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What Is Wu Wei?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Wu wei is an important concept in Taoist philosophy which essentially states that practitioners need to know when to act and when not to act. The term literally translates as “without action,” but wu wei is not laziness or inaction, but rather a recognition of the importance of going with the flow, rather than fighting against it. By adhering to this philosophical concept, Taoists hope to become closer to the Tao, harnessing the natural power of nature to live more meaningful lives.

In Taoism, as in many Asian philosophies, followers believe that life has a complex natural order, and that this order is constantly changing and flowing. This natural action dictates everything from the changing of the seasons to the success of the government, and learning to work with that action is a very important part of Taoism. The concept illustrates the importance of flowing with natural energy, and using that energy as a source of power.

One common illustration of wu wei appears in many Chinese martial arts, where practitioners are encouraged to use the energy of their opponents against them. For example, someone might roll with a blow and use the flow of energy to come back with a strong block. This conservation of energy allows people to be more talented fighters, making them less antagonistic and more focused. Many Chinese movement disciplines beyond the martial arts also incorporate a certain amount of wu wei.

People who fight against the natural order of things may find themselves constantly struggling, as will people who fail to recognize the proper time for action. Someone who believes in and follows the philosophy knows how to seize a moment to best advantage, and when to remain still and allow life to flow by. In a sense, wu wei could be considered to be a form of conscious inaction, with Taoists flowing along with the Earth's energy like boats on a stream.

One doesn't have to be Taoist to follow the principle of wu wei. People outside of Taoist practice may choose to integrate this philosophical belief into their own lives, using it as a tool to work and live more effectively. By learning to recognize that everything has a right time and a right place, people can focus on things as they become important, rather than trying to accomplish everything all at once.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcidi — On May 24, 2011

Some people think that in order to be a Taoist and a follower of wu wei, we have to stop doing everything. But I don't see it that way. I see it as a state of mind more than anything.

For me, wu wei means accepting people as they are and accepting and loving ourselves for who we are. I want to accept that each individual is unique and they have a certain nature by birth, which means that I will be open-minded and will not judge others.

I also want to know who I am and what my nature is, what my limits are. If I can do this, I will be kind to myself and will utilize my good qualities to make the best of life.

This is what wu wei means to me. It can help me make the best of my life.

By serenesurface — On May 23, 2011

I am taking a course on Taoism right now. I liked learning about wu wei a lot. Especially because it demands relying on our intuition.

When people live according to wu wei, they still respond to whatever is happening around them. But first, they need to take it all in. It's sort of like listening, rather than talking.

By bear78 — On May 21, 2011

It might not be exactly the same, but wu wei does remind me a bit of destiny and fate. I think that learning to think this way would be of great benefit for those who tend to worry a lot and try to control everything.

I do it as well. It tires me out and I often find myself doing things I don't necessarily enjoy doing. And when I do find something I like, I miss the opportunity.

I can see how wu wei can be life changing. I don't agree with all of the principles of Taoism, but I would like to explore this concept more.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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