The Path Of Wu-wei

by Eva Wong

Those who study hard increase day after day,
Those who follow the Tao decrease day after day.
They keep on decreasing until they dwell in wu-wei.

What does it mean to “dwell in wu-wei” and “decrease day after day?” In a society where “more” and “bigger” are better, the path of wu-wei seems as far as the edges of a receding universe. However, as more people begin to realize that material wealth and social life cannot satisfy spiritual needs, the teachings of wu-wei are especially pertinent for those who are experiencing a spiritual awakening.

Although Taoist in origin, the path of wu-wei can be practiced by Taoists and non-Taoists alike. Wu-wei is the natural way. In this path self-importance, ego, and desire decrease day after day. No one thing is more important than another. There are no achievements and no accomplishments: there is only appropriate action.

The followers of wu-wei do not consider their acts as achievements. Good deeds are as ordinary and natural as getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night. Mencius once said that the person who rescues a child from a pit is not achieving anything but doing only what is natural. Like water that sustains life, bees that pollinate, and bacteria that facilitate the decay of organic matter, the followers of wu-wei are doing only what is natural for them to do.

Those who follow the path of wu-wei understand that humanity is not the prime mover of things. They also know that we are only one of the many things that make up the universe. Thus, to act as if we are in control of everything is to deviate from the natural way. The Tao-te-Ching says, “Those who try to control things ruin them. Those who are attached to things lose them. Therefore, the sage does not act to control. As a result, he does not ruin things.” The followers of wu-wei do not impose their will or actions on others. They allow things to happen naturally, knowing that forced actions are in conflict with the natural order. By not interfering with the natural way, they are free from frustration and disappointment, and by accepting that things happen regardless of our intentions and actions, there is no anxiety about gain and loss.

In wu-wei the “self” is a creation of the ego. It exists only when we are attached to achievement, recognition, and personal worth. Once we relinquish the notion that we need to achieve and be recognized, activities that are driven by self-interest will decrease day after day. We come to realize that the self is the source of our anxiety and worry. In its drive for achievement, the self becomes an object for us and others to evaluate and manipulate. We are excited when praised and disappointed when not. If we have a “good” self-image, we are anxious not to lose it, and if we have a bad one, we are anxious to get rid of it. In either case, the illusion of having a “self” causes unnecessary worry. One of my Taoist teachers said that having a self-image is like inflicting boils on oneself.

Anxiety and worry arise because we do not understand the meaning of contentment. To dwell in wu-wei is to know contentment. Wu-wei does not glorify poverty or destitution. Rather, it tells us not to indulge in excesses. The Tao-te-Ching says, “If you have a lot of desire, you are likely to be extravagant. If you hoard a lot of things, you are likely to lose much.” To live simply, to have few desires, and to acquire only what is necessary—this is to live in wu-wei. If we keep a simple agenda, we will not be confused or frustrated. In minimizing desire, we will not have many needs. When there is no desire, there will be no likes and dislikes. When there are no likes and dislikes, there is balance. When we are in balance, we dwell in wu-wei.

Those who follow the path of wu-wei do not consider their learning as achievements. Lieh-tzu said that the person who is truly knowledgeable does not advertise himself or herself and does not display his learning. Dwelling in wu-wei, the enlightened person does not stand out amongst ordinary people. The difference between an enlightened and a non-enlightened person is internal – in the state of mind and the health of body.

The followers of wu-wei not only refrain from excesses in lifestyle but also know that excessive action tends to make things worse. Therefore, they do only what is necessary. They calmly evaluate the demands of the situation and respond accordingly. In this way, effort is minimized; there is no waste of energy. Finally, when acting, only the consequences of the actions are felt – the actor is hidden. Therefore, the Taoists say that the ones who follow wu-wei often appear powerless and dull, but are fast and efficient when required to act. This is because they understand that the natural way is simple and clear, and human effort is forced and complex. The natural response is directed by awareness and intuition while human effort relies on tricks and know-how. The natural act is free from preconceived notions while forced actions often bow to social convention. This why the Taoists say that those who act according to the way of wu-wei are at one with the Tao and those who act according to the ways of humanity are forever imprisoned by rules.

The path of wu-wei is also the path of the preservation of life. The Tao-te-Ching says, “The follower of wu-wei does not compete with others; therefore no one competes with him.” The higher we climb in the social, political and work arena, the more likely we are to become the target of envy and caprice. Famous people are always worried about society’s opinions of them while unknown people do not have such a burden. Chuang-tzu said that those who maintain a low profile will have a better chance of surviving while those who pursue fame and power will eventually be destroyed by their ambition. The Huai-nan-tzu says, “A sharp sword will invite challenges but a blunt one will keep you safe. A bright flame exhausts its fuel quickly and dies fast but a small flame will burn for a long time.” The Tao-te-Ching says, “If you are contented, you will not be slandered. If you know when to stop, you will not be harmed. In this way, you will be able to live for a long time.” Thus, if we are not excited by riches or frustrated by poverty, if we are not concerned with fame and recognition, and if we are not interested in the power to control and influence, then we will not find ourselves in situations that harm body and mind.

Very often, people bring problems upon themselves by being too proud to yield. The path of wu-wei is the path of yielding. Like water, it is soft and flexible, but its quiet strength can wear down mountains and carve up stone. The follower of wu-wei knows how to yield and can bend and adjust to the demands of a situation without being injured or overcome by it. If two stones hit each other, both will break. However, if a stone is thrown against a bed of cotton wool, the cotton yields and absorbs the impact so that neither stone nor cotton is harmed. Such is the path of wu-wei: it solves problems by not hurting ourselves or others.

The follower of wu-wei also knows that physical health and mental clarity are affected by desires. The desire for material wealth, social recognition, and political power can affect physical health and mental well-being. If we push ourselves to satisfy these wants, we will tire body and spirit and die before our time is up. Too much activity can harm the body, mind and spirit. Spirit is harmed when we think too much; energy is dissipated when we are attached to gain and loss; and body is weakened when we drive it beyond its limits. However, if we are calm and still, energy will be conserved and we will live a healthy and long life.

Finally, the path of wu-wei counsels us that the search for knowledge and even the pursuit of enlightenment should not be taken to excess. The Tao-te-Ching says, “Learn too much and you will be exhausted.” We are accustomed to believing that learning and teaching require effort. Even in spiritual training, we assume that the harder we practice the sooner we will be enlightened. There is a story of a monk who told his master he was willing to do anything for enlightenment, including risking his life. The master replied, “If you kill yourself trying to get enlightened, you’ll never be enlightened.”

To walk the path of wu-wei is to follow the way of the Tao. This path is perhaps described most clearly in the Huai-nan-tzu: “Externally be consonant with all; internally keep your own principles. Act but do not dazzle; see and hear but do not judge. Be united with the spirit and do not let your thoughts wander. Embrace simplicity and clarity. Be in harmony with all things and let everything bloom in your presence.”

Eva Wong was born in Hong Kong and began her Taoist training at the age of fourteen. Ms. Wong taught psychology at the University of Denver and was actively involved in the activities at the Fung Loy Kok Temple. Her books include: Seven Taoist Masters, Cultivating Stillness, Lieh-Tzu, The Shambhala Guide to Taoism, and Feng-Shui.