The way of the Tao

The goal for wu wei is to get out of your own way, so to speak. This is like when you are playing an instrument and if you start thinking about playing the instrument, then you will get in your own way and interfere with your own playing. It is aimless action, because if there was a goal that you need to aim at and hit, then you will develop anxiety about this goal. Zhuangzi made a point of this, where he writes about an archer who at first didn’t have anything to aim at. When there was nothing to aim at, the archer was happy and content with his being. He was practicing wu wei. But, then he set up a target and “got in his own way.” He was going against the Tao and the natural course of things by having to hit that goal.

A dramatic description of wu wei is found in chapter 2 of Zhuang Zi:

A fully achieved person is like a spirit! The great marshes could be set on fire, but she wouldn’t feel hot. The rivers in China could all freeze over, but she wouldn’t feel cold. Thunder could suddenly echo through the mountains, wind could cause a tsunami in the ocean, but she wouldn’t be startled. A person like that could ride through the sky on the floating clouds, straddle the sun and moon, and travel beyond the four seas. Neither death nor life can cause changes within her, and there’s little reason for her to even consider benefit or harm.

This passage is metaphorical. To a Taoist, things arise dependently. The soul and body go together, because if there were no soul, there would be no body and if there were no body, there would be no soul. All these arise dependently like this (this is the meaning of the Yin-Yang symbol; if there were no yin, there would be no yang and if there were no yang, there would be no yin). A person who follows the principle of wu wei thus realizes how ridiculous it is to cling to good and to obsessively stay away from evil. By realizing how things arise dependently, a Taoist is able to accept both the good and the bad. Because he is able to accept any outcome, he is then able to have no goal to aim at. When Zhuangzi is saying a fully achieved person is like a spirit, he is saying that a fully achieved person does not differentiate between good and evil, benefit and harm, and therefore is not concerned with them: his actions become one with the Tao and as such he leaves no trace of having acted, nor can the consequences of his actions affect him.

-wikipedia on the concept of wu wei.

2 thoughts on “The way of the Tao”

  1. From what I understand (no expert) its main tenants are acceptance and flow – those are hard concepts to master, or even to step into. To accept the chaos around us – like not just out in the world but in our own minds, in our lives – and then to give up, and be pulled by those things… The Tao sounds easy, but its not. It says its supposed to be effortless, but that assumes that we can just step into our own suffering and own it with everything that we have. Its effortless after we have fought for so long against the flow of our lives, and we realize to simply stop trying to fight the river and turn and face down stream – but that can take an entire life, even with the knowledge that turning and going with the flow is what is needed.

    Sometimes I don't want to be sad when its what I need most in the world, or I want to talk to people when really what I need is alone time – and sometimes I need to talk to people and I try and be alone and it never 'works'.

    It really is easiest to 'give up' and accept the sadness, lonliness and alienation that come with being alive – and its crazy to think how much I've run in my life, run away from these things – and realize that so many industries are built around helping people run away from the sensations of sadness, lonliness and dispair. Drugs, dieting, medication, self-help, dating, alcohol, consumerism – almost anything can be used as a means to escape. And I get why people run, because those sensations are painful, especially when everyone around you is making these things out to be a failure – like if you experience these things you are doing something wrong. And I get why people stop running, because you wake up and realize that 5 or 10 years have gone by and you have little to show for the passed time, like you've been on a treadmill, and still with that basic, unalterable anxiety of just being in the world.

    I think the Tao tells us to stop trying to obliterate what's in us, but rather to accept the basic anxiety, basic sadness and to give up and just accept it – and accept its energy and let it take us.

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