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Wu Wei: A New Approach To Life

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The idea of slowing down and breaking away from the constant search for success can seem a little alien in the modern world. We’re told by popular culture, entertainment, and social media that we always need to be setting goals, striving for targets, and working on our side hustles. But is that really sustainable?

Knowing when to relax and give yourself a break is important for everyone. Even mental health professionals need to look after their minds in order to stop themselves from taking on the stresses of their patients. A number of mindfulness, meditation, and wellness techniques exist for this purpose.

One of those is Wu Wei, an ancient Chinese philosophy designed to reshape the way we approach life. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at this concept and exploring how the Wu Wei mindset can have a positive impact in today’s world.

What is Wu Wei Wisdom?

Wu Wei is an ancient concept that was first articulated by Chinese thinkers around 600 BC, and developed throughout the following centuries. It is the central concept within the Tao Te Ching, a religious text written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which taught that instead of trying to force things to happen, we should simply allow ourselves to be in tune with the universe, and they will happen naturally.

There’s no precise translation for Wu Wei in English, so it has been translated into a few different terms, including “non-action”, “non-doing”, “non-forcing” and “effortless action”. These translations all seek to communicate the idea of cultivating an attitude and state of being in which our actions align with the elemental cycles and ebbs and flows of the natural world.

In ancient China and Hong Kong, Wu Wei became a dominant philosophy, supported by Daoist (or Taoist) thinkers and influential philosophers like Confucius, and preserved by historians like Sima Qian. The eponymous Confucian ruler helped make Wu Wei an important construct within Chinese governance and culture, associated with conventional morality and considered to be the highest form of virtue. According to Daoism, which was built around concepts such as compassion, simplicity, and vital breath, it can help enrich our experiences with others and lead us to act with spontaneous virtue. 

But this might all sound a little complex. What does effortlessness mean — surely we’re always making an effort to do something? Let’s lay out the principles of Wu Wei wisdom in some more detail.

The Principles of Wu Wei

It’s important to be patient when trying to cultivate peace, happiness, and virtue. Forcing it doesn’t usually bring positive results. Wu Wei teaches us to cultivate a sense of alignment with the rhythms of the elements within and outside of our bodies. Some people might call this “going with the flow”, a kind of effortless approach to life that helps us deal with situations naturally as they arise.

Sinologist Herrlee Creel defines Wu Wei in two key sentences:

  1. An “attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by a lack of desire to participate in human affairs”.
  2. A “technique by means of which the one who practices it may gain enhanced control of human affairs”.

Similarities exist between this concept and the mindfulness ideas that have become so popular in Western philosophy in recent years. Wu Wei encourages people to relinquish the ego and our attachment to it, acting without a sense of self or a concrete plan in order to feel a greater connection to the world. Concepts such as Non-Dual Awareness utilise a similar perspective.

So what are the benefits of this approach to life? Let’s spend some time answering that question.

How Wu Wei Can Help us Live in Harmony

Perhaps the best way to visualise Wu Wei is by thinking of it as an “action of non-action”. Essentially, the idea is that we should stop trying to force action and let ourselves become more comfortable with doing less. This will allow the actions we do make to become more natural, energetic, and effective.

Daoist philosophy views Wu Wei as a source of great serenity. Gaining a degree of separation from your experiences and from the world around you can be personally beneficial; however, Wu Wei has also been applied within roles of social and political power, as an attitude towards governing people and acting effectively in politics, business, and diplomacy, as well as personal matters.

This state of being is about feeling at peace even during the most complex or strenuous activities, much like the experience of a flow state (for more about flow states, check out our article on mindfulness in sport).

Confucians believed that practising Wu Wei gives you what they called “De” (pronounced “Duh”), a kind of charismatic virtue or power that is the key to moving about the world successfully.

This Wu Wei mindset has sometimes been compared to that of a slightly drunk person, whose sense of rigidity and anxiety has been relaxed enough to make them more capable of completing certain tasks and responding to things in an open-minded way. While clearly, advocates of the Daoist philosophy in ancient China weren’t suggesting that being drunk all the time is the key to happiness, that sense of freedom can seriously improve our experiences. Cultivating it solely using the power of the mind can be liberating.

Applying Wu Wei in Your Life

Okay, so the benefits of the Wu Wei mindset should now be pretty clear. But how exactly does this idea manifest in everyday life? And what actions can we take to enrich our daily experiences?

Edward Slingerland is a sinologist, philosopher, and author whose book Effortless Action (published by Oxford University Press) tracks the history of Wu Wei. He argues that one way to engage with this practice is by first enacting a huge amount of effort. Try super hard for a long time; practise rituals, engage in learning, discuss things with others, and try to expand your mind, and after a while, these behaviours will become natural and you won’t have to actively exert effort on them.

The Daoists disagreed with this idea. This group believed that anyone trying hard to be benevolent or virtuous is never actually going to be benevolent or virtuous. Their Wu Wei alternative advocated instead for physically dropping out of society, going back to nature, getting rid of technology and other vices, and reconnecting with the basic things in the world.

They believed that social learning can corrupt our beliefs, values, and well-being — and there’s a fair bit of evidence to support the fact that social pressures cause us to constantly adjust our standards and thereby never truly attain happiness. This reinforces the concept of the hedonic treadmill, which we explore in-depth in our article on why money can’t always buy you happiness.

Wu Wei can also be applied to the practice of meditation.

If we cultivate the right attitude, create a space for regular practice, warm up, and connect with our intention, the meditation will take care of itself, and over time things will become more natural and more effective.

Wu Wei, or ‘effortless action’, involves unlearning social expectations and pressures, channeling a sense of inner goodness, and engaging with this in our everyday actions until it becomes natural and effortless.

As we mentioned, Confucians believed that by trying consistently for a long time, we can internalise the things we’re learning and start effortlessly embodying them. This concept is developed in greater depth in our article on effortless meditation, a transformative way of looking at meditative practice.

Do Nothing and Nothing Is Left Undone

It might seem paradoxical, but bringing a sense of effortlessness into your life can actually help you achieve your goals and live more freely. Practices like Zen Buddhism and Tonglen Meditation show us that there is plenty of wisdom to be extracted from ancient Asian techniques for enhancing calmness, kindness, and efficiency in life, even in the modern world. Wu Wei is no different.

Retreating to nature is one of the best ways to experience this kind of heightened state, but you don’t have to give away all your worldly possessions and hide out in the woods if that’s not for you (and let’s face it, it isn’t for most of us). Making a concerted effort to engage in wholesome activities and behaviours in every area of your life can set you on the right path and encourage you to start channeling the Wu Wei spirit without even realising it.

Meditation is another great way to practise living a more effortless, natural, and liberated life. Our article on “Do Nothing” meditation offers a detailed look into the complex art of just doing nothing. If you’re intrigued by the content we’ve discussed today, you should check it out.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Where did Wu Wei come from?

Wu Wei originated in the philosophical texts of ancient rulers like Lao Tzu and Confucius, who had a huge impact on the development of China, Hong Kong, and East Asia. This was a Pre-Qin philosophy, meaning that it peaked in the period before China’s first Imperial state, the Qin dynasty. Its impact on the period’s peaceful, benevolent governance was significant.

Is Wu Wei passive?

People often misinterpret Wu Wei as a philosophy that simply promotes drifting through life, uninterested and unengaged in anything — this is not the intention of the practice. The kind of peaceful detachment Wu Wei promotes is supposed to reduce anxiety and rigidity, and give people the peace of mind to move through life in a more effective, more uninhibited way.

How can meditation be effortless?

If you’ve ever tried mindfulness meditation, you’ll know that it can be super difficult. Training your mind to behave differently is tough, but effortless action is about recognising that putting in more effort doesn’t always lead to better results. Practising acceptance is the key to feeling happier and calmer. You can find out more about this in our article on Effortless Meditation.

Wu Wei: A New Approach To Life

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