Wuwei, the Art of Non-effort

Wuwei is a fondamental concepts in the Chinese Taoist philosophy. It encompass a simple wisdom open to deep interpretations.

What is Wuwei?

A literal translation could be ‘non-acting, non-action or non-effort’.
It is a difficult concept to grasp and can be applied in many different forms. My understanding of this concept may be limited. I will try here to expose some of the thoughts and interpretations that I came across. This is not however a definition or an exhaustive interpretation of the concept

What is the philosophy behind Wu wei?

The ideas behind wuwei are many. Primarily, non-acting is a way to achieve results with minimum effort, a path of non resistance if you will.
An image of wuwei could be that of a germinating seed, growing all by itself, drawing upon its own ressources. Once you planted the seed, if you’ve placed it carefully in the right environment, minimal effort is required to reap the benefits later, harvesting the plant.
With attention and effort, it would be possible to accelerate the process and the yield, but why and at what costs ? Often the extra efforts are not worth the extra benefits. Worse these extra interventions could be counter productive, hindering the development of the plant you are trying to grow.

The essence of wu wei: Do more with less

Wuwei is in essence to look for ways to plant seeds that can grow on their own.

It expresses itself in ressources management, influence, careful planning, and personal/spiritual development.

These can be investments, as well as nudges or suggestions, new strategies, cultures or behaviors, possibilities are endless.
To act according to wuwei is to be an initiating source and then pass on control or set up automation. It is to nurture independence and make yourself replaceable, to be able to reap reward of seeds you have planted long ago.

In a productive sense wuwei is finding a way to do less in order to do better.
In a spiritual sense wuwei is about freeing your mind and finding peace.

Wu wei in pratice.

Finding way to practice wuwei in life can lead to significant improvements.

Wu wei lets you;

-be more productive
-be more present
-be a better Listener, giving someone else attention
-capitalise on opportunities
-avoid mistakes and traps
-Develop Mental and physical well being
-Have more energy

How to develop wuwei in your life:

Developing patience and timing

Patience is considered a great virtue in taoism. Often a lot of problems that you think you might have resolves themselves with time. It can be foreign and opposite to the thinking system of many, but sometimes problems can resolve themselves, saving you the effort.
Sunshine often comes after the rain. It may take time for the right circumstances and opportunities to come, being patient let you be ready when they do come.

With patience, sometimes common problem can be resolved by someone els, thus you can save energy.

Patience lets you develop a certain adaptability, to go around obstacles instead of fighting them head on, like a bamboo that bend in the wind, undisturbed by external forces and pressure.

Patience is aided by the acceptation of the reality as it is. Often we want to change things because we see a problem. We also want it to change fast.
With greater acceptation and forbearance, you can let go of problems when others cannot and learn to work with or around obstacles instead of facing them head on. By accepting to work slower rather that faster, you might use your energy more productively and get less exhausted.

Everything comes to the one who can wait”

You also come to understand that things happens according to certain timing, rhythm and cycles. By acting when the time is right, you tend to save a lot of effort and be more successful.
You also learn you own rhythm and pace, learning to accelerate when energy is plentiful and slowing down when it is depleted. You learn sustainability and to go forward one step at a time. Persistence is like the water that flow through every cracks, fills any surfaces, wears away at the the strongest rocks.

There is no need to run, just to start at the right time.”

Changes do not happen overnight, and it take time for the seed that you planted to grow, such as an investment, an influential idea, a relationship, a new venture, etc. Growth is by definition affected by time.

With time, everything becomes possible, such as establishing capital through compounding interest, leading to a passive income, in finances as well as relationships, power, opportunities, etc.

A patient person understanding that progress is not linear and often happens in jumps.

Impatience and obsessive control are blocs to the expression of wuwei. They lead to struggles and waisted efforts as well as a clouded mind. Even if pushing through can lead to success, it is unlikely to be as effective and peaceful as the path of wuwei.


-Act with patience, accept that things take time
– Be opportunistic and strike only when the time is right
-Go at one’s own pace, learn when to accelerate and slow down
-Seed and wait
-Be sustained in your effort
-Impatience and obsessive control are blocs to the concepts of non action.

Developing focus and presence

Wuwei helps to let go of the unessential to focus on the essential. We have seen that by developing patience, one can become persistence and is less likely to become discouraged.

To truly become effortless, one must removes all the obstacles to the cognitive process as well as action. As long as there is resistance, extra effort will be needed to follow through.

One must learn to override strong emotions, and thoughts by understanding their nature, acknowledging the information they provide and letting them slide.

In a state of calm and peace, on can cultivate the presence necessary to be fully effective in the moment. Free from distraction, one not only learn to sustain focus on a topic but also free cognitive load.
With mind over mater, great things can be achieved.

A Taoist saying is “where the mind goes, the chi goes.”, meaning that energy follows attention. If attention is squandered, so is the energy and progress will be slow at best.

The right mindset let one’s understand when to act , when to rest and when to adapt.
As stated earlier, maybe nothing actually needs to be done and the situation does not need to be change. It is only mental rigidity that maintain one stuck in a painful experience.

One can also reduce cognitive effort by screaming the amount of information that comes into one’s life. In the information age, so much is absorb everyday, and it is difficult to decide what to pay attention to.

Decision fatigue happen quickly, when so many choices are available and opinions on everything need to be had. Through wuwei one can focus on what really mater, and let go or create automation for the rest

By gaining control over one own mind and attention, one can start framing the mind for appropriate focus, flowing from on object of attention to another, without difficulty.

Presence of mind lets one experience the moment more fully , and avoid missing opportunities that others would have, to focus on the experiences not the though/interpretations


-gain control over ones emotions
-reduce cognitive load
-develop focus
-mindfulness of the present

Developping organisation and cooperation

Wuwei can also be understood in an engineering sense of optimisation. Experience from trial and error lets one refine a craft or method in order to make it as efficient as possible.

To increase efficiency is to reduce the cost of production (ressources such as energy, time, and money or mater) and/or increasing yield/productivity.
Experimenting to refine efficiency can be applied to any field of production.

It is important however to consider the importance of cognitive effort used for planning and overseeing change. Being obsessive about optimisation is not wuwei.

You can spend a lot of effort in order to optimise little, with negligible actual benefit. This is not wuwei as cognitive effort is considered a ressource. If the engineer can not pay for himself over with the work or contribution, it is safe to say that it is a waist of ressources.

In optimisation through non-action, the 20/80 rule often true. The 20/80 rule states that 20% of the efforts reaps 80% of the reward, and the remaining 20% need 80% of the effort in order to be achieved. In a desire for perfection, the remaining 20% becoming increasingly difficult to attain

In order to be effective, careful observation and planing are often necessary, assessing the ground before building a house, studying a market before launching a product.

A little more time invested at first can save a lot of time and energy later, by not having to redo things twice due to lack of preparation.

Considering things carefully and act decisively in a timely fashion is wuwei, like a calm before a storm or a stalking predator waiting to pounce at the right moment.

You should strive to cooperate as much as possible. Let go of pride, and get help as often as you can. The more people help you and work on your side, the less you have to do alone. The better you can cooperate and build effective networks, the better we become. People often enjoy helping as well. They don’t necessarily want help in return. It help increase the bonds of you relationship, as they ‘invested’ in you in some ways.

Learn how to receive and give and nourishing free flowing exchanges that enrich life and the relationship.

Letting go of control is achieved through trust, organisation and planning. By planning ahead, thinking about the path of least effort you can execute with less difficulty. You can delegate effectively so that other can help you. By being to controlling and checking on subordinates work to tightly, you risk hindering their progress as well as spending your own energy unproductively.


-Experiment to optimise ressources and forces in order to attain maximal results
-Observation before decisive action
-Not making the same mistake twice
-Doing it right the first time
-Delegate effectively
-Build trust and cooperate

Developing balance, peace and harmony in the mind and in life

Another aspect of wuwei is to surround oneself in the right environment, to align circumstances in order to increase on chances of success.
The environment that you evolve in is influential of how productive, relax and energetic you can be.
In that regard wuwei, is intertwined with the other Chinese concept of Feng shui, which is to organize one’s environment and surrounding energies in order to achieve.

The persons that you spend most of your time with, where you live, the activities that you do plays a crucial role in your wellbeing and productivity.

As you learn to surround yourself with what is useful and discard what is useless, life becomes easier, clearer and enjoyable.

In order to do that, you need to determine what you objectives and values are and then you can identify what environment would work best for you and ally yourself with the right people. Balance can be reach in the internal environment as well as external environment.

When one reaches harmony through an elimination process, peace of mind can be found.

Reaching peace by elimination of the unnecessary let one be satisfied and happy with little, only the essential.

The subject of most our desires and consumptions are the results of our boredom , illusions or to nurture a bloated ego. Sometimes letting go of the accessories open one to the relative freedom of a small necessity.

Wills and objectives can also be in conflit. One can be in a state of inner war, a lack of congruency. Reconciliation with all the different part of the self, choosing not to act on one’s destructive impulses, help to achieve inner balance.

when one is in tune with one own nature and objectives, one is not burden by obligations that might be illusions or others bullying wishes.

Inner balance offer perspectives and support peace of mind as well. To develop balance, one must come to the realization that everything comes and go, that bad and good are to side of the same coin, and that everything is intertwined.
As there is strength in weakness and weakness in strength, attitude and behaviors are positive or negative depending on how appropriate they are with the current circumstances, not in and of themselves.

Seeking balance and harmony in order to achieve peace of mind is a continuous refining process of one’s condition, until through wuwei one can aim to develop balance with the changing nature of the universe.

To recap

-Surrounding one with the right environment, people and activities
-Pursue the good and abstain from the bad
-Being in tune with one own nature
-Reconciliation of the selves
-Finding satisfaction in the mundane
-Accept doing nothing
-Go beyond boredom
-Unity with nature and acceptance of the inevitability of change

Developing freedom through non-attachement:

Wuwei can represent mental flexibility, letting go of expectation and attachment. When you desperately want things that are out of your control to be a certain way, not only you try to gain little control by exerting yourself, but you also miss opportunities and rebounds, because you mind is obsessive, absorbed and unfocused.

Not being goal dependent let you enjoy the journey as well as the present moment, having faith that all you need is time and things will be as you wish eventually.

Wuwei, help you letting go of what you cannot control in order to focus on what you can control, mainly your mind, emotions, intelligence.

Ultimately wuwei is a form of mental liberation, a realization that most humain behaviors are subjects to drives that are mainly illusions. People want to seek pleasure and avoid pain, while feeling secure and certain.
A lot of their actions result from ideas sprouting in their minds, telling them it will fulfill those needs.

Through wuwei one can understand that those drives are mainly fulfilled inside the mind, and that in fact very little outward action is required to reach peace and happiness. This gives one more freedom, by feeling less need to battle around, and giving more time for very efficient action, the minimum that is necessary for sustenance and meaning.

Wuwei can also be interpreted as a form of non volition, or no will. It is letting go of preferences and decisions. If someone is truly free, one is not bound by circumstances, therefore one is indifferent betweens options and events. Letting go of the desire to control and change brings about a form of peace. Non volition is close to experiencing a form of death itself. As life itself is change and growth and death itself is permanence and stillness.
Within a balance practice, one can remain appropriately active in life as well as preparing for one’s inevitable death. One can flow through the cycle of action and rest, of doing and not doing, of being and not being, effortlessly.

Through letting go one can realize the ungraspable nature of truth. We try to categorize and understand, to limit reality in order to approach it, to feel more certain and secure.
Letting go of the desire to understand reality as whole can be a freeing experience, one can accept one’s limitation, we only have a small hardware after all. Remaining in the not knowing, forever as a novice or a newborn, let’s one life continuously learn and be open to life, embracing the unknown. One comes to embracing the flow of life, that one will never truly ‘get there’, that behind the hill, there is always another.
Let the truth reveals itself to you by being open, you will not find it by searching.


-Not be dependent on a result
-Doing for the sake of doing, the journey
-Not be affected by success or failure
-Not seeking, being full instead of needy
-Letting go of the uncontrollable
-Controlling oneself
-Being free from expectations, desires, attachements and obligations
-Finding the void in the self to cut through illusions, finding a state of flow
-Stop trying to rationalise, limiting reality in knowledge

Developing Intuition and faith

With the practice of wuwei comes a faith and intuition in nature. By believing that thing will be OK, having faith in good outcomes, the mind is free to express its full potential.
You might have noticed that is often when we are not attached, unworried and not trying that we perform at our best. Having faith in a positive outcome, being attune to oneself and free from desire leads paradoxically to achieve one’s goal with ease, naturally, you just need to show up and be there.

By having faith you are letting things fall into place, untroubled by the obstacles, they slide of naturally, and the only element remains, time.

Practice non-doing and everything will fall into place”

Through faith, one come to act more instinctively. Their is great intelligence into instinctive or subconscious activity that can be sometimes be very acute, taping into an higher mind. Acting intuitively, once can become a channel, a link to inner qualities, virtues and creative force.

On can trust in the process and let go of the mapped future, gaining adaptability.

By being spontaneous and instinctive, you let the learning process happen naturally. Effortless learning arrise from that which is done without will, direction or control, a form of effortless spontaneity born from repetition. You are also less likely to cap or stagnate, by knowing how is done, being open to constant renewal.

“Do what you do as if you didn’t know how”

This form of faith can bring about change through the law of attraction, when one is align with forces more than one’s own.


-Develop the art of not trying
-letting spontaneity happen
-Being open to learning

Saving and Cultivating energy

More than a concept, through the application of its precept, wuwei become an energetic practice. Through abstention and cultivation, on grow and bloom mental and physical energy and become healthier and more vibrant.

One come to save and cultivate energy in

-through mental regulation
-through careful activities
-energetic practices

Gaining control over the mind, on save energy by focusing only on what matters. All the tiering distraction are discarded in favor of one’s priorities.
Because one understand and let go of what he cannot change, struggle are avoided. This sense of realism helps to ground one’s action in a concrete and effective fashion.

One learns to deal with other people wisely and avoid exhausting debate, emotions and engagement. One learn the subtle art on influence instead of direct confrontation and learns to not be bothered by other state of mind.

Because thoughts and emotion require a lot of energy, the one who stays in a state of peace saves a lot.

Because one understand that most activities are just moving around and staying busy, one limit its activity to what is necessary and effective. In this sense, he might appear not to be doing much, not exert much effort, while he achieve more.

As we seen by going with the current, letting external forces take care of problems, on save much energy.


With non-action on makes most of his time of rest as well. Rest if used to refill and increase once energy, simply by being still, with focus attention. Through meditation, visualisation and energy cultivation practice, one become gradually more radiant.

The wuwei of the body.

As wuwei expresses itself in the minds, it also does in the body.
It is finding effortlessness in movement and can bloom in any physical activities through relaxation, practice, repetition and mastery.

In martial art such as Tai chi and Aikido, wuwei is a central concept, by redirecting the force of the opponent against him.
In life you can see the movement and directions of forces and use them to your advantage. The path of least resistance is sought to disable your opponent, often using gravity and momentum instead of exerting force. Gravity can also settle one own joint, grounding him, rooted in reality. It is a good philosophie in martial arts and in life.

In any physical movement, practicing wuwei is finding an economy of motion, and amplitude in action, to learn through repetitive practice learn to make a movement effortless, engaging only the right muscle and suppressing resistance of the antagonist muscle through relaxation.
When you observe old expert craftsmen, they can often appear to be slow moving. But the precision and refining of practice often leads to their impressive productivity, they learn to work smarter, not harder.

If the mind is relax, the body will be relax to, tension, effort and struggle of the physics often start with the mind.

By practicing relaxation of the body, as well as the cultivation of energy in the body through breathing, Tai chi or yoga, one body become apt to move in an unhindered way and add longevity to his life.

Wuwei leads to transcendence

I believe the highest form of wuwei is a form of enlightenment or transcendance, a unity with the flow of life and events.
A representative quote from the Dao de jing is ‘The way never acts yet nothing is left undone’. It is a belief in the harmony or will of life, the Tao, the way.

In an industrial and busy age, not doing can be mistaken for laxisme. But a few understand that a lot of human activities is waisted effort, and by cutting through what is inefficient, very little can produce great results. Panics and gesticulations are the noises that hides people’s fear of experiencing a void in the self head on.

We identify ourselves with wishes, desires ,will and a sense of control. We tend to exert control in order to prove to ourselves that we exist, to create a response from our environment, to feel felt.

Identification to the ego can even bring a exaggerated sense of importance and responsibility. We intuitively believe to be the center of the world, since we are the center of our world.
Because we canot sense what is ‘outside’ ourselves through our nervous system, it is identify as distinct, people and objects becomes it to our I.

But where does our wishes come from, from a feeling of fulfillment or la feeling of lack?
Letting go of control can create space for happiness, “You are unhappy because most of what you do is for yourself, but their isn’t one”. One finds that the deepest meaning is rooted in virtue such as generosity and altruism.

Our sense of over-importance can even bring a feeling of self-appointed responsibility, like the world rest on our shoulders and it is up to us to make a difference. We want to achieve, to earn respect, to distinguish ourselves, and have a good life. For most, the desire for success leads to an experience of striving and struggle. Balance means to contribute in one own life, not in a desperate and egotistic but in a sustained way.

When we are free from duty, we wish to ‘relax’. But relaxation in this modern world is just doing something else than work. Relaxation becomes distraction, anything is fair game to push away stillness and silence, being confronted with the uncomfortable truth of our limitations, discovering our true nature.

By practicing wuwei, maybe you will become OK with not doing, increasing your presence to what is there waiting for you. Everybody wants to tell, few only to really listen. We are a story driven society, pursuing stimulating thoughts and ideas about a projected reality, in a collective dream.
By listening, leaving your ego at the door, you learn the stories of others, letting life speak to you instead of chasing after it. Giving attention and time becomes possible because you are rich, by not squandering them, You can become humble and generous,connect with others in a more intimate way.

Thank you for reading