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.