come from a random, unplanned activity?
This didn’t result from me working harder or thinking more or planning more – just the opposite. Instead of being oppressed by the Tyranny of Effort, I simply let go of the need to plan where it might lead and trusted the participants to do whatever work they needed to do.
This also reminds me of another quote about catching up with your own shadow. The only way you can do that is not by running faster, but by stopping and resting under the shade of a tree.