“When you arrive at non-action, nothing will be left undone.”
This is part of a verse translated from an ancient Chinese book I found a while ago while investigating philosophical Chinese literature. Despite spending years on studying various kinds of literary works, both of Eastern and Western origins, I was still mesmerised by the riddle.
The verse came from Tao Te Ching, a collection of Lao Tzu’s philosophical teachings on Taoism. How can non-action complete action? What is this principle applied to? What’s more, how can non-action action help me better navigate life? These questions and many more were running around in my head and I couldn’t help but sit down and explore it more deeply.
Who was Lao Tzu?
If you don’t already know, Lao Tzu, also known as Laozi, was an ancient Chinese philosopher who lived around the 5th century BCE. He is credited as a founder of the philosophical system of Taoism.
Taoism, also spelled Daoism, is sometimes regarded as a religion. It believes in the art of living in perfect harmony with life. To be specific, in harmony with the order of the universe. At this point, you may wonder what is Tao and how does it affect your life anyway?
What is Tao and Tao Te Ching?
Tao is literally translated as “the way” or “the principle”. It represents the principle and order of every substance that exists in the universe.
Tao Te Ching is one of the world’s best-known philosophical books and was authored by Lao Tzu. It is also the second most translated work in world literature after the Bible. You may find it under many English titles like “The Classic of the Way”, “The Way of Virtue” and so on. The book reflects the essence of his teachings of Taoism.
Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher, a founder of Taoism, and an author of the book “Tao Te Ching”.
What is Wu Wei?
You may think that Tao’s philosophical approach to life is similar to Stoicism’s approach to nature.
- Not doing
However, there are in We Wei some alternative interpretations of the concept that go beyond this.
Wu Wei is one of the key concepts taken from Tao Te Ching. It’s a paradoxical concept of doing without doing. The term “non-action” in question is simply interpreted as:
- Effortless action
In Tao Te Ching, it’s believed that we don’t “force”, but “allow” things to fall into place and flow with the nature. The essence of doing without doing is actually getting things done without effort or intervention. This means we don’t take control of things around us because the universe has its own order. According to Lao Tzu, the nature is the order itself.
The practice of Wu Wei is allowing yourself to get into the natural Flow state where your actions become effortless.
How to Walk the Path of Wu Wei
Wu Wei doesn’t suggest that we become lazy, procrastinate, or give up on life. Instead, we seek understanding of the underlying patterns and take actions in alignment with the natural flow of the universe, allowing things to happen effortlessly without unnecessary resistance. Here are some key points to keep in mind when practicing Wu Wei.
1. Be Patient
Imagine a fisherman and the order of nature. When the fisherman is impatient, not only will he feel frustrated, but he will also scare the fish away.
An investor also knows this secret well. When the market is uncertain and the trend is unclear, instead of reacting recklessly, a smart investor will just sit back and observe the situation. They know to wait patiently for the right timing before enjoying the ride in the end.
It’s the art of using “calmness” and “patience” to your advantage.
2. Go with the Flow
Wu Wei also emphasises the importance of living in alignment with the Tao, or the way of the universe and the essential nature of the thing. It doesn’t tell us to not do anything, but rather not go against the flow, not force action that contradicts the nature of things. When we plan to take action, ask ourselves if it comes from inner tranquillity or it’s forced and distracting the flow. Wu Wei teaches us to be flexible like water as the yielding overcomes the forceful.
3. Letting Go of Attachment
We can control our action (by taking or not taking action), but not the result of our action. The fear, stress and doubt we have in life normally come from attachment to the outcome. Sometimes we get in the way and unintentionally ruin the whole process. Sometimes some external factors beyond our control impact our circumstances. Sometimes careless action makes things worse than we expected. That’s the way life is. Effortlessness is not only in letting go of forceful action, but also attachment of the outcome.
Observe the nature, embrace life, listen the your intuition, let go of what you cannot control, and follow the flow of the universe.
This is an overview of the principle of “non-action” that Chinese and many people around the world use to navigate through life. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. When we do nothing, everything is done.
To accomplish Wu Wei, we need to let go of the desire to force things the way we want them to be. This allows us to live in seamless harmony with the way of the universe.
I understand that some people may find this Wu Wei concept challenging. When your life and work ethic are things like “there’s always room for improvement” or “strike for better solutions”, leaving things untouched is not going to make your heart at peace. I am also one of the people with perfectionist’s standards. I feel that the better I do, the better is expected from me. Sometimes the pursuit of perfection gives me great satisfaction, and sometimes anxiety.
However, when I learn to forgive my mistakes and not let the negative feelings preoccupy my mind, I start to have more peaceful nights. I still maintain high standards in life but let go of outcomes. Walking the path of Wu Wei reminds me that we’re required to release control and trust the process.
Also, non-action shouldn’t falsely lead us to disinterest, laziness or even abandonment. It’s about knowing when to refrain ourselves from taking forceful, unnecessary action and when to jump in when the opportunities are right for us. The key is keeping balance in your life.
With Wu Wei, may you enjoy life that goes with the flow of the universe.
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