Wu Wei

The Idea

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We can act effectively by not wanting to act effectively.

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In contrast to the traditionally Western philosophy of goal-oriented efforts and hard work, the concept of Wu wei (Chinese: 無為) describes a way of being effective in the world through "effortless action", spontaneity and serenity.

Wu wei is a set of philosophical ideas that evolved from ancient China and that have strong ties to two of the main Eastern philosophies; Confucianism and Daoism.

While Confucianism focuses on how government ought to function as well as on developing virtue through society and culture, Daoism is primarily concerned with how we can live in harmony with our environment and achieve equanimity through going with the flow.

Instead of trying to force ideals onto things and situations, Wu wei asks us to let go of preconceptions and fully respond to the true demands of a situation — swimming with rather than against currents.

While often misunderstood as passiveness or laziness, Wu wei is a recipe for acting effectively in the world without desire, attachment and expectations — the source of frustration. The modern concept of Flow, or 'being in the zone', is closely tied to the idea of Wu wei.

As most ancient Eastern philosophical ideas, Wu wei has also undergone centuries of development and has been interpreted in different ways by different traditions and thinkers. Two of the most important figures in the popularizing of Wu wei are Laozi, alleged author of the Dao De Jing, and Zhuang Zhou, author of the Zhuangzi.

The concept of Wu wei is an antidote to the hectic pace of modern life and the Western ideals of hard work and goal achievement: an invitation to be at peace with how things are while carrying out tasks and action skillfully and effectively.

"Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness."

— Zhuang Zhou

"The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone."

— from the Dao De Jing

“Everything that happens, happens at the only possible time it can happen, and it is always at exactly the right time.”

— from the I Ging

“To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

— Zhuang Zhou

Explore

➞ This School of Life video gives a 5 min. introduction to the philosophy of Wu wei.

➞ In this insightful article, you will get an idea of what it means to live according to Wu wei.

➞ Listen to the great Alan Watts talk about Wu wei in this 13 min.-long speech.

Resources

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