The Way of Wu Wei

[Tales from the Dao] 

The Way of Wu Wei

by Solala Towler


Nadia Hole 1 Wu wei (oo way) is one of the most difficult yet pivotal concepts in Daoist philosophy. Roughly translated, it means “doing nothing.”

The true meaning of the phrase wu wei is something like “not doing anything that is not natural” or “not doing anything that does not have its roots in Dao.” It can also mean not over doing.

Laozi says:

Overfilling a vessel is not as good as stopping before it is filled.
Oversharpen a blade and it will lose its edge.
Pile up gold and jade
and it will be impossible to guard it.
In going after rank and titles
in an arrogant and haughty way
you will bring about your own downfall.
Withdraw when the work is done.
This is the way of Dao. – 9

Wu wei is the opposite of yu wei or action with useless effort. It is when we attempt to impose our will onto any situation that we often meet with disappointment and even disaster.

The path of Dao is the path of non-resistance. If at any time, on your path of self-cultivation, you encounter resistance, that is not Dao. To try and force anything to happen – even if it is something that would be good and of great benefit to the world or for yourself – that is not Dao.

Zuangzi says:

It is when we give up our personal views that we see things as they truly are. In seeing things as they truly are we arrive at complete understanding. To reach complete understanding is to reach true happiness. To reach true happiness is to reach completion. To reach completion is to enter Dao. – Chapter 2

Many of us are full of opinions and judgments. We think we know the answers to everything and we are sure that we are right and if only other people would listen to us the world would be a better place! But Zhuangzi tells us to “give up our personal views.” What does he mean by this?

Perhaps he means that when we are quick to pass judgment, quick to voice an opinion, quick to decide what we like and don’t like, we may miss out on some of the greatest experiences of our lives. We may be so stuck in our small world of opinions and viewpoints we can never see the wider world that surrounds us.

In the first chapter of the Zhuangzi we are told about a magical fish that turns into a bird. And not only a bird, but a gigantic bird, whose wings “are spread out so far, that no one knows just how far they go. When it heaves itself out of the sea and into the air its great wings are like billowing clouds across the sky.” Not only that but its wings beat so fast that the sea beneath them is “whipped and roiled, its waves reaching three thousand li.”

This great bird rises up higher and higher into the sky “until it is ninety thousand li into the air. So high! Then the great and mighty bird Peng travels for half a year until it arrives at its destination.”

Meanwhile, down below a cicada and a dove look up and laugh at this mighty creature.

“When we want to fly up into the lower branches of the elm or the sandalwood tree we just flutter our wings as hard as we can. Of course, sometimes we don’t make it and fall back to the earth. No matter, we just pick ourselves up and try again. Eventually we make it. What is all this talk of needing to fly ninety thousand li into the sky! And why fly for six months to reach the Southern lands! Is it so important?”

Zhuangzi calls this small understanding. “Small understanding,” he says, “is no match for great understanding. Small knowledge cannot understand what great knowledge knows.”

Daoists are very interested in what we might call “the big picture.” How can we think we know when we only see such a small part of the big picture? How can we presume to judge other people when we barely know ourselves? How can we think we know what to do to save the world when don’t really know what the world is?

It is like when we watch a movie on a television screen. At first the picture looks so small. We are aware of the TV and the room it sits in. Then, eventually, once we get caught up in the movie we cease to see the room and even the TV set. Instead we are transported into the movie and that is all we see.

This is how we live our lives. We don’t see the big picture, only the small part of it that we are focused on, which is usually the part we are in! If instead, we could pull our focus back and see the whole picture, what is on the screen in front of us and what is all around it, all around us, then we would have a much different viewing experience.

The problems we face today – the degenerating health of humans, animals, the forests, seas, the very life of the planet itself, ongoing wars between nations as well as individuals – can be addressed and even healed by the teachings and practices of the masters of Dao, both in ancient times as well as modern. These fearless explorers of inner space have given us advice, guidance and practical ways to heal ourselves and our planet in this challenging time.

Laozi says:

Those who value their own well-being

equally with the rest of the world,

can be trusted with the world.

Those who love their life as if it were the whole world,

will be trusted with all things under heaven. – 13

Zhuangzi likens this state to that of a drunken man who falls out of a cart. Because he is not conscious of riding in the cart he also not conscious of falling out of it. He is so loose he is able to fall in such a way that he doesn’t get hurt. “If such security is gotten from wine,” Zhuangzi asks us, “how much more is gotten from spontaneity?”

What this means is that we must become very sensitive to the moment, to our own energy and to the energy of those around us. Not only that but we must become sensitive to the energy of the world around us. In this way we will be able to remain loose like the drunkard yet awake at the same time. We will be able to use each moment fully. In this way we will, while living fully in the present, always be ready for whatever comes next.

My friend and mentor Chungliang Al Huang says our future is behind us while our past is before us. What does he mean by this? Perhaps it is something about how we are always well aware of our past; sometimes it even haunts us. But our future is hard to see; it is behind us. Dao people say how we respond to the present moment is what will build the future. Ni Hua Ching says:

“Sometimes you do better in life and other times you do poorly. When your cycle is high, you enjoy your life more than when you are having difficulties in a low cycle. To harmonize the flow of your life, don’t become excited by the high points or depressed by the low. Always remember the high is built by the low. You should respect the times when you are in a low cycle . . .When people have a low cycle, they think of it in an emotional way and feel terrible. They want to die or kill themselves. They feel boring, unattractive and uninteresting . . . They don’t realize that their low cycle can make them wise. Life is built up by each uninteresting moment, not just by excitement.”

180230_416898748350400_2106459238_nThis is a very deep teaching. “Life is built up by each uninteresting moment.” This is something that most people do not want to hear. They have grown up thinking that it is only in times of great suffering or great adventure or great spiritual realizations that our life is built, not “each uninteresting moment.”

Many spiritual seekers today believe that if they just meditate hard enough and long enough and are able to somehow kill off their ego then they will reach a state of enlightenment and all their worries and problems will be over. Then they will be able to see into the future and “step off the wheel” and then they will be able to write a best selling self-help book and go on the lecture circuit and charge lots of money to tell other people to do what they did.

What I am trying to do here is not denigrate self-help books or spiritual teachers and guides. We all need teachers and guides to help point the way. We all need inspiration from inspiring teachers.

But the work, the day-to-day work – of becoming centered and clear and grounded and spiritually open – is up to us. If we don’t do our own work then, when a teacher does appear, we will not be able to understand them or use what they tell us in a liberating way. We can read all the spiritual books in the world but if we don’t apply those teachings to “each uninteresting moment” it is a waste of time.

Much of the modern lifestyle is designed; it would seem, to de-sensitize us. One of the worst ways this happens is when we watch television. Watching television, especially for long periods of time, is extremely harmful. It disrupts our qi, disturbs our shen and distorts our understanding of reality. It dumbs us down and elevates our sense of the world as a dangerous and chaotic place. It assaults our nervous system with blaring ads for things we don’t need. It tries to convince us that we will miss out on great things if we don’t watch all the new shows, including the so-called reality shows. Whose reality is this? Does it have to be yours?

Of course not. It is when we unplug the TV and begin to experience the world around us and within us, in a deep and calm manner, that we can we will find out what we have actually been missing by being hypnotized by the TV.

The Daoists make a distinction between mindful activity and mindless activity.

Zhuangzi says,

We become so involved in mindless activity that we lose all sense of ourselves. We feel we are drowning and losing our way and nothing seems to bring back the feeling of being safe and whole. – Chapter 2

It is this strong sense of disconnect from the source of our being – Dao – that creates so many problems in today’s world. It is this great sense of dis-connect with the source of all being that is at the very root of so many of modern society’s problems. The huge problem of drug and alcohol abuse – which is also a billion dollars a year business, with tentacles all over the world – exists because of this dis-connect. People want to get outside themselves, they want to feel strong and free and not have to worry about their day-to-day existence. So they turn to drugs or alcohol to give them the strength and experience that they lack in their own being, at terrible costs, not only to themselves but also to society at large.

The other end of the spectrum is this movement toward religious fundamentalism, both East and West. People are so sure that their expression of the divine is the right one and that their set of rules are the right ones and anyone who thinks different is a heathen, a sinner or an infidel. Religious extremism creates schisms and even outright wars

Laozi says that when we lose our sense of awe, disaster follows.

Zuangzi says:

Let things unfold naturally and let your mind be free. Accept what you can’t control and continue to nourish your internal spirit. That is best. You must be willing to act in accordance with your own destiny. Nothing is simpler than this and nothing is more difficult. – Chapter 4


Solala TowlerSolala Towler has taught Daoist meditation and qigong for over 23 years. He has been editor/publisher of The Empty Vessel: The Journal of Daoist Thought and Practice for over 20 years and has had eleven books published on the Daoist arts. He is a founding board member and President Emeritus of the National Qigong Association and leads yearly tours to China to study qigong and Daoist practice in the sacred mountains of Wudang. In addition he has recorded four cd’s of relaxation/meditation/yoga/qigong music. You can reach him at or at his new website at (under The Abode of the Eternal Dao), which has many features (full color issues of EV, music, past articles, video and guided meditations), much of it for free.
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