“The Philosophy of “Flow”: A Brief Introduction to Taoism

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Slavoj Žižek: What Full­fils You Cre­ative­ly Isn’t What Makes You Hap­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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