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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
If you haven’t done so yet, please sign up for the Wise and Shine newsletter, and also connect with us on social media Instagram account: @wise_and.shine and Twitter account @wise_nd_shine, Facebook Wise and Shine Zine and Pinterest as Wise & Shine.
And finally don’t forget to listen to Wise and Shine podcasts!