By gaining an awareness of life’s essential unity and learning to attune ourselves to its natural flow we attain a state of being that is both free and independent while fully connected with the Tao. As expressed through the principle of wu-wei, this represents the ultimate stage of human existence.
The Chinese term wu-wei translates as “non-doing”. For many Westerners this principle is one of the most intriguing and fascinating in Taoist literature. It is also one of the more “enjoyable” because our initial attempts to understand its implications are often quite humorous. Simply the translation – “non-doing” – often causes our culture-bound minds to seize up. “Non-doing?!” We live in probably the most “doing” society in history. Our country was built on doing, our economic system of growth and expansion depends on doing, and continued social progress arises from doing. Non-doing seems to run counter to all of our social conditioning and naturally leads to the question, “How does one achieve anything or get anywhere in life except by doing?”
When we first encounter wu-wei we often react with consternation, confusion, or disbelief. Yet most of us also naturally gravitate toward this concept, absurd or unrealistic as it may initially seem. It’s as if we immediately sense that here indeed is something deeply profound about how life can be lived. Exploring this principle more fully we come to understand that while it derives from the workings of the natural world it is applicable to human existence as well. More significantly, we recognize that we have already experienced wu-wei many times in our lives, and that those experiences have been truly meaningful and powerful.
Tao abides in non action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
Tao Te Ching, Ch 37
So what is wu-wei?
Wu-wei describes the flow of energy as explained in the principle of yin and yang. When one of these fundamental energies – either yin or yang – reaches its fullest manifestation it naturally transforms into its opposite. The patterns of change are recognizable and even predictable.
In nature change occurs organically, following certain laws and conditions. There is a natural self-transformation and a natural self-ordering: the flowing of the seasons, plants growing, snow falling, or ice melting. Everything gets done. This is wu-wei, action that arises spontaneously, “of itself”, and is appropriate to its time and place, always moving toward a harmonious balance. Wu-wei is often referred to as “effortless action” even though great force may be present. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle.
While nature flows effortlessly humans, on the other hand, often struggle with change. We frequently don’t recognize it, resist it, or simply lack the necessary skill in dealing with it. By following nature and learning to flow with the ongoing patterns of change – rolling with the punches, going with the grain, swimming with the current – we harmonize with them. Our actions become unforced and effortless. This applies to personal, internal change as well as external behavior.
Work without doing.
When we consciously experience ourselves as part of the Tao we move beyond a separate sense of self. Then there is no separate “doer”. We channel the Tao. The Tao is the doer. This is difficult for us to comprehend and more difficult to experience. Our prevailing belief is that if you want to achieve something then it is you who must put in the effort, you who must “do” it.
How do we attain a state of effortless action, of non-doing? Lao Tzu writes that we must be “quiet and watchful”, sensitive to the balance and flow of energies around us. We must also listen to our inner voices and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao, relying on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information.
When we become attuned to cycles and patterns of change as expressed through the movement of yin and yang, our actions adjust to these phases, become more skillful, and require less effort. We learn to recognize and manage problems or challenges in a timely manner. “Deal with the small before it becomes large,” writes Lao Tzu. We intuitively sense the flow of energy in a given moment and become one with it. Our natural wisdom lets us know when to intervene (yang) and when to let things play out (yin). And while the principle of wu-wei implies non-striving, it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity.
In order to “work without doing”, it is important that our actions come from a place of non-attachment. Chuang Tzu describes this as “forgetfulness of results, and abandonment of all hope of profit.” How many of us are capable of that?! Such action arises because it is appropriate in the moment, not because of any personal goals such as recognition or accumulation.
In the human realm we speak of being “plugged in”, or “in the zone”. The woodcarver who liberates the form within the block of wood, the pianist who allows the music to flow through her fingers, or athletes who find themselves performing their skills with remarkable ease – all illustrate this concept. Heroic deeds carried out selflessly, without premeditation, and often at great personal sacrifice, are another example of “non-doing”. This is the Tao, universal energy, manifesting and balancing itself through us whether we are saving a life, creating art, shooting a basketball, or even performing a household chore. Again – we as individuals are not the “doers”. The action flows through us. It – whatever needs to take place to restore balance and harmony – simply happens.
Listening carefully within, being in step with our surroundings, remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, remaining still until action is called forth – in this way we perform valuable, necessary, and long lasting service in the world while cultivating our ability to be at one with the Tao. Such is the power of wu-wei, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Tao.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
Chuang Tzu describes effortless action in the world as “purposeless wandering”! How opposite this concept is to some of our most treasured cultural values. To have no purpose is considered anti-social and even pathological in the context of modern day living. Yet it is certainly fair to ask whether our current ideals have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level.
To allow oneself to “wander without purpose” can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. If there is no “purpose” what is the point? From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs – that we exist as separate beings, and that we can exercise willful control over all situations without regard to consequences – that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance.
Yet, “The Tao,” Lao Tzu writes, “nourishes everything,”. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action, then nothing remains undone. This is trusting that the Tao will provide support and guidance and that we are capable of receiving it. The Tao is all nourishing, life-sustaining. The “point” is to grow into our full potential, to become one with the Tao.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
Wu-wei indeed means freedom. It points us in the direction of our wholeness. It is an abiding, inner trust in our natural drive or inclination to fulfill our potential. It appeals to us because at our deepest levels of being it is natural to let go and become one with the flow of the Tao.
When applied to human existence wu-wei is indeed a radical concept. It is also one that believes deeply in the abundance and benevolence of life as it exists in nature. Wu-wei states that life perpetuates and regenerates itself in a manner that is natural and effortless. Simply let go, the Taoist sages tell us, align yourself with the flow of energy that is life and you can lead an existence that is carefree and also supports the movement of life. You don’t have to “do” anything. The “doing” is in the letting go. In fact, there really is no “doer” other than the Tao which manifests itself through you. Wu-wei occurs when we don’t struggle, when we are able to let go. Let go of what? Let go of our separate sense of self, for one. Let go of whatever we are holding onto that keeps us believing that we are indeed separate beings.
Does this mean we don’t go to college, don’t own a home, and don’t raise a family? Not necessarily. All is Tao. All of these things can happen naturally, without forcing, as part of the harmonious flow of life. Or, the path may be completely different, but no less genuine and fulfilling.
By allowing the Tao to work through us, our actions are rendered truly spontaneous, natural, and effortless. We thus flow with all experiences as they come and go. Actions which are in response to the needs of the environment, rather than ego-motivated, lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and “purpose” to our lives.
To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a daunting task. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment without thought of profit or tangible result. “The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever,” writes Lao Tzu. Anything rendered in the spirit of wu-wei makes a contribution to the greater whole and has a lasting effect.
- All things change and change is constant. Are you comfortable with change?
- By recognizing patterns and stages of change we can practice appropriate timing. There is a time to act and a time to be still, a time to intercede and a time to yield.
- Going with the flow implies that there is a larger life current with which we can align ourselves. Can you sense that energy? Can you tell when it changes direction?
- The next time you encounter a challenging or perplexing situation try being still. Focus on breathing and relaxing. Allow the appropriate action (or non-action) to arise spontaneously.
This is the fifth article in Ted’s series which explores the nature of Tao as presented in the writings of legendary sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and investigates how we might understand and apply these ideas in our daily lives.
Also in this series:
- The Circle of Tao
- Mystery – The Gateway To The Tao
- The Glass Is Empty
- Beyond Right And Wrong
- Purposeless Wandering
About The Author
Ted has been a practitioner of Tai Ji and Qi Gong for over 30 years. In 1983 he was ordained as a Taoist Priest after completing a two-year program of studies at the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego under the auspices of Master Share K. Lew, a Taoist Priest from the Yellow Dragon Monastery in China.
Following Ted’s ordination, he taught classes in Tai Ji, and Qi Gong at the Sanctuary for 20 years. He also created and taught a popular 28-week course in Taoist Philosophy.
In 2004, after several years of practicing Vipassana meditation, Ted completed the Dedicated Practitioners Program offered through the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
For the past 20 years Ted has been a faculty member at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego. He is the director of the College’s Clinical Counseling program and also teaches classes in Tai Ji.
Ted’s advanced degree is in Clinical Psychology. He is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist in practice since 1989. He brings a blend of Taoist and Buddhist spiritual principles, combined with contemporary Western psychological concepts, to his work with his clients.
Ted feels most fortunate and grateful to have been introduced to the writings of the Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Their ideas and principles continue to be a guiding force in his life to this day.