Wu-Wei (pronounced oooooo-way)

There’s a Chinese philosophy I absolutely love called, Wu-Wei. It means “the best way to get approval is not to need it.”

Deep-rooted practices are challenging to unwind. I was trained to conform to religious beliefs, not talk back to my parents or question authority, including medical professionals, teachers, and lawmakers. By conforming and being “seen and not heard,” I was labeled a “good girl.” To be honest, my “smart mouth” would often get me in trouble. But I cared deeply about fitting in and being liked by others. I still want to be liked by others and feel a sense of belonging, but in a way that is respectful to my own needs.

You may relate. How often, for example, have you been around someone who doesn’t share your views, political or otherwise? Do you hold back, avoid, become enraged or tune out? Have you ever allowed someone to speak ad nauseum long after you were done listening and because of it was late for an appointment? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all speak up honestly, sharing our thoughts without the fear of criticism or judgement? The truth is, we must learn how to speak up in the face of fear, criticism and judgement. We will never experience true freedom until we can feel safe being who we are with everyone.

It’s only natural then, that we surround ourselves with like-minded people who share similar values and interests. We are safe in the bosom of our “people.” That’s all well and good, but how are we going to learn to speak up when someone disagrees, disrespects or angers us? I like teachers who model the behavior I want to adopt. My experience is that the teacher will appear when the student is ready.

The Teacher Appears

One such teacher of authenticity is my friend, Becky, who lends me books from her personal library. She teaches non-violent communication classes, is an award-winning basket weaver, and a frequent student in my art classes. She’ll ask questions like, “What went right for you today?” Becky knows how to phrase things that shows her understanding of a situation and her respect for others in an honest, forthcoming and respectful way. One day she stopped by mid-day to pick up her ukulele she left at my house. My husband, Pat, and I both work from home and she knew we were “at work.” Out of politeness, I invited her to stay and have something to drink and here’s how she responded—something like this: “I love spending time with you and would love to stay because I have no immediate plans, but I sense you are in the middle of getting your work done and I’m afraid you might resent me for interrupting. I want to visit when it’s a better time for you and I understand that you are being nice out of politeness.” She knows me well and she was totally right! She’s spunky, original, energetic, and joyful. Most importantly, she’s authentic and I trust her because she is REAL. Who wouldn’t want more of that kind of positive influence!? One of the books she lent me is called, “Don’t be Nice, Be Real” by Kelly Bryson.

Bryson writes, “There is a huge difference between someone who has true respect, honor, and empathy for the needs of others and someone who is ‘nice’ because they were trained to honor the needs of others and not their own.”

Why do I write about this topic now? Because I’m spending a lot of time in my studio creating, un-doing, re-doing, beginning again, and continuing this process all the while losing myself in inspiration. And throughout the process of creating I’m either working out the troubled parts of my life or celebrating the life I only dreamed could be possible, vacillating between frustration and excitement.

Art=Self Expression=Authenticity=Real

As an art educator I ask students, “What do you want to say with your art?” Sometimes it is a difficult question to answer. We don’t know. There’s so much we WANT to say, but if we try to say it all in one painting the “story” is cluttered and unclear. Some of what we want to say has been repressed for YEARS, almost forgotten. Anxiety takes over. I see this sometimes with my students and in myself. We want to express ourselves but are so afraid – afraid it won’t come out the way we want it to (perfectionism), afraid it won’t sell because other people won’t like it (judgement/fitting in/needing approval). Do you see the correlation here? Art=Self Expression=Authenticity=Real.

What I am learning is undoubtedly influencing my approach to how I communicate through my artwork. I’m more curious, taking more risks, experimenting with different mediums, and allowing the process to unfold naturally without getting attached to the outcome. I must remember not to get caught up in the web of perfectionism and take a “healthy striving” approach doing the best that I can. This is also how I encourage others to approach their artwork. Each of us has our own story to tell. Only we can tell it in our own way.

In the process of unwinding the obedient, nice little girl within, I’m discovering the power in speaking up, questioning others, and choosing how to spend my time and energy with respect for myself and others. And if my work is to be authentic, I must let go of the need for approval and get over the notion that it must be nice or perfect. Expressing myself without fear of judgement or approval takes courage.

Whether you’re an artist or not, learning to clearly express yourself without fear or need of approval is how we learn to balance passion for ourselves with compassion for others. And that, I believe, is the way to true freedom.

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