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“A perspective shot from a kayak on a rippling lake with the sun setting on the horizon in the distance” by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Wu Wei: The Powerful Path of Non-Action

What the sages of the East can teach us about effort, strategy, and observation.

The thing about Eastern philosophies is that they are full of contradictions, but unlike in Western philosophies, contradictions are not seen as problems to solve. Rather, contradictions are embraced as illuminating — because well, reality is full of contradictions. Take this passage from the Tao Te Ching, probably the most contradictory of all Eastern works:

Look, and it can’t be seen.
Listen, and it can’t be heard.
Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

Above, it isn’t bright.
Below, it isn’t dark.
Seamless, unnamable.
it returns to the realm of nothing.
Form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle, beyond all conception.

Heavy, right? And seemingly going back and forth contradicting itself. But with passages like this, the Eastern sages showed that they were onto something: life is full of contradictions, and the Eastern masters realized this. So rather than writing long paragraphs trying to reconcile these contradictions, the great minds of the East practiced a form of analysis more like poetry: put the contradictions together, and let them be — in words on the page — to allow us to reconcile them ourselves in that act of thinking that can’t be put into language, but can surely be felt.

The Way of the Sage: Non-Action

One of the most prominent contradictions in Eastern philosophy is the concept of Wu Wei found in Taoism. Loosely translated (as is usually the case with concepts from the East), it means “non-action” — doing less, and putting forth less effort. But don’t be put off by that, it’s not a philosophy of laziness or a lack of care.

A bit less loosely translated, Wu Wei describes not forcing things as a way of life. It’s about spending less time trying to manipulate situations, people, and environments to satisfy your desires, and spending more time aligning yourself to the natural flow of things. It’s about avoiding the paralyzing effects of overanalyzing, stressing out, and all of the things that come with a general need to control events and people. Quite simply, Wu Wei is an approach to existence that advocates an acceptance of the myriad things that are out of our control, a willingness to go along for the ride, and a readiness to act in the few instances where action will truly add value.

But that last part — acting in the few instances where action will truly add value. That is the difficult part. Knowing the difference between the few situations where some small action will add real value and the many situations where we feel anxious to act, but those actions will get us nowhere — that is all about receptivity.

What I mean by receptivity is an openness to the long view. It’s a forest-for-the-trees mentality. It manifests in the person who — during a heated argument with their partner — keeps in mind that this is but one valley, which will have accompanying peaks, and then realizes that it might not be worth trying to keep arguing so they can prove themselves right. It’s the investor who resolves not to emotionally withdraw their money from the market during a downturn. It’s the leader who listens intently to the emotional criticisms and anxieties of their team, and keeps calm enough to sift through that criticism for the problems that can be addressed and yield real improvement. It is the person who lets that silence in a conversation linger — and resists the urge to fill every single gap with more talking.

If that sounds a bit too esoteric, perhaps the manifestations of it are more apparent, and easier to think of. Consider some of the most memorable people you know — the type of people who when you met them, they drew you in for some reason. Not the people who were loud and opinionated and made a mark because they were simply obnoxious, rather the people who displayed that certain something — the strong, silent type, if you will. It’s the person who, when they spoke, you found yourself listening intently — drawn in by the person’s seeming collectedness and non-smug quiet confidence.

It’s Not Being Lazy, It’s Being Strategic

Again, Wu Wei is not about laziness and complacency. Rather, it is about conservation of energy — specifically, of mental and physical effort. Significant effort will always be necessary in order to get things done. However, we all fall prey to wasting effort (and time) on thoughts and actions that at the time we think add value, but in the fulness of time, we realize we were just spinning our wheels, ultimately to end up right back where we started. We do this because we often feel uncomfortable, and we want to act because we feel that doing something is better than just waiting, or sitting with that discomfort.

The Taosist masters warned against this. Sometimes, sitting with that uncomfortable feeling is exactly the thing to do. And in doing so, you’ll save a lot of energy for things that matter. As a bonus, you’ll also feel more comfortable and relaxed where others tend to feel tense, anxious, and make poor decisions because of it. When that happens, you gain an incredible advantage over many other people — people compelled to act when action is just not necessary.

Wu Wei is about relaxing into the states that we consistently encounter in reality: uncertainty, conflict, discomfort, desire, and so on. It’s about relaxing enough to see that there is not so big a difference between those states and their opposites that we so badly desire: certainty, peace, pleasure, and possession. They come on and pass as quickly, like waves on an ocean.

Still unsure? Allow me reconcile the concept of Wu Wei with modern productivity advice. Wu Wei is about outsourcing your work to the world. There are rhythms and cycles in reality. If there are things that happen in those rhythms and cycles that you are trying to do yourself, sync up with those cycles. There’s a quote by Paul Rudd’s character in a relatively unknown film called P.S. which sums this up pretty nicely:

Find the pattern...

Find the pattern, and put yourself in a position of profit

when the pattern repeats itself.

People spend a lot of time and energy both ignoring and fighting against natural patterns — patterns of nature, patterns of markets, patterns of energy, patterns of behavior, and so on. But rather than fighting against those patterns, find a way to use them. Like Aikido teaches, it takes much more energy and yields much less success to try to stop your opponent’s momentum and reverse it by force. It is much less taxing, and much more probable that you’ll succeed if you use your opponent’s momentum against him. The only energy you use is the energy of observation, planning, and waiting.

Take This Home With You

Mastering Wu Wei is as easy as standing back and observing — even for a little bit. Note the patterns you see. Start with your own moods, thoughts, and behaviors. You will be surprised just how many patterns there are. When you do that, you can figure out how to use your own momentum to create value for yourself with less work.

Having mastered leveraging your own patterns and momentum, you can move on to other things. And the other patterns in life — they are likely to be much easier to understand once you understand your own psychological patterns. You observe, you plan, you act, and you profit. And in the end, it’s almost as if you didn’t even do anything; things just kind of unfolded naturally. Again, from the Tao Te Ching:

…the sage acts by doing nothing,
Teaches without speaking,
Attends all things without making claim on them,
Works for them without making them dependent,
Demands no honor for her deed.
Because she demands no honor,
She will never be dishonored.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

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