Wu Wei is one of the central pillars of the school of Taoism that emphasizes harmony. When literally translated, “Wu Wei” means “non-action,” but the concept of Wu Wei is not fully interpreted through this translation. It needs to be acknowledged that certain life concepts are often misrepresented as a consequence of language constraints. Keeping this in perspective, let’s try to understand what Wu Wei really means.
Go with the flow
The literal translation of Wu Wei conveys the idea that one should take a lazy or passive approach to life. A more accurate interpretation of the word would be “non-intention” or “no forced action.”
In essence, it is about keeping in alignment with the natural energy of the universe. The modern advice to “go with the flow” could easily have been derived from the philosophy. You also have the old American adage of “easy does it,” which in a way captures the gist of the philosophy. The advantage of staying in this aligned state of existence is that you are effortlessly and automatically set to respond perfectly to any situation that you may encounter in your everyday life. The philosophy propagates the importance of not going against nature.
Act according to nature
Water is a commonly used reference when explaining this concept. If you observe how water behaves with regard to its surroundings, you will see that it does not resist or fight against obstacles put in its path and yet it wields the power to overcome these obstacles smoothly and consistently.
Alan Watts, the British writer who popularized Eastern philosophies for Western audiences, uses the analogy of sailing to explain Wu Wei. Rowing a boat is a rather inefficient and tedious way to navigate the water. It requires a lot of effort since it is based on going against the current. Sailing, on the other hand, goes with the natural currents and winds to move ahead. This is exactly what Wu Wei is all about. It’s the state of mind where you appreciate the natural forces around you and act in accordance with them.
Another illustration of Wu Wei is given through the act of wood cutting. When you try to cut against the grain, it can turn out to be very difficult. However, when you cut with the grain, it is much easier.
You could be led to think that on the face of it, the concept of Wu Wei cannot be applied within the parameters of a normal working society. However, there have been historical references that depict the practice of Wu Wei both inside and outside societal norms.
Practicing Wu Wei
In the ancient Chinese classical text, Tao Te Ching, the sage Laozi mentions the concept of an “enlightened leader” who seamlessly embodies the principle of Wu Wei and applies it to rule his kingdom in a way that provides every one of his subjects with the opportunity for a full and prosperous life. That is, without managing their every affair.
On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of references to practitioners of Taoism who take the other route, wherein they withdraw from normal societal life and roam the countryside as hermits. They experience natural spiritual nourishment from their environment, beg for food from villagers, and meditate for extended periods of time in caves.
To put it in a nutshell, Wu Wei is achieving a “natural state of being” through self-cultivation. You are truly one with the flow of the universe and do not seek to disrupt it through intentional actions that are, most often, based on an attachment to self.
Or as Yoda put it: “You will know good from bad when you are at peace and passive.”