Wu wei may be the most misunderstood of all the precepts of Taoism. It's most commonly translated "nonaction or inaction," and appears in verses of the Tao Te Ching like:
Act without doing;Nonaction or inaction is almost a heretical thought in Western society. However, true wu wei is the most efficient action possible, the most spontaneous and often the most creative action. It is not a life of a sloth or laziness, but one in which the least possible effort yields the most effective and productive outcome. Actions come from a more intuitive area of the mind.
Work without effort.
--Chapter 63 (Stephen Mitchell translation)
The closest analogy would be when an athlete is "in the zone." The actions are not coming from the thinking or calculating area of the mind, but they are being done. Obviously, this is not the same as doing nothing.
The master does nothing,So wu wei is not non-action but effortless action. It is action without meddlesome, contentious, or egotistical exertion. It's the effortless action that results from combining your inner nature (P'u and Te) with the natural laws operating around you. In short, it is being in harmony with the Tao.
Yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
Yet many things are left to be done...
The prerequisite for this is to feel the Tao. You cannot harmonize with the Tao if you don't feel it or are not aware of its presence.
Throughout the Star Wars series, those strong in the Force are constantly talking about feeling the Force. In Star Wars, when Luke is learning how to use the lightsaber against the remote, Obi Wan counsels him:
Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda admonishes Luke to feel the Force during his training on Dagobah, saying "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force." In one scene, he tells Luke to focus in order to feel the Force:
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
Yoda: Feel it. (Luke becomes distracted by Artoo's frantic beeping and loses his balance.)When you are aware of the Tao and feel it, you can flow with it, and the right action appears for itself, spontaneously. This is the essence of wu wei.
Later, Luke is standing upside down, but his face shows less strain and more concentration than before. Yoda stands beside him.
Yoda: Concentrate. (Equipment slowly rises into the air.)
Yoda: Feel the Force flow. Yes.
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?
What do all of these have in common? Vigilance, not just mere waiting, but waiting for the proper time to act. It's being in the right place at the right time, but also being ready to act.
In The Phantom Menace, the very first scene has Qui-Gon telling Obi-Wan to "be mindful of the living Force." You feel the Tao. You are aware of the Tao. From this flows your strength, the strength of spontaneous, harmonious action: wu wei.
Effortless action does not come with egotistical forcing of things. It does not come with knowledge, for knowledge tries to figure things out. Knowledge leads to cleverness, which tries to devise better ways.
Do you want to improve the world?Wu wei doesn't think. It isn't about effort. But the ego forces. Humans try. On Dagobah:
I don't think it can be done.
Luke: I'll give it a try.Trying is not the way nature functions. The earth doesn't try to orbit the sun. The seed doesn't try to grow into a tree. Nature functions with effortless ease, invariably taking the path of least resistance. Wu wei doesn't try, it just does. And when it does, it doesn't appear to do much of anything, but things get done. Trying too hard leads to failure.
Yoda: No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
In order to practice wu wei, you have to let go. This is what Obi-Wan told Luke in Star Wars as he was attempting to release the laser torpedoes at the Death Star. Luke was using his ship's instruments to find the target and to determine the release point.
Obi-Wan: Use the Force, Luke.You have to let go and trust the Tao.
Luke looks up, then starts to look back into the targeting device. He has second thoughts.
Obi-Wan: Let go, Luke.
True mastery can be gainedThere is one more element of letting go that is of prime importance. That is to let go of desire, which is just another way of defining acceptance. Nonacceptance of the way things are--desire--is at the root of every action, interference, or assertion.
By letting things go their own way.
It can't be gained by interfering.
The Tao never does anything,When you have acceptance and act in harmony with the Tao, you can put aside personal priorities in order to take harmonious action. Wu wei is one of the greatest skills. Use it well; use it often.
Yet through it all things are done.
If powerful men and women
Could center themselves in it (They can!)
The whole world would be transformed
By itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
With their simple, everyday lives,
In harmony, and free of desire.
When there is no desire,
All things are at peace.