Wuwei or Non-Doing

The Tao of Letting Go

Wuwei (无为), or non-doing, literally means 'doing nothing' in Chinese.

It is the fundamental of Tao. If you have to learn only one thing from the reading of Tao Te Ching, this is what you should go for.  The concept permeates the entire book.

You may wonder why Lao Tzu would advocate 'doing nothing' in this timeless classic.

The answer is very simple:  Wuwei is built upon the working of Nature.  And nothing in this Universe can be more powerful than the working of Nature -- manifested in all things we see, all things we do.

I mean all things and everything. From something as sacred as life and death to others as mundane as riding a bicycle to attracting the man or woman you love.

Knowing the nature of things and direct your efforts accordingly is like flowing along with the current and it will make achieving something effortless.   

Many a time, wuwei, or non-doing, require that you do nothing in order to do something.

For example, if your intention is to grow a plant, do what you should do. Give it the sunlight, the fertilizer and the water. Having done that, begin the non-doing by leaving the plant alone and let it grow on its own.

Don't do anything once the conditions for growing the plant are fulfilled. Otherwise, you would do more harm than good.

In this instance, doing nothing is doing something.

The maxin applies to everything we do.  If we let nature take its course , things get done.  If we go against it, little -- or nothing -- will get done, no matter how hard we try.

Do what is required, cut down on the superfluous.

Do less, in order to achieve more!

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Non-Doing is Powerful

Wuwei, therefore, is not doing absolutely nothing.

What it means is that we, having understood the order of things, act according to the order, and nothing else. It refers to non-action for things superfluous.

Just imagine how much more powerful we can be, if we can focus in such manner. It is just like water consistently dripping on the same spot of a rock. However soft the water is, it can eventually penetrate a rock. It is powerful, although it does not appear to be so?

When we have done what are needed to get things done, stand back. Do not interfere! Let the process work. For the same token, if it is beyond our power to take any action, stand back. Do not do anything. Observe. Act only if it is in the order of thing to do so.

This is non-doing!

In this context, doing nothing is doing something!

Wuwei Harnesses Power of Nature

wuwei and growth

It is like the planting of seedlings.

After we have worked on the soil and watered the plants, stand back! The seedlings need time and space to grow. Interfering does not help. It impedes the growth!

This applies to all things we do in life.

Instead of revolving around personal desire, as expressed in the go-getter lingo, wuwei rivets our attention on the laws of nature.

It teaches us that in whatever we do, in addition what we want; we must understand the ways of reality. What determines things to be done is not our desire, it is the reality. Unless the laws of nature warrant us to do something, we should do nothing.

In the end, we achieve more by doing less!

Know What Enough Means

Wuwei, nevertheless, is difficult to achieve.

We tend to worry too much, or worry about the wrong thing.

We are inclined to intervene, without considering whether the intervention really helps. This is especially so when we are leaders vested with power and authority.

If we can think non-doing in all things we do, we will be able to know what enough is and is not. Always aim for neither doing too little nor too much.

There are so many things that we long to have in life. If we do not know what enough is, we will never be enough.

In the sense of non-doing, we should not strive for anything, no matter how dearly we want it, if it does not add value to the natural process of achieving the center of our life.

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Wuwei Exercise 1

wuwei and cycling

Recall your recent cycling experience. If you don't cycle, recall you recent observation on how people cycle:

1. Look at the process of cycling. You move the bicycle forward, find the balance, sit on it and let the bicycle move on with the momentum.

2. The moment when you riding along with the bicycle, you should let go and let the bicycle and the momentum do the work. This is wuwei, or non-doing. You do nothing, and yet move ahead effortlessly.

3. What would happen if you unnecessarily intervene in the process? For example, suddenly tilting the balance of the bicycle? The bicycle's momentum is lost, you fall. You have impeded the process.

4. To be effective as a cyclist, you must know when to intervene and when not to. Only then that you are able to let the nature takes its course, and move along by harnessing the power of nature. This is the power of wuwei.

Wuwei Exercise 2:

Imagine that you are the CEO of a company. In the meeting, a group of employees is discussing about ways to improve morale in the company. What should you do in order to hear the true feedback from the group?Pick from the alternatives below, and explain why:

1. Let the employees discuss about what they feel, before feeding back to you.

2. Intervene in the discussion and join the discussion.

Suggested Answer:

Before you join in, stand back, and consider whether your intervention would help in getting good feedback.

On some occasions, your intervention would help. On others, it would not. It relies not on what you want, but what works. For example, if your intervention would stifle the flow of the group energy, and the free flow of the group energy is essential in producing the true feedback, then refrain from intervention. Observe non-doing. Do not intervene.

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Key Concepts

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