wu wei

“Plum Blossoms Green Wash” by Ren Adams


In my earlier post like a tree in the wind, I described a Taoist approach to dealing with stress and adversity.  An important part of this approach involves the Taoist concept of wu wei—translated as non-acting, or spontaneous, effortless acting—which has come up in several other previous posts, such as non-striving.  As I’ve mentioned before, wu wei often involves following and yielding to the forces of nature, but it does not imply passivity or lack of any response.  This is a difficult and subtle distinction that is hard to describe, but you can start to feel the meaning of wu wei more deeply by studying and practicing Tai Chi Chuan.  In addition to taking lessons in Yang style Tai Chi Chuan (Cheng-Man Ching form), I’ve recently started to take lessons in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan, and have been reading an excellent book recommended by my Chen teacher entitled Chen:  Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style by Master Jan Silberstorff.  In the chapter “Taiji—A Philosophy,”  Master Silberstorff does an excellent job of describing this subtle concept of wu wei, and how it applies to dealing with incoming forces or stresses in the context of Tai Chi Chuan, but also in many other contexts.  Below, I quote several paragraphs from Master Silberstorff’s description of wu wei in Chen, because I can’t do justice to it by summarizing it or paraphrasing it.  I really like this passage because it ties together many themes that I’ve tried to address separately in previous posts.  For example, he uses this analogy of a tree, with a strong root, powerful trunk, but flexible branches that reminded me Lao Tzu analogy’s about a tree in the wind (see my post like a tree in the wind).  He also touches upon the theme of following (see my previous post following) and becoming one with nature (see several previous posts on Becoming Tao).

“Following the natural course of affairs, not to intervene but to act spontaneously instead means WuweiWuwei, mostly translated as ‘non-acting,’ doesn’t necessarily mean to lie back and view things from outside… One principle of Taijiquan is to give way, receding however without losing personal stability.  This is not like a piece of cotton flying away, but giving way on the basis of a strong centre, a strong root with a powerful trunk and flexible branches…It involves yielding out of a strong structure, without having to abandon my own centre…

“Non-acting indicates a condition of spontaneity, namely, acting in accordance with the actual situation, backed by all my expertise, but within the here and now.  Therefore my actions are never rigid, not following any stiff dogmas established in the past; instead my actions grow afresh within the situation they arose from…”

–Jan Silberstorff, Chen:  Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style, 2009, Singing Dragon,  pp.50-51

By developing a strong sense of our own center, our own root, together with our flexibility and spontaneity, we can remain solid within ourselves and yet flow with the ups and downs and changes of life, while having a sense of inner peace.  Chuang-tzu, the great Taoist master and disciple of Lao-tzu, described this state.

“The Master maintains his balance

whichever opposite he enters.

He lets things go through their changes

And stays focused on what is real.

He is like the ocean:

though there are waves on its surface,

in its depth there is perfect calm.”

–Chuang-tzu, quoted in the The Second Book of Tao, Chapter 17, by Stephen Mitchell

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


2 Responses to “wu wei”

  1. plasticpumpkin Says:

    Brilliant post.

  2. Aspiring Taoist Says:

    Thanks, Ren!

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