Embracing Wu, by Paige Gugerty

I am concerned about rivers and about the beings that are impacted by the way humans control rivers.  Poisoned Waters, DamNation, and the Freeman’s plea to save the Boundary Waters all illustrate urgent signals to read, write, create art, protest, and do whatever else we do when we are fired up about a cause.  In class, it is easy to talk about but outside of the classroom some people are ignorant and don’t have time to help.  For many, there are in an infinite number of causes but no time to help.  We are off-balance, myself included.  A flick away from falling over, losing hope, and burning out.

I’ve been there.

My senior year of high school I could hardly walk. I was the Student Council President, Retreat Leader, and ran cross-country just for fun.  In February, my mom took me to the doctor’s and I was diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia.  I took supplements and ran a personal-best mile in track by May.  I graduated and was still out of balance.  Just before I came to UD as a freshman, I visited the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which was related to how fluids such as blood were flowing in my body.

The journey, though troublesome for a high school senior, led me to Chinese medicine – for which I have been grateful.  On Friday in class when we were talking about burnout, I was thinking: how can I compare the healthcare system to how we treat rivers? 

That thought may be far out, even for this class, so I’ll explain.  A Chinese medicine practitioner like an energy healer or acupuncturist will describe channels in the body like rivers.  Like we said in class, when a channel is blocked we get sick (mentally, physically, or both).  Though we can’t see this process, we experience its effects daily.

Now think of rivers.  Far from the Chinese medicine principle of letting the rivers flow free, from the 1930s – 1950s the U.S. government was obsessed with damming rivers.  As the huge American flag drapes over Glen Canyon Dam (AZ) in DamNation, I realize that nearly a century later the dams are no longer the most power efficient but are still symbols of patriotism and wonder for some.

Shifting to Verse 11 in the Tao Te Ching, I see what we often miss: “Wu is nothingness, emptiness, non-existence.” (13).  Initially, this sounds negative, but the concluding lines make sense when thinking about natural wonders.  The verse concludes, “…when a thing has existence alone, it is mere dead-weight / Only when it has wu, does it have life” (13).

Half Dome would not be as striking if it was Full Dome.  One could argue that the human mind and body should have wu in order to “keep the innocence of a beginner” (11).  Essentially, if we do not have wu, there would be no blank spaces and more abstractly, nothing to figure out.  Wu is essential to living.

Yet it seems like we have forgotten this, always on the very of being too busy and becoming too off-balance.  Too stressed out.  Too sick.  But there’s good news: we live in a universe that is “like bellows.  (The universe) stays empty yet is never exhausted…gives out yet always brings forth more” (6).  Time is constantly regenerating.  Humans can afford to take moments to find wu.  Maybe animals have already found it.

So, revisiting the dammed rivers and the damming of energy in our bodies: both show what happens when we fail to see the forest through the trees.  In its current state, Western medicine views illness and injury as a dam in the river, narrowly addressing one area without often thinking about the consequences.  Likewise, we still have thousands of dams in rivers – affecting the fish runs, native tribes, paddlers, and entire ecosystems.  By removing dams from rivers, we see life.

And wu?  If we do not see it, we will dam energy and rivers and continue to make narrow-minded decisions that impact ecosystems over the long-term.  It is difficult to comprehend because we are living in this moment.  It is a concept that is bigger than ourselves.  But ultimately, wu will enable us to be gentle to the Earth on The Way.