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What is Wu Wei?

Runner silhouette against sun and clouds

Of all the concepts in Taoism, Wu Wei is perhaps the least understood. The idea of not-doing leads some to imagine a meditative state, where the outer world recedes in importance. Wu Wei is not about the cessation of activity. Rather, it is relaxing into the flow in a way that we stop striving and learn to participate.

Wu Wei as Lassez Faire

One way to understand the meaning of Wu Wei portrayed by the original Taoists, is how it was used to coach leaders with a laissez faire attitude. Laissez faire is a policy of letting things take their own course, without interfering. This principle drives Western economics today.

Chapter 37 of the Tao te Ching says: “Tao invariably takes no action, and yet, there is nothing that is left undone. If a leader understands this, the myriad of things will transform on their own.”

Tao takes no action because it expresses itself through interaction. As Yin and Yang, this can be observed in how a charge and magnetic field interact. One creates the other and neither can endure without the other. Light moves from the sun to the earth in this way and this movement, along with the chain reaction of abundance embodies Tao. From photons to photosynthesis, to the water and carbon cycle, nothing is left undone.

In economics, supply is the fruit of Yang activity, while demand is the pull or attractive field of Yin. Supply and demand work in a symbiotic way to balance the market. The market seeks equilibrium on its own because if demand dries up, so does supply. Higher demand leads to more production.

Tao is both the complexity of this market activity, and whether or not the people and the environment are thriving in one big and symbiotic flow. Anytime balance is disrupted, a change will naturally occur.

What Wu Wei Is Not

The opposite of Wu Wei rests in ideas like trade embargoes, higher tariffs, price fixing and government intervention of free trade. Laissez faire embraced a philosophy that when individuals served their own interests, it would lead to the public good. Yet, something like Facebook shows how good intentions can run amok when an enterprise falls under the machinery of a corporation.

Monopolies will naturally lead the government to intervene. But when government is not led by the will of the people, it too, is not sustainable and will fall on its own. The tumultuous turning of Tao to return balance is not always pleasant, but necessary. When change is upon us, Wu Wei teaches us to go with it.

All organisms organize – it’s what we do. We see chaos and believe we need to fix it, when it is just the face of emerging change. We believe we have a better plan for nature, and often interfere with life’s natural course. We believe natural disasters are negative events because we cannot see how nature achieves wellness.

Whether hurricanes or earthquakes, the disruption of unbalanced environmental conditions creates the mechanisms that will naturally lead to balance.

Wu Wei can mean to take no unnatural action that goes against the flow. It can be as simple as not building your home in a dense forest where forest fires have been a natural part of the landscape for millennium. We love living on the seashore except during hurricane season. To take unnatural action is futile, but nothing bad is ever happening.

Wu Wei and Non-Duality

The courtship of Taoism and Hinduism, which led to Buddhism has also clouded the idea of Wu Wei with non-duality. In Hinduism, non-duality is rooted in Advaita, where one does not separate oneself as Atman (self) and Brahman (whole). In Taoism too, one gives up the any sense of separation from the larger flow, field or mind. But non-duality is about perspective and Wu Wei is about action.

When we relate Wu Wei to action, we discover spontaneity or the joy of being present in the present. Will spontaneity lead to mistakes? Yes, but the idea of making a mistake is just the illusion that we have nothing to learn. Every moment is the unfolding of discovery and participation. A mis-take is as important of a step forward as having a great-take. The 'takes' are just stepping stones.

Non-duality helps us recognize how action that places the self in the center of everything is also futile. This leads us to interfere with the natural course because Tao involves everything and life is not just about us. Wu Wei teaches us that the sense of self unrelated to the whole is an illusion too. We forsake spontaneity for control and the illusion of managing the outcome.

In Chapter 13 of the Tao te Ching, we are told: “The sage does not make distinctions, embraces everything and remains open. The ordinary person puts themselves in the center of the universe; the universe for the sage, is always at the center. Thus, the sage views the world as their larger body.”

Wu Wei as Not Striving

Wu Wei is not negating the importance of reality. Tao brought us to this moment and everything has meaning and purpose. But striving and embroiling are also at odds with Wu Wei. These responses are how we have put the self at the center of every experience, which can make us feel defensive.

Learning about Wu Wei can be a lesson about overcoming a sense that anything needs to be defended. Every day is new and we are always growing.

In Taoism, each experience is a gift of discovery. Wu Wei is the ability to open to this gift and receive it. When life calls us into change – we must follow.

Anxiety is the bubbling of our need for control and leads us to embroil in situations we would classify as conflict. Yet, conflict is the confusion and disorder that brings about change. Wu Wei is the moment we catch our defensive behavior and let go. We open to receive. When the world is our larger body, there is nothing to protect or defend. We are the guests here, but Tao is the host.

Chapter 11 of the Tao te Ching teaches us: “Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel; yet it is its center that makes it useful.” We are like the spokes, but we come together at the center of the turning. Each of us meets the pavement and will classify the experience differently. Coming together will always allow us to achieve more than we can do as individuals. The spokes strengthen the wheel, and cause it to keep turning.

Wu Wei is the effortless action of being swept up into something beyond ourselves. We can have a vision of what we want and watch to see if the doors open. If not, we look at where we are being led and what it might teach us.

Wu Wei is like the flow state of the artist when they are immersed in the blossoming of their inspiration. We are more focused on the process of giving something life, rather than the value of what is created. Art is like a child and will have its own life – in its own time. We can only give birth to it and let it go where it will.

For a runner, there is a place where we feel the negative effect of striving as we propel our mass against the force of gravity. At some point, we discover the flow or the effortless movement when a type of balance is achieved between our forward movement and how the earth pulls back upon our feet. We have not stopped our action – we have merely let go of the idea that anything is ever working against us.

For the runner, it feels like flying. We are in flow and our action is effortless. The mind's illusion of difficulty and our sense of self has been set free.

Wu Wei combines participating in a larger field with the idea of being open to all of the possibilities that come our way. The reason it is cultivated in Taoism is because it always leads to joy.

Just like the runner, it may take a bit of practice to find your stride. But you will know you are in Wu Wei when you discover that nothing is wrong.