Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why are you unhappy?

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 per cent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself —
And there isn't one.

- Wei Wu Wei

I've been thinking about this one for years but I'm still not sure what it means.

I first heard it in a talk given by poet David Whyte. He follows up recitation of the poem by saying that there is no self in isolation - similar to the question: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"


  1. Here is my bogus interpretation. Nature is real. Life is real. The current collection of atoms and spiritual existence we call self, is simply an assembly that exists for a short time, and then no more. If we live as if that assembly were a real unit, we try to build something that is not only already as complete as it will likely become, but something that also starts decaying the moment it exists. We should be working toward understanding life and ourselves as an expression of it. Instead we try to work for the good of the current organization of atoms we call self. It would be like trying to improve a glass of evaporating water. Making sure we have water is good, but trying to treat a specific glass of water as "the thing" is very bad.

    OK, I give up. I tried. I realize I am babbling. That is because the statement makes little sense. Wei Wu Wei is daffy or a genius.

    One thing at least is certain: This life flies. One thing is certain and the rest is Lies; The Flower that once is blown for ever dies. -- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

  2. Looking at that as a social scientist, the first thought that came to me is the fact that the "self" is a social product; to be self-aware or self-conscious requires knowing (or fearing) how we look to others, from "out there." If there is just "I" there is no need for "me." Well, that's kind of cryptic, too. "Me" is the objective case in grammar, thus I am considering myself from outside, while "I" is subjective. Freud's hypothesis of the inborn id, the drive for satisfaction of drives is a good model. In this construct the notion of self-centered would be an oxymoron, but from the outside that's exactly what it is.

    To change up and wax philosophical / economical about it: there is no me without us. There is no such thing as just your self. No one (alone).

    I have a final thought as to why it may be difficult to grasp: the translation might be less than optimal. Many years ago I bought a translation of the Tao Te Ching that gave me an understanding of the concepts underlying that view of the universe, but several years later I saw a different translation, opened it to the beginning of the text and instantly saw the poetry and spirit that was completely lacking in the first one. So as an example, the last line, "And there isn't one," might "actually" read, "But there isn't just one [self]."

  3. Bill

    I think you're so right about language. I would imagine that our English, which for so long has been embedded in a culture of individualism, wold not grasp what Wei Wu Wei is saying.

    I suppose that since I heard this in the context of a talk by David Whyte, I've always leaned to your philosophical/economical interpretation - which was his point. But perhaps since I still constrained by that individualistic culture to which I belong, I go on to ponder what he's hinting about that would lead to happiness.

  4. John,

    "Wei Wu Wei is daffy or a genius."

    Perfect. How often is that the dilemma!

    Here's one of my favorite quotes about genius (because I happen to be very lazy - LOL)

    "It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing."
    - Gertrude Stein