Wu Wei describes authenticity, it is a reminder to align with the present and accept the flow and course of nature.
“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made–or imagined–by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.”
– Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
Taoism emphasises living in harmony with the Tao (a word for ‘way’ or ‘route’). This is known as ‘Wu Wei’ and it is the alignment with the rhythms of the elements both within and outside our bodies. It is a kind of ebb and flow, an effortless surrender to the natural cycles of the world.
It is difficult to define exactly what Tao is. Those who try do not recognise that Tao exists beyond the constraints of language. It is something that one can only feel through intuition, not characterised or defined.
However, with acknowledgement of the limitations of language, the definition of Tao can be said to be the principle underlying the natural order of the universe.
It is the ‘ultimate energy of the universe’ and ‘the drift of nature’.
“There is something, chaotic yet complete, which existed before Heaven and Earth. Oh, how still it is, and formless, standing alone without changing, reaching everywhere without suffering harm! It must be regarded as the Mother of the Universe. Its name I know not. To designate it, I call it Tao. Endeavouring to describe it, I call it Great.”
-Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The common translation of ‘Wu Wei’ is ‘non-action’. However, a better translation is the ‘action of non-action’ or ‘action without intent’. This seems paradoxical and may be misinterpreted as apathy or laziness.
However, in the context of Taoist scripture, it means to not go against nature or to not force something to happen.
It is the same as ‘going with the flow, ‘not dragging your heels’ or ‘trying to turn back the tide.’
These are all common sayings that broadly explain the concept of Wu Wei.
Water is mentioned numerous times in the Tao Te Ching to explain the concept of Wu Wei. It is suggested that humans ought to be like water for it is obedient and flexible, yet it always seems to overcome things with strength and hardness.
It does this through a patient and tactical submission to the laws of nature. Similarly, humans must also be able to adapt themselves to their environment and act according to the way nature encourages.
Alan Watts uses the example of a sailing boat. He explains that rowing is a rather thoughtless way of pushing a boat across the water.
This is because it requires immense strain and hardship to move against the current of a body of water. On the other hand, sailing uses the forces of nature, namely the power of the wind, to skilfully move and manoeuvre the boat.
Rather than going against nature, sailing requires that you ‘flow through nature effortlessly’.
This is what Wu Wei means — recognising the forces of nature and acting accordingly.
Another example of Wu Wei is the cutting of wood. If you go against the way the tree grew, the wood is difficult to cut. The wood, however, splits easily if you cut against the grain. When sawing wood, many people are in a great hurry to power through the block and do not realising they are splintering the back edge. Instead, a skilled carpenter will let the saw do the work, patiently allowing the blade to glide across the wood without causing any splinters or tiring themselves out.
Wu Wei is therefore the act of letting yourself follow the Tao.
To experience the Tao (The Way), many Taoists withdraw to caves in the mountains and spend a period of time meditating. In Taoist texts, caves are seen as symbolic of the womb and by returning to the cave, you enter the process of being spiritually reborn. The purpose of Taoist meditation is to quieten the mind, unify body and spirit and, most significantly, harmonise with the Tao (The Way).
This is achieved by freeing themselves from their ego and the ideals that they have forced upon themselves and onto others. To attain the Tao, one must go along with nature and recognise the spirit of their surroundings within themselves.
However, there must be an understanding that there is no other alternative than to go along with nature “since you and the things (nature) are the same process — the now streaming Tao.”
Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts, page 98
The problem is that people see themselves as being separate from the Tao. This causes pressure to mount between you and your experiences.
For instance, you may be angry that your girlfriend left you or sad that you lost your job.
You must allow yourself to embrace these emotions as they come and go. Be present in the pain and sadness that you are suffering from.
Do not resist them. Do not look try to hold on to the past or beg for a better future because this will only cause unnecessary pain and struggle, just like rowing the boat against the current.
You can only do this once you realise that there is no alternative. You have to ‘flow with the moment’ and accept the twists and turns of the stream, as there is no other experience that is not in the present. Trying to resist the present moment is futile and will only cause more pain.
It is this understanding that allows one to receive the profits of Wu Wei.
Wu Wei can be applied to all aspects of our everyday life. Let us take writing for example. If you feel uninspired and tired, do not force yourself to write a perfect chapter.
Instead, recognise the direction of the current and take care of yourself, maybe go for a walk.
Then, when you feel inspired and motivated, take advantage and write with great ferocity and determination.
It is possible to push through a lack of inspiration and tiredness and many will encourage this.
This is fine. But, you have to accept that eventually you are going to burn out because you can only paddle against the current for so long. You have to know when effort is useful and when it is wasted.
The same is with love. You cannot try to make yourself love that which you do not love. It is against nature. You will be constantly trying to grasp something that is not there. Love is, as with other emotions, spontaneous; it is a ‘falling’ sensation that can happen instantly or overtime. Again, embrace the fall and do not resist it.
In summary, Wu Wei describes authenticity, it is a reminder to align with the present and accept the flow and course of nature.
Thank you for reading.
The Principle Of Wu Wei And How It Can Improve Your Life was originally published in Personal Growth on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.