The power of Wu Wei


May 15, 2022


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

This oft-quoted, contemporaneously popular statement from Tao Te Ching’s ‘the way of virtue’ is attributed to Lao Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius (5th or 6th century BCE). The Tao Te Ching is one of the most translated books in history, alongside the Bible and the Quran. The crux of Taoism is that for sustainable happiness, one needs to live in accordance with ‘nature’ – nature of things, i.e., how things are or how they seem to be; characteristics of things in another sense. One aspect of this ancient philosophy is described as being in ‘the zone’ or ‘state of flow’; when there is a stillness of the mind which can be combined with action that is in the moment and with razor sharp focus.

Wu Wei, defined as non action, effortless action, or action of non-action is an intriguing concept in Taoism. In an earlier essay of mine related to the uncarved block, a different, albeit equally intriguing concept from the Tao Te Ching, there was the reference to ‘the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work’. This too is reminiscent of Wu Wei vis-a-vis effortless action.

In contemporary life what Wu Wei suggests is that you need not always act. Furthermore, action can be combined with non-action if and when the moment demands, hence, it’s really about the balance between the two. Interestingly, one can study this through Mother Nature when she does nothing, or when she does do something it may not require much effort, and yet many problems solve themselves. This is also reminiscent of the power of gentleness and kindness; whereby many actions come naturally and thus many problems solve themselves naturally too. You do not need to kill yourself through massive effort of any kind.

The value of non-action is nicely covered in the following lines from the Tao Te Ching; these lines also describe the benefit of non-aggression (or yielding, in another sense):

“That which offers no resistance, overcomes the hardest substances; that which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space; few in the world can understand the teaching without words, or understand the value of non-action.

Note that Wu Wei tends to be antithetical to the Western approach of forcing ambition, working harder and harder, with its concomitant burnout, depression and anxiety. Although the passivity aspect of Wu Wei may be looked down upon as sloth by some, it is far from that. Hence, the lack of resistance, perhaps counter-intuitively becomes an exceedingly mindfully active and dynamic process.

There is a special role of water in Taoism because water is ‘softness and humility’ (a virtue) personified – “it overcomes hardness, has no goal, no purpose, no desire; an incredible life force doing God’s work”. One can also create an analogy to a river; you may swim against the current, hold on to a branch, or simply let go. From a contemporary work perspective, it makes sense to let go as things are mostly not in our control; which is also reminiscent of contemporary Stoicism. Also recall that the natural course for water in a river is the path of least resistance; the Tao is like navigating through the river versus being in the rapids.

Supreme good is like water, which benefits all of creation without competing with it, states Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching in Chapter 8. Being in the zone or state of flow has been acknowledged by athletes, artists, creatives, etc. when they are intensely focused on their ‘craft’.

Instead of worrying about the future and outcomes, the point is to focus on the present task at hand, whether sports, dancing, music, creating, or innovating – letting go of results, focusing only on the present (the process versus the outcome) and living in the moment.

Losing focus on results while enhancing focus on the action or task at hand, is similar to the Stoic concept of Amor Fati – embracing outcome, whatever it may be, and acting with resilience. There are other striking synergies between the two ancient philosophies of Stoicism and Taoism, with their messages for happy living, in accordance with the I|C|E (Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship) mindset, being exceedingly pertinent for the 21st century.

In this manner, the Tao Te Ching, including Wu Wei and its link to happiness through creativity, makes for an important mode of living in today’s uber competitive, capitalistic and chaotic world. Regarding Wu Wei, if you are on the fence regarding what is truly in your control versus otherwise, then recall that we generally cannot control

  • Bodily processes such as digestion, circulation, healing of wounds, etc.
  • Our future
  • Whom we fall in love with or find attractive

Irrespective of the seemingly long and complex list of what one cannot control, what generally tends to be in your control are your thoughts and actions. In that aspect Wu Wei is quite similar to Stoicism.

Wu Wei may sound too good to be true. However, it is one thing to read about it versus practicing it (successfully) in real time or real life. Unless you just attempt it and evaluate the results without being too fixated on those outcomes, you are unlikely to learn from it.

The above concept may be difficult to grasp conceptually but being like water as a proxy to Wu Wei is worth considering. The mantra that I use, and more often than not it does work, is as follows:

“I need to be like water: a positive life force as well as positive flow. Water does not resist and it will not be resisted by hurdles – it will simply flow around or through road blocks. But then water can be destructive too. Therefore, too much positivity is also not good as that can sap and zap me as well as those around me.”

To be honest, my life would have been quite lackluster without attempting Wu Wei through water’s analogous case study. In the final analysis, my hope shall remain that you also attempt Wu Wei to ‘be like water’, and when you do so, do let me know how it goes for you.

The author is an ER physician-researcher-innovator at Aga Khan University. He writes on topics ranging from healthcare and education to humor and popular culture. He authored ‘An Itinerant Observer’ (2014) and ‘MEDJACK: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary hack’ (2021)

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