Wu wei means – in Chinese – non-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 noblest kind of action according to the philosophy of Daoism – and is at the heart of what it means to follow Dao or The Way. According to the central text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing: ‘The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone’. This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn’t meant not acting, it means ‘effortless action’ or ‘actionless action’. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic 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 one with what we are doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow.
Wu wei is closely connected to the Daoist reverence for the natural world, for it means striving to make our behaviour as spontaneous and inevitable as certain natural processes, and to ensure that we are swimming with rather than against currents. We are 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 aside. What can follow is a loss of self-consciousness, a new unity between the self and its environment, which releases an energy that is normally held back by an overly aggressive, wilful style of thinking.
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 a compliance with the specific shape of a problem, an obstacle can be worked round and gradually eroded.
The idea of achieving the greatest effects by a wise strategic passivity has been central to Chinese notions of politics, diplomacy and business. In the manuals on wisdom produced by Daoists, we are repeatedly told that rather than impose a plan or model on a situation, we should let others act frantically, and then lightly adjust ourselves as we see the direction that matters have evolved in.
In China’s Tang dynasty, many poets likened wu wei to the best aspects of being drunk. It wasn’t alcoholism they were promoting, but the decline in rigidity and anxiety that sometimes comes with being a little drunk, and 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 faithfully, the artist should find nature within themselves and surrender to its calls. The painter’s task is not to imitate the external surface of things, but to present the qi or ‘spirit’ of things like mountains, trees, birds and rivers by feeling some of this spirit in themselves – and then letting it flow out through the brush onto silk or paper.
It followed that Daoist thinkers revered not just the finished work of art, but the act of painting itself – and considered artist’s studios as places of applied philosophy. The Tang dynasty poet, Fu Zai, 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 his inspiration began to issue forth. Those present were as startled as if lightning were shooting across the heavens or a whirlwind was sweeping up into the sky. The ink seemed to spitting from his flying brush. He clapped his hands with a cracking sound. Suddenly strange shapes were born. When he had finished, there stood pine trees, scaly and riven, crags 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, to reveal the true essence of ten thousand things.
Fu Zai added of Zhang (whose works are sadly now lost) that, ‘he had left mere skill behind’ and that his art ‘was not painting, but the very Dao itself’. Zhang Zao would often fling his ink and spread it with his hands on a silk scroll, to create spontaneous forms that he then worked up into expressive images of nature. Splodges were incorporated and ingeniously made to flow back into the work. All this was wu wei.
A good life could not be attained by wu wei alone – but this Daoist concept captures a distinctive 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 cannot fit the demands of the world as it is.