I was saddened watching the news about the break-in at the Pelosi home in San Francisco and the assault on Paul Pelosi. Almost simultaneously, I was horrified to hear of the number of jokes, memes, conspiracy theories and fabricated denials that began circulating across the media within minutes of the story breaking. What road are we traveling when an 82-year-old man being attacked with a hammer in his home is grounds for ridicule and humor?
I turned to my wife and said, “Maybe it’s time we seriously begin considering moving out of the country.”
She said, “Maybe it’s time we stay right here.” She was right.
As is often the case, the exchange reminded me of a classic taijiquan principle, wuwei. Sometimes translated as “empty stepping,” it flows from the concept that all of creation, including the ground on which we stand, is part of the living world, imbued with the same intrinsic essence and, because of that, is sacred. The taiji player steps lightly because it’s not dirt beneath her feet, it’s the face of the divine.
The idea of Divine Presence actually being present appears across time and around the world, including in the animism of indigenous cultures, the ground luminosity of Tibetan Buddhism and the omnipresence of God in the Christian tradition. But what do we do with that idea? How does it translate into action?
Wuwei turns the idea into a healing act. The taiji player steps lightly both as a reminder to herself that, “This, too, is sacred ground,” and as a transformative promise of stewardship: “I will change how I walk on the earth. How I walk on the earth reverberates beyond my steps. I will move as if all of life is a connected whole.”
It’s easy to experience wuwei in quiet, undisturbed places, on smooth and level ground. It’s another thing entirely to practice it in the tumult of internal or external turmoil. More often that not, those conditions ignite our fight-or-flight mechanisms. We either lash out or run away from the offending situation.
That’s what I was doing when in despair I said we might need to move out of the country. My wife reminded me that wuwei takes courage—the courage to be patient, to first hold our ground, and then to look deeper, into Presence.
That’s the essence of wuwei—the courage to be present to Presence. When we do that, we can transform a moment of despair into a moment of peace. That transformation begins the moment we look at turbulence and discord differently, no longer seeing them as abominations separate from ourselves, but as part in the living whole. This, too, is sacred ground.
There’s much to feel outrage about today—from what passes for discourse on social media to flagrant physical violence to the willful ignorance and resigned indifference to global warming that’s leaving the survival of our planet in jeopardy. Without denying the truth and honesty of that outrage, wuwei offers an alternative to fight-or-flight as our response of choice.
It does so by borrowing from another taijiquan axiom—A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds. The scale of the problem may seem to call for an epic response or vast numbers. But sometimes it’s the smallest act that turns the tide. Simply by intentionally tending to how we move in this moment, we change the energy of the moment. This act of “empty stepping” is neither retaliation nor avoidance, which only perpetuate the outrageous conditions. It sets in motion a new dynamic.
Wuwei reminds us that wherever we are—physically, emotionally, culturally—this, too, is sacred ground. Remembering that and moving in accordance with that changes enough to change everything.