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Wu Wei, the Art of Non-acting

Wu Wei is a key concept of Taoism that can be translated as “do not act” or “do not intervene”. However, it is not a passive attitude. It’s letting go to allow the action to flow effortlessly and in harmony with the “original cosmic order”, without attempting to modify it. The result will be merging into the spontaneous movement of nature and life.

When talking about the concept of Wu Wei to us Westerners, most are amazed at the existence of a philosophy that calls for “non-action”. In fact, we live in a society that constantly pushes us towards the opposite: thoughts, words, communications, activities of any kind. And when this flow is interrupted, voluntarily or involuntarily, and we find ourselves doing nothing, some of us feel lost and try to fill in this empty space. Non-action is very often considered synonymous with waste of time.

Values and virtues of Wu Wei

The Tao Che Ching, the famous book of the way and virtue, was written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, the founding father of Taoism. This philosopher thought that the best way to live was to synchronize with the flow of nature and the cosmos. This is the central inspiration of Wu Wei: let things take their natural course and adapt to this course.

Lao Tzu also made Wu Wei an ideal principle of government. The idea of achieving better results through wise strategic passivity, is at the heart of Chinese politics and diplomacy over the centuries. The influence of Wu Wei in the political way was such that several emperors had a lacquered panel above their throne with the inscription “Wu Wei”. In Taoist wisdom manuals, it is repeated in so many forms that instead of imposing a plan or model on a situation (particularly if it is conflicting), we should let others act, then simply make sure that we see the direction in which things evolve.

The Way without Way

Wu Wei is essentially related to Taoist veneration for the natural world. The idea is that our behavior is just as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes. It is simply a matter of letting oneself be carried away by the current of life, rather than trying to control and swim continuously against the current.

Wu Wei involves abandoning our preconceptions and ideals that we often try to impose (sometimes involuntarily) on situations and relationships that happen to us in life. Rather, this way-without-way invites us to respond spontaneously and effortlessly to every event, questioning our goals, our programs, and our self-centred will.

One of the inevitable consequences of practising Wu Wei is the return to a simpler life, which often results in a return to peace and harmony. This simplicity involves letting go of selfish ambitions and desires, for it becomes evident that they are the main sources of resistance, restlessness, and suffering.

Wu Wei argues that this newfound simplicity helps us to accept things for what they are and as they happen, not to resist events and, above all, not to pretend to be able to control them.

Wait and observe

One of the cornerstones of Wu Wei is learning to wait and observe. It is based on the idea that energy must be conserved for times when it is not possible to act. Those who observe and wait for the propitious moment will act not only with great wisdom and better effectiveness, but also with greater vitality because energy will not have been wasted on unimportant actions and reactions.

When you understand that many of your thoughts, words and actions are counterproductive because they only serve to fight the reality, you can relax and choose to let go to naturally return to action effortlessly. This effortless action is often misunderstood by us Westerners because we think it means being negligent or passive, while it means synchronizing with the natural flow of reality.

Wu Wei in practice

The practical elements proposed by the Wu Wei philosophy focus on four axes:

  1. accept the fact that what we call problems are our creations, which do not happen to us without reason but are created by our conditioning.
  2. learn not to make mental efforts to solve problems. Do not represent or conceptualize them in thoughts, nor attempt to imagine solutions. The idea is rather not to feed them and let them dissolve on their own.
  3. appreciate the natural flow of things, that is, adopt an attitude of observation of the events, abandoning the idea that we should act on them.
  4. Leave control, do not try to force a specific direction, but simply let things take their course (life is much smarter than us).

To conclude, this non-interference proposed by Wu Wei represents an authentic behavioral ethics change. An ethics that can lead to putting aside your personal identity to rediscover the spontaneous action that is the natural state of the human being.

What do you think of Wu-Wei? Are you ready to stop and observe without acting?

You can find more on changing perspectives on my blog crisbiecoach.

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26 thoughts on “Wu Wei, the Art of Non-acting

  1. I remember being so surprised, the first time I read that even politics functioned with the Way as the guiding force. As you said, that’s so counterintuitive to the way Westerners have been conditioned to think, act, etc. Your post has inspired me to pull the Tao Te Ching back out and read it again!

    1. I think it’s a good lecture from time to time or bits by bits. In this way I learn and remember easily the concepts that sometimes are difficult to understand (at least for me). Thank you!

  2. I love this wisdom to start “synchronizing with the natural flow of reality.” When I’m able to stop and observe without acting, I find that I thrash around a lot less. Great post, Cristiana!

  3. I think, on the Long Ende of WuWei, it may happen, that we act, but it ist just Something, that ‘happens’, according to our deep Nature, that connects us with all beings.

    1. Dear crisbiecoach and Schreibrausch,

      This is a very nice post relating to Wu Wei – the art of not forcing, which is an ancient Chinese concept.

      Other English words that can explain 無為 is “inexertion”, “inaction” or “effortless action”.

      Our purpose for the purpose of Wu Wei (無為) is to be purposeful in being purposefully purposeless with purposelessness.

      Yours sincerely and effortlessly,

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I especially like this piece “Wu Wei involves abandoning our preconceptions and ideals that we often try to impose (sometimes involuntarily) on situations and relationships that happen to us in life.” So much of what causes us to be upset, disappointed or angry, is due to our personal expectations, quite often expectations that the other people don’t know about and / or we have never asked them to strive for. It’s always good to remind ourselves of this behaviour so we can acknowledge its happening, then stop it.

  5. I was not familiar with this concept but it’s very interesting and appealing, although it may take some work to employ as it’s so different from what we’re taught. Thanks for the great post Cristiana!

  6. “Wu Wei involves abandoning our preconceptions and ideals that we often try to impose (sometimes involuntarily) on situations and relationships that happen to us in life. Rather, this way-without-way invites us to respond spontaneously and effortlessly to every event, questioning our goals, our programs, and our self-centred will.”

    I love being able to put a name to choosing to wait and see how something will turn out, it definitely goes against how we’ve been taught to handle our lives as Westerners. If we do it without having a term for it, we do risk getting criticized for not jumping in.

    Yet in our fraught relationships within families and even on the national stage, learning to wait and not just jump headlong into the fray, mindlessly repeating angry phrases and perpetuating anger and stress within ourselves would be a much healthier and more mature approach to handling life!

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