I first learned the term wu wei studying philosophy and religion in college. Taoism—from whence the term comes—held immediate fascination for me. The idea of not forcing anything in life held such an elegant sense, I could feel it down to my tiniest cells. But that didn’t make it any easier to practice.
A few years later, I explained to my therapist my understanding of the principle of wu wei. That it meant “do nothing”, but not really “do nothing”, just “do nothing” in the sense of, you know, not trying to make things happen in a certain way and stuff like that. She demurred quite forcefully. “No, wu wei, means, literally, do nothing!” I didn’t really buy what she was selling. Clearly, one can’t sit around “doing nothing” all the time and call it a responsible way of life. One needs to grasp the bull by the horns, pull oneself up by the bootstraps, win one for the Gipper, and follow any number of other effort-filled adages that lead to a successful, fulfilled life.
The only problem? I’ve tried that. Many, many times. And, yeah, if at first you don’t succeed, and all that, but there’s also the one about the definition of insanity being trying the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.
There is also this quote from the book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork . . . The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
The problem with the wisdom of mystics like Merton and Lao Tzu (the purported author of the Taoist text Tao te Ching) is that it is almost diametrically opposed to conventional wisdom. If you have a problem or, for some reason, don’t like your life, conventional wisdom states that you should figure out how to solve the problem, discover how to make yourself happy. You do this by making lists, by talking it over with other people. You make plans and plot charts, set goals and establish rewards. It’s all quite simple, you just have to make a decision and move forward.
A mystic, on the other hand, will tell you to stop. Right now. No, really. Just put your hands down, take a deep breath, and be exactly where you are. Don’t think about where you want to go. Don’t think about how you’re going to get there. Let that information rise to the surface in its own time. And the really annoying thing about this is that it feels like it’s TOTALLY the wrong thing to do. Your mind is reeling in free fall. “What do you mean I shouldn’t think about where I’m going? How will I get there if I don’t? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t want to stay here!” But that’s exactly where you need to stay: right here. Wu wei. Do nothing.
Note: The picture at the top of this post is a scan from my pocket copy of Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of Tao Te Ching. I highly recommend it.