Wu wei

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What is wu wei?

'Wu wei' is often translated as not doing, not acting or not forcing. 'Not forcing' is a principle that ensures accord with what is happening.
It is concerned with following the path of least resistance, of moving with the grain.
Wu wei does not involve any form of imposition or ideation. You must harmonise yourself with existence and offer no conflict.  

Trying, doing & being

There is a difference between trying, doing and being. Wu wei is concerned with being. Being can be seen as the third stage of development.


There is the image (or concept) and the reality. The process of bending reality to fit the image is what we call 'trying'.
Trying is a kind of forcing; it is the act of seeking to adhere to an idea or pattern that exists in your mind. Effort creates anxiety and tension. Tension impedes you.


Rather than try... allow. Allowing is a passive, relaxed approach that involves stepping out of the way. When you try, exertion is required. Some things happen by themselves.


'Doing' sounds more positive than 'trying' because struggling has been removed. However, doing usually entails self-consciousness. Doing involves the use of willpower.
Willpower is the act of forcing; attempting to re-shape reality to suit your own design. The whole point of Taoism and tai chi is that it is not about you.
You must move as part of the situation, rather than regard yourself as the lead role or focus of attention. There must be no division between yourself and another.

In interacting with other people,
we try to interact along the lines that are most genial.
This is the great fundamental principle called wu wei.

(Alan Watts)

How do I 'not do'?

Simple - you stop. When an object in motion is left to settle, it eventually comes to rest. Tai chi only starts to work when the student stops trying and doing. Stillness and silence cannot be forced.

Do you force your heart to beat?

Your body does not require your intervention. When you cease doing, nature is allowed to act according to its own way. Wu wei requires that you do not interrupt the flow.
Our approach to tai chi is concerned with feeling how the body wants to move and letting it move that way.

Standing in your own way

A stiffness corrupts the tai chi when people refuse to let go. They become locked in the act of trying... It is the product of thinking rather than feeling, forcing rather than allowing.
In your effort to achieve, you actually hamper your own progress. Tai chi is the process, the how, the Way, the nature - not the outcome. Pay attention to the means and the end will take care of itself.


Beyond trying and doing, there is being. Being is a state of latent passivity in which you can move in any number of ways without the need for anticipation, planning or force.
It is a natural condition of rest and balance. Finding an unselfconscious harmony with the immediate moment is the whole point of meditation.
When the mind has stilled and the body relaxed, you are capable of responding instantly to the requirements of the situation.


Wu wei involves a deeper sensitivity than people typically employ in life. By losing self-consciousness, you no longer feel separate from what is happening, you are part of it.
In tai chi, a student struggles initially. Later, the student becomes familiar and they do tai chi.

Mastered by the art

Eventually, the doing ceases and the tai chi just seems to happen by itself. The student no longer feels separate from the tai chi practice. Together as one they flow through the movements.
This is wu wei, this is being. The tai chi is doing you.

Mutual arising

Nothing occurs in isolation. Light is defined by darkness. Relaxation by tension. 'Mutual arising' is the understanding that everything is interrelated.
Wu wei utilises this insight to ensure that we can move with what is happening without getting in the way. Thought cannot accomplish this - we must learn to feel.

Going with the flow

'Wu wei' involves an intelligent kind of passivity whereby the student uses the flow to their advantage.
Rather than be a leaf floating down the stream, you are a boat with a sail and a rudder - sensitive to every movement - gliding rather than floating.

Wu wei in combat

With the tai chi fighting method, we always yield to force. This ensures that we are not interfering with the other person's strength.
Partner work and combat require you to be aware of the incoming force and move with the flow. You can then evade or strike. You can file along the attacking arm or redirect the force.
There are absolutely no 'blocks' in tai chi - blocking is the epitome of strength meeting strength - and this is not wu wei.

Wu wei in life

It is quite easy to employ wu wei in everyday life. Allow your chattering thoughts to settle and fade, then listen. Observe what is happening, then move with the flow of it.
Do not force your will upon others.

The art of not-doing which includes the unobtrusiveness, unknowability, and ungraspability at the core of esoteric Asian martial arts - belongs to the branch of Taoism known as The Science of the Essence.

(Thomas Cleary)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023