What is Wu Wei? Powerful without Strive

By tekson teo | February 19, 2022

Wu Wei Definition

What is Wu Wei?

A simple wu wei definition 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.” 

It is, therefore, often translated as “doing nothing”. It’s also translated in several other ways, such as non-action, action without strive, and effortless doing. 

Taking the word literally, it is easy to conclude that Lao Tzu advocates an easy-going, layback lifestyle. It’s, nevertheless, quite a serious misunderstanding. Wu wei, in fact, is a very profound concept.  

Wu wei is an excellent way to help us deal with the ever-demanding world of today. 

First, it embraces simplicity. In everything you do, identify the essential, and let go of the non-essential. You do nothing more than go with the flow of nature. 

You tap into the power of nature to get things done. You don’t accomplish things driven by your ego, but what is. In this way, you partner nature to get things done. Since nature is powerful, you get things done with less effort.  

Why doing noting?

Having said that, the question still lingers. 

A simple wu wei definition is “doing nothing.” Why “nothing”?  

The word “nothing” is precisely 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. 

In the context of the ancient book, “nothing” has to do with the very fundamental concept of the philosophy – the Tao.  

The universe that we are in is mammoth. Surprisingly while it is indefinitely huge, it’s also in perfect harmony. Every star and planet exist 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.  

Although gigantic beyond our wildest imagination, the universe  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,” says Lao Tzu.  

The Tao is in everything – be it the sun that rises in the morning and the birds that fly to the whispers of your loved ones – yet 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’re more effective work with it. 

The flow of nature is the flow of Tao. When you go with the flow, ride on its wave, and have the formless Tao to back you up, you accomplish more without striving. 

It Brings Out the Best in You – What is Wu Wei?

It is a secret sauce of excellence for any field, the arts, sports, sciences, and whatnots. By staying calm and at ease, the performers bring out the best in them. The more natural they are, the better is their performance. When they are distracted and no longer natural, 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 the Tao behind it.  

It explains why going with the flow of nature can be so powerful. Because when we go with the flow of nature, we follow the Tao. 

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. 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. No one has absolute control over a flow.    

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.

How to make wu wei a part of you? 

I’m curious about the practice and have been studying it for decades. It led me to lay down a four-step approach to help you make the wisdom truly yours. You can find it in my book Wu Wei Comes Alive. Let’s check it out by clicking the link below. 

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