Wu Wei means in Chinese none 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 noblesse kind of action according to the philosophy of Taoism,
and is the heart of what it means to follow Tao or the way.
According to the central text of Taoism, 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 effectless action or actionless action.
It means being at peace while engaged in the most fanatic tasks.
so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency.
Something of the meaning of Wu Wei is captured when we talk of being in the zone
at the one with what we’re doing in a stage of profound concentration and flow.
Wu Wei is closely connected to the Taoist reference for the natural world.
For it means striving to make up a behavior, a spontaneous and inevitable of certain natural processes,
and to ensure that we are swimming with rather than against the currents.
We ought 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 to one side.
What can follow is a loss of self-conscienceness, a new unity between self and its environment.
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 compliance with the specific shape of a problem,
an obstacle can be worked around and gradually eroded.
The idea of achieving the greatest effects by wise strategic passivity
has been central to Chinese notions of politics, diplomacy and business.
In the manuals of wisdom produced by Taoists,
we’re repeatedly told that rather than impose a plan or model on the situation
we should let others act frantically, and then likely adjust ourselves
as we see the direction that matters’ve evolved in.
In China’s Tang Dynasty, many poets like the Wu Wei to the best aspects of being drunk.
It wasn’t the alcoholism they were promoting but the decline in rigidity and anxiety
that sometimes comes with being a little drunk, which can help us to accomplish certain tasks.
One poet compared someone inspired by Wu Wei to a drunk man who falls uninjured from a moving cart,
such is their spiritual momentum that they are unaffected by accidents and misfortunes
that might break those of a more controlled and controlling mindset.
Theories of painting from the Tang period onwards made Wu Wei central to artistic practice.
Rather than laboriously attempting to reproduce nature as faithful copiests,
the artists should find nature within themselves and surrender to its cores.
The painters’ task is not to imitate the external surface of things,
而是要体现事物的“气” 即事物的内在精神 我们要感受高山河流丛林飞鸟的精神
but to present the Qi or spirit of things like mountains, trees, birds and rivers
by feeling some of the spirit in themselves and then letting it flow out through the brush onto silk paper.
It followed that Taoist thinkers revere not just the finished work of art but the act of painting itself,
and considered artist studios as places for applied philosophy.
The Tang Dynasty poet Fuzai described a big party
that had been thrown to witness the painter Zhang Zao in action:
Right in the middle of the room, he sat down with his legs spread out, took a deep breath
and the inspiration began to issue forth.
Those present were startled as if lightning were shooting across the heavens
or a whirlwind was sweeping up into the sky.
The ink seemed to be spitting from his flying brush.
He clapped his hands with a cracking sound.
Suddenly strange shapes were born. When he’d finished,
there stood pine trees, scaly and riven, cracks,
steep and precipitous, clear water and turbulent clouds,
He threw down his brush, got up and looked around in every direction.
It seemed as if the sky had cleared after a storm,
draw a view of the true essence of ten thousand things.
Fuzai added of Zhang whose works are sadly now lost, but he had left mere skill behind.
“And the art was not painting but the very Tao itself.”
A good life could not be attained by Wu Wei alone,
but this Taoist concept captures a wisdom we may at times be in desperate need of,
when we are in danger of damaging ourselves through an overly stern and unyielding adherence
to ideas which simply don’t fit the demands of the world.