At the still point of the turning world… there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement.
[TS Eliot: Burnt Norton]
I have observed a number of lessons this week. There is often lots of doing (particularly when observations are planned). How much of this doing leads to learning? How can a teacher attend closely to so much activity? Might less doing be helpful for teachers and students?
I have become interested in the concept of wu wei (non-doing, or non-action), central to Taoism:
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
[Lao-Tze: Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48]
In this post, I will explore non-doing in the classroom.
What was there for him to do? He simply made himself respectable and took up his position facing due South.
[Hui Nan Tzu, in Ames: 'Wu-wei 'The Art of Rulership' Chapter of Huai Nan Tzu]
Wu wei is not just not doing. It is an effort to place oneself at the still point of the turning world, in order that we might be more able to notice and respond. This brings tranquility; in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, sthitau is a steady tranquility achieved through abhyasa, the effort of remaining present.
TS Eliot’s words bring to mind Charles Morgan’s image of oneself as the axis of a wheel. The Chuang-tzu describes tranquility-in-disturbance, echoed by Krishnamurti’s description of his mind as a mill-pond, upon which disturbances resonate for a short time before returning to a steady state. There is some evidence that the brain responds to disturbances in this way.
Non-doing while teaching might resemble passivity, a long way from teacher lusts. I aim for this in my teaching. It can be a ‘stepping-back’, allowing students time and space to think without breaking into their thought processes, but always at hand when necessary . Wu wei might be economy with resonance: small actions, at the right moment, with a large effect.
An action is only truly virtuous if it extends from disposition resulting from a long process of cultivation.
[Mencius, taken from Varela: Ethical Know-How]
The Bhagavad Gita describes wisdom in one who sees, ‘action in inaction, inaction in action… having abandoned attachment to the fruit of works.’
Wu wei might be interpreted as action in inaction, without intention. I am becoming increasingly interested in non-intentional actions, actions that are part of who teachers are, of which they may well not be aware. Which of these actions are helpful or necessary? What are their consequences?
It is fascinating to watch my daughter’s everyday actions - walking, standing, sitting - her responses to situations, how she deals with circumstances as they arise. What might we learn from considering 'everyday' actions?
I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life - achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting  to the Sabbath... when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
[Oliver Sacks, Gratitude]
This was written a few months before Sacks died. What is meant by living a good and worthwhile life? Is there a 'higher' (spiritual) purpose to life, or is it ‘just this’ - the everyday?
I am inclined to agree with Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, that life is emptiness filled with compassion. This has implications for teaching: those I have admired have tranquility and compassion. This is embodied in their teaching, in the thousands of non-intentional actions that lead to intimacy, the steady attention and receptivity of non-action.
Postscript: What follows are two colleagues' responses to this post:
 Christian's response: “It can be a ‘stepping-back’, allowing students time and space to think without breaking into their thought processes, but always at hand when necessary.” Today I spoke for 15 minutes, with no questions. Before the lesson I wrote down exactly what I wanted to say and write on the board. Only two questions were asked when I finished. I then gave the students some exam questions. There was a silence around the room when I finished talking and answering questions. A very low level of noise continued throughout the lesson, and I found myself walking up to students and saying e.g. “Are you alright Sharon.”, I also try and catch student’s eyes and give them a questioning thumbs up. I often “break their thought processes” by doing this. I am unnerved by silence!
 Katy's response: 'I find my thoughts drifting...' I am thinking: is this all about finding answers in ourselves? Stepping back and allowing others to do the same. Is this directly oppositional to consumerism?