Wu Wei and the art of the small

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

Wu wei (无为) is the mysterious concept of Daoism. When we study the text carefully though, we see that Laozi left us plenty of clues about how to practice it.

Wu wei, or to act without acting is one of those concepts of Daodejing that have been popularized, but the meaning isn't clear. Is it like a Zen koan where you have to be in a Zen mind to unravel? I argue, no.

I don't think Laozi was being tricky, I think he was just being efficient with words. Much of the word choices Laozi made were in the context of how writing was done at the time. Writing and replicating written works was laborious. Resources were also scarce. To convey a complex idea in just two words was to be poetic, yes, but also to be thrifty.

And this is wu wei.

Handle problems before they become like boulders.

Don't do in 50 characters what you can do in two. Don't do in an elaborate ceremony that which you can do with a smile. And most importantly, don't wait until something becomes a big problem when it can be handled as a small one.

Things are tender while they are young. When it comes to problems, this means stopping behaviors before they become hardened habits--before they become like boulders. Let’s look at relationships. If a couple practices good communication, they can resolve differences before they grow into resentments. When there are disagreements, it’s easier to have a sense of humor earlier on, rather than later. If couples don't practice non-violent communication and boulders of resentment emerge, conflicts that were like sand are now much more difficult to handle, if not impossible. Practicing wu wei in a relationship means don't wait until you have to seek marriage counseling to communicate.

It's the same with our personal choices. Maybe our lifestyle has emerged around unhealthy behaviors. Perhaps our friend group only socializes around heavy drinking. If we persist even though we are missing work and are feeling depressed, now we aren’t just dealing with the seed of a bad habit, we are dealing with an entire lifestyle that is inseparable from the problem. We built an identity around the sickness. It would have been much easier to fix before it all become so entrenched. We might even start explaining our situation to people by saying things like “I’m a partier.” Now, how much action do we have to take to unwind this situation?

Wu wei works in the positive as well. When Laozi writes "9-story temples come from bricks of mud (九层之台,起于垒土)," he's letting us know that almost every huge endeavor, from building the Great Wall to launching a spacecraft is the sum of very tiny actions. Laozi's words paint a picture of what is possible if we just focus on the small.

When it comes to changing our own lives, modern experts in behavioral science agree: break things down into the smallest, easiest pieces you can. If you look at the big thing you want to emerge it can feel like trying to eat a whale. If you want to lose 30 pounds, don't focus on the 30 pounds, focus on doing one small thing differently, like eating a half-portion at two dinners per week, or just tracking calories, and then go from there with another small change once the earlier one is established.

Laozi could see that all great things come from patience, diligence and just doing one small thing over and over again. He also saw that great calamity comes from ignoring the small over and over again until a problem becomes intractable. In both cases, we want to be practicing wu wei, keeping our sensitivity up and our minds focused on taking the smallest actions possible.

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