Lao Tzu - "Do Nothing", Achieve Everything
Reading Taoist texts, I walked away with the impression that everything can be achieved through Wu Wei.
Wu Wei is literally translated as not-doing, non-action, or inaction.
So, when taken at face value, this seems to suggest that you can accomplish everything by doing nothing.
That doesn't make much sense obviously.
So, Wu Wei is often translated more loosely as effortless action or unforced action.
But I prefer the term sincere action.
Everything, in my opinion, is achieved through sincere action.
To fully explore what that means, let's start with a thought experiment.
Imagine that you woke up in a small sailboat.
An ocean filled with thousands of other boats surrounds you.
And there's no land in sight.
What do you do?
Do you follow the majority?
You should stay with the majority.
A man says to you.
There's great strength in numbers.
And strength will get us to land.
Or do you follow the minority?
You should stick with us.
A woman whispers.
Large groups are full of fighting.
We'll move faster as a minority.
And speed will get us to land.
Or perhaps you open your sails and let the wind and current take you wherever they lead.
There's no reason to follow anyone else, you think.
No one here actually knows the way to land.
And even if they did, I can't verify it for myself.
What could they know that I don't?
What knowledge do they have that I couldn't get myself?
There is no should.
I'll do what seems right to me in each moment.
Allowing the winds and currents to carry you along is Wu Wei, or in my words, sincere action.
In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in the entry on Daoism, it says: To act without wei is to remove the social,
conceptual character from our behavior and act on natural instinct or intuition.
So, in my understanding, to act without wei is to act without any shoulds.
There's no I should do this or I should do that.
There's no outer authority to follow blindly.
There's only, this seems best to me based on my current knowledge and experience.
So how does sincere action lead one to achieve everything?
To start, our actions arise from our understanding of the world.
So, right actions depend on right understanding.
But obviously our understanding of the world is flawed and incomplete.
So, what's more important than understanding?
We want our understanding to improve over time.
And sincerity is necessary for learning.
Let me explain.
Learning is a natural process that occurs when a human is involved in the world.
I'm using the term involved in a very specific way here.
Involvement has two conditions.
Sincerity and feedback.
Sincerity is when you act genuinely, in a way that seems best to you, in a way that's not dependent on external authority.
When you act sincerely, there's no one else to point the finger at.
All you can say is, that's what I wanted.
Feedback is when you're not sheltered from the consequences of your actions, for better or worse.
Let's look at some practical examples.
Think about how easily you learn the mechanics of a video game.
Why is that the case?
First, you're sincere in wanting to play and figure the game out.
Second, the game gives you feedback on your actions, allowing you to adjust your actions and learn the game.
So, when sincerity and feedback exist, learning occurs naturally.
Now think about the last time you crammed for a test.
Maybe you weren't that into the course.
So, there was no sincerity in your studying.
You studied because you felt you should, to get a good job or please your parents.
But you used flashcards to study.
So, there was feedback.
What happens when you have feedback without sincerity?
You may have memorized the facts for a test.
But how long was it until you forgot them?
Feedback without sincerity doesn't lead to true learning.
Now think about a summer.
Perhaps when you were younger, where you spent your time doing nothing but playing games and eating junk food.
You might say: Well, that's what I would do again if I was really acting sincerely.
I would just play games and eat junk.
But I have to make myself do other things if I want to succeed.
The problem here is not sincerity.
The problem here is a lack of real-world feedback.
Someone who's sheltered from the consequences of playing video games and eating junk food never learns to not do those activities.
Because there's no real consequences for their actions.
So, sincerity without feedback results in no learning.
So right action comes from right understanding.
Right understanding comes from learning.
Learning comes from involvement in the world.
Involvement comes from sincere action and feedback.
And to act sincerely is to live without wei or, in other words, to live Wu Wei.
And to live Wu Wei, is to allow the winds and currents to take you.
And so by "doing nothing", you accomplish everything.
As always, this is just my opinion and understanding of the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, not advice.
Feel free to use this information however you like.
And if you have a different take on Wu Wei, I'd love to hear your perspective in the comments.