What is the meaning of wu wei?
The simple answer is “doing nothing.” The word is a translation of 无为, first seen in the Tao Te Ching written by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu 2,500 years ago. 无 means “nothing,” and 为 means “doing.” So “do nothing” is a pretty apt translation.
There are numerous other ways to translate it, such as non-action, action without strive, effortless doing, etc.
Many people, taking the word literally, think that Lao Tzu is asking you to stay carefree and not work hard. It’s quite a serious misunderstanding.
Wu wei, on the contrary, is very profound.
It’s undoubtedly an antidote to deal with today’s ever-demanding world and a strategy you can ill afford to ignore. “By letting it go, it all gets done,” says Lao Tzu.
Although the practice has been around for thousands of years, it’s still a well-kept secret. Ironically, because of its simplicity. Many people don’t believe something so simple can be so powerful.
So what is wu wei?
Meaning of Wu Wei
What wu wei says is that in anything you do, identify the way nature flows and go with it.
In this way, you’re able to tap into the power of nature to get things done. It’s just like when you are rowing a boat downstream. It’s effortless not because of your effort, but that you tap into the flow of nature to get things done. Since nature is powerful, riding on its wave makes what you do effortless.
But, you may still wonder, why does Lao Tzu call the practice “doing nothing”? You still do something, don’t you?
Indeed, it is precisely the word “nothing” where confusion arises. Most people associate “nothing” with the usual sense of the word, not knowing that it has a special connotation in the Tao Te Ching, where the description originates.
Not Doing Absolutely Nothing
In the context of the ancient book, “nothing” is a very fundamental concept of the philosophy. It has to do with the Tao.
Wu wei, in fact, is a very profound concept.
Wu wei is undoubtedly an antidote to deal with today’s ever-demanding world and a strategy you can ill afford to ignore.
Although the practice has been around for thousands of years, it’s still a well-kept secret. Ironically, many people can’t see its merits because of its simplicity. They don’t believe something so simple can be so powerful.
What it says is in anything you do, identify the way nature flows and go with it.
In this way, you’re able to tap into the power of nature to get things done. You don’t accomplish things on your own. You partner your effort with the flow of nature. Since nature is powerful, riding on its wave helps you get things done with less effort.
Having said that, I believe you still have questions lingering in your mind. Why does Lao Tzu call the practice “doing nothing”?
In fact, it is precisely the word “nothing” where much of the confusion arises. The problem is that most people associate “nothing” with the usual sense of the word. However, in the Tao Te Ching, the word has a very different meaning.
Wu Wei and the Formless Tao
In the context of the ancient book, “nothing” has to do with the very fundamental concept of the philosophy – the Tao.
The cosmos that we are in is mammoth. Surprisingly while it is indefinitely huge, it’s also in perfect harmony. Every star and planet exists peacefully alongside. Why is this possible?
A dark, silent, and unifying force keeps every existence in order. It’s almighty, ever-present, and yet without a trace. Nobody knows what this force exactly is. Lao Tzu describes it as Tao, although you’re free to give it any other names.
While the universe is gigantic beyond our wildest imagination, it humbly submits to this silent, almighty force of the Tao.
“Something nebulous was born before the emergence of the universe. Serene and desolate, it was solitary and unchanging. Revolving unabated, it can well be Mother of the universe,” marvels Lao Tzu.
The is in everything that you can see, from the sun that rises in the morning and the birds that fly to the whispers of your loved ones.
Although Tao is almighty and omnipresent, no one knows what it looks like. We can’t see, touch, hear or smell it. It’s a void. It’s formless. For convenience, Lao Tzu gives it another name — “nothing,” or wu 无 in Chinese.
It is what the” nothing” in wu wei means.
Therefore, doing nothing is not about doing absolutely nothing but working with the formless Tao to get things done. Since Tao is powerful, we can be a lot stronger if we work with it.
Go With the Flow of Nature
The flow of nature is the flow of Tao. When you go with the flow, you’re moving in tandem with the formless Tao. On many occasions, you don’t even have to do anything. With the powerful Tao to back you up, you can accomplish more without having to work any harder.
It is a secret sauce of excellence for any field, be it the arts, sports, sciences — you name it. By keeping themselves in a state of calm and ease of the flow of nature, the performers bring out the best in them.
All good performers will tell you that they can be at their best only when they’re natural. When they are distracted and become unnatural, their performance goes downhill. Therefore, all best performers practice the art of wu wei, although they don’t necessarily give it the same name.
At the heart of the practice of wu wei is a deep respect for nature.
Tao follows nature
You’d likely be asking another question. Since Tao is “nothing” and invisible and we don’t even know what it exactly looks like, how are we going to work with it?
Fortunately, although we can’t see Tao per se, we can see it in its manifestations. It’s just like although we can’t see the electric current because it’s invisible, we know that electricity is working when it lights up a bulb.
Where can we find the manifestations of the Tao?
Well, we see it everywhere. Since everything is a creation of Tao, everything that we see in this world is its manifestations. You and I, the house that we live in, the food that we eat, they’re all manifestations of the Tao. We see the Tao in action through the behavior of everything we see.
Having said that, we must also be aware that although everything is a manifestation of Tao, many of them are adulterated with elements that blind us to the true nature of Tao. The more untainted the thing is, the more truthful it is in the reflection of the Tao.
Of all the manifestations we can see, nature tops the list, especially in its primitive form. When we see how the earth grows the crops and the rain irrigates the farm, we know the enormous power of nature, and we appreciate the almightiness of Tao behind it.
It explains why going with the flow of nature can be so powerful.
This is what wu wei gets us to do!
If we can respect nature and work with it, nature is on our side, and it stacks the odds in our favor with the power of Tao, making what we do more effortless and effective.
Nature is a great partner in what we do. We must never forget that we are just part of the flow when working with it, not the flow. We are sometimes in control of things to a certain extent, sometimes having no control at all.
See the kite flying in the sky. No one has absolute control over a flow. The kite is free and easy, but it can’t control itself. What it can do is nothing but to enjoy the flight. The kite flyer on the ground, on the other hand, has some control. In fact, their joy is in controlling the kite. Even then, they have to exert their control in consideration of other conditions, such as the wind flow and the strength of the string.
When you’re going with the flow, it’s, therefore, of fundamental importance that you let go of your ego and follow the lead of the flow of nature. You get things done by joining forces with nature, not controlling it.
If you can apply the wisdom of wu wei to everything you do, or even things you have to put up with, even adversity is strength. You’re calm and easy, and yet things move naturally. You get things done without unnecessarily exerting yourself.
As a matter of fact, wu wei is not just about getting things done.
It’s an approach to life, not a technique.
With the practice of wu wei, you can remain calm and easy while seeking out new opportunities, quenching your thirst for knowledge, and thriving in competitive work environments — without having to suffer the stress and anxiety associated with hard work.
It also helps you find your true balance, be present, and live life to the fullest. The harmony with the universe enriches your entire existence.
Meaning of Wu Wei – How You Can Make the Wisdom Yours
How to make wu wei a part of you?
I’m curious about the practice and have been studying it for decades. I have laid down a four-step approach to help you make the wisdom truly yours. Let’s check it out.
About the Author
Tekson Teo has practiced qigong for more than four decades and is a disciple of an ancient tai chi lineage. His passion for Tao’s philosophy, for which he has written three books, allows him to dive deep into the qigong and tai chi practices. Being a management consultant for a substantial time, he is familiar with the modern world’s challenges, making his teaching practical and relevant. Tekson graduated from the University of London with BSc (Econ) Hon and Imperial College London with MBA and DIC.