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.