The Slippery Art of Wu Wei
The Art of Doing Nothing
One whose mind is a mirror of his situation, unaware of himself and therefore making no distinction between advantage and danger, will act with absolute assurance, and nothing will stand in his way.
A.C. Graham 1
He who practices the Way does less and less every day, does less and goes on doing less until he reaches the point where he does nothing, does nothing yet there is nothing that is not done!
Wu wei is one of the most difficult concepts in Daoist philosophy. Roughly translated, it means “doing nothing.” Westerners who are first introduced to Daoism sometimes think the term wu wei means sitting around and doing nothing—a passive acceptance of life and a sort of mushy, hopeless attitude. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alan Watts calls wu wei
a form of intelligence—that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them” or “the innate wisdom of the nervous system. 
Far from being a passive acceptance or resignation to things, it is instead an active engagement with things as they are. It is a way of working with the dynamics of any situation in order to find the path of least resistance and then following through.
The true meaning of the phrase wu wei is something like” “not doing anything that is not natural” or “not doing anything that does not have its roots in Dao.” Joseph Needham explains it like this:
[Wu wei means] “refraining from activity contrary to Nature”; i.e., from insisting on going against the grain of things, from trying to make materials perform functions for which they are unsuitable, from exerting force in the human affairs when the man of insight could see that it would be doomed to failure, and that subtle methods of persuasion, of simply letting things alone to take their own course, would bring about the desired result. 3
It can also mean not overdoing anything. Laozi tells us:
Overfilling a vessel is not as good as stopping before it is filled.
Oversharpen a blade and it will lose its edge.
Pile up gold and jade
And it will be impossible to guard it.
In going after rank and titles
In an arrogant and haughty way
And you will bring about your own downfall.
Withdraw when the work is done.
This is the way of Dao.
It is often in overdoing something, even if it is the right thing, that we are lead astray. To attain anything, even spiritual growth, in an arrogant and haughty way, is to invite our own downfall. But to do our good works and then retire, not calling attention to ourselves is truly the way of the sage. Perhaps that is what Master Jesus meant when he talked about keeping your light under a bushel. This is something that is commented on over and over in Daoism. The one who calls attention to him or herself, being proud of their accomplishments, be they material or spiritual, is only setting themselves up for a fall. It is better, say the sages, that one does one’s deeds or spiritual practice in a quiet and humble manner and then moves on.
Wu wei is the opposite of yu wei or action with useless effort. It is coupled with spontaneity and a deep awareness of what is happening in any situation, allowing one to discern whether it would be better to act or not to act (which, of course, is what Hamlet was really talking about). It is a kind of spontaneity which, as Clae Waltham says, cannot be captured, only fostered. It is a kind of perception of the currents of any situation and our place in it. Laozi says that:
Teaching without words
and working without doing,
Are understood by very few.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to grasp it, you will lose it.
Trying to hold tight to any situation, trying to figure out just what exactly is going on, and most of all, trying to control the situation through force of will or use of “knowledge” or intellectual gymnastics is foolish and will, in all probability, land us on our faces in the mud. Zhuangzi says:
The knowledge of the ancients was perfect. How perfect? At first, they did not know that there were things. This is the most perfect knowledge; nothing can be added. Next, they knew there were things, but did not yet make distinctions between them. Next, they made distinction between them, but they did not yet pass judgements upon them. When judgements were passed, Dao was destroyed. 4
Daoists are lovers of simplicity and naturalness. Zhuangzi says the wisdom of the ancients was perfect because they did not know there were things—they did not differentiate, they did not catalogue, they did not separate one thing from another, one state of mind from another, one state of being from another. In this way they were able to remain pure and close to the original undifferentiated Dao.
My taiji teacher, David Cheng, was fond of telling us it is our mind that gets us into trouble. It is our mind, our discriminating intellect that creates all sorts of problems for us, then thinks it can figure a way out of them. But then again, David said, without our mind we would not know how to drive a car or take a bus or make our way to taiji class! We would not understand what language he was speaking or how to follow his movements. Our mind is a tool, he says—a wonderful, useful tool. Sometimes, for example, we need to discriminate; we need to be able to look at a situation dispassionately and intelligently and see if it is a situation or a relationship or a job or a person that is good for us or bad for us. This is a good way to use that marvelous tool, the mind. But let’s put it back in the toolbox when we’re done with it, he would say. Let’s not leave it lying around where we can step on it or trip over it all the time.
How are we to learn to work with this slippery concept, wu wei? The old maxim, “learn by doing” applies here as well as anywhere else. It is a matter of going slowly, the slower the better. The wonderful dance of tai chi is a perfect example of wu wei in action. The gentle movements are done as slowly as possible, so that it becomes a sort of dancing meditation.
Often we find ourselves in trouble simply because we are going too fast, disregarding signs of trouble that we would have seen if only we had been going a little slower. All too often we get caught up in the rush; our whole culture is based on it. Get ahead! Do it now! So stop to listen quietly to the voices within—the still, small voices as well as the loud and clear ones. It’s hard, if not downright impossible, to hear them when we are going fast, listening instead to the constant blare of the world around us. Sometimes the right thing to do is not to do anything.
Wu wei is an attitude, an approach to life itself. When we become sensitive to the current of change all around us we will be able to make intelligent decisions at all times, using the innate wisdom of our bodies and energy systems as well as our minds. As A.C. Graham, in his wonderful translation of the Book of Lieh Tzu, says, “Nowhere is there a principle which is right in all circumstances, or an action that is wrong in all circumstances.” 5
Wu wei is learning how to conserve our energy and not spend it frivolously or in fear or confusion. Sometimes it is far easier and actually in our best interest and in the best interest of the actual situation to do nothing or to find some way around the situation rather than trying to go through it. Blofeld tells us that “a Daoist conserves his energy by easily according with and adapting himself to each situation.” 6
We may be sick or injured and lying in bed, trying hard to figure out what is going on, why this is happening to us and when will it be over? While the body, mind and spirit are tied up in knots trying to decipher this maddening puzzle, we are getting nowhere, slowly. How much easier, though it takes a little practice, to just let go and let be what is and learn how to be okay while we’re not feeling okay. Sometimes there just isn’t anything to do, and the best course is to relax and and do nothing. Later on the situation may change and there will be something that we can do to help ourselves. Then, with the same grace that we did nothing, we can do something.
Oftentimes doing something is not better, more important or even more helpful than doing nothing. When we feel stuck and unable to move, what we are actually doing is storing energy to be able to make a move, or the kind of move that will actually mean something. Like water, our energy must slowly collect before it can spill over the dam. Often when we think we’ll never get out of a rut or never be able to move again, being patient and conserving our energy will help us make an even greater move when the time is right.
By learning to relax and discover the intrinsic flow of events that contain and are contained by our lives we can reach some measure of security and perhaps even wisdom. Zhuangzi likens this state to that of a drunken man:
A drunken man falls out of a cart; though he may suffer, he does not die. His bones are the same as other people’s; but he meets the accident in a different way. His spirit is the condition of security. He is not conscious of riding in the cart; neither is he conscious of falling out of it. Ideas of life, death and fear cannot penetrate his breast; and so he does not suffer from contact with objective circumstances. And if such security is to be got from wine, how much more is to be gotten from spontaneity. 7
In this passage, Zhuangzi describes wu wei as spontaneity, a total indentification with the present moment. For in reality there is no other moment than the one we are in. Alan Watts says, “you can think about the past and you can think about the future, but since you do that thinking now, the present is inescapable.” So then, how to develop this sense of spontaneity, this sensitivity to the here and now? A.C. Graham says:
If he wishes to return to the Way he must discard knowledge, cease to make distinctions, refuse to impose his will and his principles on nature, recover the spontaneity of the newborn child, allow his actions to be ‘so of themselves’ like physical processes. (Author’s italics). 8
Another way is to follow the advice of John Blofeld:
Caring not for what people may think of him, he takes no pride in heroics, for its own sake, so he looks for the easiest way round. That is not to say that he willingly surrenders an objective, only that he will not attempt the impossible, nor expend more energy than is strictly necessary to attain the possible. By no means lazy, he conserves his powers in order to make the most of them. 9
It is in applying the principles of wu wei to our life that we truly begin to understand and experience Tea Mind or Cha Dao. By not forcing, by going with the flow, by letting things develop in their own time, by not being attached to outcomes, by giving ourselves time to “just be”—through meditation, walking in nature, through whatever activity or non-activity that allows us to feel the spaciousness of our true self, by being ok with not being ok sometimes—these are all ways to open ourselves to the ongoing, ever flowing stream of life both within and around us.
In the Wu Wei Way of Tea we are able to find ourselves again, we are able to reconnect and realign ourselves with the great Way or Dao. And in that connection we can begin to heal, to find the path to wholeness. And in this Way we can open ourselves to new experiences, new ways of seeing and being, new attitudes and ways of looking at the world and our place in it.
1 The Book of Lieh Tzu , A.C. Graham, Colombia University Press, 1960
2 Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd, Clae Waltham, Ace Books, 1971
3 The Watercourse Way , Alan Watts, Pantheon Books, 1975
4 Science and Civilization in China , Joseph Needham, Cambridge University Press
5 Chuang Tzu: Genius of the Absurd
6 The Book of Lieh Tzu
7 Daoism, the Road to Immortality , John Blofeld, Shambhala Publications, 1978,
8 The Book of Lieh Tzu
9 Zhuangzi: Genius of the Absurd
10 Daoism, the Road to Immortality
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