Doing Less, Living More

During my last talk in the membership, I spoke a little on Wei Wu Wei, the Taoist idea of “active non-action,” or possibly better said, “active non-calculation.” However one wishes to translate this term, the concept of “doing nothing” always comes to mind, or as we might want to state it, “actively doing nothing.”

Now in the Western mind, what is perceived as “doing nothing” is generally frowned upon. We have grown up under the standard that we must constantly strive for survival, become successful, and live up to our full potential—in other words, no time for loafing or this “doing nothing” business that Taoism so frequently reminds us of.

With that in mind, I think most Westerners deep down crave this “doing nothing” experience. Given the choice between working all the time or going somewhere peaceful and beautiful, like a beach, where we can lay back, breathe in fresh air, feel the breeze and sunshine on our face—I am certain most people would choose the latter.

Our society might call this “loafing around” or “being lazy.” But I, like most Taoists, would disagree with that definition.

To apply the principle of Wei Wu Wei in your life would mean you set aside time regularly to actually, truly “do nothing,” Doing nothing is not a luxury, it is something we need, like breathing, sleep, and food. We need empty space in our schedules, we can’t function if we have every moment of our day packed with planned activities, even if they are beneficial ones, like practice. 

We live in a society that has us feeling like we have no choice but to cram as much into each day that we can. But it doesn’t work, because just like not eating or not sleeping would eventually grind our lives to a halt, likewise, not having enough not-doing time will do the same. Our need to slow down and do nothing will eventually come out sideways and subvert our best intentions—through procrastination, addictions, burn out, illnesses and injury. 

To apply Wei Wu Wei also means you do one thing at a time, with calmness of mind, without being either rote or over-calculating about it. You just let your actions flow responsively from the moment—doing without thinking so much about the doing. 

Lao Zi stated, “My words are easy to understand, but difficult because no one can put them into practice.” In other words, the theory of Wei Wu Wu is easy to ponder and armchair philosophize about, but really difficult to actually apply within our daily activities. 

As challenging as Wei Wu Wei is to apply (especially at first) making this shift is vital to our well-being. Taoists rightly believe a quiet mind is a clear mind. With a clear mind, we can be creative, efficient, and reduce stress. This approach allows our Spirit (Shen) to express itself in our actions naturally.

This is because our Qi and Shen cannot flow through our bodies if there is stress creating stagnation that clogs up all the pathways. Qi and Shen rely on tranquility to move freely and smoothly. 

The Clarity and Tranquility Scripture notes the important relationship between tranquility and movement. As Taoism relates, “movement comes from stillness, and stillness comes from movement.” This is another reference to “active (movement) non-action (tranquility).”

Taijiquan is an example of tranquility within movement or Wei Wu Wei, which is why I often say that Taijiquan is Taoist philosophy in motion. You don’t need to study or read it, you just have to do the movements to simply experience the philosophy directly. So by practicing Tai Chi, you have an opportunity to practice Wei Wu Wei, which can have an influence on how you live the rest of your life. 

Almost all Taoist philosophers in one way or another preached this idea of Wei Wu Wei. The way they perceived it, nature (Tao) does not have a calculating mind, it just does its workings (the naturally-just-so) without stress, and so everything functions and is completed naturally. Taoists seek to imitate nature, and we can begin by practicing this more natural, responsive, relaxed approach to our lives.

Some of you may think you caught me in a contradiction, in regard to my comments in the last newsletter about how to navigate in the Year of the Yin Metal Ox. In that piece, I stated that this year we must work hard, be disciplined, and basically not be a “loafer.”

Actually, there is no contradiction at all. Keep in mind Lao Zi never advised that we do nothing at all, rather he told us to be active in conjunction with being non-active. In other words, in our actions, we must be mindful, calm, and relaxed, yet we also must be engaged in creating our lives. 

And then it should also be kept in mind that the Ox itself takes time to do nothing, the Ox must have time to rest and “loaf,” eat, and sleep, and so should we. We need to create or allow time in our life to do nothing, it is important to loaf and just do nothing as we please. Sometimes this is called, “perfect freedom action.”

When I talk about non-doing, I am really talking about emptiness. It is emptiness where we find the true meaning of Wu-Wei (non–action). As Lao Zi described, it is the emptiness of windows and doors that make a house useful; it is the emptiness of the axle hub that the wheel can function; it is the emptiness between logs that a fire can burn. So it is that within our being empty of stressful doing (loafing) that our spirit (Shen) can express itself. Emptiness does nothing, yet everything gets done because of it. 

We all could use more empty space for non-doing in our busy, modern lives, so we can allow ourselves to live more by doing less.

  • William McCracken says:

    Ah, very timely. The pandemic has made this principle more clear for many of us in many ways. For a lot of folks, being forced to be working from home has allowed us to be more aware of what is important to us. It also has made us aware of how busy our lives are and how cluttered our lives tend to be. Human beings were never meant to live in a world where we are constantly doing all of the time. The more we do and the more we have, the more we have to tend to these “doings” and “havings.” The body can only respond to this hurried up and busy activity as stress. When we are busy trying to have another experience other than the one we are having right now, then our bodies and minds prepare themselves to be somewhere else rather than here and now. That sends a message that this is a stressful situation, when actually everything is fine just as it is. There is no need to try and make it any different. This is the second noble truth of the Buddha Dharma, samudaya, which is the thirst or desire for things to be different than they are which comes from a state of “unsatisfactoriness,” the first noble truth, dukkha. In Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, he looked up at the morning star (Venus) and said, “everything is perfect and complete just as it is, but people do not see this and so they suffer (dukkha). So, right now in this moment if we can practice wu-wei, we have a moment to see that everything is okay in this moment. As the psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” That space is a recognition of mindful awareness that is always there, if we just pay attention. This is the practice of wu-wei.

    • Lilyromaine says:

      Great points Bill! I also was thinking about the connections between Wei Wu Wei and mindfulness. I’ve been practicing using Wei Wu Wei more since Stuart’s talk, and it’s amazing how I automatically am narrating to myself what I need to do next, and the assumption I need to do that is strong. But even as I try to soften that grip, I’m noticing things going much better, I’m actually doing more of what’s important and meaningful to me, and procrastinating less, because my actions are coming from spirit, rather than from my ego trying to control out of fear. So that was really helpful what you said about how if we’re always planning and rehearsing the next moment or the next 100 steps down the road, we’re sending our bodies and subconscious the message that something is wrong now, and that creates a stress response, which of course is what was blocking me and causing me to procrastinate before, because our body-minds can’t function very well under stress, over the long term. So thank you, that will help me!

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