Action in Non-Action

Wu-wei, a central concept of Taoism, can be literally translated as non-action or non-doing.

Yet, wu-wei more fully is an embracing of action in non-action. As the Tao Te Ching reads:

The Tao is constant in non-action
Yet there is nothing it does not do

Wu-wei is a natural state of being. It is being a leaf on the river, carried by currents through tumultuous times and peaceful times.

With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do

I’m not sure these ideas translate well into traditional Western thought. The leaf on the river metaphor helps, but it seems detached in a negative way.

Why should people be at the mercy of the elements around them? Shouldn’t they have power and voice and autonomy?

I don’t think Taoism would disagree. But just as stubborn bows break and supple bows bend, but survive – wu-wei encourages a certain flexibility, a willingness to let go, that ultimately leads to greater understanding, and therefore, to greater autonomy.

If your car spins out, you turn into the spin. (Or so I’m told, I don’t drive.)

If you try to fight the spin out, try to force your will on the physics carrying the car – physics will win every time. But if you turn into the spin, you can let it carry you while maintaining control.

There are so many things in life that are outside your control. And if you fight the spin on all of them you’ll end up frustrated at best and crashed at worst.

Perhaps the closest thing from Western thought is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

But even this does not deeply do justice to the spirit of wu-wei. A more Taoist version would read, perhaps:

Grant me the serenity to accept
There is nothing I can change
Accepting this
There is nothing I cannot do


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