Wu-Wei | The Art of Letting Things Happen

Once upon a time, a novice farmer indulged himself in motivational videos. He became familiar with ideas like the importance of ‘effort,’ the ‘hustle culture,’ and ‘work hard, play hard.’ After binge-watching for days, he walked onto his farm, fired up, and determined to make it a great success. 

He started pulling one of the crops as a way to make them grow faster. But this didn’t work. Then he began to water the plants twice as much, hoping to make them grow faster, but he drowned them instead. After trying to force his success, the farmer realized that no matter how much effort he puts in, acting in opposition to nature is counterproductive. Despite humanity’s technological developments and will to progress, we’re still utterly dependent on nature. Human effort has its limitations and is always in conjunction with nature. We cannot grow a plant, for example, completely isolated from natural growth, even though we can influence and manipulate it.

The reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, stated that the world governs itself. It doesn’t need our intervention. As Lao Tzu wrote: “When you arrive at non-action, nothing will be left undone.” End quote. This idea resembles the basic understanding of the paradoxical concept “wu-wei.” But when we look for a definition of wu-wei, we quickly discover that there isn’t one fixed meaning. Some translate wu-wei as “non-action,” or “doing nothing,” others as “actionless action,” and others as “effortless action.”

We find out that Taoism offers several layers, if you will, regarding how wu-wei can enhance our relationship with the world. And how this ancient art of “letting things happen” doesn’t necessarily make us passive, ignorant bystanders but can actually improve how we act, leading to better outcomes. This piece is a humble attempt to make the depth of this philosophical idea clear and practical.

Wrestling with nature

Probably the most common interpretation of wu-wei is quite literally aligning our actions with nature, not forcing anything, and acting when it’s suitable. Lao Tzu stated that using force always leads to unseen troubles. With force, he doesn’t seem to point to the literal use of force per se, but rather to “forcing the flow of nature.” Nature has its course. It’s always working in the background. It lies at the root of our humanity’s existence and continually creates and recreates what the Taoists call the 10,000 things: everything under heaven and beyond.

But despite the immense propulsion of the universe, today’s society places the importance of conscious human effort above all. We celebrate effort, regardless of its actual effectiveness, as we aim to always be busy for the sake of being busy. As modern Sisyphuses, we push rocks uphill, just for the sake of pushing. Making an effort is one thing, but intelligently making an effort is another. Yes, sometimes hard work is necessary, and action is appropriate, but on many occasions, it isn’t. It depends on the rhythm of the game, on the cards you’re dealt, and whether or not it’s your turn. Acting out of turn means going against the flow of the game. 

Hence, we often experience that “forcing things” leads to ruin in the long run and that pushing our luck beyond nature’s constraints backfires. On the other hand, situations often solve themselves when we don’t force or intervene. By letting things happen, things get done naturally.

The novice farmer, for example, simply needed to leave his crops alone and be patient, and nature would do the rest. But when it’s time to reap the farmer should roll up his sleeves. (REPEAT) “The Tao never acts with force, yet there is nothing that it can not do,” Lao Tzu stated. If we’d just go along with nature, then everything runs smoothly. The farmer’s task is to sow the seeds, the seeds’ task is to grow into crops, and then the farmer’s task is to reap the harvests when they’re ready. This is how nature works optimally.

Lao Tzu believed that the world cannot be governed, as the world governs itself. It’s entirely out of control. Trying to control it is always a losing battle. And spending our lives fighting against nature is a waste of time, no matter how much people celebrate us for engaging in such a heroic endeavor. Instead of spending our life energy trying to control, govern, and change the natural course of things, we’re better off accepting what is and navigating through it like water flowing through a rocky surface towards the ocean.

Some are meant to lead,
and others are meant to follow;

Some must always strain,
and others have an easy time;

Some are naturally big and strong,
and others will always be small;

Some will be protected and nurtured,
and others will meet with destruction.

The Master accepts things as they are,
and out of compassion avoids extravagance,
excess and the extremes.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 29

Acting for the act itself

When we go deeper into the meaning of wu-wei, it becomes even more intriguing. Let’s assume its most accurate definition is “effortless action.” As opposed to the conventional translations like “non-action” and “doing nothing,” it points to being active and on the move, even though the common denominator stands firm, namely: “letting things happen.”

With effortless action, we could say that we’re not so much “doing” but rather “going.” We embark on a river stream without considering where it brings us: we’re setting sail into uncharted territory, but don’t let the great unknown faze us. We swim along with the current, not against it, making our way smooth, devoid of stammers and hiccups. Swimming against the current takes effort; so does holding onto a rock. When we force things, problems arise.

An example is going on a date. The person you’re going to meet is interested in one thing only: get to know you: the person you are, at that moment. But many people overprepare, overanalyze, and rehearse what they’re going to say. And so, the nerves come in; people overcompensate, are disingenuous, and come across as staged. Why is this the case? Most likely because we focus too much on the results. Zhuangzi talks about how different prospects can influence our actions and emotional states if we attach ourselves to them. A previous video named ‘Win Without Trying’ explains this in more detail, using Zhuangzi’s parable of the archer.

In the context of a date, most of us want the date to become a success; we want the other person to like us. So, there’s pressure involved; there’s a price to be won, and if we don’t get it, we feel miserable. And thus, what could have been a fun, joyful night out, becomes a strenuous, forced, stressful event, with lots of discursive thoughts and mental preparations in advance. We are standing in our own way, blocking the natural flow of the universe, which we cannot possibly control, no matter how much thought and planning we throw at it.

But imagine that you enter a date utterly unprepared, without even seeing it coming. Now you’re acting natural, in the moment, and spontaneously, as you haven’t had the opportunity to overthink. There has been no time for planning, plotting, analyzing, and all that remains is a pure you: present and one with the moment. And most people love that. So, if we manage to let go of the results, we can act more effortlessly and responsively, just for the act itself.

The uncarved block 

If we go even deeper, we arrive at the ego and emptiness. Because of past experiences, social conditioning, or ideologies, we have molded ourselves into knowledgeable, cultured human beings that fit the context they’re in. This context could be a religious community, a country, or a profession. We generally see this as a good thing. But there’s a downside. And this downside has to do with the ego.

The ego often distorts how we perceive the reality of the world. When we approach a situation, for example, a conversation with a spouse, the ego tends to fill in the unknown gaps, with all kinds of prejudices, fantasies, and convictions. The larger the ego, the more it will dominate the situation, subsequently closing us off from what’s truly going on. Therefore, people with strong convictions experience great difficulty seeing the world in another light – or outside the confines of their intellectual prison.

Hence, Lao Tzu urges us to return to a more unprocessed state, which he calls “the uncarved block.” We could see the uncarved block as a person who’s unencumbered by all kinds of intellectual baggage, so his vision of the world becomes clear. Dr. Woei-Lien Chong, a Dutch philosopher and sinologist, explains her interpretation of wu-wei in a Dutch book about Taoist philosophy, emphasizing the element of emptiness or ‘openness.’ She describes the essence of practicing wu-wei as follows, and I quote:

And so the whole practitioner is able to, from the clarity of his egoless center, observe all relevant forces in a certain situation in their being, undistorted, so he can respond to them flawlessly.

Woei-Lien Chong, Inleiding taoïstische filosofie. Handelen vanuit het innerlijke centrum, p. 110 (quote translated by Einzelgänger)

So, if we look at wu-wei this way, it’s not just letting go, going along with the flow of nature, allowing the universe to do its job: it’s a much bolder move, for which we need a lot of courage. We have to be brave enough to let go of what we’ve learned, throw our normative frameworks in the trash, and flush our assumptions through the toilet. Or how Lao Tzu put it:

Renounce knowledge and your problems will end. What is the difference between yes and no? What is the difference between good and evil? Must you fear what others fear? Nonsense, look how far you have missed the mark!

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 20 

Zhuangzi tells us a story about a conversation between Confucius and one of his pupils: Yen hui. Yen Hui wanted to travel to the kingdom of Wei after he heard about its many problems and tyrannical ruler. So, he planned to use his knowledge and wisdom to lecture the king of Wei and steer the kingdom in the right direction. Confucius persuaded Yen Hui not to do it, telling him that his plans were too ego-driven and wouldn’t work. After all, no one is waiting for a know-it-all coming out of nowhere, telling you how to take care of your business, let alone a self-absorbed tyrant. But still, Confucius offered an alternative, which he called the ‘fasting of the heart.’ 

Confucius described the ‘fasting of the heart’ as a form of meditation, which leads to letting our preconceptions go and making room to receive. With an open and receptive attitude, Yen Hui would learn about Wei and its king, their customs and beliefs, the situation as it plays out, and eventually be much more capable of lending a helping hand. In this understanding of wu-wei, we let go of the ego, so we act in accordance with the situation at hand, as it is. We let things happen and act responsively, unrestrained by our limited, preconceived ideas. Or, as Lao Tzu put it: we return to being uncarved blocks. Chong stated, and I quote:

No matter if it’s about politics, governance, diplomacy, or any other activity: what Zhuangzi calls wu-wei is this ultimate receptive and responsive way of action, from a crystal clear openness in yourself, one with the breathing of the cosmos.

Woei-Lien Chong, Inleiding taoïstische filosofie. Handelen vanuit het innerlijke centrum, p. 110 (quote translated by Einzelgänger)

Thank you for watching.