The art of not trying – wu wei

Due to my inability to describe the affect with any meaningful sentiment, I have dubbed my current frame of mind, “the waiting place.” Recently, I have felt the most productive sense of closure toward heavy, formidable past baggage and conversely the least amount of interest in determining any concrete future path. As such, I have come to think of my waiting place as a form of extreme presence. There is no searching the past for answers and yet neither am I holding my breath waiting for the future to bring me something out of my reach. I am floating in the middle ground with uncertainty. Arguably a very American trait, I had held the belief if I was not playing to my strengths then I was not doing enough; however, in this new territory I have entered I feel remorseless. I feel little guilt letting go of certain responsibilities if it causes no harm to others and reduces my anxiety and there seems to be no loss of pride if I reduce my time spent on required tasks in order to maintain mental clarity. I am presently comfortable living each day as each day presents itself to me.

…Enter guilt. Aren’t I at an age in my life where should be I striving for general advancement? …Enter the voice of outside influence. Don’t I want to consider a 5-10 year plan, how will I continue to support myself? Where am I going to live? …Insert social expectation. As a mother, your child needs these pillars (Door #1, 2, 3) for success which you are expected to provide and will fail if you don’t start now. You’re already late. … Insert honesty. I don’t see the value in social norms and structure. The world does not seem happier nor more contented leading lives set by these standards – certainly not more than by the one I attempt to build on my own; therefore, I don’t feel the calling to walk that path. I am where I am and that too is acceptable.

“To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease, and lightness. This state is then no longer dependent upon things being in a certain way, good or bad. It seems almost paradoxical, yet when your inner dependency on form is gone, the general conditions of your life, the outer forms, tend to improve greatly. Things, people, or conditions that you thought you needed for your happiness now come to you with no struggle or effort on your part, and you are free to enjoy and appreciate them – while they last. All those things, of course, will still pass away, cycles will come and go, but with dependency gone there is no fear of loss anymore. Life flows with ease.

– Eckhart Tolle

It is difficult to avoid approaching life as a problem to be solved. There are numerous moments I feel confronted with frustration surrounding my inability to find solutions or answers for whichever hurdle holds precedence. Beginning with the endless intent to heighten self awareness, I have a nasty habit of inadvertently distorting my situation into a self-improvement session in which I consistently aim to “better myself” or “fix” a supposedly broken framework. Walking down these paths has always left me with deep dissatisfaction, by transforming my original intentions I therein create inner turmoil. It is difficult to reformulate my mind to accept the knowledge I am not broken, I am learning boundaries. Next, I continue by admitting there is always room to grow but the best achievement is when I am my genuine self.

Instead of over-analyzing every move we have made, every choice, every move we are going to make – so on and so forth – what if we decided to sit with ourselves and acknowledge the situation and/or our emotions for their raw candor and value? What if we could sit with a feeling, possibly ask why it exists, avoid attempting to fade it or fix it and lean in to it for as long as is necessary; then finally when the time is right move forward in whichever way required? The Taoist belief reasons that possibly – often, nothing is required at all.

Wu wei means – in Chinese – non-doing or ‘doing nothing’. It sounds like a pleasant invitation to relax or worse, fall into laziness or apathy. Yet this concept is key to the noblest kind of action according to the philosophy of Daoism – and is at the heart of what it means to follow Dao or The Way. According to the central text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing: ‘The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone’. This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t mean not acting, it means ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency.

Wu wei is closely connected to the Daoist reverence for the natural world, for it means striving to make our behavior as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes, and to ensure that we are swimming with rather than against currents. We are to be like the bamboo that bends in the wind or the plant that adjusts itself to the shape of a tree. Wu wei involves letting go of ideals that we may otherwise try to force too violently onto things; it invites us instead to respond to the true demands of situations, which tend only to be noticed when we put our own ego-driven plans aside. What can follow is a loss of self-consciousness, a new unity between the self and its environment, which releases an energy that is normally held back by an overly aggressive, willful style of thinking.

But none of this means we won’t be able to change or affect things if we strive for wu wei. The Dao De Jing points out that we should be like water, which is ‘submissive and weak’ and ‘yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong’. Through gentle persistence and a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked round and gradually eroded. (The School of Life)

Most of us like to feel that we’re in control. We like to feel that we take a proactive approach to our goals because it feels better than doing nothing. However, as paradoxical as it sounds sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Early Chinese thinkers from the Taoist school of thought emphasized, effortless action “Wu Wei”, founded on the belief that our best performance is unleashed when we act without deliberation. For example, you can say what you like to make people trust you but if you’re not sincere, people can tell. Sincerity is an effortless action.

Wu Wei and Western conflicts

Early Taoist thinkers focused on how to encourage or trigger effortless action, (“Wu Wei”) as this was considered to be the embodiment of knowledge. Taoists therefore, took a holistic view of knowledge – emotion and rationale were not mutually exclusive as acting without deliberation, in accordance with your goals, requires heavy reliance on your intuition. However, Western philosophers significantly favored logical thought and focused on grasping a set of abstract principles.

Many commentators believe this early philosophic divide between Asian and Western thinkers plays a large role in how we define success today. In the West we are taught that the best way to achieve our goals is to think more rigorously and strive harder. However, in key areas of life this is untenable advice. Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant hard work – happiness, attractiveness, sincerity, charisma – are best pursued indirectly and, in fact, are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit.

Achieving Wu Wei

More recently, the business world has recognized the significant influence of  “effortless action”-  things such as sincerity, charisma or spontaneity are often used to describe leaders. Wu Wei attempts to hone in and cultivate how one can achieve spontaneous flares of success, or put in another way “body thinking”.

Have you ever felt so focused on a task, that time falls into your peripheral and you become incredibly productive? This state of “flow”, which in the sports world is called being in “The Zone”, is in essence “Wu Wei”. It is a semi-automated state and the moment we think about what we are doing it seems to get compromised. (

Many suggestions have been made on how best to implement wu wei into your daily life; four ways in which you may find this concept more attainable and relevant include:


Tension constricts not just the body but also the mind and emotions. A state of relaxed alertness enables us to deal with situations simply and with ease, and it’s also contagious. When we’re relaxed, peaceful and at ease we naturally improve our holistic state of being; the effects of less stress in our lives are scientifically plentiful and include benefits such as clearer skin, improved digestion, more effective sleep, greater memory, etc.
Meditation and yoga are invaluable tools which can help in this respect.

2. Know when and how to respond appropriately.

When you’re feeling peaceful and balanced, your mind is relatively clear and you can more accurately see, gauge and respond to situations. The answers are usually there, or will present themselves when you step out of the way and stop creating obstructions to the flow. In this state of effortless effort, all you need to do is look, listen and respond in the most appropriate way using all the knowledge, experience and resources available to you.

Another essential component of wu wei is knowing when not to act. Sometimes holding back is the most appropriate response until we feel truly moved to take action. Life is all about a yin-yang balance of action and inaction.

3. Alternate work and rest.

Observe the ebb and flow of life. It’s a perfect balance. Don’t work on something until you’re absolutely exhausted. Take regular breaks to recharge and refresh. It’s been shown that we work best when short, intense bursts of activity are followed by periods of rest. When you come back to whatever you’re doing, your mind will be fresher leading to greater insights, productivity, ease and enjoyment. Cultivate those activities and tasks in which you lose yourself completely and enter, “the zone.” For some people this may be reading, perhaps you enjoy working in a wood shop, fixing a car, practicing yoga at the end of the day, crafting with your favorite podcast on play – whatever it is that has you saying, “where did the time go?” Fit it in to your week.

By allowing yourself the freedom to relax into these moments you increase your inner connection and flow; even when the activity feels relatively meaningless, allow it to be your own without judgement.

4. Let go of the results.

Do your best and let go of the results. Release expectations. Why? Because every result in life is dependent not on a single cause, but on a multiplicity of causes that are outside of our control. It doesn’t make sense to worry about what we don’t and can’t control. That’s a recipe for a life of misery. Just accept that there’s a greater whole in life; a field of potentiality. This single understanding, if fully realized, is all you need to release a modicum of the stress burden we all carry. Do your best, and let life continue to take its course. (Rory Mackay)

“Everything in life has its own flow, its own pace and speed. If we can tune into and align ourselves with it, we can achieve without undue exertion and enjoy effortless ease in all that we do. We find that we instinctively know what to do and when to do it. This intelligence is the Tao at work within and around us. Relax into this flow and allow the Tao to direct your life.”

Rory Mackay

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