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Wu Wei: The Ancient Chinese Philosophy Of ‘Effortless Action’

Wu Wei

As our society really embraces the hustle culture, I have always believed being obsessed (not passionate) was the key to success and happiness. But eventually I realized this obsessive ‘hustle’ was coming at the cost of my mental and emotional health. That’s when I turned to the ancient Taoist philosophy of Wu Wei.

What is Wu Wei? 

An ancient Chinese concept, Wu Wei literally translates to “effortless action”, “not doing” or “inexertion”. We can reach this state when our actions achieve the desired objectives in accordance with our values and the simple nature of events.

It is a state of mind that promotes mindfulness, stillness, composure, inner harmony and letting go of things that don’t serve any purpose.

Researchers from a recent 2021 study, explain this Taoist philosophy of ‘actionless action’ and non-striving as a “dynamic, unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.”

It is a state where we act without forcing or trying to control the outcome, and in synchronization with nature’s law and course. Here the focus is on how we perceive action. According to the researchers, Wu Wei helps us accomplish goals even without deliberate action.

This Chinese philosophy on human performance and experience helps us become aware of the reality of the present situation and act accordingly without taking too much stress or striving too hard to reach the intended destination by affecting our mental health.

This “non-action” form of action, however, does not mean a lack of action or being lazy. It simply means action without any willed effort where purposeful effort is avoided without preventing the occurrence of results. 

Related reading: Mushin: How The ‘No Mind’ State Can Help You
Wu Wei
Wu Wei: The Ancient Chinese Philosophy Of ‘Effortless Action’

Synchronizing with nature

This Chinese principle of “effortless effort” and “action of non-action”, develops a state of being where our actions are effortlessly synchronized with the ups and downs of nature’s elements. It empowers us to appropriately respond to situations when they arise, without any deliberate effort. Primarily, Wu Wei meaning can be summarized by the following traits –

  • Ease and effortlessness in actions
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Detachment from attachment
  • Letting go of individual ego
  • Patience

This ancient Chinese concept can change our lives by transforming our mindset on the what, how and why we do things. It is about tapping into stillness, detaching from the need to strive harder and accomplishing more by fully involving in the performance of a task.

This non-striving mindset is about directing your valuable energy into things that are aligned with our dreams, morals and values and about decluttering our lives.

The state of non-striving is not achieved by being passive or lazy, and it still involves working hard for your dreams. But with Wu Wei, we let go of our need to manipulate or control the outcome. We simply allow things to unfold naturally and accept what is.

When we decide and act from a space of acceptance and effortless action, we can achieve our objectives without experiencing mental distress or physical exhaustion. 

Related reading: Ichigo Ichie: 10 Principles Of The Japanese Art of Living Every Moment

Why is Wu Wei important

How well do you sleep at night? Do you fall asleep immediately or do you worry about all the things you need to deal with the next day? How refreshed do you wake up in the morning?

Do you feel fresh and energetic or do you feel exhausted and groggy? And what does your typical day look like? Do you run from finishing one important task to another or do you pause and admire that little yellow bird sitting quietly on the tree nearby? 

Life as we know it is full of struggles and challenges that lead to incessant stress, worry, anxiety and even depression. Although we can’t avoid the challenges life throws at us, we can avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with it through Wu Wei.

Being an athlete and a working professional, I have always believed pushing my limits is the secret to success. Everytime I hit a wall, my initial instinct is to push through it no matter how much it hurts.

I make sure to give 120% in everything that matters to me and I do not, rather I can not, rest until I have achieved what I have set out to achieve.

This mentality was planted into me when I started playing competitive sports as a teenager. And this mindset has served me well throughout my life, giving me the willpower and determination to fight and emerge victorious from life’s battles. 

Related reading: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret To Happiness
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Theo Harrison

Hey there! I am just someone trying to find my way through life. I am a reader, writer, traveler, fighter, philosopher, artist and all around nice guy. I am outdoor person but heavily into technology, science, psychology, spiritualism, Buddhism, martial arts and horror films. I believe in positive action more than positive thinking.View Author posts