The Flow of Life: The Wisdom of Wu Wei

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Why is it that we spend so much time and effort pursuing goals and desires that go against our natural intuitions and inclinations?

Motivated by the longing for external praise and validation, we chase lofty ambitions which ultimately feel inauthentic and unnatural. This is akin to trying to swim against rather than with the flow of the river; like running faster and faster as you gradually sink deeper into quick sand.

There is a misconception in our society that effort and action is always the best way to address our problems. ‘Hustle culture’ tells us that we are never enough. Under this mindset, one should always aim to work longer, harder, faster and continually be more and more productive.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this kind of lifestyle are far too familiar. Anxiety, perpetual stress and burnout are the outcomes of clinging onto an ever-changing set of fantasies advertised to us on our televisions and phones.

The treadmill never stops, and as time progresses old age soon hinders our ability to keep up.

Wu Wei

Tao abides in non-action

Yet nothing is left undone

Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

Luckily, there is an alternative way of thinking which is rooted in the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. The concept of wu wei translates into English as ‘non-action’ or ‘effortless action.’ However, it should not be conflated with laziness (I promise you I am not advocating for you to spend your time couch watching reality TV and eating potato chips).

Wu wei is pursuing what is most natural to you. It aligns with the common idiom of ‘going with the flow’ giving up resistance and the illusion of control.  Rather than forcing things we can always choose to let things be as they ought to be. That is, we can choose to go with rather than against the grain.

The wisdom of wu wei is not a sort of abstract intellectual form of knowledge, but an intelligence that arises out of one’s intuition. By understanding how nature and the world around us operates, an individual can make decisions on how to achieve their goals with the least amount of effort. They can take the path of least resistance.

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, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

An Example: Sleep

In some cases, the more energy one exerts the more difficult it becomes to achieve a particular goal. Take for instance the example of ‘trying’ to fall asleep. Despite our best intentions the more we try to force ourselves into a state of relaxation, the harder it becomes.

Rather, as many of us have learned the hard way, it is much more helpful to simply let go. Ruminating over the details of an important presentation at work at 1am won’t do you no good.

Observing our thoughts as they come and go enables us surrender and relax as we slowly drift off in a daze.

The Art of Flow  

The idea of wu wei is also similar to the concept of flow states which I have written about in the past. Think about the effortlessness of the musician closing their eyes and loosing themselves in a solo or a dancer performing a complex routine with ease and grace.

These performers often leave us speechless and confused, how is it that they can make such a difficult thing look so easy?

In these instances the artist doesn’t have time to think of what they are doing next. They must trust the process and immerse themselves in the present moment – the ‘now’.

They embody wu wei ,effortless action and complete presence in their activity.

Photo by Luis Gallegos Alvarez on Pexels.com

Be Yourself , It’s All That You Can Do

When we try to be someone or something we are not, we are awkward, tense and rigid. We know intuitively that this is not the right path for us.

It may sound cliché, but given our uniqueness why would you want to live someone else’s life? Why would you want to be, look or follow the thousands of others who worship celebrities on their smartphones?

Being authentic and embracing your inner nature is much more liberating. Being yourself is realizing inner freedom.

Wu wei nudges us towards the path, our path – the only one that is made for us.


Featured Image: Pexels Free Photos