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.
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.
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 in to 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 it’s work without doing it.
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 Today
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 simple things we can do (and not do!) each day to help us align with the natural flow of life. Here are a few:
1.Spend 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. If there was a “practice” to discipline ourselves around in the aim of bringing more Wu Wei into our lives, being in, observing and connecting with nature would have to be one.
2. Give 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.
3. Let 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
4. Stay 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 never could 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