On an existential level, when we recognize the extent to which our lives are molded by social constructs, we become able to free ourselves from a type of emotional entanglement that disturbs our tranquility. The social ambitions that motivate us—money, wealth, power, privilege—lose their grip, become less influential. Other possibilities for a flourishing life may emerge, not determined by manipulative actions and its attendant desires. With the diminishing of the hold of desires and conceptual constructs, one’s mode of engagement with the world will be more accommodating, allowing events to happen without attachment to outcome. Thus the loosening of artifice goes hand in hand with the cultivation of a sort of indifference toward worldly success and failure.—Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (2014)
“Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.”—La Rochefoucauld
Indeed. This is an illustration of a mental and behavioral fallacy that Jon Elster, after the late psychologist Leslie Farber, termed “willing what cannot be willed,” that is, a mental state or state of affairs in the world—like spontaneity or sleep, courage or faith—that cannot be the direct product of willing but is rather a by-product or spillover (thus indirect) effect of other mental states or actions. And yet, invoking an exemplar from the Daoist tradition and after Chris Fraser, I want to show how it might be possible, in some sense, to “will” such a state, in other words, how one might have a “desire” or an intentional project to “act naturally” and yet not be involved in that species of pragmatic contradiction that assures failure in the attempt to act spontaneously or naturally as described so vividly by Elster under the heading of “willing what cannot be willed.” Such personal willing entails an assertive ego and anxious self-consciousness with regard to one’s immediate behavior that makes mincemeat of any attempt to “be natural” or spontaneous.
In Daoism, we discover how it might be possible to have a desire to act naturally or engage in an “intentional project” to “be natural” (in the Daoist sense), relying here on the notion of wu-wei (lit., non-action). Livia Kohn’s entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism provides us with a succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the world.” The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how most of us, most of the time, “naturally” or habitually behave or are predisposed to act, but is intended in the sense that to “act naturally” in the world is to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent sense) of the Dao. Less obliquely, it is to emulate the “way of the natural world,” properly understood. Thus wu-wei is not, literally, non-action or not-doing, but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and uncommon kind of action, what Huston Smith calls “creative quietude,” meaning one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies the Dao or acts in harmony with the manifestations of Dao in the world. Such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a heart-mind (xin) experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic oneness or identity with “all-there-is.” It is the characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren), the behavior of the ideal ruler and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis (or ‘spiritual exercises’ in the Stoic sense) and mystical states of consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind (like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the natural world and tian (‘heaven’) while instantiating the Dao.
Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts (at least in the Confucian tradition), and meditative praxis are necessary yet not sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Joel Kupperman’s sense, as it requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e., reason and the emotions). Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature, a nature in accord with the natural world, and capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing the Dao. The aim of meditation is to attain an “empty” or clear or polished heart-mind such that one’s ego is sublimated or absent, that one’s will is no longer purely personal but individuated through grounding in Dao, which fills the void, as it were, of the empty mind, making it possible for one to act naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly, gracefully, in harmony with the natural and heavenly worlds and (so to speak) thus with Dao itself, the ultimate, impersonal ground of (individuated) willing: “The personal does not exist for him—isn’t this how he can perfect what is most personal?” (Laozi/Daodejing: 7.3)
More mundanely, we might fill out this notion of “acting naturally” as a by-product or spillover effect from an intentional project in a temporally extended sense, in which the ego and personal will is sublimated or transcended, with an illustration of what is involved in the mastering of any skill, craft, or art, be it surfing or playing the piano. A necessary condition of such mastery is clearly strenuous effort, hard work, perseverance, and so forth, all of which engage the will and ego and what we call propositional knowledge, “knowing that...” After Gilbert Ryle, such knowledge is distinguished from non-propositional knowledge or “knowing how…,” which is typically exemplified in action, in which case we at the same time demonstrate the former kind and prior possession of “knowing.” And so it could be said that the former—“knowing that”—is typically a necessary yet not sufficient condition of the latter—“knowing how”—but possession of the former is often best exemplified by the latter through our behavior, in the form of actions that are conspicuous for their demonstration of ease, of gracefulness, of spontaneity, of a kind of naturalness, and cannot be fully captured in propositional language: like the master surfer riding a wave or the improvisations of the virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum. As Steve Coutinho explains, “It is not that we cease to plan, think, and control, or attempt to leave no footprints whatsoever. The only way we could do that would be to disentangle ourselves from the natural world altogether, and to do that we would have to cease to exist. Rather, we optimally minimize our intention to control according to artificially inculcated desires and instead seek to fulfill our wants and needs with the least interference possible. In this way, we watch how nature flourishes and find a symbiotic place in its pattern, enabling both of us to flourish to our natural potential. [….] It is not that [we] do not categorize things or conceptualize the world at all, but [our] understanding is not determined by customary systems of significance. The concepts through which deem things (wei) to be so are no longer thought of as simply what those things are (wei).”
This newfound non-attachment to or freedom from our previous desires and habitual ways of carving up the world into concepts and categories that effectively predetermine our means of “seeing,” thinking, and acting, means there is no longer “only one way to understand the world,” we are able to “see things in a new way,” one in which the world no longer possesses an apparent ontological independence along the lines we previously assumed: “Phenomenologically, we have the capacity to respond to the phenomena of experience with a level of subtlety that remains indeterminate with regard to specific concepts.”
 Chris Fraser, “On Wu-Wei as a Unifying Metaphor,” Review of Effortless Action, by Edward Slingerland, Philosophy East & West 57.1 (2007): 97–106.
 See Elster’s Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 43-66.
 Livia Kohn, “wuwei,” Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. II (New York: Routledge, 2008): 1067. Notice the definition refers to not imposing one’s intentions on the world, suggesting the possibility that an “intentional project” in the extended temporal sense outlined by Fraser in his review of Slingerland (above), to wit: “If acquisition of an effortless state is understood synchronically, this is indeed paradoxical: one cannot be effortless while simultaneously exerting effort. But as long as the process of achieving the effortless state is understood diachronically, no paradox arises. We can and frequently do acquire the ability to act effortlessly, as when we master skills or regain a physical ability through rehabilitation after injury. Acquisition begins with deliberate exertion, but eventually we internalize the skill and develop the ability to act automatically and sometimes effortlessly.” And yet, a paradox perhaps remains: “On the other hand, if we take wu-wei to refer to the absence of intentional action, as I suggest, then the conceptual structure of intentionality may indeed render the directive to achieve wu-wei paradoxical, even construed diachronically. To cite just one of several potential paradoxes, on some accounts of intentionality, an agent cannot intentionally cause herself to perform actions that are wholly non-intentional, because intentions (unlike effort) remain in effect over time, even when not consciously held in mind, and their scope covers all the subsidiary actions that contribute to their fulfillment. For example, this morning I set to work on this review spontaneously, without consciously forming an intention to do so. Nevertheless, my activity was intentional, because it is part of a project I am performing intentionally. At some level of description, any voluntary movement an agent performs is intentional, merely by virtue of being an action rather than a reflex.” For our purposes, what is important is the possibility that the original intentional project is capable of becoming “subconscious” or even “unconscious” in Elster’s sense, meaning one attains a state of “relating directly to the world without relating also to the relating,” which he proceeds to characterize as an exquisite piece of moral psychology, “an argument to the effect that the good things in life are spoiled by self-consciousness about them.” For further discussion with regard to the (mystical) state “empty consciousness” (wherein there is absence of either an external or internal object) which is nonetheless a state of awareness, please see my paper, “Daoism: a rational reconstruction of some key terms.”
 In his chapter on “Confucius and the Problem of Naturalness,” Kupperman distinguishes among a number of meanings of “naturalness,” and it’s only the Daoist account that interests us here: “Philosophical Daoism was not a monolithic movement, and even within a single work (e.g., the Zhuangzi) a reader can find shifting areas of emphasis. Nevertheless Daoist conceptions of naturalness do have characteristic foci. I may briefly and simply summarize these as being spontaneity in behavior, simplicity in social life, and harmony with the fundamental tendencies of the universe” [here one would need to minimally understand the dao of ‘the ten thousand things’ and tian, as well as the related roles indicated by the concepts of qi and yin/yang in the manifestations of Dao]. Daoist naturalness certainly is not [as with Confucius and in the salons of the Republic of Letters in the French Enlightenment] naturalness within ‘the restraints of decorum,’ which the Daoists considered ridiculous and artificial. The naturalness of the Daoists also did not involve giving general vent to feelings [as in ‘anything goes’ or ‘let it all hang out’]. The Daoists were not wild men: indeed, they believed that certain common feelings such as anxiety should be as much as possible eliminated rather than expressed.” See: Joel J. Kupperman, Learning from Asian Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1999): 26-35 and 79-94.
 Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014): 74.
 Ibid., 100-101.
References & Further Reading:
- Ames, Roger T., ed. Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
- Ames, Roger T. and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing, “Making This Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
- Cook, Scott, ed. Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourse on the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
- Coutinho, Steve. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mark and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
- Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- Forman, Robert K.C. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Fraser, Chris. “On Wu-wei as a Unifying Metaphor,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 57, No. 1 (January 2007): 97-106.
- Gellman, Jerome. “Mysticism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2005/entries/mysticism/
- Hansen, Chad, “Daoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/daoism/
- Ivanhoe, Philip J., trans. (with commentary). The Daodejing of Laozi. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002.
- Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Kjellberg, Paul, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.
- Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Kohn, Livia. Monastic Life in Medieval Taoism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.
- Kohn, Livia. Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2004.
- Kohn, Livia, ed. The Taoist Experience: An Anthology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
- Kohn, Livia, ed. Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
- Kupperman, Joel J. Learning from Asian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- LaFargue, Michael. The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.
- Little, Stephen (with Shawn Eichman). Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago, IL and Berkeley, CA: The Art Institute of Chicago with the University of California Press, 2000.
- Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
- Mou, Bo, ed. Two Roads to Wisdom? Chinese and Analytic Philosophical Traditions. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001.
- Mou, Bo, ed. Comparative Approaches to Chinese Philosophy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.
- Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 Vols. New York: Routledge, 2008.
- Rosemont, Henry, Jr. Rationality and Religious Experience: The Continuing Relevance of the World’s Spiritual Traditions. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001.
- Roth, Harold D. Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
- Shankman, Steven and Stephen W. Durant, eds. Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking Through Comparison. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.
- Slingerland, Edward. Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Stanley, Jason and Timothy Williamson. “Knowing How,” Journal of Philosophy, 98.8 (2001): 1-40.
- Wagner, Rudolf G. A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi’s Commentary on the Laozi with Critical Text and Translation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003b.
- Waley, Arthur, tr. The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Tê Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1934.
- Watson, Burton, tr. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
- Wong, David. “Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2005/entries/comparphil-chiwes/
- Ziporyn, Brook, tr. Zhuangzi: The Essential Texts. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008.