Wu Wei - Nonaction


A key principle in realizing our oneness with the Tao is that of wu-wei, or "non-action." The idea that opposite sides always transform into each other is the philosophical foundation of Lao Tzu's methodology. It is also an aspect of wu wei. The highest virtue of Taoism is to never act but to leave nothing undone.

The concept of nonaction refers to doing things so that it appears that a person is making no effort to accomplish the goal. By adhering to the principle of wu wei, a person is thought to be closely following the way. A person who lives by wu wei has returned to his or her original nature, before he or she was tampered with by knowledge. Non-doing is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. But is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary saying, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.

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The principle of wu wei contains certain implications. The first being the need to consciously experience ourselves as part of the unity of life that is the Tao. Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body, not only our brain. And we learn through our own experience. All of this allows us to respond readily to the needs of the environment, which of course includes ourselves. And just as the Tao functions in a manner to promote harmony and balance, our own actions, performed in the spirit of wu-wei, produce the same result.

Wu-wei also implies action that is spontaneous, natural, and without effort. As with the Tao, this behavior simply flows through us because it right action, appropriate to its time and place, and serving the purpose of greater harmony and balance. Chuang Tzu refers to this type of being in the world as flowing, or more poetically as "purposeless wandering!" To have no purpose is unthinkable and even invokes fear in certain cultures and would be considered anti-social in the context of modern day living. And yet it would be difficult to maintain that our current values have promoted harmony and balance, either environmentally or on an individual level.

To allow oneself to "wander without purpose" can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic beliefs about life, about who we are as humans, and about how we fit into the world. From a Taoist point of view it is our cherished beliefs - that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations, and that our role is to conquer our environment - that lead to a state of disharmony and imbalance. Yet, Lao Tzu writes "the Tao nourishes everything." If we can learn to follow the Tao, practicing non-action, then nothing remains undone. This means trusting our selves, our thoughts, feelings and our own bodies, and also believing that the environment will provide support and guidance. Thus the need to develop watchfulness and quietness of mind.

To allow wu wei to manifest in our lives may seem like a daunting task. And yet, if we pause to reflect on our past experiences, we will recall possibly many instances when our actions were spontaneous and natural, when they arose out of the needs of the moment without thought of profit or tangible result. "The work is done and then forgotten. And so it lasts forever," writes Lao Tzu.

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