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.


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The Search for Wisdom in the Information Age

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How can we make sense of it all – the cynicism, arrogance and perpetual noise that is becoming ever more pervasive in our culture.

We live in strange times. Despite have access to almost unlimited information at our fingertips, we remain confused and overwhelmed.

Who am I to believe?

Who am I to trust?

The increasing sophistication of technology becomes anxiety inducing without the insight on how to use it to live well or enhance our wellbeing.

It is like we are drowning in a sea of facts without ability to know what is really important. These problems of discernment and sound judgement stem from the failure of our culture to adequately differentiate between knowledge and wisdom.

Although these two terms seem similar at first glance, it would be a mistake to conflate them.

Knowledge: Technical Know-How

Knowledge refers to one’s understanding and mastery over a subject and a certain set of facts. This can be acquired in school, training or other forms of education. Someone who is knowledgeable in a particular field has acquired a specific set of skills and has the capability of coming to conclusions about a given subject area.

However, just because an individual has acquired mastery over these facts doesn’t imply that they are able to make wise judgements about how to use them. We all know examples of those who have a high degree of intelligence but no basic ‘common sense.’ This often leaves us baffled or scratching our heads. Furthermore, intelligence says nothing about one’s ethical or moral foundations. Someone who is a brilliant student can lack kindness and compassion.

Scientific knowledge and technological advancements have given us modern humans great power and control over the natural world. However, without the wisdom to accompany them, these advances have been used towards destructive ends. Building nuclear weapons, addicting consumers through digital media and expediting environmental destruction are all consequences of using technology to satisfy self-centered and egotistical goals.   

Wisdom: Perspective, Character and Judgement

Wisdom is more than the acquisition of merely technical skills. It involves using perspective and discernment to apply one’s unique skills in specific circumstances. Moreover, it requires one to acquire virtues working towards mastering the art of living. Wisdom can’t be learned in textbooks but rather by actively participating and engaging in the world. That is to say it must be embodied in one’s character and disposition.

Through experimentation, experience and trial and error one is able to learn from their mistakes and strive to be in the right relationship to both themselves and others. Wisdom enables us to cut through alienation, self-deception and enhance our connectedness to the world around us. 

The Long and Winding Road

So how do we attain wisdom?

This has long been the role of religions and spiritual traditions. Religious figures such as Jesus, Confucius or the Buddha etc. were exemplars who an individual could aspire to in search for truth, beauty and goodness.

In a secular society however, I think the humanities and liberal arts (i.e., literature, history, philosophy) can offer a means to contemplate the big moral and ethical questions of our time. These subjects provide insight into different ideas, cultures and perspectives offering the learner to consider what it is like to ‘be in someone else’s shoes.’ They provide collective insights into what it means to be human both in the past, and in our current day and age. The humanities also enable us to look at the prevailing social norms and customs of our society with a critical lens. Honest and respectful discussion about the values can inspire empathy, understanding and greater co-operation.

Not all problems are technical in nature. Solutions to complex problems often require shifts in our perspectives or value structures, namely changes in how we see the world. This means that we cannot rely only on scientific advancements for the pressing global issues we face but also need shared wisdom and distributed sense making.

The path towards wisdom varies from person to person. It can not be bought or learned through persuasive yet deceptive self-help gurus. Not every answer to our questions can be found on Google.

Wisdom requires work, action and perseverance.

More importantly, it can only be found within.


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The Meaning of Yin and Yang

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Night and day. Light and darkness. Masculine and Feminine. Chaos and order.

Life is comprised of a series of interconnected opposing forces. Everything that exists has an opposite, just as there is always two sides to the same coin.

Although we are inclined to seek pleasure without pain or cling onto the ‘good’ while banishing the ‘bad’, we come to realize the flawed logic of this kind of thinking. Anything worth pursuing is associated with risk and uncertainty. Even when our ambitions come to fruition, the unpredictability and continual flux of the world implies that there is always a chance that whatever we attained can be lost.  

Our fortune can change at any instant.

A key insight we can learn from Taoism is that the positive or negative or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ should not be thought of as distinct or separate. Rather, they are integrated into one cohesive system.

You can’t have one without the other.

We see this concept alluded to in the brilliant lyrical language of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet,

Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you….. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.

In many cases it is easy to rush to judgements about our fortune and fate. What may seem like an unfortunate set of circumstances, may be the exact prescription or ‘wake up call’ one needs to make important life changes to move us forward. The artist of course is acutely aware of this and cleverly transforms the experience of heartbreak and loss into music or art. Think of how many hit songs are about loss or breakups.

Yin/Yang Symbol

The yin and yang symbol beautifully depicts this relationship between opposites hinting at the harmony between these two elements.  

  • Yin: The black part of the symbol is associated with the night, darkness, passivity, intuition and the feminine.
  • Yang:  The white part of the circle represents the day, light, liveliness and vigor as well as the masculine.   [1]
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As seen in the picture above, the yin and yang are intertwined and connected. The small black dot (yin) can be found in the white area while the white dot (yang) is situated in the black space. Just like a scale, the more one tips towards one of these halves the less they get of the other.

Moreover, each is a part of the greater whole and there is no concrete nor clearly defined separation between them, as signified by the wavy line splitting the two poles. As the symbol suggests the yin and yang are not static representing the fact that our lives and the world are continually in a state of constant change.

Unity and Division

Our understanding of how the world operates is shaped by the contrast and  distinction between opposites. As Lao Tsu points out in chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching,

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short contrast each other:

High and low rest upon each other;

Voice and sound harmonize each other;

Front and back follow one another.

The above passage from Lao Tsu demonstrates that we can’t comprehend something without having a grasp of what its opposite is.

We understand what happiness is because it contrasts with the possibility of sadness, just as we know we know what pleasure is because we have an idea of what constitutes pain.

The yin and yang cannot be separated and one of these poles in the system cannot exist without the other. The concept of hsiang sheng alludes to the fact that the yin and yang are inseparable and arise together. We shouldn’t think of one of these poles as better or superior, rather the idea is to understand that balance between the opposites is the goal.  

The yin and yang aren’t enemies, but partners engaged in a playful dance.  

This requires us to call into question many of preconceived notions of what we think of as good and bad.

Only through openness and acceptance we can be content with whatever arises in our life.


[1] As Alan Watts notes in Tao: The Watercourse Way we shouldn’t think of the use of the terms masculine and feminine as referring explicitly to the different sexes, but rather more general characteristics. He writes, “ But the male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male….The yin and yang  are principles, not men and women.”

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