Tag Archives: Lao Tzu

Wu Wei

6a00d83451b31c69e20177436b61ae970d-piThe Taoist term, Wu Wei, is translated literally as non-action. But I prefer Huston Smith’s creative quietude, as it more accurately conveys the sense of this pivotal teaching. At the heart of Taoism is the lesson to flow with the way of nature and its cycles, rather than fight against the inevitable movement of life. That’s what the Tao means…The Way. In this sense, it wouldn’t be incorrect to summarize Taoist teachings as…

The Wisdom of Non-Resistance.

Wu Wei is non-resistance in action, or, non-resistance in the context of practical, day to day life. The reason I prefer the respected scholar, Huston Smith’s creative quietude to non-action, is because putting wu wei in action might actually mean doing nothing, but more often, it means choosing the course of action that is the least aggressive and forceful.

A fun and relate-able example is found in the act of floating. I remember when I was a child and first learning to swim, I was impressed when I saw someone float in water…”how can he do that,” I wondered. In my effort to replicate this phenomenal feat, the more I splashed around, the faster I sunk. We all learned the same principal with regard to quicksand through childhood cartoons; the more you struggle, the quicker you sink.

Lao Tzu, presumed founder of Taoism, understood that life is a lot like quicksand. The more we’re able to relax with the current and the ups and downs of the external conditions we find ourselves in, the more tranquility we will feel, in our internal world.

There’s great wisdom found in a person who can curb the ego’s natural tendency to control and conquer. And even the need to know, for sometimes, weird things happen and we don’t know why—this hidden aspect of life is implied in those little dots in the Yin-Yang (Tai Chi-Tu) symbol. Lao Tzu would ask, “who can truly trust in the mysterious flow of life?” Yes, sometimes a correction may be needed when the winds take a sudden turn for the worst, but like the wise sailor who knows better than to confront them head on, he/she wisely uses their fury to his/her advantage, positioning the sails accordingly, with hardly more than a turn of the crank. The panic, the hassle and even the need to know why this is happening are all extra and unnecessary. But more, it is a waste of precious time and energy.

And this is the heart of it…energy, or as the Chinese say, chi. The sailor used the energy of the gale, rather than go against it. In this way, he/she doesn’t deplete his/her own reserves in maneuvering through the storm.

It’s always about preserving and even cultivating chi.

A psychological example might be found in “reverse psychology.” I used to use this common technique with my son, when he was a little boy: “OK, if you insist, go ahead and keep throwing your food on the ground…I’ll have to return your new toy though, since new toys are for good boys.” The same idea is at work when we confront angry people with kindness (as long as it is genuine).

Wu Wei may also be thought of as the gentle way.

It has infiltrated the way Chinese medicine works, with its principle of gently restoring harmony through the restitution of energy flow, as seen in acupuncture. The needles, properly placed, nudge the flow of chi into balance, without the violent effects of harsh chemical drugs, whose side-effects are often worse than the original condition.

But it is perhaps most easily recognized in the martial arts. Here is my student’s description of wu wei at work, in his Kung Fu practice:

We seldom strike first. In that sense, non-action is the first step. We let the aggressor come to us. In our counter attack, instead of using brute force, we move in a way that redirects the energy of the opponent’s attack. Wu Wei is implemented in that we don’t rely on our strength alone, against a possibly larger and more imposing opponent, but rather, on patience, and by navigating through their own energy until the time is right to deliver a blow. We’re moving with the opponent rather than resisting him.

Finally, wu wei implies an understanding, not only of the flux and corresponding challenges of life, but of the relativity of reality. Again, pointing to the Yin-Yang symbol, knowing that we can’t know the light without knowing the dark. We can’t have spring without fall, right without wrong, comfort without discomfort…and if everyone was rich, no one would be rich. Not only can we not know one without the other, but one is inherent within the other. Thus, the Taoist holds back on his judgments about whether circumstances are “good” or “bad.” Often when things seem to go the wrong way, we later find that it was a blessing in disguise. For example, you got off on the wrong exit, but later learned that you bypassed a horrible pileup and catastrophe on the freeway.

The light and the dark arise together. Note the significance of this: Unlike the assumption of western philosophy, which states that one ultimate first-thing causes the next thing, and so on, the Yin and the Yang arise together. And there are no absolutes—there’s a little bit of one in the other, just as there’s a black dot in the white part. There’s a little bit of everything in all of us. So, in all humility, we can be wary of our own tendency to judge, as we probably just haven’t discovered all the hidden qualities yet. And there is no war between the supposed opposites, as they depend on each other for their very existence—just as there is no war against the cycles and challenges of life. Wu Wei is the art of effortless effort in our graceful negotiation of those challenges.

Wu Wei is to allow the movement of life.


CHOICE chart


I made this chart to show the different ways of interfacing with our moment to moment decisions in life. Even the most subtle decision is vast and carries with it the potential for extensive repercussions. For example, whether we decide to breathe into a moment of frustration or channel it into verbal abuse toward a loved one makes a tremendous difference in our lives, especially, as those moments add up and habit patterns set in.

I make the assumption here, that we’re not always at our optimum. But, life is a process of evolving, if we are fully awake and have the courage to look at ourselves squarely. This means embracing our freedom to make a choice at every moment and owning those decisions. Thus, it also means accepting the consequences of those choices without making excuses for ourselves. This chart shows us that only when we can truly do that, do we evolve into the optimal version of ourselves.

The caveat against making excuses comes from Zen Master Nyogen Roshi, who reminded us very often, during Dharma talks, to (1) Not DECEIVE ourselves (2) Not make EXCUSES for ourselves, and to (3) Take RESPONSIBILITY for ourselves. In my book, I captured this teaching with the acronym, DER.

These injunctions encourage honest, conscious reflection and enable continuous growth—which is what we’re here for! To evolve in our own way and according to our own propensity, is our overarching purpose on earth.

But, sometimes we find ourselves stuck. We call it a problem when we’re unsure how to get unstuck. This chart demonstrates what Yogi Bhajan said—that there is always a pathway through every problem. Curiously, we often access this pathway by letting go. This is the feminine aspect of the dance of life.

This chart shows us that even when we feel we have not acted optimally, in a situation…say, by lashing out instead of breathing, as in the example above, we can use that moment as an opportunity for conscious reflection, rather than self-reproach. For, emotions like guilt, serve only to block our growth. But the recognition that there may be some fear, like the fear of losing control, underlying our frustration, will set us free. It disables that fear.

Very often, this moment of consciousness is enough for clearance to occur. As I’ve said in my classes: “a moment of awareness is a moment of healing.” This is the D, the E and the R, altogether! We haven’t deceived ourselves, we haven’t indulged in excuses, and we’ve taken responsibility, which in this case, entailed nothing more than ownership of our action.

The masculine aspect of doing, comes into play inevitably, as every step, however subtle, is a form of action, but through our willingness to surrender to the outcome, we manifest the feminine. Without that feminine aspect, we lock ourselves into an insecure need to control—bereft of the trust that comes from connection to what isIt’s as Lao Tzu advised: “Know the right, but keep to the left.” The left is the feminine quality of receptiveness. And in this way, we form a relationship with the way and the rhythm of the universe. The dance of life is an interplay of masculine and feminine energies.

The feminine is all about surrender, which trumps the ego’s need to control. It is a must, if we choose to grow. We must welcome what is, with a heart full of grateful acceptance, in order to go forth. We have to be good with where we are before we can get to where we want to be, since the moment we push it away with excuses, we allow the useless emotions of guilt & regret to subsume us, forming, in turn, a murky blanket of resistance to life’s lessons and the evolution of our own consciousness.

It is as such that we behold the interplay of self-acceptance and self-improvement. We often defeat ourselves by trying to have the latter without the former. But, self-improvement, on its own, quickly devolves into an obsessive game of chase, creating a gap in our consciousness, between who we are and who we want to be. It leaves us un-whole.