Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Wu Wei, often translated as non-doing is perhaps better understood to mean non-forcing. A Chinese phrase which has been fundamental to our understanding of Taoism. In the west we often celebrate the stories of struggle, those who have defied the odds and grafted for years in order to achieve success. However, most Eastern and some Western philosophies have identified that the joy attained from these successes is only ever fleeting. I’m sure many of us have struggled for long periods of time at a thing, achieved the goal we longed for and that we thought would bring us a feeling of contentment only to find ourselves a few days later wondering what’s next. We become slaves to our desires, convincing ourselves that the next success or attainment will be the one to change how we feel. Taoist’s are addressing this problem with Wu Wei. Taoist’s believe that inner harmony is found when we fall in tune with ‘the Way’. Lao Tzu said that ‘the Way that can be explained in words is not the true Way’, expressing the sentiment that it’s something that can only be experienced not intellectualised. However, in an attempt to share something of what is meant by ‘the Way’ some have described it as connecting with a natural harmony, free from the desires and cravings of the individual self, a complete acceptance and love of things as they are and unity with nature. So with Wu Wei we don’t desperately try and force our vision for how things should be upon the world but let things unfold as they should according to the natural order of things, free from our anxieties and desires. When we are able to do this we enter a state of ‘flow’ a feeling we may have glimpsed at points in our lives when we are totally immersed in an action, when we become one with the task at hand, free from distraction and internal dialogues or imagining past or future events, being totally present. Perhaps one of the best embodiments of Wu Wei in the west would be Charles Bukowski. On his grave stone Bukowski had the words ‘don’t try’ engraved. This may seem strange to anyone who knows Bukowski’s story, a man who worked dead end jobs until his 50’s spending every waking hour that he wasn’t working hunched over his typewriter drinking heavily and writing into the night, mostly about drink, women, horse racing and factory jobs. But Bukowski didn’t write because he had a vision of success, he wrote because every part of him compelled him to ‘if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it. Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.’ He wasn’t writing for any other reason than for the love of the act itself. Today so much of our action is goal oriented, at times this approach seems to contain the arrogance of modern man and woman as masters of the universe, feeling like we have the power to shape our destinies to our choosing, defying our impermanence and carving out legacies. Maybe this is empowering, maybe it is an indication of our progress but it also seems to coincide with a detachment from our natural world, which while allowing us to pursue every whim and desire is also leading us to blindly destroy our sole source of life whilst also suffering with deep dissatisfaction and anxiety. Perhaps if we were able to muster some Wu Wei and allow ourselves to be played by the universe rather than carving our own limited vision into it’s infinite realm of possibility then maybe we could find peace from many of the ailments of the modern mind.