Read the complete Tao of Daily Living series.
Wu-wei –– Effortless Action
This is the fifth of six presentations on the teachings of Taoism as presented in the writings of Taoist sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Previous articles have focused on the following principles:
- the interconnectedness of all life as expressed through the principle of The Tao;
- the expression of this unity through the constant interplay of life’s two primal energies, the opposing yet complementary forces of yin and yang;
- an experience of ourselves as part of the Tao by accessing what is called our Uncarved Block or pu – our essential being or original goodness;
- our discovery of the power or force, te, that comes from this attunement with Tao and which enables us to manifest the power of the Tao in our daily lives.
The essential message of Taoism is that life constitutes an organic, interconnected whole which undergoes constant transformation. This unceasing flow of change manifests itself as a natural order governed by unalterable, yet perceivable laws. It is the constancy of these governing principles (like the rising and setting of the sun or moon and the changing of the seasons) that allows us to recognize and utilize them in our own process of transformation.
Gaining an awareness of life’s essential unity and learning to cooperate with its natural flow and order enables us to attain a state of being that is both fully free and independent and at the same time fully connected to the life flow of Universe – being at one with the Tao. From the Taoist viewpoint this represents the ultimate stage of human existence and is often described as “entering the circle of Tao.”
Wu-Wei –– Non-doing
Realizing our oneness with the Tao allows us to spontaneously manifest wu-wei. This Chinese term translates as “non-doing”, or more informally, as effortless action. Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment rather than from a sense of separateness. Wu-wei is spontaneous and effortless, action that is part of the natural order of things, contributing to balance and harmony. It can be described as going with the grain or swimming with the current and is not considered mere passivity. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior that occurs in response to and in accord with the flow of the Tao.
Quieting the Mind
In order to attain this flow and to have it become an instinctive and effortless part of our behavior we need to attune ourselves to the needs of the moment. We learn to be quiet and watchful, listening to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we discover how to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience.
Lao Tzu writes that we must be “Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream. Alert, like men aware of danger. Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.”
All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao promotes harmony and balance in the surrounding order, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result.
- Are you able to quiet your mind when you encounter a challenging situation?
- Are you in tune with your intuition?
- Can you remain alert in the face of distractions such as fear and doubt?
Timing and Non-striving
In cultivating wu-wei, timing becomes an important aspect of our behavior. Through watchfulness and quietness of mind we discover the natural order of phenomena, how things change and grow. “That which shrinks must first expand. That which fails will first be strong. This is called perception of the nature of things,” writes Lao Tzu. We understand processes and are able to take timely action.
Lao Tzu also asks, “Who can wait until the mud settles? Who can remain still until the moment of action?” As we learn to be patient we become able to act, or intercede, at precisely the right moment.
Finally, when one is in harmony with the movement of the universe there is no need for excess striving because our actions are supported by the flow of the Tao. “He who stands on tiptoe is not ready. He who strides cannot maintain the pace.” Lao Tzu counsels us to remember that “The softest thing in the universe overcomes the hardest thing in the universe”, referring to water, a favorite Taoist symbol.
And “Because the sage always confronts difficulties, He never experiences them,” meaning that timely action, rather than procrastination or denial, smoothes the way for ease and effortlessness in our behavior and negates the need for undue force.
- Are you aware of your Impulses? What can help you control them?
- Are you good at dealing with things in a timely manner?
- Are you willing to confront difficult situations?
The ability to maintain detachment in our actions is yet another important aspect of wu-wei. Actions which are not ego-motivated, but arise in response to the needs of the environment, lead toward harmonious balance and give ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives because they are attuned to the deepest flow of life itself. Chuang Tzu counsels us to “practice forgetfulness of results and to abandonment of all hope of profit.”
This is not to be confused with not caring. In fact, by putting aside our ego-motivated concerns we are able to be of service in a much broader and effective manner. And not being attached to results (abandoning hope of “profit”) shows that we recognize we are but collaborators in the dance of life. We can make our intention clear and act to the best of our ability and then release any ego attachment to the end result.
Non-attachment guides us to what Chuang Tzu refers to as “free and easy wandering”, unafraid of where life may take us. He refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically (and provocatively), as “purposeless wandering!” How opposite this concept is to some of our most cherished cultural values. To have no purpose is considered anti-social, frightening, perhaps even pathological in the context of modern day living.
To allow oneself to “wander without purpose” can be daunting because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, who we are as humans, and what our role is in the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our beliefs – that we exist as beings separate from our surroundings and from one another, that our role is to dominate our environment, and that we can exercise willful control over all situations – that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, “the Tao nourishes everything,” Lao Tzu writes. If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action, then nothing remains undone. This is trusting our own bodies, understanding our thoughts and emotions, and also believing that the environment, the Tao, will provide support and guidance.
- Are you able to allow your day “unfold?”
- Can you let go of plans and make changes willingly?
- Are you able to perform a task without thought of reward?
- Going with Life’s Flow.
To allow wu-wei to manifest in our lives may initially seem challenging. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment, without thought of profit or of a tangible result, and when the outcome was a restoration of balance and harmony. “The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever,” writes Lao Tzu.
By listening carefully within, as well as to our surroundings, by remembering that we are part of an interconnected whole, by remaining still until action is called forth, we can perform valuable, necessary, and long lasting service in the world while cultivating our ability to be at one with the Tao. Through practice and patience we learn to recognize and flow with change. We develop flexibility. “Yield and overcome; Bend and be straight; Empty and be full.” Our own narrow concerns cease to rule us as we spontaneously identify with the larger whole, the broad stream of life. Such is the power of wu-wei, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Tao.
Lao Tzu asks: “Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it? I do not think it can be done?” He further provides the following guidance: “The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.”
Read the Tao of Daily Living Part 6.
Top photograph © Nagesh Jayaraman