“In the West,” the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, “is mainly known as a divination manual,” writes philosopher and novelist Will Buckingham, “part of the wild carnival of spurious notions that is New Age spirituality.” But just as one can use the Tarot as a means of reading the present, rather than predicting future events, so too can the I Ching serve to remind us, again and again, of a principle we are too apt to forget: the critical importance of non-action, or what is called wu wei in Chinese philosophy.
Non-action is not passivity, though it has been mischaracterized as such by cultures that overvalue aggression and self-assertion. It is a way of exercising power by attuning to the rhythms of its mysterious source. In the religious and philosophical tradition that became known as Taoism, non-action achieves its most canonical expression in the Tao Te Ching, the classic text attributed to sixth century B.C.E. thinker Laozi, who may or may not have been a real historical figure.
The Tao Te Ching describes non-action as a paradox in which dualistic tensions like passivity and aggression resolve.
That which offers no resistance,
Overcomes the hardest substances.
That which offers no resistance
Can enter where there is no space.
Few in the world can comprehend
The teaching without words, or
Understand the value of non-action.
Wu wei is sometimes translated as “effortless action” or the “action of non-action,” phrases that highlight its dynamic quality. Arthur Waley used the phrase “actionless activity” in his English version of the Tao Te Ching. In the short video introduction above, “philosophical entertainer” Einzelgänger explains “the practical sense” of wu wei in terms of that which athletes call “the zone,” a state of “action without striving” in which bodies “move through space effortlessly.” But non-action is also an inner quality, characterized by its depth and stillness as much as its strength.
Among the many symbols of wu wei is the action of water against stone—a graceful organic movement that “overcomes the hardest substances” and “can enter where there is no space.” The image illustrates what Einzelgänger explains in contemporary terms as a “philosophy of flow.” We cannot grasp the Tao—the hidden creative energy that animates the universe—with discursive formulas and definitions. But we can meet it through “stillness of mind, curbing the senses, being humble, and the cessation of striving, in order to open ourselves up to the workings of the universe.”
The state of “flow,” or total absorption in the present, has been popularized by psychologists in recent years, who describe it as the secret to achieving creative fulfillment. Non-action has its analogues in Stoicism’s amor fati, Zen’s “backward step,” and Henri Bergson’s élan vital. In the Tao te Ching, the Way appears as both a metaphysical, if enigmatic, philosophy and a practical approach to life that transcends our individual goals. It is an improvisatory practice which, like rivers carving out their beds, requires time and persistence to master.
In a story told by Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, a renowned butcher is asked to explain his seemingly effortless skill at carving up an ox. He replies it is the product of years of training, during which he renounced the struggle to achieve, and came to rely on intuition rather than perception or brute force. Embracing non-action reveals to us the paths down which our talents naturally take us when we stop fighting with life. And it can show us how to handle what seem like insoluble problems by moving through, over, and around them rather than crashing into them head on.