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The Secret Sabotage of Desire: Taoist Teachings on Cultivating Flow

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

My life is in wobbly orbit around three worlds – the legal field, parenting, and endurance sports. Believe me that there is not a lot of talk about “contentedness” and “freedom from desire” in any of those spheres. The rhetoric in each of those spaces has more to do with striving, hustling, scrutinizing, achieving – “how bad do you want it?”

Well, I want it bad. All of it – a little clout, a couple of smiling kids, full embodiment of my physical self. But I’ve learned there’s a lot we get wrong with the rhetoric of hard work and wanting. Too much desire can be a secret sabotage.

Let’s start with the idea – particularly prevalent among endurance athletes – that hard work is good, harder work is better, and extra effort is the only bridge between where you are and where you want to be. It’s a very Western idea. When we look to Eastern thought, different wisdom emerges. Taoist teachings emphasize the practice of Wu Wei – the cultivation of flow to achieve a result without striving. Wu Wei is often translated as “nonaction” but is perhaps more accurately described as “effortless action.”

Central to this teaching is the alignment of the self with natural order to efficiently and easily accomplish a goal – like cutting wood with the grain or swimming downstream.

Nature does not hurry,

yet everything is accomplished.

-Lao Tzu

The Tao Te Ching

Following “the path of least resistance” has a negative connotation in Western culture, but when we are constantly struggling in service of a particular result, the rhetoric of striving doesn’t serve us well. In endurance sports, especially. What if you’re working hard enough already? What if you’re working too hard? What if instead of using effort to force a result, you let go of your goal and focus on the path?

Does that sound scary?

It can be. When we want something an awful lot, it’s hard to let go of outcomes. I want to run as fast as I ran in my 20’s. Faster, even. Seemingly in service of this desire, I have become extremely attached to outcomes – in this case, the paces at which I run my workouts. It is an unhelpful point of focus, and one largely out of my control.

It is as if I have planted a seed to grow a fruit tree. All day I dream of the delicious fruit I will one day have. I can smell it and taste it. I want it now. But it takes time for the seed to sprout, the tree to grow, and the limbs to bear fruit. My actions cannot speed up this timeline – they can only slow it down.

I can water it once a day and fortify the soil. I can cover it in burlap to shield it from the frost. These nurturing actions are not in vain, but the fruit will only come when it will. On the other hand, if I become impatient and overzealous – watering three times a day, showering with fertilizer – the tree may become sick and may never bear fruit at all.

Extra effort is counterproductive. My running pace will come down in its own time – all I can do is focus on the one or two small actions I can take every day and let go of the rest.

This ease isn’t easy. Like many of you, I have a deep-seated Puritanical streak that whispers I can work hard and be free from sin. The American narrative is work, work, work. If you want it, go get it.

To become free from desire, we have to understand what it means to want something. Fundamentally, to desire is to seek a change. Desire leads to action– the impulse to do something lest the thing be left undone. When we want, our action is driven by the feeling that once the desire is satiated, we will be content.

…“Enough, enough, it’s never enough,”

this chuff-chuff of want being is the gerund of

-Steve Scafidi

“The Bee of Was”

But once the desire is satiated, there will be another. It’s the itch you can never scratch. The idea that accomplishing everything we want will bring contentment is an illusion. It will never be enough. We don’t have to live like this, equating “being” with “wanting.” There is another way.

When there is no desire,

all things are at peace.

-Lao Tzu

The Tao Te Ching

I don’t believe that desire is always negative. But it is something to be held lightly. When desire leads to striving, it is cruelly counterproductive, occluding the path of least resistance. If this sounds like sacrilege to you, I invite you to sit with that feeling and begin to unlearn some of the unhelpful rhetoric around hard work and wanting. How many of us will never enjoy the sweet taste of fruit after drowning all of our trees? Let go. Get into flow. Keep your eyes on the path as it opens before you.

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