tao and wu wei

Like so many languages that are translated into English, it is often difficult to get one completely accurate meaning/translation. The Chinese language/characters, especially ancient philosophical Chinese, require someone really knowledgeable and… a practitioner. An academic may have a sizeable grasp on translating a language or a concept, but an accomplished practitioner generally has a relationship with the concept. So to find someone who has both is a treasure. I am not yet that person. I am still looking up to the other giants and learning.

The Tao Te Ching contains an intriguing concept known as ‘Wu Wei‘, often translated as “actionless action.”

This state of being or consciousness is synonymous with living in accordance with the flow of life or going with the natural flow of the situation. It is the art of effortlessly responding to the circumstances that come your way. The result is an easy, natural flow that is effortless, and perfect.

Practicing Wu Wei allows you to be more present and responsive to life’s circumstances than you ever imagined possible. This requires us to let go of certain ideals that we might force into the situation. It invites us to respond to the real demands of life’s many situations with a deeper understanding.

More Wu Wei Definition

One of the most intriguing aspects of Taoism is its emphasis on “doing nothing”, the art of letting things happen naturally. We are to be like the bamboo that bends with a fierce wind, yet does not break.

Unlike the material ego, Wu Wei does not depend on your ego view of how things should happen or evolve.

the practice of taking no action that is not in accord with the natural course of the universe.”

It is a fundamental concept that is the basis of the living Tao. It is the art of letting things happen naturally, without shaping them into what one thinks should be done. This naturally happens when one ‘gets out of the way’ and is the hallmark of an achieved practitioner.

The term Wu Wei is often translated as “to do nothing,” it can also mean “action without striving”, and “action without desire.” The idea is to surrender to nature, to the natural, and not involve oneself with the external surface of things.

Rather, it is important to let the ‘qi’ or spirit of the things we paint flow through the brush. The painter’s task is not to simply imitate the outer surface of things, but to present their spirit by feeling some of this same energy or Chi within themselves  – and then letting it flow out through the brush.

You are the brush and the entire world is your canvas.

This makes Wu Wei an ideal principle to live by and one that can be practiced by anyone.

Tao refers to the nature of reality or the way things naturally come together. It is the process of transformation. The Taoist view of the world is that it is fundamentally in constant motion or change.

This understanding is reflected in the book, I Ching, which represents the 64 correlative forces that involve the alteration of yin and yang.

wu wei
“Action of non-action.”

What is Wu Wei?

Although I have offered various definitions, there is no absolute traditional definition of Wu Wei. It is a state of Taoist wisdom and comes from the philosophy of Tao, which is itself unable to be defined, although Tao is generally translated as “the way.”

To understand Wu Wei, consider the flow of nature. If we can learn to stay in the present moment, we can practice Wu Wei in our everyday lives.

Before the universe was formed, something nebulous (Tao) already existed. It is formless yet it is the source of all forms. Making it the Mother of all creation. Everything visible is a manifestation of Tao.

Lao Tzu calls it “nothing.” ie. no thing

So how do you get started?

Wu Wei refers to a way of thinking that enables us to be fully present in the moment, it asks us to defer our awareness to our natural inner power.

In order to truly practice Wu Wei, you need to become more aware of your self, your body, mind, and spirit. Self-awareness is key. To achieve this state, it helps to practice mindfulness or meditation. There are Qi Gong exercises like the ‘Eight Treasures’ which help to develop your body’s Qi or energy. Practicing these techniques will help you to become aware of yourself in the moment, and allow yourself to stay present and aware of your thoughts.

As with any achievement, the art of Wu Wei requires a lot of practice and dedication. It requires the practice of listening attentively and knowing when to act. It requires the ability to detach from the outcome. In the end, the benefits of Wu Wei are incalculable.

The Taoist way

Tao envisions a dynamic universe in which everything happens naturally with fluctuating energies. The Taoists recognize that the universe unfolds spontaneously, following the processes of yin and yang.

The Tao gave birth to One. The One gave birth to Two. (Yin And Yang) The Two gave birth to Three. The Three gave birth to all of creation

Allowing the natural course of things, unimpeded by human intervention leads to universal harmony. Most people interfere with this flow and often forsake a natural, honest spontaneity in favor of the artificial.

Taoists understand that we should let the world and ourselves be naturally free from the pressures of artificially imposed standards. We are encouraged to be true to ourselves, which is more authentic than trying to conform to abstract standards of good and bad. Wu Wei is a manifestation of this ideal.

Taoists practice inner reflection and guileless virtue to achieve our natural state of mind, universal integration, and longevity. Practicing Wu Wei, helps people free themselves of needless frustration and mental stress. It also helps one gain a greater understanding of our actions, and the world/universe around us.

Natural Examples of Wu Wei

Wu Wei is about being in alignment with Tao. It is about revealing the soft power of all things and your own internal nature.

The Tao Te Ching suggests that we should behave like water. It is submissive, ‘soft‘ but cannot be surpassed for attacking the hard and powerful. Any obstacle can be overcome by gentle persistence and an understanding of the situation.

How does one practice Wu Wei?

When attempting to implement the concept, many practitioners find the best examples of Wu Wei in nature.

In the case of the sun, the moon, and the earth’s rotation, the concept of Wu Wei is illustrated by nature. The sun’s cycles, the earth’s rotation, and the moon’s orbit are all perfect examples of Wu Wei.

In addition, rivers form valleys and trees give life to many others. Each is highly productive, fits its purpose, and does its work without doing anything consciously.

As a result, the best practice of Wu Wei is not striving to accomplish the most or being the best, but instead, going with the natural flow. When you are not frustrated with the outcome of things, you are practicing Wu Wei.

Look at the clouds, for instance. They are floating, waiting for the moisture they need to gather together to produce rain. Then they let gravity do its work. The rain enriches the soil which then allows for the growth of plants and so on.

Wu Wei is most effective when you don’t try to ‘do’ anything. This is equivalent to going with the flow. But it can be tricky – dead fish also go with the flow.

Instead of imposing a plan or model on a situation, let others act, and then adjust our actions as we see what direction the situation has taken.

So practicing Wu Wei requires a lot of courage, faith, and sometimes counterintuitive ‘intelligence’.

If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

All the best


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