Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Doing Everything While Doing Nothing

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

16 thoughts on “Doing Everything While Doing Nothing”

  1. The phrase reminds me a lot of Paul's admonition to be a Christian where you are- you don't have to be the next Billy Graham, just the next day's you.

  2. Does this come back to some sort of faith [not in the religious sense but in the sense of trust]? To set the intention and then let the outcome simply reveal itself. It's a challenging concept especially these days when outcomes are so results driven but so very much worth striving for. Wonderful new blog Galen! So great to see you back 🙂

  3. very powerful Galen. this is very similar to many of the discussioins Arjuna and Krishna have on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita – doing action as a matter of duty and giving up attachment to the results. Is this a good way to sum it up:) Do more. Be less. Or it Be more. Do less…hmmm

  4. Vishnu, funny as always. Those discussions between Arjuna and Krishna were very challenging for me because of Arjuna's reluctance to kill his relatives on the other side of the battlefield. Krishna's explanation of his role in battle fascinated me.

  5. Hi, Jean! I like your characterization of this as faith, the sense of trust that everything is as it should be. And you are right about how contrary that is to how most of us look at things these days. When I started hosting the in person gatherings of the No Way Cafe last year, some folks were very focused on having a measurable goal or an identifiable takeaway, towards which we would all make some level of commitment and effort. Without that, showing up without some clear structure or agenda was very uncomfortable for some. And that's understandable given the emphasis you point out on striving and results in our culture. Exploring that discomfort with compassion and curiosity is the beginning of faith, I think.

  6. Reading this reminded me of what Jesus said in Matthew 10:39 – Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
    We are told to take our eyes off of self and focus on God and the bigger picture.
    Great thoughts, Galen!

  7. Great connection, Martha. I agree that Jesus's teachings reflect this wu wei concept. Like the "let go and let God" slogan. Whether we think in terms of moving in harmony with the Tao or with God, we need to release our ego self which just gets in the way.

  8. I am so happy you are back! I have missed your simulating thoughts. I loved reading this one; but will need to ponder it for awhile.
    Sending hugs your way!

  9. Because you mentioned Tao Te Ching, I went by the library today and picked up a book called Walking the Way , 81 Zen Encounters with The Tao Te Ching. I cannot put it down!

  10. Hi Galen,

    This is a very interesting idea! I tried to comment earlier but it must not have gone through. I'm wondering how to apply this to my day in a practical way – like with relationships, finding direction in life, doing work, etc. Do you have any suggestions about that? I'd really like to learn more about it. I tried reading about this in other places too, but it seems so conceptual that I don't know how to apply it, although I would like to! 🙂

  11. Thanks for your persistence in sending your comment again. You are the second person I know of that had a comment disappear. I guess there are glitches with a new blog, but I'm hoping that this won't continue to be a problem. I rechecked my commenting settings–everyone is allowed to comment without restriction, which is why I use comment moderation. I assure you that I did not see or ignore your earlier comment! If you have the problem again, please don't give up. You can always email me to let me know about it at

    Moving on to your more pressing question, I can see that the practical application is something you are focused on, as you were in your comment on the last post. Your question is so important because if this concept stays in the realm of theory without practical application, it really isn't very useful, is it?!

    In my own life, I see this principle in action when I encounter a situation that evokes a response of resistance or a desire to manipulate or force. Have you ever wanted something to happen so much that you kept trying to make it happen, in spite of one obstacle after another? It might be a relationship you wanted to develop, or a particular work situation you wanted to turn out a certain way. Maybe it was as simple as making a plan to see a movie and then having a sudden ice storm that made driving dangerous. (That happened to me recently.) We are sometimes so set on preventing or achieving an outcome that we will struggle mightily even when everything in the universe is telling us that is not the way.

    Applying the concept of wu wei in one of these examples, for me anyway, usually begins with a pause. If I can release the resistance or the desire for even a moment, I can see what is happening and respond appropriately. For example, the day of the ice storm, I was able to release my desire to go to the movie. This, in turn, made me available to babysit for my grandson, whose daycare was closed, so my daughter could go to work. My part was just letting go of my plans so that I could be present for what was really happening. And all that was okay.

    I think that is a critical part–trusting or having faith that it all works out. The example I gave was just a small daily occurrence. But the principle holds true in big life situations just the same.

    Does this help at all? If you want to give me some other examples, I’d be glad to help you work through them to see how wu wei might apply.

  12. Judy, I'm so glad! Your comment on the last post really touched me, as I tried to express in my response. There are many helpful sources out there in the universe to help us see another way. The Tao Te Ching is one of them, one that I have found very inspiring over decades of reading it. For the past two years, I have been learning the original Chinese, which has given me an even deeper appreciation of its wisdom. I'm not familiar with the specific book you got from the library, but it sounds like it is giving you some helpful guidance in approaching this new year in a different way. Please let me know how things are going.

  13. Yes, that is helpful, thanks! I'm actually pretty good at that sort of thing already. I try to follow the hints and signs that lead me through life, and attempt to stay adaptable.

    In fact, this morning I had a similar situation in which I was supposed to go to a doctor's appointment, but there was a snowstorm last night, and by the time I cleared my car off and moved it I didn't have the energy to go. So I just rescheduled it for later. No big deal!

    Who knows why that happened, or if there even is a why, but I'm happy to play along. 🙂

  14. I'm glad that was helpful. You seem to have a pretty good grasp of applying this in your life. Happy to play along–that's a great description of wu wei!!

Comments are closed.