Updated: Nov 24, 2021
The concept of wu wei is difficult for the Western mind to grasp. We are so focused on accomplishments and productivity that we might conflate the term with the Western concept of "flow." An examination of wu wei in Daodejing can illuminate the differences.
I recently heard a speaker in a video on a renowned Western source of modern thinking describe wu wei as a "flow" state. I understand why a Westerner would find comfort in that meaning, but it is a conflation of one small aspect of wu wei and is antithetical to wu wei in a significant way.
In Chinese dictionary, Pleco, wu wei (无为）is defined as: verb; do nothing and let things take their own course (a basic concept in Daoism, understood as no unnatural action rather than complete passivity). With this definition in mind, if we conduct an audit of Laozi's words, we can try to gain an even more complete understanding of wu wei. In Daodejing, wu wei appears twelve times in nine chapters. Considering there are 81 chapters, and wu wei appears in more than ten percent of them, we can consider it an important term.
"To act before anything exists means to act without acting," Lu Hui Qing, in 1078 in his commentary to the emperor.
Therefore, the sage handles matters without action, and is effective at teaching without words.
The sage constantly tries to keep the people without knowledge and desire. And to make those with knowledge to dare not to act. Act passively and naturally, then nothing is ungoverned.
Dao is constant in wu wei, yet nothing is not done. If kings can safeguard this approach, everything will transform itself.
The highest virtue of wu wei is not doing anything for a purpose; the lowest form of wu wei is to do things while having a purpose.
“For the truth of things lies not in acting but in doing what is natural. By not acting the sage shares in the naturalness of things," Wu Cheng, 1249-1333 Yuan Dynasty prose writer.
Through this, I know the advantage of wu wei, the teaching without words, the benefit of taking no unnatural action, that all under heaven hopes to attain.
Devoted to learning, one increases it daily, devoted to Dao, one decreases every day, decreases and decreases, until one arrives at wu wei. No unnatural actions, and nothing is undone.
Therefore, the sage says, "I'm passive and the people transform themselves; I am calm and the people become correct; I conduct no business and the people are enriched; I am without desire and the people become simple themselves.
Act with no unnatural actions, do the business of having no business, find taste in the tasteless.
Those who grasp it and try to control it suffer defeat. Therefore, the sage acts passively and is not defeated. Not trying to control it, he doesn't lose.
It's clear by focusing on the uses of wu wei in the Daodejing, that the Daoist wu wei isn't accomplishing a flow state through lengthy repetition of a task. This idea is at odds with wu wei. To want to master something is to want to control it and to have the purpose of mastery. No wonder Westerners love the idea of wu wei as a flow state. It aligns with their goals of having a purpose of mastery, achievement and perhaps even notoriety. All of the above are very non-Daoist ways of being.
Let's look at an example of learning an instrument. A Western approach might be to undertake a lengthy study of music theory, practice painfully for years to try to attain a standard of perfection. Perhaps a flow state might be achieved in this path, but the end result might be depression because of perfectionism, an inability to be playful, strained relationships and more. A Daoist approach to music might resemble a drum circle, where the instrumentalists spontaneously play in relationship to the pulse of the moment. There are no mistakes, no judgments and yet the music takes on a life of it's own. People are playful, connected and alive. There is no director, or expert chastising, or correcting the players. They "correct" themselves in the pulse of the moment. This is wu wei.
We must reject wu wei as a flow state. The Western flow state is a fetishization of mastery, accomplishment, and perfection--all things that are non-Daoist in nature. Wu wei means to be perfectly calm and serene when not engaging in only what is necessary. Wu wei, if mastery of anything, is only a mastery of doing as little as naturally possible. It means eating, sleeping, drinking, playing and being in repose and little else--just like cats, dogs, monkeys and animals we see in the wild. This natural way of being is what Laozi implores us to practice and, in the process, unlearn the unnatural ways of "doing things with a purpose or plan."