The wúwéi of MyWHaT (無爲) or finding a path forward
An introspective rant (of sorts)
• 無爲 wúwéi or “non-doing.” Add an extra 爲 wéi and you get wéiwúwéi “action without action”, which is action that is spontaneous and effortless. •
Lately, I’ve been tangled up with outcomes and at the same time, feeling a need to detach from them. For example, trusting that the city and MDOT will carry out improvements for accessibility & calming in the 2011 Division St. maintenance project. There is some positive movement, and a lot of non-movement. Those with the power to do something often seem the least motivated, and I’m not even referring to the roundabout option; a few extra crosswalks painted will be difficult.
I believe we choose a path and direction, then we walk it. We go forward creating our vision while concentrating on the fundamental structure beneath our feet. Is that structure rewarding? Is it resilient? Does it support my intentions? The path actually disappears and with it the destination. I never really get anywhere; I’m already there.
What does this have to do with MyWHaT?
Nothing. Everything. Despite being a public service for local ideas, perspectives and, dare I say, news, it has been for the most part a personal BLOG, disguised as it is. For seven months I’ve explored concepts and current thinking related to public spaces and transportation. I’ve also dived into city planning through my role on the parks and recreation commission, a transportation committee and various other enterprises. A lot of that activity has been reflected on this BLOG. To what end? Any achievements? I’m just not sure. Are there achievements to be achieved?
An end indeed
I’m not exposing anything new on MyWHaT or at the governmental center. People have put up the ‘good fight’ against uninspired planning, obnoxious traffic and hand-tied bureaucrats for years. In particular since the 1950’s when the car culture rose to its current dominance, there has been opposition offering a different, human centered perspective to designing neighborhoods and cities. Occasionally, there have even been victories, but the overall trend has been a dominant culture of motorized vehicles über all. This is true globally, as well as locally. I see nothing changing that imprint.
Still, that’s no reason not to continue the work to ameliorate a problem street (Division, Eighth..), an under-served park (Clancy, Sunset…) and a vague master-plan (TC’s). All are valuable projects in need of attention, however, the short-term often takes over and it’s the long-term structure that I’m truly interested in unraveling. To not drive myself mad, I need to let go and laugh at it all. To practice ‘non-doing’.
This reminds me of an article a mentor shared with me, as way of advice, when I started this endeavor. A Serious Talk About Humor in the Office by non-other than John Cleese, is a speech targeted at a group of serious people, trying to get ‘stuff’ done. He makes the case that there’s a need to be serious, but not solemn, rigid & stressed. In part, he explains:
“The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned mode that we find ourselves in so much of the time.”
Slow change, accelerated
Despite the odds against significant change in how we design our public spaces, I feel better about the MyWHaT endeavor. Why not feel better? When I look within (myself, my family, the tribe, the community), I do see positive change.
爲無爲 wéiwúwéi. My impact is minimal and everything remains possible.
A response I receive a lot when I introduce MyWHaT to new acquaintances and we begin to discuss the issues, is that change takes time. They say things like, “Traverse City is ‘moving forward’” and “slow change is often better.” Philosophically, I agree. In human terms, in a human time-frame, I disagree. On the ground, day-to-day, it’s a questionable rationalizing of the status-quo based in a belief that there is a natural progress to something better. In the short-term things can get worse without intentional designs. Intent that takes energy. The 8th Street Kerfuffle was instructive in teaching me that what we do today is what we will have for 30 years, so we bets do it right today.
This doesn’t mean that we need to focus on cataclysmic events and run-around looking for the sexiest idea to carry out today. There is value in slowness; its glacial character is comforting & introspective. The entrepreneurial thinker and author, Seth Godin recently wrote about the power of slow change. The glacial shift of culture compared to the big events that get our attention. He writes:
Cultural shifts create long-term evolutionary changes. Cultural shifts, changes in habits, technologies that slowly obsolete a product or a system are the ones that change our lives. Watch for shifts in systems and processes and expectations. That’s what makes change, not big events. Don’t worry about what happened yesterday (or five minutes ago). Focus on what happened ten years ago and think about what you can do that will make a huge impact in six months.
It’s the Daoist approach to civic engagement. I underlined a section for a reason. Although there’s real value in slow change, there’s no reason to embrace the incremental as a cover for not making bold moves today. Yes, things take time. But sometimes, it’s the build up of pressure over decades that suddenly releases and the glacier gives. At that point, we best be ready because in the time-frame of humans, nature, the broad definition that includes human culture, can move very quickly.
Change is and has been occurring even if we don’t realize it. Are we watching where we place our feet?
NOTE: The author claims no ability in the art of Taoism, apart from a brief study of way-finding on the sacred mountain of Wudang with a Daoist sage carrying a pineapple.