The Art of Doing Nothing

Wu Wei

Wu wei comes from a Chinese Philosophy that encourages the art of doing nothing. It is perhaps more accurately translated as “doing by not doing." I like this translation because it implies that doing nothing is in fact something. It would be wrong to reduce wu wei to mere laziness; it is really about a surrender to the natural way of things. Wu wei might be likened to “going with flow,” provided that one understands that the flow here is not the one created by a mass culture. In other words, getting caught up in the latest fads and fashions is not wu wei. Going with the flow is, paradoxically, to go against the flow of a frenetic, superficial world.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself
(Zenrin Kushu)
Too often in this life we get trapped into thinking that we matter most when we are able to impose our will, to get our own way, to leave our mark. Constant struggle and effort, however, often lead to frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment. Sometimes, it is simply better to let things unfold. Lao Tzu reminds us that water always finds its course.

What’s softest in the world
rushes and runs
over what’s hardest in the world.
The immaterial enters the impenetrable
So I know the good in not doing. 
Of course effort certainly has its place. In Zen, however, often the purpose of effort is to get to place where things become effortless and easy. The Zen archer, it is said, does not so much shoot the arrow as let it be released. The great Chuang Tzu tells the parable of the Dexterous Butcher. The Dexterous Butcher does not hack and saw to cut up the ox. Instead, he has learned to find the spaces between the joints, and in this way, cuts up the ox without effort. Most butchers, he says, need to sharpen their blades every year. The Dexterous Butcher has not needed to sharpen his blade in nineteen years. He has found “the way.”
For many years I trained and competed in the sport of Judo. I am proud to have earned a black belt in this art. On the surface, judo may appear to be aggressive and even violent. Yet, in its purest form, nothing could be further from the truth. Judo actually translates to “gentle way.” While “gentle” might not seem quite accurate for a sport that includes strangle holds and submissions, the point is that the Judo expert is able to use his opponent’s force and momentum to his own advantage. Done well, Judo techniques are effortless. They are done without thinking, and when applied in just the right way, yield some impressive results. Of course, it can take years of training and effort to find the place where things become effortless.
Doing nothing, it turns out, is something many people are unable to do. It seems counter intuitive to practice doing nothing, I know. Our Twenty-first Century lifestyles have us programmed otherwise. In fact, I see many people today over-function -  double and triple checking things, responding right away and not allowing things to work themselves out, trying to micro-manage and coordinate the minutiae of life - who our children play with, what teacher they get, what team they play for, and so on.  This attempt to control, this desire to try and manage everything, must be mitigated. This is why wu-wei is so important!
In doing nothing, you are freeing yourself to simply be in a moment. And if doing nothing seems impossible, impossible because you are always doing something, even if it is breathing, or swallowing, or listening, do not worry about it, this is a technicality and not to be fretted over.
With practice, regular wu wei can enrich your life in many extraordinary ways. It has the power to rejuvenate and refresh. You fall into a sort of rhythm with the universe. You are no longer like the stone skimming over the surface of things at speed, but like a stone sinking into depths. And your life longs for this depth, for the wellspring that is crisp, clean, and nourishing.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders,” says Lao Tzu.


  1. I really enjoyed this!! It reminded me of when I was younger and I started telling people things like, "If we're doing nothing, then we're actually doing something because we are doing nothing and that it something." I always liked how complicated and silly it sounded yet how simple and important it really was. I had forgotten about it for a while now, until reading what you've written here. You've reminded me of the value in doing nothing and that I need to practice that more often! Thank you once again for sharing your awesome lessons of Zen.


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