The decision to make changes in our life is a very powerful tool when considering that most of us at times continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. Even when our intention is good, it still seems that we behave in ways that often repeat prior conduct that may not have been very successful. We are creatures of habit and unless we are able to see through this, we may continue to follow a similar path not quite advancing our cause. Whether we know it or not, it may be that our awareness of this is a key part to understanding our place in this equation. Mindfulness of the foreseeability of our conduct is a crucial factor. If we are unaware of the intention, the desired result, and the possibility for alternative outcomes, then we may fail to meet that ambition, in like manner we may indeed have varying degrees of success or quite possibly experience just blind luck if things go well.
In contrast it is proper to consider the Taoist principle of Wei Wu Wei, or “Action through Non-action! An example of this principle is the attainment of happiness. One does not necessarily realize happiness without any activity or analytic comparative perspective. Happiness is not something you actively seek, but rather it is the byproduct of doing things that make you happy.
Several chapters of the most important Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tzu, allude to “diminishing doing” or “diminishing will” as the key aspect of the sage’s success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts to the natural processes already existent. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.
Wu Wei has also been translated as “creative quietude,” or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to be the Tao within all things and to cultivate oneself to its “way.”
As one diminishes doing—here ‘doing’ means those intentional actions taken to help us or actions taken to change the world from its natural state and evolution—one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao, the already present natural harmony. As such one begins to cultivate Tao, one also becomes more in harmony with Tao; and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, attains a state of Ming, or ‘clear seeing’. It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and ‘having arrived at this pointless point of non-action, there is nothing that is left undone.’ It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to ‘enlightenment’ that a sage begins to practice wei wu wei, or ‘action without action.’ Thus the sage will be able to work in harmony with Tao to carry out what is needed, and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.
An example of active non-action using wu wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is modeled to a student (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learning’s have been integrated in their lived experience.
The concept of wu wei is often described as performing acts bereft of self. In Taoist teaching, however, “good” is unknowable. An act bereft of self can only be performed by someone in an ego-less state. Every act performed by someone in the usual way of things has a reward attached whether it is financial, power, love, status or just feeling good about oneself. All these things are ego re-enforcing. To do an act bereft of self one must let go of one’s ego and pass into an enlightened state of consciousness. This is called wu wei – the state of doing without doing. Here every act is without self for the ego has ceased to exist. There is no making decisions and the outcome is always perfect.
“The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in response to things. It responds to things but conceals nothing of its own. Therefore it is able to deal with things without injury to [its reality].”
The understanding of one’s connectivity to the Tao, the understanding of one’s proper relation to the world can lead one into a life that is not void of fulfillment. By pursuing the wrong things, or looking at things in the wrong way and asking the wrong questions, one may be apt to miss out on what is truly the fulfilling life. The trappings of material possession, ego, and bodily pleasures are illusory. Knowing the proper mediation and negotiation of and between them will make vast differences in the way we live. Imposition of the will upon the nature of things is futile, and may lead to pointless pursuits that surely will end in a being that is unfulfilled.
“Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Chuang Tzu. I do not know whether it was Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu. Between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.”