Wu Wei: The Art of Non-Doing

Wu Wei: The Art of Non-Doing


ave you ever had that feeling? You’re in the zone. Hours pass without notice. You don’t eat. You don’t check Facebook. You don’t pick up your phone every 5 minutes. You’re just working on the problem at hand and you’re completely immersed in it. You’ve found flow.

The Chinese have a word that perfectly describes this state: Wu Wei  無爲. This literally translates into non-doing or doing nothing.wuwei_quote

I know you probably think this sounds nothing like being in the zone, but stick with me here. Doing nothing doesn’t mean being lazy or relaxing or avoiding work. The meaning is deeper than that. What it means is effortless action or doing without it feeling like doing (being in the zone).

The idea of Wu Wei is part of Daoism, whose central philosophy is known as The Way. In the Tao Te Ching, written in China around 600 BC, the idea of Wu Wei is first described: “Do that which consists in taking no action and order will prevail.”

This is the paradox of Wu Wei. It is acting without acting, doing the things you love, you enjoy, and you can find flow in. By going with this flow, you reach the state of non-doing.

It is a state where you lose self-consciousness, the self and the environment become one. And don’t confuse it with being stuck in a singular state of mind. The state of Wu Wei is always moving and flowing, like a stream of water, it is malleable and can adapt to the situation.

You can find Wu Wei in anything, as long it doesn’t feel like work. You’re not upset that you have to spend hours on a task, but rather you’re ecstatic; you want to do it.

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.Dao De Jing

Some liken the idea of Wu Wei to that of being drunk, as you reach a state where your inhibitions drop and your anxiety levels decrease, allowing you to act without ego or fear. You simply do what is within you.Art-Peace-With-Tea

A more pertinent example is found in painting during the Tang period onward.

The idea for painters was not to simply paint what you see, but rather to represent the spirit of what you see in painting. You don’t cherish the finished art, but the process of creation itself. The flow that is achieved during the act.

So how can you use this idea of Wu Wei in your own life? It begins and ends with two key principles.

1. Be mindful of flow

Everyone experiences it, but do you really pay attention to it?

When you achieve that flow state, it is vital to take a moment and notice how it happened. What were the triggers? Ask yourself:

What were you working on?

What was your work environment?

What was the time of day?

What did you do immediately beforehand? 

What did you eat that day?

How much did you sleep?

The observations are endless, but the key is to start building a plan to find flow more often than not. These clues can all point you towards the things that you should be doing on a regular basis.

2. Don’t force it

A key aspect of Wu Wei is to go with the flow, not against it. It shouldn’t be hard, you shouldn’t have to force it.

Sometimes things are just a bad fit. If you’re struggling beyond belief in something, perhaps that’s a sign that you need help. Or maybe you should simply focus your efforts elsewhere or in a different way. This is especially true if there are things in your life that already put you in a state of flow.

Of course, finding flow doesn’t just happen. It is as much science as it is philosophy. The key is finding balance between difficulty and skill, so adjusting these variables may help get you there.

Despite such experimentation, you have to remember that if you have no innate interest or drive in what you’re doing in the first place, nothing is going to help.

Wu Wei is an important idea to remember when it comes to your daily routines.

You should strive to be in flow every day, if you’re lucky. If that doesn’t sound anything like your days currently, it may be time to take a closer look at what you’re doing.

Pay attention to when you reach flow, stop trying to force it, and hopefully you too can do without doing.