In this world, there are endless paradoxes that permeate through society, sometimes capable of causing existential crises. Two such paradoxes are found in the Daoist principle wu-wei.
Its translations range from “action through inaction” to “non-doing” to “not acting against the nature of things.” The constant thread that links these translations is the idea that by doing less we can accomplish more. At first, this idea seems ludicrous. How can we do more by doing less? From biographies of great leaders to the principles of physics, the idea that the more force we apply, the more we can accomplish has been instilled in us. However, appearances are deceiving.
To use force for attainment, we must apply it with the hands of a surgeon and not the hands of a five-year-old child. When performing surgery, a surgeon is precise and takes the least amount of action in order to minimize the chance for error whereas the hands of children are chaotic.
Much like rice is threshed to remove the outer hull and stalk, the model practitioner of wu-wei strips away their worries and meaningless actions so that they can act without burdens. They do not constrain themselves to the pressures of their surroundings but rather express their inner natures. An acorn seed does not try to become a dandelion and proponents of wu-wei do not undertake meaningless action. They go with the flow of life much like the fall leaves fly with the wind.
The second inherent paradox of wu-wei is that it requires great finesse and effort to accomplish. Accomplishing wu-wei means that we must apply effort without being attached to the outcome of such action. Yet, our brains are constantly under pressure from the stimuli in our everyday lives such as exams, family, careers and so forth. We scheme on how to get an “A” in psychology class, fret over impressing our parents, and go through the effort of securing internships.
Yet, life always reminds us that inevitably we cannot always get what we want. That goal to achieve an “A” in psychology is thwarted by the death of a parent, and thoughts of obtaining an internship become shadowed by grief and mourning. We cannot always control our final destiny, thus we should focus on what we can control: our inner thoughts, emotions, and actions. An oft used expression is “the more you squeeze, the more sand slips through your fingers.” By clinging too hard, we only accelerate our losses. Wu-wei teaches us to let go.
No matter how much we dream, we humans are confined to a frail sack of blood and bones. The shadow of death is ever looming so we grasp on to life with an iron grip. We worry over the minute details of our every day, but the great irony is that by doing this we only accelerate our own demise.
To be truly free, learn to let go.