Wu Wei – 無爲

I am almost certain that I’ve at some time mentioned studying Taoism as a monastic temporarily, and then transitioning back into “modern” life. It’s also while you’ll see lots of references to this particular branch of philosophy in my writing.

One of the things that “gets me” is that despite all of my training and study, I forget basic principals in my actions quite often. It’s rather absurd. I can even point back to my time when my practice was going well and in those moments I was at my most content. The issues that I have is clearly distinguishing study from practice.

Study of Tao = Lots of Reading. Practice in cohesion with Tao = Life is Smoother.

It’s an easy distinction to say, and not particularly hard to do, but the best I’ve been able to come up with is “I do not learn very quickly.” Thus, I get to go back and forth through cycles where I lose myself to obsessions and attachments to concepts and things, and then simple concepts remind me that I’m the one who’s making it harder on me.

Let’s look at the principal of Wu Wei. In the most literal sense, it means “Non-doing.” Like many of the concepts presented in Taoism, though, it can be viewed in different lights. Consider the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching:


The word “Tao” itself can be either “path” or “word” so when we read these lines There’s a good bit of repetition of characters. You might even be able to say that we start with “The path that can be path-ed is not the enduring path. The word that can be worded is not the unchanging word.” In much the same way, we must come to be able to appreciate the poetic nature of the information being presented.

Wu Wei, then, may be understood as “non-action” or even more precisely “effortless doing.” Consider this story from Chuang Tzu:

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

This is perhaps the best way to come to truly grasp the concept of “Wu Wei,” the best way to cut is to allow the pieces to go where they need, and to not force it. For those of us who struggle with anxiety, if we were truly honest with ourselves, how often are we trying to solve problems that may not really even exist? How often do we force ourselves into our own struggles? I would be willing to admit that for me, it’s that my mind is on how many things are “wrong” or “may go wrong” or “might be bad” and almost never is it on “what is happening right now.”

I would hope that the concept of “letting things happen naturally” and wu wei makes sense, but it’s not up to your rather poor author to describe. Even if I did offer my own understanding totally, “The path that can be path-ed is not the unchanging, eternal path.”

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