Wu wei: doing by non-doing

Lao Tzu

One of the subtlest notions in my book is the Taoist idea of wu wei, or non-doing. It doesn’t come up often, but in one or two chapters, for two of the main characters and several of the minor ones, it is crucial. What is it?

The idea ultimately comes to us from Laozi, pictured riding away on his water buffalo above. (I’m using the modern Pinyin. You may know him as Lao Tse or Lao Tzu). He was the subtlest of all the philosophers of the Axial Age. He talked the least and said the most. That’s because the Tao is not understood by words.

Fine, but words are what a blogger has. So what is wu wei?

It is not: staying in bed and doing nothing.

It is (my definition): exerting the minimal effort in any situation in order:

  • not to interfere with the natural flow of things but instead
  • to go with the flow, as though “letting” things happen and harmonizing yourself with them.

There’s no need to get too philosophical about this. In my experience, sailors grasp the concept intuitively. How utterly foolish would you look trying to act against the wind! Instead, you tack through it in order to let it blow (suck, technically) you to where you want to go. You don’t interfere, you harmonize.

The same principle applies in all sorts of situations, small and large. Just think about your own life.

Thus wu wei becomes a vital ingredient for winning and success, its violation for failure and disaster. And so you have the relevance for my book thesis.

7 thoughts on “Wu wei: doing by non-doing

  1. Okay, I thought about my own life. What if I let the genie out of the bottle and he would grant a wish (ribald jokes aside)? I think I would not ask for a different occupation, I would just be waaay better at the one I have. The flow would be flow-ier, thus I would be better than the next guy, my compensation would be greater, etc. I keep thinking about the ‘sobering Atlantic article’ you referred to on 9 Jan and, before that, the ‘Lucky Mr. Kluth’ (19 Dec.) posting. There is still a competitive element to every endeavor (e.g., epic warfare, education) and one’s flow might be truncated by getting his ass kicked (you said to not get too philosophical).

    Related ideas:
    Flow or no, some people are created more equal than others.
    Thinking of the sailor analogy, what if I’m lying in bed AND tacking faster than you, just because my jib is bigger than yours.

  2. Consistent with the approach of the Judoka in the martial art of Judo. Closest translation is “the gentle way” where, unlike western grappling (collegiate, Greco Roman, and the like), the Judoka uses the opponent’s strength and movement against him. It is a soft martial art that is deadly; Very passive in my view, but highly resourceful and effective.

    Aikido-founded by Morihei Ueshiba at the turn of the century is similiar by unifying one’s energetic being with that of the opponent and redirecting the opponent and in doing so, shows him “the way.” The redirecting of the opponent through fluid dance-like movements is really beautiful to watch and is very effective as a martial art.

    Andreas, you are right on the button. Both of these forms, especially Aikido, identify the benefit of harmonizing and going with the flow, as you interpret Wu Wei, as the best way to get from point A to Point B. Ummm, somehow I think this might be unintentionally related to Occam’s Razor.


  3. One more thought (heretical, perhaps). I haven’t read Lao Tzu for many years but I recall having a moral undoing and losing interest. I decided that ‘The Way’ was a method and means of keeping a large body of people passive and thus more easily manipulated politically and economically. In other words, to a young lad, this was just another example of ‘The Man’ keeping the masses down – like any respectable religion. Maybe it’s better to lead with The Way than to follow The Way.

  4. What a fascinating thread this has become.

    Where to start?

    Steve, you may be interested to know that Morihei Ueshiba is one of three main characters in one chapter. (The others being Hannibal, of course, and Cleopatra. That is not immediately obvious, but believe me, there is a connection.)

    Christopher, serendipity probably has something to do with wu wei. You’re letting connections between things manifest themselves. The three princes of Serendip (whence the word) were constantly finding things they were not looking for.

    Mr Crotchety, nothing in the post suggested that life is not competitive. You have to win every now and then. But surely you don’t think a big jib is enough? If you gave me a really, really big jib, I would instantaneously tip over the boat. There are great anecdotes in Morihei Ueshiba’s (the Aikido guy’s) biography about huge sumo wrestlers attacking him and him, 155 cm/5’1” tall, pinning them with one finger.

    Cheri, I think that your client is in fact Mr Crotchety, incognito.

    Zen, I feel inadequate for not knowing that emoticon…

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