What Your Dog’s Recovery Can Teach You about Chinese Philosophy

Our dog Zola has been in recovery for the past 5 weeks from surgery on her femur. While she appears to be making excellent progress, the surgeon has warned us that we have many weeks (15 or so) before she is fully recovered. In the meantime, it is our job to convince her that she isn’t ready to do the things that come so naturally to her – running, jumping, herding small children in the neighborhood. As we watch our dog grow stronger each week, we are reminded of the Taoist concept of Wu Wei or “effortless doing”.

Go With The Flow

Wu Wei is simultaneously simple and confounding. It maintains that the best action for any given situation should be effortless and natural. As soon as we start thinking about how to act, we are mucking with the natural order of things and are likely to end up with less than optimal results. For musicians, it’s easy to conjure up an example of “effortless doing.” As long as they don’t think about it, they can often pick out a tune on their instrument years after it was last played. Similarly, athletes who perform repetitive movements can eventually perform their sport effortlessly. This is how people who practice martial arts reach a state where they can block their opponent’s moves before there is time to even think.

Understanding this seems simple enough, but the concept goes even further. A tree grows but it “does it” without “doing it.” It has no knowledge of when and how to act, it does its thing naturally. According to the Taoist, we should be taking our cues from a tree. We act best when we do nothing to act at all.  Going with the flow is the only way to go.

Be the Enlightened Leader

It’s easy for us to see how Zola embodies this concept. Before her injury we were amazed to witness her natural instincts for herding and agility. We did nothing to teach her how to jump over hurdles, run under benches at full speed, or fly up and down stairs in a split second. She just did it naturally. The problem is, in her current semi-repaired state, she is increasingly inclined to do these things again. While we’ve been tasked to hold her back, the job is easier said than done.

Laozi, the philosopher credited with writing the Tao Te Ching, introduced the idea of the “enlightened leader” when he wrote about Wu Wei. This person was able to create happiness and prosperity without micromanaging. By knowing when to act and when not to act, the enlightened leader did more by doing less. It begs the question, for us at least, how do we keep our dog from re-injuring herself when she wants to do things that her leg can’t withstand. If we had spent years closing baby-gates in a split second, catching 55 pound dogs when they slipped on the ice, and stopping the sudden sprint of an animal, we’d be set. We could effortlessly, without knowingly taking action, keep Zola safe.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Accept It

Luckily there’s a back-up plan when it comes to Wu Wei. It is said that if we have no goals, we won’t do things to try to achieve them. Therefore, we can’t fail. While sounding a bit convenient, Wu Wei rightly warns us that goal anxiety can be enough to ruin the best of plans. We can certainly relate to that.

As hard as we have tried, we haven’t been 100% successful in preventing re-injury. Zola  made an unexpected jump from the back seat of a car, she limped and walked on three legs for a week after. She also came within a hair of darting down the stairs as a group was leaving our house. I grabbed her from behind and she let out a scream. Both times our hearts sank with the reality that her recovery is beyond our control. It could be that our anxiety is even making it worse. Wu Wei tells us to be prepared to accept whatever outcome is in store for Zola. In the end, of course, we will. For now, we are just doing our best to know when to act and when to let it be.

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