The Art of Wu-wei and The Power of Effortless Action

“The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
claiming nothing,
the Sage has nothing to lose.” ~ Lao Tzu, Tao Tê Ching

How do we become a person, let alone a sage, who has nothing to lose? How do we achieve such a state of liberation that all things just seem to happen with effortless ease? The irony is that we are more likely to achieve something if we let go of our need to achieve it. But how do we make ourselves not want something that we actually want?

Wu wei Taoism's most important concept

How do we let go of wanting to win gold at the Olympics but still remain focused on winning gold at the Olympics? Quite the conundrum, indeed. But there may be an answer, albeit an elusive one, in the concept of Wu wei and the power of Spontaneity.

Wu wei is one of Taoism’s most important concepts. It is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” But a better way to think of it is the “Action of non-action.” Wu wei is a cultivated state of being effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the cosmos.

It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awareness, in which – without even trying – we’re able to adapt to any situation that might arise.

Infinity says we’re everything, finitude says we’re nothing. Between the two, we flow. It’s in this in-between where the power of spontaneity can be utilized, where we are both the seer and the seen, the Universe becoming aware of itself. The spontaneity of Wu wei is a different sort of energy than we may be accustomed to conceiving. It is not an energy that can be forced by the will. It is the noumenal experience of being in flow with the cosmos.

It is effortless and frictionless, despite needing a little effort and friction. And it is actually a letting go of our attachment to our goals so that we are in a better place to achieve our goals. It must be a free flowing process of intertwining synchronicities.


But we must not be overly serious with our goals and aspirations, instead we must be sincere. We must trump our insecure seriousness with sincere humor. To be authentic we must be sincere, rather than overly serious or insecure about achieving a particular goal. One can be sincere without being serious. This is the wisdom of Wu wei.

It’s analogous to growing a flower. All we can do, as good gardeners, is prepare the soil (the mind, the body, and/or the soul) and provide the proper conditions, and then let nature take its course. If you force a flower to open prematurely, you destroy it. Similarly, if you prevent it from opening, you destroy it. It must be allowed to grow with its own intelligence, in its own self-organized direction. This is the essence of Wu wei.

Our best effort is to become attentive gardeners, to become aware of a process that we may never understand, but to allow understanding to come as a natural progression of open-minded awareness and to give into the Flow state, as a creative microcosm gives in to a greater creative macrocosm.

Like Shunryu Suzuki said, “We must have beginner’s mind, free from possessing anything, a mind that knows that everything is in flowing change.”

Wu wei is spiritual blood. It spills from the heart like a razor just sliced open the wrist of the soul. Wu wei is the search for lost time, but it is also lost time. When we are in the flow state of Wu wei, we are caretaker & destroyer, teacher & student, hungry ghost & slithering wraith. Like Alan Watts said, “Change is not merely a force of destruction. Every form is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in. Life and death are not two opposed forces; they are simply two ways of looking at the same force, for the movement of change is as much the builder as the destroyer.”


But even words are merely trickster symbols that do no justice to the concept. Their only purpose is to trick us into higher imagination. The imagery is the thing, rising up from the words that just as surely kill it. Even this article kills it, and doesn’t quite grasp the elusive and poetic balance of the Wu wei experience. This article is admittedly a vain attempt, at best, to explain an elusive and sacred concept.

Louis G Herman wrote about a similar concept in his book, Future Primal: “Thuru: the process by which things become “what they are not” and, in so doing, paradoxically, become more themselves… this is something similar to the dynamic interplay of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy or the unification of opposites in the flow of the Tao.

Western philosophy has a related concept in the dialectical exploration of the in-between – the flow of awareness from thesis to antithesis into the larger truth of synthesis, which in turn provokes a new antithesis. And so the beat of Thuru goes on, embodied in the shape-shifting trickster of mythology.” Wu wei comes from spontaneity. Spontaneity comes from Wu wei. It was not fire that Prometheus stole from the gods, it was Wu wei: the language of the gods. And the fire rages mightily on.

When we are caught in the ephemeral flow of Wu wei, we are caught in sheep-clothes with a wolf-heart, right-brain firing its tender nurturing toward imaginary ends while the left-brain stamps its iron bars of open-close linearity. Somehow a balance is maintained, despite the lock-down of rules, goals, and vicissitudes.

A frivolity of life subsumes the condition, and a new world rises up from the traditional; an army of imagery dances across our imagination, across the observer’s imagination, tying knots into each others thought-stream using love-strings and slipknots, loopholes and bon mots; until there is a web of life living, ever-so-shortly, in the span of a few seconds of give and take, inhale and exhale, sleep and awake, life and death. It’s the magic of the flow state. It’s the all-cylinders-firing of “being in the zone.”

Like the great Jazz musician Charlie Parker advised to aspiring musicians, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.”

Image Source:

Wu wei
Vonnegut quote
Taoist circle

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