Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of Wu Wei is "without action" and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. The aim of wu wei is to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium, or alignment with the Tao, and, as a result, obtain an irresistible form of "soft and invisible" power.
There is another less commonly referenced sense of wu wei; "action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort". In this instance, Wu means "without" and Wei means "effort". The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Baguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that Wu wei complies with the main feature and distinguishing characteristic of Taoism, that of being natural. To apply wu wei to any situation is to take natural action.
In Zen Calligraphy, Wu Wei has been represented as a circle.
In the traditional (partly Confucian) Chinese understanding of governance, a prince has only to sit at the right place, facing south, with a prince's traditional attributes, and his country will be well governed. In Lun Yu II.1., Confucius compares a virtuous prince to the North Pole in which he finds himself: he does not move and everything turns around him. There are magical justifications behind this idea of a power obtained by "inaction." It is the Chinese "correspondence", or "synchronicity" theory, where the macrocosm is duplicated, in microcosms. According to the theory, ordering the Emperor's palace is governing the country well: the palace is a homothetic reproduction of the country. Chinese history is full of examples of natural disasters cured by means such as the opening of a new door in the walls of the Imperial palace.
Some philosophers, for example Wang Chong, have questioned this theory. A more pragmatic view may interpret this as a means to restrain the prince from abuse of power, enjoining him to 'do' as little as possible.
In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode even solid stone (for example, Grand Canyon) and move mountains (for example, landslides). Water is without will (that is, the will for a shape), though it may be understood to be opposing wood, stone, or any solid aggregated material that can be broken into pieces. Due to its nature and propensity, water may potentially fill any container, assume any shape; given the Water cycle water may potentially go "anywhere", even into the minutest holes, both metaphorical and actual. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming rivers of water, joining the proverbial sea: this is the nature of water. Furthermore, whilst always yielding downwards, water finds its own level in the 'dark valley' — where biological life is regenerated — analogous to the fecund reproductive organs.
Several chapters of the most important Taoist scripture, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, allude to "diminishing doing" or "diminishing will" as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.
Related translation from the Tao Tê Ching by Priya Hemenway, Chapter II:
The Sage is occupied with the unspokenWu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to perceive the Tao within all things and to conform oneself to its "way."
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
the Sage has nothing to lose.
One way of envisioning wu wei is through Laozi's writings on how a ruler should govern their kingdom. The advice compares governing to frying a small fish (too much poking and the meal is ruined). In other words, create general policies and direction, but do not micromanage. To do this well, you must understand the ways of your people and not go against the grain.
The concept of wu wei is often described as performing a selfless act but this merely exposes the background of the writer. Faith-based religions have selfless acts and “doing good” as part of their belief system. In Taoist teaching however “good” is unknowable and a selfless act can only be performed by someone in an egoless state. Every act performed by someone in the usual way of things has some kind of reward attached whether it is financial, power, love, status or just feeling good about oneself. All these things are ego re-inforcing. To perform a selfless act one must let go of one's ego and pass into an altered state of consciousness. This is called wu wei – the state of doing without doing. Here every act is selfless for the ego has ceased to exist. There is no I making decisions and the outcome is always perfect.
It is not an imaginary state that we aspire to but one readily achievable and frequently entered by those performing repetitive movements which require energy and concentration. It may be experienced by athletes, performers, musicians, ramblers, students of the nei jia (the internal schools of martial arts) students of the wai jia (the external schools), yoga practitioners, students of certain schools of meditation and others. The majority of those who have entered wu wei have no fore-knowledge of the event and only know that something extraordinary happened that they couldn't put into words.
In the nei jia, one of the aims is to be able to fight in this state. There is no ego wishing to aggrandise itself by punishing the opponent and every move is performed effortlessly before one has time to think. One blocks every move by one's opponents yet for all parties involved you might be playing with clouds (it's painless and without harmful consequence).
As one diminishes doing — here 'doing' means those intentional actions taken to benefit us or actions taken to change the world from its natural state and evolution — one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao, the already present natural harmony. As such one begins to cultivate Tao, one also becomes more in harmony with Tao; and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'. It is in the state of Ming that the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this pointless point of non-action, there is nothing that is left undone.' It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that a sage begins to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the sage will be able to work in harmony with Tao to accomplish what is needed, and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.
An example of active non-action using wu wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is dictated to a student (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience.
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 Zhuangzi:
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 probably 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. (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, Zhuangzi is saying a fully achieved person is like a spirit: 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.