“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.
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.”
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.