“Sit quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” This beautiful quote by Basho perfectly captures what is meant by the Taoist principle wu wei, which is often translated as “doing nothing” or “non-action”. Taoism suggests that sometimes the best course of action is no action – to let things play out, bide your time, go with the flow and see where it takes you. By making minimal effort we can see how the course of events must unfold. It’s the opposite of fighting the tide and struggling against the stream, an absence of turmoil, working in harmony with the Tao (or the Force). A related application of wu wei is that of acting at precisely the right moment, which also allows you to minimise your effort; instead of doing twenty things too early or too late, you do one thing at the right time and achieve the same outcome. “A stitch in time saves nine”.

A traditional example of wu wei is that of the willow branch. When snow falls it piles up on trees, and branches of the more rigid, unyielding trees snap off under the weight. The willow’s branches are slender, “weak”. They flex under the weight, the snow falls off, and the willow branches spring back up, unbroken. This concept is used in aikido, where an attacker’s energy is used against them – through aikido, the martial artist acts at the opportune moment, then does little or even nothing while the attacker exerts energy against them, but still overcomes the assailant.

When I think of wu wei, I’ve always pictured a monk driving a car. Half a mile from home, the monk switches off the engine, takes his hands off the steering wheel and closes his eyes, drifting into deep meditation. A few minutes later the car rolls to a stop, perfectly parked outside his house. Because he understood the exact action to take at the right moment, he minimised his effort. This suggests we must have a huge conceptual knowledge of all variables before we can successfully embody wu wei.

However, discussing this with one of the pre-eminent Taoist thinkers of our time (heh) I see this interpretation is something of a misconception. My friend suggested a truer conception of wu wei was what we all already do when driving – responding automatically, passively, without effort. We are seldom mindful when we drive, and yet we avoid accidents, get to where we need to go and almost always stay in one piece despite piloting around objects well-equipped to kill us. We learn to drive well enough that we can make just the required effort, without any additional “wasted” or unnecessary effort. Wu wei is better defined as “no unnecessary action” – some action remains necessary, but most can be subtracted, allowing us an easier path through life.

I’m pleased the concept of wu wei has come up so early in the course of my lessons, not least because I’ve identified this mistake. I think one of the reasons I’ve always found Taoism valuable and comforting is that it encourages one to “stop fighting”, and to go with the flow. I’m naturally very very bad at this! I can be a control freak and have great difficulty delegating responsibilities. So when I read the Tao Te Ching I get a little of something I inherently lack, some of the yin, the yielding and passive which does not come easily to me. It’s definitely something I see as personally important, and crucial to the Jedi path; giving our trust to the Force rather than thinking we always know what’s best, moving with it rather than against it, and thereby increasing harmony. Harmony is the clearest distillation of the Jedi path.

When I tried to come up with some good examples of wu wei in my life, most have come from the “biding your time” pile rather than the unnecessary effort aspect of the concept. For example, when I wanted to have kids I had to be sure I was in a position to provide for them in all ways (financially, emotionally etc). I also had to be sure it was the right time for my wife. I had to trust that in the future, things would be better. I took the required actions of course, but I had to find the opportune moment. For several years, it didn’t appear. It was quite clear to me that to “exert energies” towards having kids would not only be cruel to my wife who clearly wasn’t ready, but would also be counterproductive, perhaps turning her off the idea altogether. It would be wasted effort. By understanding my wife and her attitude well enough, our lives, and the probabilities of raising kids, I was able to raise the suggestion at the right time.

Wu wei relates to the concept of “flow”, and the best examples I have of this come from art. When I’m writing, sometimes the words will simply flow, without effort. This is invariably my best writing. Similarly in music, sometimes a melody just “arrives”, as if from nowhere. Again, these tend to be the best melodies. The noisy mind switches off; we are one with the action of writing or playing or singing and no effort is exerted, yet everything is done. We have enough skill to “make it look easy”, and feel that the outcome happened by itself. Wu wei and zen are thus interrelated ideas.

Alan Watts described wu wei as like “swimming with the current”, and taking whatever comes upstream rather than fighting against the tide just to maintain a static position. This ties in somewhat with my former entry on uncertainty and the group assignment on doubt – that it’s better to be facing reality as it comes than trying to be fixed and unyielding, with all the effort and disappointment that inevitably brings. Better to yield, better to do things as they happen rather than plan endlessly, with all the repercussions that entails (anxiety, burnout, and all forms of wasted energy). I speak about these negative effects with authority, but by considering wu wei, “just doing”, or non-doing as the case may be, I learn to avoid them.

“It is better to do nothing than to do what is wrong. For whatever you do, you do to yourself.” – Buddha

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