Wu Wei: The Ancient Art of Non-Doing

Wu Wei: The Ancient Art of Non-Doing
Aligning with the Natural Flow of Life

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu

A few mornings ago the surf was rising, so I drove down to one of my favorite spots at sunrise with the vision of catching some sweet waves before the world woke up and the water got crowded. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this idea. As the first rays lit up the ocean, I paddled out to find about 30 other surfers already out there. Instantly I felt behind, like I’d missed something. So I hit the water with a sense of urgency, trying to make up for lost time – paddling this way and that to dodge people, ducking under big waves, navigating currents and looking for my groove. But every wave I paddled for seemed to have someone else on it, or it broke too soon or too late for me to catch. The harder I tried, the more difficult it seemed to find my flow with the ocean… Until eventually I got so tired I couldn’t keep paddling – so I stopped for a moment, sat up on my board and just let the current take me.

Before long I had drifted away from the main peak where everyone was jockeying for waves, to a quiet little area where I was sitting all alone. Catching my breath, I started noticing the way the light was dancing on the water, the way the dawn air brushed against my face. As my lungs slowed down and I let go of trying, I started feeling good just being out there. Just feeling the ocean, and me in it. Right about that time, I glanced up to see the rising face of a beautiful wave picking up right before me.”What are you doing way over here?” I smiled, turning to meet it, stroked once or twice and popped up onto a clear blue wall that carried us both all the way to shore.

Accessing Flow

Wu Wei is a Chinese concept central to Taoism and a core theme of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Translated literally as ‘non-doing,’ Wu Wei is not so much about ‘doing nothing’ as it is about aligning our movement with the greater flow of life. Often referred to as ‘natural action,’ Wu Wei does not involve excessive effort or struggle, but a kind of ‘going with the flow’ where we are able to move with the energy of the moment and respond freely to whatever situation that arises.

We each have moments in our life when we access flow. In these moments – through sheer focused intent or absolute letting go (or a combination of both) – we enter a state of connectedness to what we are doing, and our movements become simultaneously highly productive and effortlessly expressed. The world around us seems to slow down, and in that space, it is as if we become one with the very thing we are trying to do. The words pour onto the page revealing what to write, the waves of the ocean carry us and we are part of them, the rhythm of the song we are dancing to comes right through us… and becomes a pure expression of who we are.

As my lungs slowed down and I let go of trying, I started feeling good just being out there. As my lungs slowed down and I let go of trying, I started feeling good just being out there. Image: Seth Doyle

While each of us catch glimpses of this state of flow in peak moments of movement, love and creative endeavor, we often believe that these extraordinary experiences are the realms of the elite, only accessed through miracle or mastery. But what if this sense of flow was actually meant to be our normal way of being – available to each of us in every moment? What if, beyond the many details and mixed agendas of our daily life, we each had direct access to experience a sense of oneness and flow everyday, no matter what we were doing?

How Do We Learn to Do, without Doing?

Historically, many Taoist adepts chose to explore the essence of Wu Wei by withdrawing from society – wandering freely through the mountains, meditating for long periods in caves, and cultivating a daily existence which was nourished and guided directly by the energy of the natural world. According to Lao Tzu, the ultimate expression of Wu Wei is found not only in retreat from the world but in our experience of flow in the way that we live in it.

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

While many of us wake into our day with multiple ‘to-dos’ stacked on our list and a sense of urgency to get things done, it’s powerful to consider that there is a natural order in everything we do. If we tune in and follow the order, things get done effectively, efficiently and without extra effort. If we go against the order, it takes extra time and energy to get things done and in some cases (like me in the surf) nothing will get done, no matter how hard we try.

Following the Way of Nature

Whatever our intent or outcome may be, and whatever our mind may be saying about how urgent or pressing things are, Wu Wei tells us that ultimately the most effective way of doing anything is to follow the way of nature.  As we tune into the natural flow of any task, we may find that there are critical actions for us to take, but by aligning with the energy of what we are pursuing, we can often achieve way more by doing less.

How nature does its work reveals many perfect examples of Wu Wei. The cycles of the sun, the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the moon, the flow of rivers to create and feed valleys, the life of a tree to grow and give life to so many others… Each is highly productive, fit for the purpose to naturally deliver that which it was born to deliver. Each does its work without doing it.

If we go against the order, it takes extra time and energy to get things done.If we go against the order, it takes extra time and energy to get things done. Image: Fabrizio Verrecchia

Some people intuitively interpret ‘non-doing’ as something passive, laid back or lazy. In the eyes of Tao, there are times for action, but if no action is needed based on the laws of nature, then doing anything may be ‘overdoing’.  In fact, sometimes action can do more harm than good.

If we are growing a plant and we have created the right conditions for growth with healthy soil, sun and water, there comes a time when the very best way to ensure the growth of the plant is simply to leave it alone. More water, more sun, more fertiliser won’t help, in fact, too much of any of these may stifle the growth of the plant. We remain attentive, connected to the plant’s needs but for the time being, doing nothing is just what is needed. Wu Wei teaches us to not force actions but to let them take their course of nature.

When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done. – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Finding Our Wu Wei

If you are depressed, you live in the past. If you are anxious, you live in the future. But if you are at peace, you live in the present. – Lao Tzu

When we look around at the world today, it seems there is so much to do. Amidst our striving for progress, personal achievement, and in some cases, survival, the idea of ‘non-doing’ can feel out of reach. Fortunately, the essence of Wu Wei is simplicity and there are some small things we can do (and not do!) each day to help us align with the natural flow of life. Here are a few you could try for yourself:

Spending time in nature – If our fundamental aim is to align with the natural flow of life, there is no better teacher and no better place to connect with this aspect of ourselves than in the natural world. When we step into nature (ideally without plastic-soled shoes) we plug into a Wu Wei world, where natural, generative, flow-filled systems abide on all levels. Connecting with all that is around us helps connect us with all that is within us, which naturally makes space for Wu Wei.

Giving without condition – As we come into alignment with the natural world, we are reminded of the generosity that comes when living systems are in harmony with themselves and each other. A single seed produces fruit which feeds many and gives forth a thousand more seeds. The sun gives everything that it has without being drained. A river gives life each step and turn of the way as it follows its calling from mountain to the sea. One of our most natural expressions of flow we experience in life is to give freely to each other. When we allow ourselves to follow our spontaneous callings to give – even in small ways – we bring ourselves into alignment with the generous nature of life and (without trying or looking for it) open ourselves to receive in ways that we could not have imagined.

When we step into nature, we plug into a Wu Wei world.When we step into nature, we plug into a Wu Wei world. Image: Andrew Neel

Letting go of how we think it’s supposed to look – There may always be elements of our life that we consciously plan for, but every step along the way will invariably reveal passageways and possibilities that we could not have predicted. Sometimes our efforts to fulfill the plan and gain a predictable outcome shuts us off from seeing what other possibilities may be waiting to reveal. When we find ourselves struggling (as I did in the surf this week), often it’s because we have a fixed idea of how things are supposed to be, according to our desires or ‘the plan.’ As we let go of our agenda and attachment to have it be a certain way, we open ourselves up to how it actually is… and in that space of acceptance, we become available for flow to find us!

If you’re in tune with The Way Things Work, then they work the way they need to, no matter what you may think about it at the time. Later on you can look back and say, “Oh, now I understand. That had to happen so that those could happen, and those had to happen in order for this to happen…” Then you realise that even if you’d tried to make it all turn out perfectly, you couldn’t have done better, and if you’d really tried, you would have made a mess of the whole thing. – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

Staying open to spontaneous emergence  One of the fundamental principles of Wu Wei is that the essence of flow is not premeditated, but arises spontaneously. We can play our part to create the right conditions, we can bring ourselves into the ocean, but we can’t make the waves. My family has a beautiful, well-planned veggie garden, but amidst our consciously planted rows of lettuce and kale, one of the most productive crops this season was an entire patch of pumpkins that rose spontaneously from the compost. As we take steps in any area of life, one of the great invitations Wu Wei offers is to remain open to what is emerges spontaneously (inside and out!). What whispered calling or fresh impulse may be giving us an opportunity in this moment to experience our intended outcome (and more!) in ways that we could never have planned.

What simple things can you ‘not do’ today to begin opening yourself to the greater flow of Wu Wei in your life?

Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river. – Lao Tzu

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1 year ago

I go to other sites and there is chaos and I feel weakened. I love to find the peace that you offer here. Human in process. peace

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2 years ago

[…] last, but not least, we build on the 4 principles of doing by non-doing, which in our case, is basically a coaching attitude pursued by mentors. The principles are the […]

Anne Apfel
3 years ago

I have practiced meditation for 18 Years and written meditation books for 7. I loved reading this article while sipping my coffee. Great start to my morning. Thank You!

4 years ago

Great, clear, down to earth introduction. Thanks. Nice one to share.

Dan Dreisbach
4 years ago

we have quit enough people who excel at doing nothing please don’t give them extra impetus to carry on and increase their doing nothingness.

4 years ago

Superdry males’s Germany Trophy Sequence t-shirt.

4 years ago

Thank you, I enjoyed reading this article.

This perspective resonates with me, although, my entire life in the US these teachings were not taught in our public school systems.

If we slow down and just breathe, things do seem to align. The concept of using our minds only when needed takes practice!

4 years ago

Thank You for diving into Wu Wei. It comes at a time where it is more valuable than ever before. Alan Watts has dedicated a number of talks to Wu Wei.

But the main reason for my response is an information You might be interested in. It appears that Wu Wei has also developed – without the deeper understanding it created in China – in Germany. Now almost forgotten, or better having succumbed to a life style that does no longer afford to engage in the practice of ‘Klütern’. Klütern is ‘Plattdütsch’, a German dialect spoken in the Northern part of Germany, specifically at the North Atlantic Coastline.

A person that practices klütern is called a ‘Klüterer’. Klütern is best described as getting things done without actually intentionally doing them. Like getting up in the morning and tending to the day – seeing what offers itself to be done. It could happen that one does need to do specific tasks, or chores. But there is no straight path to achieve that. Rather, one entrusts oneself the flow of all things – being ready to answer the task that is displaying itself most prominently.

So, I am supposed to fix a water pipe somewhere in the yard. On the way to gather the required items to do that, I notice that the chicken coop appears to be missing wire to protect the chicken from predators. I will do that first. Getting into the tool shed, I realize that the light bulb does not work. To find out where the problem is, I need to test the light bulb in the house. After finding out that it was broken, I look for a replacement where a replacement usually is stored. While I found a replacement bulb, I notice rodent droppings on the shelf. It will be necessary to give the Cat access to the storage room. Somewhere is the Cat door that I bought a while ago for the house as a second entrance. Never got to do that, so I have a Cat door to install in the storage room door. But first I need to put the new bulb into the tool shed light. As the light is now working, I can see the tools I need and start to gather them. Unfortunately the pliers are rusted. The ocean is only a mile away. Since I need the pliers, I will make them work first. Then I am able to patch up the hole in the chicken coop. Now it is time to have breakfast. While I am having breakfast, the phone rings. It’s the school and they tell me that my daughter is not feeling well and I have to pick her up and drive her to the doctor’s office…

Although I made this specific example up, klütern does mean to go with the flow without ever attempting to direct it, or control it. The Universe offers a certain flow and I am simply entrusting myself to the flow. There is no reason to mistrust the Universe that it is not capable to expand and flow the way it does. I am here, right now – meaning that I can entrust myself the Universe and are actually deeply aligned with it. Realizing, that ultimately I am the Universe – doing the unfolding and the expansion. Every little step during the day. In the evening, I will reminisce what I did today and I realize that everything that needed to be done, was done. Not in the order I had planned on, but in a way that was effortless. Tomorrow is another day to see what will unfold.

Margo Yates
4 years ago

I have intuitively practiced Wu Wei without knowing about this concept and way of being. So wonderful to be still and let my days unfold as I’m calmly moved to do or not. And, yes…I always notice that my productivity is much more enhanced when I do not push or shape my time.

Thank you for identifying and explaining this concept in such a beautiful and meaningful way…now I really do get it! Never had the words to articulate this way of being.

4 years ago

I read the Dancing Wu Wei Masters…YEARS ago; and reading this article today makes all the difference! Thank you, sooo very much!

4 years ago

You’ve done a great job describing and discussing wu wei in a way that anyone can get a good understanding of it. This is how i have lived my life for the last 20 years or so, since learning about this concept in my tai chi class.

4 years ago

Just plain beautiful.

Maggie Butler
4 years ago

Today I practiced the art of staying inside focused upon using whatever ingredients on hand to make a new spicy garbanzo bean recipe using dried garbanzos.
Now my husband is in the kitchen putting on the brown rice to cook for the time it takes to watch an episode of Archangel.

It’s been so relaxing to chop,saute, and stir today!

Joyce Musolino
4 years ago

The piece is a wonderful one. Thank you.

Ralph Schneider
6 years ago

“A small effort at the right time is better than a big effort at the wrong time.” – Chinese saying.

Nic M
7 years ago

The terminology/concepts of ‘work’ and ‘learn’ relating to Wu Wei only makes the point more dualistic, at least for me. Words seem such poor substitutes. Thank you for the article.

Ivette Martin
7 years ago

I have being a massage therapist for 21 years. I’ve always wanted to be the best instrument I could be for the Healing Energy. As time went by, discovered that the best I could do is to allow the Energy to do It’s work through my hands and intuition. The Wu Wei it’s a magnificent reality and hope more people experience this beautiful truth. Thank you Richards!

Benzion Weiss
7 years ago

This experience of the pumpkins growing out of the compost seeds was reflected in our garden as were the massive crop of tomatoes – both veggies grew spontaneously in our garden and fed us well! I’ve been studying the Tao Te Ching in Chinese with a Tao teacher from Taiwan, Sandy Yang, who is now Australian and it’s been wonderful to see the way the very Chinese characters tell so much of the story that is very hard to translate. Thank you for this informative article.

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