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Wu Wei: The meaning of doing without doing

Perhaps this little fellow and the Grand Canyon can teach us about Wu Wei?
Perhaps this little fellow and the Grand Canyon can teach us about Wu Wei?
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Taoism has been misunderstood by many throughout its vast and ancient history. The misunderstandings are common among those that consider themselves Taoists and even more among those who have no training in the system, yet however, choose to write about and teach isolated principles.

Wu Wei is one principle that, similar to P'u, is almost always mistranslated and rarely understood. The concept/principle of Wu Wei is one of Taoism's core principles, and establishes a particular mental, physical and spiritual attitude that a cultivated or trained Taoist has; it is something that enables one to recognize a Taoist by his/her actions.

It is not uncommon for people to think that Taoism advocates an almost lazy outlook on life, the ultimate pacifists, those who do nothing, let life just be, the ideal “hippie” from the 1960's.

This belief is grounded in the misunderstanding and misapplication of Wu Wei, often translated as not doing or doing without doing or non-action.

The true definition of Wu Wei could not be further from the truth and if one looks at the vast accomplishments of the Taoists over the last 6,000 years one would have a great visual of just how much the Taoists actually “did”.

A better definition of Wu Wei is doing “...without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort. It seems rather significant that the character Wei developed from the symbols for a clawing hand and a monkey, since the term Wu Wei means not going against the nature of things; no clever tampering; no Monkeying Around. (The Tao of Pooh)”

If you do something without being clever, and without the ego, while being rooted in the concept of Pu then this is “Wu Wei” and this is one of the principles that led to the tremendous Taoist inventions and discoveries.

Think of all the problems in the world, how many of them are the result of people trying to do something while at the same time being clever, deceitful, tampering, monkeying around, making a name for themselves etc... Lao tzu said his way is easy and simple, yet no-one can follow it. This is because we are too busy being led by a monkey mind and ego, we are no longer natural and pure. Many people are the opposite of Wu Wei!

“Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,

Can you avoid separation?

Attending fully and becoming supple,

Can you be as a newborn babe?

Washing and cleansing the primal vision,

Can you be without stain?

Loving all men and ruling the country,

Can you be without cleverness?

Opening and closing the gates of heaven,

Can you play the role of woman?

Understanding and being open to all things,

Are you able to do nothing?

Giving birth and nourishing,

Bearing yet not possessing,

Working yet not taking credit,

Leading yet not dominating,

This is the Primal Virtue. (Lao tzu)”

“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made---or imagined---by man...who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard. (Tao of Pooh)”

What in our own lives are we trying too hard to change, what are we not accepting, is their difficulty in your life that may be the result of interfering too much, are you trying to do too much?

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