Wu Wei

tao of pooh

Wu wei [woo-wey] is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Chinese classic text the ‘Tao te Ching’ (‘Book of the Way and the Power’) Laozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao (‘the Way’) behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving. He likened it to the planets revolving around the the sun, without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement.

Several chapters of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ allude to ‘diminishing doing’ or ‘diminishing will’ as the key aspect of the sage’s success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key. According to Laozi: ‘The Sage is occupied with the unspoken, and acts without effort. Teaching without verbosity, producing without possessing, creating without regard to result, claiming nothing, the Sage has nothing to lose.’

‘Wu’ may be translated as ‘not have’ or ‘without’; ‘Wei’ may be translated as ‘do,’ ‘act,’ ‘serve as,’ ‘govern,’ or ‘effort.’ The literal meaning of ‘wu wei’ is ‘without action,’ ‘without effort,’ or ‘without control,’ and is often included in the paradox ‘wei wu wei’: ‘action without action’ or ‘effortless doing.’ The practice and efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It is more a mere observation of one’s behavior after they have accepted themselves for who they are and release conscious control over their lives to the infinite Tao. There is another less commonly referenced sense of wu wei; ‘action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort.’ The concept of ‘effortless action’ is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T’ai chi ch’uan, Baguazhang, and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the main feature and distinguishing characteristic of Taoism, that of being natural. In Zen Calligraphy, wu wei has been represented as an ensō (circle); in China, the calligraphic inscriptions of the words wu wei themselves resonate with old Taoist stories. In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. In illustration, it can assume any form or shape it inhabits.

According to Taoism, the way to approach this concept it to first understand your struggle. Beneath the need to struggle is a fear that the world is an unfriendly place and you are not supported. This view arises from the mind rather from the way, which teaches that the flow, the ever present essence of life, is the way. You can trust that the way will lead you. In truth, the mind-made view of the world, where struggle is necessary, is merely illusion. No matter how real it might appear. Wu Wei is the way. To follow Wu Wei you must first let go of struggle. Stop fighting with life and trying to make things happen. You are struggling against the flow. You must first realize that you can give this up. Then it is the case that you act, you are not passive – merely waiting for things to happen, but you are no longer opposing the flow of events. Instead, you act, but let go into the uncertainty of life, and you see how life actually occurs. You become open to the mystery of which you are part. In a sense it is total acceptance of yourself and this moment. Of course, it is necessary to practice this. While the way is not of time, and we can be there in an instant, practice connects us to this place over time. Through practice the way reveals itself. Only through practice can this truth be revealed.

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