Wu Wei or the art of effortless action
Wu Wei is a concept derived from Taoism. A philosophy, a movement created and popularized by Lao Tzu thousands of years ago in China.
To this day, there are still remnants of that philosophy in Asia, more specifically in China. I won’t get into the specifics of Taoism. I will just stick to Wu Wei. Wu literally means no and Wei literally means doing/making/efforting.
Semantics matter a lot to me so those words struck a cord in my curiosity. Wu Wei can be translated and interpreted as effortless action or actionless action (non action).
What does it mean to “have Wu Wei”? In our modern world we place so much importance on the doing part. Apparently, there is always something more to be done. Exhaustion and burning out should be the two only things that stop us.
I am exaggerating even though this will ring a bell to a lot of us. Wu Wei is an effort in being still. Not necessarily physically but in mind. Stillness begets emptiness and emptiness begets clarity. The stillness of Taoism is not really that different from the stillness of buddhism or any other philosophy for that matter.
Stillness is the same for all of us who have a mind. Stillness can and should be cultivated by all of us. Stillness is the ability and the equanimity to stay composed in the present moment. Stillness does not mean we can control the events outside and/or inside.
Stillness means we sharpen our awareness into being conscious of what is happening and remain non reactive and detach from what is happening. Reacting to things tends to bring us on a roller coaster of good, bad and neutral emotions whereas being still hones our equanimity to remain sanguine and peaceful regardless of what is happening inside and outside.
That’s a fundamental truth of Wu Wei. Another thing crucial is to know when to act and when not to act. Water is often used as an analogy in the Tao Te Ching the book of Taoism. We all remember Bruce Lee saying “Be water my friend”. In his famous interview, The chinese-american superstar said that when the water is in the cup, it becomes the cup, and when it is in the bottle, it becomes the bottle. He also said that water can crush and water can sooth.
In the Tao Te Ching, the water is referred to as weak and submissive, and also strong and unyielding because it can crush any obstacle over time. Water adapts to its environment without forcing. We, too, should adapt to our circumstances and environment without judgment and go with flow.
Alan Watts talks about Wu Wei this way. He said in one of his lecture that Wu Wei is sailing. Wu Wei is not rowing. We go with the elements of life and flow with them. In Ancient China, they would refer to the drunkenness of some people even though they were not intoxicated.
Intoxication gives you that lightness but it distorts your awareness and consciousness whereas Wu Wei keeps that awareness and mindfulness sharp while still being light. When I practice muay thai my coaches always tell me to be relaxed, “Sabai Sabai” as they say in Thailand.
Only when you strike or defend you would tense very quickly for a few brief moments. That’s effortless action. When your body is tense in a fight. Your muscle will be tense. You will telegraph much more and your energy will be drained very quickly.
The art of Wu Wei is the art of adaptation. The art of flow. Knowing when to deliberately take an action or choose non action. In Buddhism, we are taught to give our best whatever we do. When are focus on a task, we give it our best but when there is nothing to do, we just do NOTHING. When we do nothing we give it our best.
Which means, we stay still, we stay present. We stay composed and stay patient until it is time to do something. Oftentimes, we hear the words being in the flow. What does it mean to be in the flow. Being in the flow means that you are “possessed” by the task at hand.
Times flies. Your conscious mind has been shut. Your subconscious mind has taken over and oftentimes that’s where the best things are created. That’s where the biggest progress has been made.
Productivity does not mean working more. Working more only means reaching a state of burnout. Productivity, real productivity means cultivating as much as possible that “flow” and sustaining it as much as possible until it’s time to be in non-action which often time means recovery, rest, doing something else or things or that nature.
Wu Wei is an art that we need to train our minds to accept. Doing is part of Wu Wei but being supersedes the doing. Being becomes natural and the doing becomes effortless. Last point, I want to bring home. When we do something especially something that is a creation. It is important to train ourselves to be detached from the outcome.
We lose ourselves in the moment and we shut the inner critic. When we are detached from the outcome we are fully focus on the moment. We give it our full mindfulness, awareness and focus. We do for the sake of doing. For the beauty of Wu Wei.
When we crave for an outcome, it’s harder to flow because we are still bound by the shackles of reality whereas when we let go and flow we are connected to a higher power.
If you have been in the zone, in the flow, you will understand what I mean. Oftentimes when you look at what you have done. You are impressed and sometimes even shocked because you don’t know where all that has come from. Consciously you would never be able to fully understand your potential unless you have been able to trust the flow and let go.