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Wuwei and Flow: Comparative Reflections on Spirituality, Transcendence, and Skill in the Zhuangzi

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 4, October 2011
pp. 679-706 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0051



Much of recent scholarship on the Zhuangzi has focused on the distinctive picture of spiritual fulfillment offered by its various "knack" stories. These stories describe a special kind of skillful action marked by fine-tuned responsiveness, non-deliberative spontaneity, effortlessness, and enjoyment. Scholars agree that the Zhuangzian theme of effortless action, or wuwei, indicates an intimate relationship between spiritual satisfaction and skill. However, this emerging consensus has so far failed to produce a clear analysis of the transcendence of wuwei with respect to everyday instances of skillful spontaneity. This essay attempts to clarify the issue of transcendence by using the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow as a reference point. While flow may not provide a comprehensive theory of wuwei spirituality, it sharpens our thinking about the various kinds of transcendence that wuwei might entail. A comparison between wuwei and flow also helps to clarify more general questions about spirituality and its alleged separation from religious belief in the modern world.

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