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Living in Flow: The Taoist Concept of Wu Wei
The art of effortless action.
Wu wei is a Taoist idea that means "conscious non-action."
The more direct translation is something along the lines of "action that is non-action."
This concept suggests that we avoid applying unnecessary force in all things.
Despite what this sounds like, it isn't an invitation to laziness.
To apply wu wei is like saying “to go with the flow."
It's from this state of natural flow that the best ideas and creativity materialize. It’s a peaceful, engaged state where one’s maximum skill and efficiency are realized.
To apply wu wei is to act without the conscious application of effort or the intellectualization of one’s every move. “Don’t think, just act.”
Think about a skilled musician performing a complex piece of music. When they first learn the piece, they struggle with the notes, rhythms, and techniques, consciously applying great effort to master it. But with practice, they internalize the piece to such an extent that they no longer need to apply conscious thought in order to hit each note or maintain a fluid rhythm.
Another example could be made for an artist like Bob Ross — known for his technique of painting beautiful landscapes “by accident.”
Wu wei applies to all skills, hobbies, professions — all aspects of life.
In my own experience, my best writing always comes out of flow states. When I think too much or try too hard as I write, the work becomes more difficult. The words appearing on the page feel less natural and fluid, and I miss things. When I come back to edit these writings, I often find they require a great deal of fixing and smoothing out. Large swaths of the writing are removed.
By contrast, when I let the words simply flow from my fingers without any conscious striving, they arrange themselves on the page with a natural grace and in good order. The speed and quantity of my writing are also greatly increased this way.
Wu Wei Applies More Broadly to Life in General
As humans, it's our nature to try and categorize, measure, and control the direction our lives take. We don't allow the flow of life to take us with it and instead burn our energy trying to swim against it.
It doesn't matter what we do now; we can't know what will happen in the future. Life will always take us in directions we can't control, and every minor event leads to unexpected outcomes.
By embracing the natural flow of life, we can allow ourselves to be carried along with the unfolding events — whether it's seizing a job opportunity, nurturing new relationships, letting go of old connections, embarking on a fresh journey, or closing a significant chapter in our lives.
By recognizing and accepting these events as they arise — instead of attempting to force or control them — we align ourselves with a more organic and effortless path.
Being Busy & Applying Effort
"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."
Our society is obsessed with productivity and achievement. We measure others’ value based on what they’ve accomplished.
As a result, we apply a great deal of effort to remain productive at all times as we try to accomplish as much as possible in our lives.
This often comes at the cost of our physical or emotional health.
Looking at the natural world shows us that this mentality is flawed. The greatest accomplishment comes not by force — but by allowing the natural flow of things to carry us with it.
Despite how productive the natural world is, it never appears rushed or hurried. Instead, it calmly and effortlessly follows its innate rhythm, taking all the time it needs to evolve in accordance with the natural flow of existence.
When the sun is shining, and the soil is wet, plants will grow.
But when the sun's rays are blocked by the clouds and the soil is too dry to fuel photosynthesis, growth is slowed. By trying to grow when the conditions aren't ideal, the plant will expend its energy reserves and die.
Rather than forcing it, the plant waits patiently until conditions are just right to resume its growth.
This is the wu wei of nature.
Through wu wei, nature always accomplishes what it sets out to achieve.
Living in Tao
Wu wei permeates every aspect of life — influencing everything from mundane tasks to the loftiest forms of creative expression.
It guides us through the natural rhythm of the day:
Are you hungry? Eat.
Are you tired? Sleep.
Do you feel sad? Cry.
Do you feel happy? Laugh.
Do you feel the desire to create something? Create.
The list goes on.
Stepping away from this concept is to be "doing" or applying effort. When you're tired but don't sleep. Creative, but don't create. You are, in effect, swimming against the current.
Allow these moments to ebb and flow as they do and go along with it. Embrace each moment as it presents itself.
Everything gets done.
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