Wu Wei: Lao Zi’s Key to the Tao

Wu Wei is a teaching that runs throughout Lao Zi’s classic work, the Tao Te Ching. In this article, I will explain what Wu Wei is and detail the different meanings this expression carries.

Nicolas Rufino dos Santos
Thoughts And Ideas
10 min readApr 19, 2022


Lao Zi (Source: O Grande Jardim).

Despite being composed of only two syllables, the Chinese term Wu Wei carries deep meaning. Literally, the expression is translated as “doing nothing”, “non-interference” or “non-action”. These words mean that we must not go against our own nature, our inner self, but identify the natural movement of life so that it flows in its own way. It is about living in a carefree, peaceful and balanced way.

This does not mean that we should be irresponsible with our commitments and obligations. On the contrary. Wu Wei teaches us that we need to recognize them, but that it is enough to look at them without analyzing them with our intellect. It is precisely because we believe that we can solve everything from our thinking that we prevent life from happening in its own way, and solve our issues in the best possible way. When we practice Wu Wei, we will live fully in the present time, not think about the past and the future, and we will feel a strong intuition that will drive us to act when it is really necessary. With this, we come to harmonize with the Tao, which will solve our problems in a better way, and we will relieve our anxiety by letting go of the need to control life.

In The Wisdom of Nature, Roberto Otsu writes that, although Wu Wei is commonly confused with passivity and accommodation, the term consists of a very active posture. If, on the one hand, the person will intuitively identify the forces that life is leading him to, on the other hand, he will adopt a non-resistance behavior, trusting that life and the Tao will lead him to the best possible path. According to Otsu, “when all natural circumstances take a person in a certain direction, as if he were floating in a river in vigorous motion, the wisest thing is to stop resisting or swimming against the current and let the waters carry you.”

Roberto Otsu explains that oriental peoples used the elements of nature to extract valuable life lessons. To exemplify this idea, the author cites the behavior of bamboo. By observing this element, the eastern peoples learned the importance of being flexible and of not swimming against the current. When winter comes, blocks of snow clump together on the bamboo, but instead of fighting the weight of the snow, the bamboo gives in to the pressure of the weight, bending over until it almost touches the ground so that the snow falls to the ground. After that, the bamboo returns to its initial position, without breaking due to the weight of the snow. Due to its flexibility and non-resistance ability, bamboo survives heavy loads.

The Tao Te Ching introduces the term Wu Wei for the first time in its second chapter. In this passage, Lao Zi writes:

All under heaven see beauty as beauty only because they also see ugliness.
All announce that good is good only because they also denounce what is bad.

Therefore, something and nothing give birth to one another.
Difficult and easy complete one another.
Long and short fashion one another.
High and low arise from one another.
Notes and tones harmonise with one another.
Front and back follow one another.

Thus, the True Person acts without striving and teaches without words.

Deny nothing to the ten thousand things.
Nourish them without claiming authority,
Benefit them without demanding gratitude,
Do the work, then move on.

And, the fruits of your labour will last forever — Lao Zi.

This passage can be analyzed from different angles, as well as several others presented in the Tao Te Ching. Lao Zi reflects on various themes, such as detachment, duality, trust and relativism in our personal interpretations.

Lao Zi says that “Thus, the True Person acts without striving and teaches without words”. This non-action described in the Tao Te Ching is Wu Wei himself.

However, before delving into the different meanings of Wu Wei, it is important to read about the central expression in Lao Zi’s work: the Tao.

What is Tao?

Although there is no single translation for the word Tao, it is usual to use it as a synonym for the Way. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zi reminds us that the true Tao is so subtle and mysterious that it cannot even be defined, described, or even explained with language. In the very first verse of the opening chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zi says: “The way that can be expressed is not the constant Way.” In Solala Towler’s interpretation, this passage reveals that, even though Tao can mean “Path”, the term also means that this path does not consist of a material or fixed journey, but an inner one. According to Towler, Tao “means path, and at the same time, walking that path — the path which is a pathless path.”

Putting the nature and subtlety of the Tao into words is a challenge. Theo Fischer, however, in Wu Wei — The Tao’s Art of Living, writes that “the Tao is a dimension of yours and mine. It is not accessible by thought, but it can be lived and realized by us”. Taoists believe that there is a higher dimension which the human intellect cannot reach, but which is attainable by intuition. When we try to solve our problems using intellect, we prevent a greater force from solving them. The Taoists call this greater force the Tao. The recognition of the value of the Tao in our lives comes from the fact that human thinking is often limited, partial and insufficient to solve a series of everyday problems.

Theo Fischer writes that non-action means allowing the events of life to flow in their own way, that one simply observes the events without interfering with them. The Wu Wei exercise requires allowing and trusting that the Tao will solve our problems better and differently than human thinking. In other words, Wu Wei is the key to the Tao.

From the general ideas of Tao and Wu Wei presented, I will unfold the different meanings that the expression Wu Wei carries. And the first one is the search for balance.

We enter 21st century society bereft of ways to deal with the complexity of our time. And Wu Wei’s concept presents a fundamental development to respond to this complexity: balance and moderation.

Wu Wei in Chinese (Source: The School of Life)

1. Always seek balance. Don’t do anything in excess.

In analyzing and translating the Tao Te Ching, Solala Towler writes that Wu Wei expresses not exaggerating, not trying to force something to happen. According to the author, Wu Wei “means not doing anything in excess, like eating or exercising too much, which causes stomach discomfort and exhaustion. It means doing just enough and nothing more.” So Wu Wei is about balance.

By observing the phenomena of nature, the eastern peoples learned the importance of living in moderation. Roberto Otsu writes the following:

In Nature, there is nothing that is made up of only one aspect. We do not find any manifestation that is absolutely yin or absolutely yang. There is shadow during the day and the brightness of the stars during the night. There is no total light or total darkness. Therefore, living in balance means avoiding polarization to only one side; it is to experience all aspects of life in a moderate way, without exaggeration, without extremism, and according to its own nature — Roberto Otsu.

Living in balance is essential. If you feel like you’re trying too hard to make something happen, that’s a sign that something is wrong. And this does not only apply to your physical, bodily dimension, but also mental and spiritual.

Lao Zi advises us to be balanced in everything. In fact, this recommendation is not against nature, but in her favor, for she herself tends to balance: light and dark, hot and cold, high and low, work and rest, yin and yang. The manifestations of nature tend towards balance, with opposites that complement each other. And if these phenomena are manifested in nature, they are also revealed in us, human beings, after all, we are part of it.

Solala Towler explains that even excessive emotions are bad for the psychological, emotional and energetic health of human beings:

He who knows when he has enough has nothing to worry about. Another way of saying this is that he who knows when he has enough will always have enough. Knowing where and when to stop hoarding prevents the heartache and misfortune that accompanies loss or disappointment. Preserving the chi we used to waste worrying about the future will set us free, enabling us to use it in everyday life for spiritual self-improvement. We will feel at peace with ourselves and the world around us. — Solala Towler.

Otsu writes that society demands perfection from us, that “in society the more, the better”. “Perfection is mutilation”, he writes, because wanting to be perfect in all daily activities is quite harmful to human beings, as the organism needs rest.

Unfortunately, modern society conditions us to have no limits in anything, to never be satisfied, whether economically, affectionately, socially, professionally, etc. Attitudes like these are self-defeating. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best. On the contrary. We can and must strive to do the best work possible, but, as Lao Zi says, “finish the name, finish the work, remove the body, this is the Way to Heaven”, that is, if for a while we work hard, at another time we withdraw from the environment, from the energy of work, and change our activities, and reduce the pace, without taking anything to the extreme, this is the Way to Heaven.

Solala Towler offers us valuable tips for being balanced on a daily basis, such as eating until we are 80% full, not 110%; do not sit for too long, as this harms the body, which was built to move. To balance this, it is recommended to perform exercises such as walking and stretching; and not eating too much raw food, especially in winter, as too much raw food can harm the digestive organs.

In chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zi writes:

Better to stop in time than to fill to the brim.
Hone a blade to the sharpest point, and it will soon be blunt.
Fill your house with gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
Be prideful about wealth and position, and you bring disasters upon yourself.
Retire when the work is done.
This is the way of heaven — Lao Zi.

2. Live fully in the present time, without looking forward to the future or dwelling on the past.

Solala Towler writes that the only moment we have to live is now, the present time. While the past is over, the future hasn’t even arrived yet. “The here and now is where we are, the only thing that is real,” writes the author.

Although he did not consider himself a Taoist, Jiddu Krishnamurti also held this view:

Ambition in any form — by group, individual salvation or spiritual achievement — is a deferred action. Desire is always of the future; the desire to become something is the inaction of the present. Now is more important than tomorrow. All time is the now, and to understand the now is to be free of time. Becoming is the continuation of time, of pain. Becoming contains no being. Being is always in the present and being is the highest form of transformation. Becoming is only modified continuity and there is only radical transformation in the present, in being.“ — Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Past and future are ideas coming from thought, therefore, artificial. The past is a set of memories from memory and the future is a thought formed from our anxiety and expectation. The present is the only physical-temporal space in which we can act. Breaking the past that limits us and the future that awaits us results in consciousness only from this moment, after all, all time is concentrated in the now.

3. Do not look directly at the “peak of the mountain”, towards the final goal, but try to walk one step at a time, without haste, with moderate steps.

Lao Zi also cites non-action (Wu Wei) in the 63rd chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

Act without striving.
Work without interfering.

Find the flavour in what is flavourless.
Enlarge the small, increase the few.
Heal injury with goodness — Lao Zi.

Solala Towler interprets this passage as the true path to the practice of Wu Wei. “Big as small, much as little” means that big things — like big projects, big relationships — begin with one small, simple step.

Already in chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Zi says that “a tree of great embrace is generated from a thin seedling”. Regarding this passage, Towler notes that great works begin with small ones, that “the longest journey begins with the first step.” And that it is necessary not to force things to happen, not to get too attached to the desires and goals of life.

The man who practices Wu Wei lives without any efforts or motives. By staying with your thoughts in the present time, you don’t create expectations for the future. He is patient, gentle and walks slowly without any goals, for with every step he takes, he feels that he has accomplished his goal. The Wu Wei follower goes about his objectives without any intentions and takes them moderately, one step at a time. In fact, he practices Wu Wei with no intention of practicing it. He realizes that pain and suffering are inevitable, but instead of seeing them as punishments, he sees them as stimuli for his development. And by harming no one, no one harms him. The Wu Wei man self-preserves his virtues. He is satisfied with little, and because he is not greedy, he has enormous inner wealth. The man who practices Wu Wei is filled with Tao.

References used for the article:

  1. The Tao Te Ching — Translation by Tolbert McCarroll (Lao Zi)
  2. The Wisdom of Nature (Roberto Otsu) — Publisher Ágora. Kindle Edition.
  3. Tao Te Ching — A Journey to the Perfect Way (Solala Towler). Kindle Edition.



Nicolas Rufino dos Santos
Thoughts And Ideas

PhD student in Administration - Ethics, Virtues and Moral Dilemmas in Administration. Florianópolis, SC, Brasil. Contact: nicolasrufino4@gmail.com