One of Taoism’s most import concepts, wu-wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are effortlessly in alignment with the flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world (a.k.a being one with the universe). It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness. Without even trying we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.
Think of it as knowing when an when not to act. Wu-wei is a wisdom that has been passed down for generations. The practice of wu wei is the expression of what in Taoism is considered to be the highest form of virtue – one that is in no way premeditated, but rather arises spontaneously. In verse 38 of the Daode Jing (translated here by Jonathan Star), Laozi tells us:
The highest virtue is to act without a sense of self
The highest kindness is to give without a condition
The highest justice is to see without a preference
When Tao is lost one must learn the rules of virtue
When virtue is lost, the rules of kindness
When kindness is lost, the rules of justice
When justice is lost, the rules of conduct
You will find yourself in situations where it’s best to fall back, relax, meditate, and resume whatever it is that you were doing with a level head.
Don’t take the saying “sleep on it” too lightly. You have probably heard the saying all your life. “Make sure you have a good nights rest before you make important decisions.” That’s because when you wake up, you usually feel like the issue from the night before has been somewhat resolved.
- The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
- and acts without effort.
- Teaching without verbosity,
- producing without possessing,
- creating without regard to result,
- claiming nothing,
- the Sage has nothing to lose.
Wu Wei has also been translated as “creative quietude,” or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to be the Tao within all things and to cultivate oneself to its “way.”
Lao Tzu’s writings manifest wu wei when advising on how a ruler should govern their kingdom: Ruling a big country is like cooking a small fis. When you’re frying a small fish, too much poking will ruin the meal, so the meaning is: create general policies and direction, but do not micromanage. To do this well, you must understand the ways of your people and not go against the grain.
The concept of wu wei is often described as performing a selfless act but this merely exposes the background of the writer. Other religions have selfless acts and “doing good” as part of their belief systems. In Taoist teaching however “good” is unknowable. A selfless act can only be performed by someone in an egoless state. Every act performed by someone in the usual way of things has some kind of reward attached whether it is financial, power, love, status or just feeling good about oneself. All these things are ego re-inforcing. To perform a selfless act one must let go of one’s ego and pass into an altered state of consciousness. This is called wu wei – the state of doing without doing. Here every act is selfless for the ego has ceased to exist. There is no I making decisions and the outcome is always perfect.
Courtesy Zazenlife.com: Wu-Wei: Action Without Action.