I’m like a sled dog; give me an objective and I’ll drive toward accomplishment come hell or high water. Leave me to my own devices, and I’ll eat your couch.
I am good at doing.
Waiting? Not so much.
Frankly, I don’t even know how to wait.
My doer mindset has served me well but there are times, like the long months waiting for our move to Italy, that this tendency threatened to tear me apart. Because sometimes there isn’t anything to do. Sometimes, you have to wait. And when I’m forced to wait, the sheer friction of my own agitation grows so strong, it could start a fire.
In times like these, I play a fun game I call “Let’s Not Implode,” which mostly involves Lamaze-style breathing and obsessively reading different ways not to spin-out or allow my natural tendencies to tear me in half. Then, I try to practice what I find.
What is Wu Wei?
In a nutshell, Wu Wei means “non-action” or “non-doing,” which I’ve come to understand as the practice of aligning our actions with the natural flow of life, specifically, the natural world; neither striving nor pushing for any particular end, but allowing life to unfold as it will and then taking action for each opportunity that arises along the way.
To me, this feels impossible – like scaling a skyscraper or spontaneously taking flight. Like I said, I’m a doer. Non-doing goes against my very core.
But that just makes Wu Wei all the more important; those “doing” tendencies so easily lead to burnout or implosion. And, when all is said and done, is all that doing even leading in the right direction? Or is it just doing for doing’s sake? Life-long busywork?
Wu Wei is an antidote.
But how does a doer even do Wu Wei? Do you just stop trying? Collapse into a stupor of Cheetos and Netflix?
You would think you’d Wu Wei yourself into lethargy and sloth, but that’s not it. It’s not about doing nothing, it’s about doing things in line with the natural flow (which sometimes means doing nothing). It’s not just about waiting; it’s about how to wait. It’s about watching, listening, waiting, and aligning yourself. It’s about not wasting energy fighting against what is; instead, learning to ride the natural current of life and use energy to seize opportunities as they unfold. It’s about being in the moment so you’re prepared to realize potential rather than missing it chasing after objectives that don’t align with circumstances, purpose, or nature.
There’s an old Taoist quote that summarizes this well, “The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone.”
Wu Wei is about swimming with rather than against currents; being like bamboo that bends with the wind but remains tall. I used to love hiking through the rainforest near our home in Western Washington. The plants there didn’t grow straight toward the sky. They intertwined one another, smaller plants and trees shaping themselves to the stable forms of old growth. It was all very Wu Wei.
Wu Wei is about releasing rigidity, anxiety, the concept of how things “should” be, and adherence to overly strict and demanding ideas that don’t actually work. In so doing, the Taoists say, we can better accomplish tasks by working with the flow instead of striving against it.
Pop culture calls this “being in the zone.” But how do you Wu Wei? How do you “do” the opposite of “doing”?
How to Wu Wei
Taoism says to be like water. Water is calm, passive and malleable but stronger than any other force in reshaping solid stone with its consistent and unyielding flow.
Or (in less idyllic terms) Taoism says to be like a drunk person, so relaxed and malleable that s/he can fall completely uninjured from a moving cart.
I think about the Wu Wei of water when I feel myself standing on that all too familiar precipice; the need to do something pumping so hard through my veins that I may either explode or punch somebody. That being said, like most things, applying this philosophy is easier said than done. You can’t “do” Wu Wei, although I’ve definitely tried.
I’m such a Westerner. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stumbled over this in regard to Eastern Philosophy. I want to win meditation, dominate mindfulness, and successfully do Wu Wei; which, I’ve garnered, is the exact opposite of the point. This might be why Asian cultures live so much longer than Western ones; we’re always racing to the finish line.
Since Wu Wei can’t be done, here are a few things I’ve learned about internalizing it:
- “Success” is in the moment-to-moment lived experience – there is no finish line.
- It’s in relinquishing control instead of holding on.
- It’s in stepping back to take in the whole picture and allowing the river of life to guide you.
- It’s about paying attention here and now – rather than fighting future battles in your mind or reliving past occurrences – so that when opportunities or difficulties present themselves along the way, you can effortlessly seize or overcome them as you sail smoothly by.
I’m still working on (not working on) being water (it’s a ‘work’ in progress) but Wu Wei has taught me more about how to wait -and- helped calm my internal fire more than a few times. Whatever battles you may be facing – from within or without – I hope this helps. And I hope you have a really Wu Wei kind of day. 😊