The sage does nothing, yet nothing is left undone. ~ Tao Te Ching
The concept of wu wei (non-action) is a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, one that has had people scratching their heads for millennia. In our overscheduled, never caught up, always behind, time managed, too tired to relax way of life, we accept as normal, if unfortunate, a pervasive sense of never accomplishing enough or being good enough. The finish line is always just out of reach, no matter how fast or how far we run. It’s a trap, like a fixed game we keep trying to win but never will. Wu wei offers another way.
Taken literally, wu wei appears to grant us license to sit on the couch all day eating chips and ice cream while we watch NCIS marathons. The kids are hungry and the dog needs to go outside? Sorry, I’m too busy lounging around being enlightened.
Hmm, that doesn’t seem right. For one thing, it ignores the second part of the quote—nothing is left undone. So I can do nothing and all the items on my to do list will get checked off? It must be magic because most of us can’t even get through our to do lists when we’re frantically doing stuff nonstop till we drop.
So what’s the secret?
Todd Jackson, quoted in the blog description at the top of the page, is a healer. He practices several kinds of healing techniques. Once I was asking him about a particular technique that I hadn’t heard him mention for a long time. I asked him, “Do you still do X?” He smiled with a slight shrug and replied, “X still happens.”
That is what wu wei looks like in our daily lives, I think. When we act without identifying with our actions, when we refrain from claiming success or failure, when our egos are not invested in a particular outcome, we are able to see, really see, what is happening or not happening in the present moment. Then we can discern what is necessary or appropriate in any given situation. We can respond and adapt, or rather, responding and adapting “happen.” We quit struggling with the natural pace and rhythm of our lives and move in harmony with what is happening right now.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or have routines or responsibilities. It means that we can attend to what is necessary without judgment or inner conflict, without the effort of trying to force things to be a certain way. Wu wei doesn’t mean that stuff doesn’t get done, but it changes our thinking about who is doing it and our relationship to what is being done. We think less about “I” until “I” simply fades into the flow of life, whether our lives flow like raging rapids or meandering streams.
Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9% of everything you think and of everything you do is for yourself—and there isn’t one. ~Wei Wu Wei