The concept of wú wéi, often translated as “non-doing”, is one of the more recent and trickier to grasp ideas that’s been brought over from the East.
As you might think, this isn’t especially due to the tendencies of the modern mind to keep busy, get distracted, and look at everything as if it were a problem to solve. Scholars have been disagreeing about the meaning of wú wéi ever since it was first put into words.
Given that the idea is meant to be rooted in “non-action” or “non-interference”, this might seem more than a little ironic. By its own definition, wú wéi is the negation or absence of (wú) rational thought and deliberate action (wéi). So writing anything on the subject, never mind producing shelves of books and mounds of articles, would seem a plan doomed to fail from the outset.
However, this would be selling wú wéi way short of its true meaning.
Partly due to a superficial understanding and partly due to the difficulty of achieving one translation for such a diverse and multilayered concept, the ancient concept comes across as if it’s all about not disturbing the world with more action and learning how to slow down and get by with doing less.
A sort of cross between mindfulness and Stoicism; stopping to smell the roses and then choosing to walk home in torrential rain instead of taking the active and environment-destroying bus.
But if that were the case, then it wouldn’t be too silly to suggest that also giving up the day job, dropping all the literature, and running off to live in the woods was the key to going fully wú wéi.
Although disconnecting and absconding to Alaska may do you some good, it’s far from what wú wéi is really all about. In fact, such a fever for nature and harmony could be seen as the ultimate form of deliberate and egotistical action. And in fact, according to its real meaning, you may have a much better chance of living it out by remaining in the midst of the frantic modern world.
Give up the act and get with the flow
Wú wéi isn’t as clear cut as it first seems because it applies to taking action on both an external level and internal level. As a philosophical idea, it can be used to instruct behaviour in political affairs and how to govern a country, but as a psychological idea, it can be used to guide an individual in how to govern their own state of mind and life.
When we think of wú wéi, then, on an internal level, it’s not so much about doing nothing, being passive, laid back, and avoiding getting into any conflict or being active in the world. Whereas this may be the right way to act in some cases — to go off into a cave and hide from the world — in many cases — particularly today — it may be a huge disruption to the natural flow of things.
When talking about non-doing and non-disruption, this natural flow of things is all that wú wéi is concerned with. Whether internal or external, it doesn’t care about making a scene or even how much sweat and tears you have to endure; all it cares about is how you act in accordance with the spontaneous and effortless natural “way” that underlies all things, in the other words, the Tao.
For this reason, wú wéi is often talked about as akin to the state of “flow”. But a better way to think about it would be as a general approach of ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’, with flow being a more specific and demanding state (you couldn’t stay in flow 24/7) that’s brought about only in certain conditions.
As words clearly often fall short, Taoists and Chinese philosophers have long turned to nature in attempt to describe this effortless effort. They say wú wéi is like floating with the current of a stream, or like a river carving its path around inevitable boulders, or like bamboo not breaking but bending harmoniously with the wind.
Such analogies say more than words ever could, with the reason why saying more about human nature than can be explained. It is an innately human tendency to only be able to do something only if it has a purpose for doing it. And that purpose is typically not so natural or genuine but rather forced and contrived.
This is why, even when it comes to wú wéi, we can get caught up in trying too hard not to try and doing everything in our conscious power to not-act. We approach non-doing as just another thing we have to do, as a state to achieve or an idea to realise, inadvertently leading to evermore effort and disruptive action.
If only we could be more like the rivers and trees, which, as the Tao te Ching, the seminal text on wú wéi written in China around 600 BC, says, do nothing, but yet, leave nothing undone.
It is during these effortless movements of nature or “natural action” of “being”, that the very essence of wú wéi is demonstrated. Not due to any miraculous teaching that can be drawn out to tell your friends or deduced into a book that can be instantly devoured, but simply from what is present or, more to the point, what isn’t.
Less about not doing and more about undoing doing
What is missing from bamboo as to not make it snap in half in the wind, or from the flow of a river so that it doesn’t crash violently against every rock and obstacle?
Of course, the bamboo and the river both have objectives: they both want to survive. But this objective isn’t held outside of the world around it, as if suspended in time and space, as so they are free to move with the energy of the moment and respond freely to whatever situation arises.
You can call it being in the present moment, getting into flow, being like water, or coming into accordance with the Tao. One way Taoists explain it is like being a drunken man who falls uninjured off the back of a moving cart.
Not so much advocating alcohol, this analogy suggests that when we drop our self-centred ideas, expectations, goals, aspirations, regrets, worries, woes, and any resistance and mental chatter that’s built around the constant need to try and control everything, then things often work out for the better. The Tao Te Ching says, ”Do that which consists in taking no action and order will prevail.”
So the drunk guy, albeit unwittingly, acts like bamboo in the wind and goes home with nothing but a few scrapes because he wasn’t tense and caught up in worrying about what his wife would say if he scuffed his trousers or what his boss might think if he saw him rolling around joyously in the mud. But there’s also another important teaching in the story.
Let’s say, this guy has had a long week at work but still has a project to finish by tomorrow morning. On first glance, it would be easy to think that going out and having a few drinks is in direct contrast to wú wéi — avoiding action that needs to be taken with inaction, and therefore causing internal resistance. But as mentioned, wú wéi on an internal level isn’t just about the waves you make in the world, it’s about creating harmony between both internal and external, and realising a sense of non-action within action.
In this way, wú wéi doesn’t put the world above the person or the person above the world, saying one is more “spiritual” or important than the other. it sees the common and inseparable nature of both.
Depending on the situation, then, sometimes no action may be needed and doing anything at all is overdoing it, like our friend responding to the situation by working frantically all night. Other times, extreme action may be called for, like getting ridiculously drunk and coming up with a radical out-of-the-box idea triggered by falling from a cart that ends up saving the day. What matters is what’s right in the moment, outside of personal concerns of gain or loss as well as exotic ideas about being spontaneous or going with the flow and being in the moment.
Achieving effortless action may be a lot of effort at the start. Particularly as there’s so much noise today that it’s hard not to know what to do because you can never do anything without not doing something. But like meditation or learning (or unlearning) anything new, soon enough it will become second, or more like first, nature.
Just remember, don’t try too hard to not try to not to try.