Image of fields in China

Wu Wei: The Daoist Art of Flow

“Wu Wei” sometimes translated as non-action or non-violence or non-aggression or sometimes as spontaneity or flow is the Daoist philosophy and attitude of effortless action but it is more of an experience and not unlike the experience of Nishkama Karma of the Yogis. However, the Daoist texts describe it with a floating feeling to it and in a poetic sense as a state of flow. And I am often asked that all of the stuff you just said sound great but how does one apply it practically. To that, a Daoist would probably reply that asking such questions is like beating a drum in search of a fugitive. But I am not a Daoist in the strictest sense and recently a friend asked me this question. So I don’t want to escape that question anymore like a Daoist. Let’s begin with the most classical description of Wu-Wei as flow:

“The highest good is like water, for the good of water is that it nourishes everything without striving.
It occupies the lowest place which all men think bad.
It is thus that Tao in the world is like a river going down the valley to the ocean.
The most gentle thing in the world overcomes the most hard.”
― Lao Tzu

Western teachers explain Wu-Wei as gentle persistence as that of water, the way water cuts through rocks through gentle persistence. It doesn’t exert much pressure nor does it use much velocity but it uses mild consistent pressure and velocity and creates marvels like Grand Canyon.

“The sage does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.”

― Tao Te Ching

Alan Watts compared Wu-Wei to the skill of sailing and called it the watercourse way i.e. following the watercourse or the flow of nature. A sailor uses wind not oars and even when he has to go against the wind direction, he adjusts the sails to tact and uses no effort. Such is the nature of Wu-Wei

“Because the Sage opposes no one, no one in the world can oppose him.”

― Tao Te Ching

I would also like to compare Wu Wei to surfing. Because a surfer doesn’t oppose the wave nor does he run away from it. He rides on the wave no matter how large or how scary but the skill of surfing is to become one with the wave. So is the nature of Wu-Wei i.e. to become one with the movement of cosmos however scary it may appear in the moment. Neither resisting it nor exerting unnecessary pressure.

And within this concept of flow, there is also a concept of stillness:

“Stillness in Motion, Motion in Stillness”

― Taiji Classics

“When water is still, it is like a mirror, perfectly reflecting the beard and the eyebrows. It gives the accuracy of its depth and the sage makes it his model. And if thus the water derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind? The mind of a Sage being in repose becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all the creation”
― Chuang Tzu

“The fluidity of water is not a result of any effort on the part of the water but is its natural property. and the virtue of the perfect man is such that even without cultivation there is nothing that can withdraw from his sway. Heaven is naturally high, the earth is naturally solid, the sun and moon naturally bright. Do they cultivate these attributes? “
― Chuang Tzu

What this essentially means is that if one wants to be good and virtuous, if one questions one’s motives they are still usually very selfish like “I want to be good and virtuous so that I feel good about myself or something like that” or sometimes we will deceive ourselves “I want to be good because I want to help people.” and so if you ask “Why do you want to help people,” ultimately it would be something like “it makes me happy”. And such a person would become more selfish and create more trouble than good because he is driven by selfishness and he will force help to the one who doesn’t need it. Like the monkey who said “Let me put you out of the water and onto the branch (of the tree) or else you may drown” to a fish and lifted her out. You can’t force genuine behaviour. As both by definition contradict one another.

Or when one tries to meditate i.e. to cure the agitation of mind, one puts an effort to cure the agitation and one creates more agitation because overexertion of effort created the agitation in the first place. and to that Chuang Tzu would laugh at and say that it is like beating a drum in search of a fugitive. And in this way, the seeker just turns round and round like a dog chasing its own tail, (to which Patanjali refers to as Chitta Vritti or vortices (or turnings) of thoughts and feelings in consciousness (actually the turnings of consciousness itself)) until he realises there is nothing to be sought. And the Universe is not a problem to be solved, because there is no problem, there is no mystery and everything is as clear and as perfect as it needs to be.

There is an archaic saying the “If one thinks he needs psychiatric help he definitely needs it.”. In other words only a fool, only a mental i.e a mad person would seek therapy or psychiatric aid. and before I receive hateful comments below let me clarify what that means. If one thinks there is something to be done i.e. there is a problem with oneself or with the Universe and it needs to be fixed and; someone or something can ease the difficulty or pain then such an individual runs away from pain forgetting that the very seeking of help, of relief, is what makes it persist. And actually, there’s no problem with him that needs to be solved, pain is a perfectly human experience, just express it. If you feel like crying cry like a baby and if one resists the urge to cry or the experience of pain then the pain is a problem. All feelings are perfectly fine and in tune with nature and when things go to one extreme the homeostasis of nature comes into play and changes the polarity. So the Daoists say there is nothing to be done and in Zen, this is sometimes described as “Simply sitting, doing nothing”.

There is a koan in Zen which says that upon birth the Buddha took seven steps in each cardinal direction, pointed with one hand up and one hand down and said, “Above the heavens, below the earth, I alone am the world honoured one.” And this is given as problem to students of Zen, the teacher would say something like this “That of course babies on birth can’t walk and they definitely don’t utter such proud statements, then how is that buddha said that and yet each of us, on being born, can say that too, How do we say that?” And if one understands it clearly one would realise by crying “WWAaaaaaaaaaah!” “WWAaaaaaaaah!” because that is the perfect reaction to the painful event of being born into this world.

Now the problem with the statement “There’s nothing to be done!” is that one mustn’t try to do nothing because that can’t be done because you are Karma and Karma means action. By that what I mean is that you are what the whole universe (in metaphysical terms the Brahman or Absolute Itself) is doing through this mind-body apparatus and there is no reason for mistrust nor there is any reason to cling to any idea or habit, and so just act Spontaneously but try not to be spontaneous because trying is not spontaneous. Early Christians were perfectly aware of this idea and said “Each individual is expressing the will of God in his own way” and when they sang Psalms they were perfectly aware that “It is the Holy Spirit expressing Itself using their vocal cords as strings of a Harp”. If you go to the origins of the word Psalms, it comes from Greek “psállein” (or “psallontes”) which has connotations such as to pluck, pull, play, to twitch or twang, i.e. To play on a stringed instrument. In any case, they were not seeking God by Psalms and Hymns, they were praising his presence and glory. Anyways I am not a theologian and won’t argue much on that.

So if you can just let go off clinging and non-clinging, you will have a floating feeling and you’ll find that both the organism (you) and the environment (the Universe) are a single field of behaviour. And find the whole mass of universe supporting you and you are flowing through tasks and events effortlessly. But if you can’t let go, that is also perfectly fine. The process of nature will achieve that for you. Why? Because there is no way to cling to anything. Everything in the universe is constantly deteriorating and approaching death. Hence, in any case, there’s nothing to be done or undone.

But this must not be conceived as fatalism because to a fatalist, the fate, the experience of the fate and experiencer of fate are different things he perceives himself to be dragged around but to a sage, there is neither fate nor it’s experiencer everything is just an experience, one single happening with no such distinctions. that state is described in Zen by the proverb “Above, not a piece of tile to cover the head; Beneath, not an inch of earth to put one’s foot on.” or as the yogis say “In Samadhi the Triad (Triputi) of the seer, seen and sight disappears into the One”

Such an individual has perfect flexibility and openness of mind and is free from all liking and disliking, doesn’t crave for anything and doesn’t lose the peace of his mind as he understands everything and every one has its course and nature. So if you go to him in full arrogance and tell him “You’re Stupid! I will change the world and make it a better place, you see old man!”. He wouldn’t argue much with you. He may say “Good Luck with that.” with a wink. He would let you be disillusioned at your own pace and in your own way. The Bhagavad Gita speaks of such person as:

2.56. He whose mind is undisturbed in the midst of sorrows and amid pleasures is free from desire, from whom liking and fear and wrath have passed away, is the sage of settled understanding.
2.57. Who in all things is without affection though visited by this good or that evil and neither hates nor rejoices, his intelligence sits firmly founded in wisdom.
2.58. Who draws away the senses from the objects of sense, as the tortoise draws in his limbs into the shell, his intelligence sits firmly founded in wisdom.
2.70 As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage. But this is not so with the desirer of desires.

Chuang Tzu describes something very similar:

“The True Man of ancient times knew nothing of loving life, knew nothing of hating death. He emerged without delight; he went back in without a fuss. He came briskly, he went briskly, and that was all. He didn’t forget where he began; he didn’t try to find out where he would end. He received something and took pleasure in it; he forgot about it and handed it back again”.

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views – then the world will be governed.”

“The sage is still not because he takes stillness to be good and therefore is still. The ten thousand things are insufficient to distract his mind – that is the reason he is still.”

Such an individual is a peculiarly interesting fellow because he forces nothing to happen and things fall in their places on their own. One of the best descriptions of this non-forcing approach I read was in Swami Satchitananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras:

“When your wardrobe is too full you may say, “I’ll give these dresses to somebody.” But by the time you take it to the door, your mind will say, “I think I should keep just this one.” See? First, it’s, “I’ll throw out everything; I don’t want these things.” Then, when your friend comes to take them, you say, “Wait, wait, just leave this one for me. I can use it for another year. Let it be.”


So we have to make use of this attitude. Your mental wardrobe is also full. You want to throw something out, but you don’t feel like just dumping out everything. So you analyze, “This is painful. It’s not necessary. But these things seem to be nice. Let them be.” For the satisfaction of the mind, we are trying to analyze how many kinds of thoughts there are. “Oh, you are not going to empty me completely. At least you are giving something back to me.” The mind has to be tricked like that.

I still remember when I was a young boy, my mother used to feed me, and I would make a fuss: “No. I don’t want it all.”

“Oh, is this too much, son? All right, I won’t give you all of it.” She would form all the rice into a flat disk and then cut a line across and say, “See, I’m taking away half; you only have to eat the other half.” So, the other half would be pushed aside on the plate, and she would feed me, and I would be satisfied. But while I was eating, she would start telling me nice stories, and before long the other half would also have vanished.

If by any chance I looked down at the plate before the whole thing was empty and said, “Mother, you are feeding me more, I don’t want it,” she would say, “All right, son, I’ll take away this half.” She said she would take away half, no? She always took half from the remaining portion. That is a trick in feeding a child.

The same trick can be used in emptying the mind of thoughts. Tell the mind, “All right, you have that much, and I’ll take the rest away.” After a while say, “This also seems to be unwanted; let’s take this away also.” You remove them little by little. “

Till now we are only looking at mental attitude for a person who has cultivated wu wei because even modern psychology knows that our behaviour and even perception of things is very much dependent on our prior mental condition and mental states. Freud and others claimed that every behaviour can be traced to some subconscious impression, why? Because 90% of the time the conscious mind is busy thinking and almost every action we take is actually taken based on unconscious reflex, which again is just a result of previous mental conditioning.

Hence it becomes very difficult to make a drastic change in life because those past impressions pull one back into the same routine, a same familiar group of people, same old places, which create same old and familiar situations and force one to repeat same old mode of action and hence the same results are produced. Therefore, even though Wu Wei is conventionally associated with action, I took you through the mindset of such a Sage. The Sage is aware of this mental conditioning but he doesn’t make a violent exertion of will and effort to change it overnight. He takes a rather non-violent approach.

Such an individual lives without a purpose (as he’s attained all that is to be attained) and acts without any motives:

“Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
― Chuang Tzu

“Rewards and punishment is the lowest form of education.”
― Chuang Tzu

“The Need to Win:
When an archer is shooting for nothing He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind.

His skill has not changed, But the prize
Divides him. He cares,
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.”
― Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu

Or as Isha Upanishad claims
1. All this is for habitation by the Lord, the Supreme Reality, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion. By that renounced thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession.
2. Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years. Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.

or as the Gita States

18.66 Cling to nothing, abandon all the notions of right and wrong, simply surrender unto me (The Supreme Self/ Supreme Reality) alone. I shall free you from all sins and fears. (Therefore) do not grieve. 2.47. Thou hast a right to action, but only to action, never to its fruits; let not the fruits of thy works be thy motive, neither let there be in thee any attachment to inactivity. 2.48. Fixed in Yoga do thy actions, having abandoned attachment, having become equal in failure and success; for it is equanimity that is meant by Yoga.

Some of you may have concerns with the language of verse 18.66. So let me shed some light on it by contrasting it with verse 7 of Isha Upanishad:

7. He in whom it is the Self-Being that has become all existences that are Becomings for he has the perfect knowledge, how shall he be deluded, whence shall he have grief who sees everywhere oneness?

As I have stated previously the one who has attained Self-Realisation has no desire for any worldly gains and hence the objects ordinarily considered precious and cherished, allure him not. He’s not deluded by those and nor does such a person have any fear as he clings to nothing, He has nothing to lose for Self is not something to be gained or to be lost. That eternal Self is all that is. Hence the Sage acts absolutely without any motive, simply allowing his nature to manifest for the well-being of all.

Thus have I declared to thee the secret of Wu-Wei or what yogins call Nishkama Karma. Now, what will you do with the description?

Chuang Tzu has some advice:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”
― Chuang Tzu, Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters

So does Krishna:

“When thy intelligence shall cross beyond the whirl of delusion, then shalt thou become indifferent to Scripture heard or that which thou hast yet to hear. When thy intelligence which is bewildered by the Word (scriptures), shall stand unmoving and stable in Samadhi, then shalt thou attain to Yoga.” ― The Bhagavad Gita, verses 2.52-2.53

So thou be established in Yoga and chat with Chuang Tzu. Hope to see you again 😉 If you enjoyed reading the poem please like, share with your loved ones and stay tuned because there’s a lot more coming.

Leave a Reply