Wu Wei

Wu Wei and Goals

No matter what it is you do, there is always a way to do it that is effective, effortless, and enjoyable at the deepest level. This is the true meaning of Wu Wei.” – Derek Lin1

Another important principle of Sovereignty is Wu Wei.

Typically, the term “wu wei” is translated as non-doing. However, to think that it means to do nothing is to over simplify the concept and miss the inherent power of unattached action. There are several chapters devoted to wu wei and each has a unique and important perspective.

If you spend enough time with Tao studies, you will at some point here the term “accomplish more by doing less”. This chapter illuminates the principles of Wu Wei and the ego traits to corrupt sovereignty.

Unattached Action

The softest things of the world

Override the hardest things of the world

That which has no substance

Enters into that which has no openings

From this I know the benefits of unattached actions

The teachings without words

The benefits of actions without attachment

Are rarely matched in the world.

Chapter 43, Tao Te Ching

The foundation of Wu Wei is unattached action. This foundation principle involves several components. In chapter 43, Lao Tzu explains how softness overcomes hardness. In the physical world, water is soft to the touch but will wear away stone over time. Water penetrates stone and weakens it. This process will eventually change rock and stone to sand. The most obvious example of this can be seen by looking at the Grand Canyon. Also when you walk along a beach you can feel the soft sand that was once solid hard rock. Following the Tao is following nature. In nature water does not have an agenda to wear away the rock, it is not attached to the outcome of creating sand, it just does what it does effortlessly. So another principle of wu wei is to not get caught up in the ego’s attachment to outcome.

Attachment To Outcome

The principle of detached action is another way of looking at how water wears down hard rock. Water is just water and has no attachment to outcome. The sages have instructed us to be like the Tao, so in this case, we are asked to be like water. When you can be mindful of attachment you choose an action that is not dependent on a specific outcome. This important principle forms the bedrock for “giving without expectation, producing without possessing, and nurtures without domination”2. Water does not benefit the world with the expectation of a reward, and neither should we. The ego always takes an action with the expectation of some benefit to itself. This principle of unattached action is important in developing good relationships. You cannot build trust if you are only doing something if you are only concerned with what s in it for me. This type of exploitation will have a karmic reward that you will not enjoy.


Another way of defining wu wei is action without striving. Attachment to outcome sets up the ego state of striving. Striving is defined as making a struggle, to make a vigorous exertion, to achieve or obtain something. Other features to note is that striving creates friction and uses a lot of energy it is working against the flow, to experience resistance, to stubbornly pursue something.

Without going out the door, know the world

Without peering out the window, see the Heavenly Tao

The further one goes

The less one knows

Therefore the sage

knows without going

Names without seeing

Achieves without striving.

Chapter 47, Tao Te Ching

Striving is the action of ego. It’s like swimming upstream, racing against the wind, or pushing against an unmovable object. Even if eventually you realize achievement, the effort will be too costly.

Accomplishing more by doing less.

The Tao is constant in non-action

Yet there is nothing it does not do.

If the sovereign can hold on to this

All things transform themselves

Transformed, yet wishing to achieve

I shall restrain them with the simplicity of the nameless

They shall be without desire

Without desire, using stillness

The world shall steady itself.

Chapter 37, Tao Te Ching

Opposite to striving is an effortless achievement. Like water effortlessly creating the grand-canyon or the beautiful beach, you too can reach your goals by going with the flow of the Tao.

Effortless achievement involves simplicity. When you remove the ego influenced from your perspective, simplicity is the way. Simplicity and effortlessness complement each other. The ego can get caught up in all sorts of crazy expectations driven by desire. Cleverness and complexity are a couple of common traps that make goal achievement much harder.

Controlling the ego is controlling desire. Desire can be a material gain or it can be a form of vanity. Through the stillness of the meditative mind, you can get to the root of desire that causes striving and realizes achievement in a way that is with minimum effort and without striving.

To apply Wu Wei as a living strategy requires being skilled in detached observation. In this state, you can be mindful and pay attention your actions in the present moment. You can call it a situational awareness. Become aware of a strong momentum that you may have as you strive to complete some ego driven outcome. The ego trying as hard as it can to get what it wants is moving against the flow. Where in Wu Wei you have the presence of mind to be detached from that desire driven outcome. Let simplicity and virtue guide you. Like water, you softly patiently penetrate that striving pursuit and listen to your own wisdom. When you can accomplish this, effortless accomplishment will be a very powerful tool.

Wu Wei is more than just a concept, it is a state of being. It is a state of being unified with the Tao

Because Tao is the total spontaneity of all things,

so it can do everything by doing nothing.

Fung Yu-Lan3

The Tao spontaneously creates without effort and without agenda. Cultivating Wu Wei has to become a way of life. This state of being is a kind of connected-consciousness. Maybe you have seen the phenomena but not recognized it for what it is. Some popular descriptions might be “in the zone” or “in the flow”. As are all things in Tao cultivation, meditation and mindfulness are how to develop the skill in being present and mindful of striving and attachment to outcome. Being self-aware, the sovereign can control the ego-choice to fixate on the outcome. Your life wisdom is apparent, but you must have the discipline and willpower to choose it. Of course, it takes a lot of practice, but the opportunity to work on your “self “happens in every moment of awareness.

1From the Tao of Happiness, Derek Lin

2See Chapter 51 Tao Te Ching; (mystic virtue).

3Fung Yu-Lan 1895-1990; was a Chinese philosopher, author of Chuang-Tzu, a translation and interpretation of Chuang- Tzu’s writings.

2 thoughts on “Wu Wei”

  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. I have been playing around with wu wei for a long time. I’ve noticed in practicing martial arts, that if I’m tense, or rigid, or used forced movements, I’m ultimately inefficient, and cause undue damage to my body. When I’m relaxed, deeply relaxed, my actions become spontaneous, efficient, and even joyful. In such states, my focus is in letting go, then, everything else happens by itself.

    I wonder if this can genuinely be applied to all areas of life. Present mindedness, relaxed awareness, focusing more on the inner energy field than outward goals. It seems committing to such a practice when one is having a difficult time making a career change decision in an extremely uncertain economy would require tremendous faith. On the other hand, without strong intuition, and feeling of calm energy, how productive can I really be? How wise can my choices be if done with anxiety?

    Here’s my question. Does one have to base goals, plans, career pursuits, etc. off of thinking in terms of rational pro’s/con’s based on perceived external outcomes, or, can one simply tend to maximizing a tension-less energy field, and trust that when the Tao flows, there will be no need for such planning?

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so, so much.

  2. Hi Evan,
    You are most welcome, and I return many thanks for the really relevant observations and questions. It is always delightful to encounter others along the way. There are a lot of questions in your post, with one big summary question at the end. I will try to give you good answers and can best discuss this from my own experiences. I have experienced some serious failures and setbacks in life. However, I was able to transform my life and find my true path by following the teachings.

    Which martial art do you practice? I practice Taiji as a martial art as well as a means of attaining the Tao. Your observations feel quite similar. I am just curious of which internal martial practice you follow?

    “When I’m relaxed, deeply relaxed, my actions become spontaneous, efficient, and even joyful. In such states, my focus is in letting go, then, everything else happens by itself.
    I wonder if this can genuinely be applied to all areas of life?”

    How do you explore these questions from within the Tao? Meditation and mindfulness practice. This is working on the self and the ability to transcend the reactive element of ego (anxiety). Meditation does not stop when you open your eyes and resume life. Life is meditation; mindfully experienced. This state of being is the foundation for everything. So, yes, the concentrated stillness of mind in the martial movement, which is the core of spiritual martial arts is the same with everything else in life. Perhaps you have heard this wisdom:

    The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness.
    Only when there is stillness in movement,
    Can the spiritual rhythm appear which pervades heaven and earth.
    Ts’ai-ken t’an

    Stillness being the concentrated unity within the Tao (wu wei) and movement is the non-striving-action within the flow (aka creation). It does not matter if the movement is martial arts, washing dishes or planning your life. It is all sourced within the Tao. I recommend that you genuinely apply this as if your life depends on it…. cause it does.Your choices create your destiny.

    It seems that the crux of your question is in the 2nd paragraph, where you raise the astute question:

    …”without strong intuition, and feeling of calm energy, how productive can I really be? How wise can my choices be if done with anxiety?

    My experience is that there are many things that cause anxiety, and you are wise to be wary. Being mindful of these feelings you can gently let the fear or anxiety subside and observe other possibilities. Fear and anxiety have a role in wisdom. It is but one of many perspectives and ultimate possibilities. Wisdom is being aware of them and making an informed choice. Wisdom is reflecting on your past mistakes and not repeating the failed behaviors. That would be ego/ignorance. Explore the root of the anxiety and see the truth that is there. – Why are you anxious?
    – Is the anxiety the friction created when ego and spirituality are in conflict?
    – Is the anxiety based on something that might happen in the future?
    – How accurate is this fear?

    And the really big question:

    Does one have to base goals, plans, career pursuits, etc. off of thinking in terms of rational pro’s/con’s based on perceived external outcomes, or, can one simply tend to maximizing a tension-less energy field, and trust that when the Tao flows, there will be no need for such planning?

    Good questions here…you are seeking the truth and deeper insight which is necessary for spiritual growth.

    My teacher/ mentor is always reminding us to be careful with absolutes. Having said that, yes, rational pro-cons are very important. Self-honesty and seeing the underlying reality is rational-critical thinking and important for determining what the goal/s should be and how to get there. So yes to rational thinking is good, but there is a deeper insight.

    It is also, important is to know what your deeper intentions are.
    – Why do you want to achieve these goals?
    – Are these goals in keeping with your spiritual path and virtues of the Tao?
    – Or are they based on selfish, ego, exploitation of what you perceive and encounter?
    – Are these goals of the true self or are these ego goals seeking status, attention, fame, glory and other superficial achievements?
    – Will working on this goal interfere with your ability to stay on your true path (unity with the Tao)?

    True-self goals are results where your service to others by sharing your gifts benefits everyone in a positive way.

    …trust that when the Tao flows, there will be no need for such planning?

    Try this paradigm shift. The Tao is always flowing, it has never stopped since the big bang. It is more a matter of us as Tao cultivators losing unity in moments of stress and not being at one with it. That is the essence of the cultivation, and Wu Wei is this state of being in the flow. This is working on the self.

    If you think of goals as a destiny, the Tao cultivator, chooses the goal/destiny from the perspective of the true self. The true self is you realized as a spiritual being having this physical experience. It is the true self that is unified with the flowTao/ (wu wei). This is your true path. This is what is meant by working on yourself first, transcending ego and its myriad negative traits. Working on the self is working on cultivating the Tao. The better you get at staying in this state of Wu Wei, the more effortless the realization of your goals without striving.
    I guarantee that you will hit obstacles and experience serious problems and setbacks. When you do, be mindful of the anxiety and gently allow it to fade. In the tranquility, seek the wisdom of the Tao as strategies for dealing with the problems. In this way, you can avoid some of the anxiety and not give into striving. This is working on the self, and you may even gain the ability to see a problem as an opportunity to improve.

    There are many ego traps along the way. When you become attached to the outcome, and get a sense of having to knock yourself out to achieve something, you have fallen off the path. Rather than see the journey towards your goal as hard work, try seeing it as a matter of discipline (working on the self). Being on your true path is doing what you love to do and experiencing how the community around you benefits from it. It doesn’t seem like work. One day you will realize that you have arrived at the destination, and it can be anti-climatic.
    The Tao cultivator realizes that it is the journey to the goal that is life. When you reach the goal, you will realize that it is but a mile marker along a much greater journey. So it always comes back to right here, right now, … am I at one with the Tao and its path of virtue?

    I hope this helps. Great questions for discussion. Thanks for your contribution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s