An Easy Way to Understand Wu Wei
Question: Derek, I am having trouble with the concept of wu wei. My friend says it means doing nothing and going with the flow. But my question is, what if the flow won't take me where I want to go? What if my life is headed for disaster? Should I do nothing and let myself move toward destruction? That makes no sense at all!
Answer: Wu wei is often misinterpreted. The easiest way to understand it is to think of surfing. You'll see that wu wei makes a lot of sense - even if you don't know how to surf!
Imagine what you would do if you were surfing. You wouldn't want to fight the wave - that would be foolish and futile. This may be the part where people get the idea that wu wei means going with the flow. They may not understand the other equally important part, that you also wouldn't want to stand motionless and let the wave wipe you out. That wouldn't be smart either.
What you really want to do is ride the wave. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of your body and the surfboard. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To the crowd at the beach, your movements seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.
It is the same with life. You don't want to waste your energy in a useless struggle against the way things already are. At the same time, you also don't want to be a couch potato. People who are apathetic and indifferent won't stay on the surfboard for long.
Ride the wave of life. Move with it, not against it. Make use of its tremendous power. Exercise skillful control of yourself. Remain responsive to surrounding conditions. Anticipate and take advantage of changes. It takes practice, but eventually you get good at it. To other people, your actions and progress in life seem natural, graceful, and almost effortless.
The art of surfing is no different from the Tao of living. This is the true meaning of wu wei.
Note: Ancient Chinese sages did not know anything about surfing, but they understood wu wei perfectly, as Chuang Tzu demonstrated in his story, The Waterfall.