As a student of t’ai chi, I naturally hear and read a lot about Taoist philosophy. The Taoist book of wisdom is the Tao Te Ching, a slim collection of proverbs attributed to the Chinese scholar Lao-Tzu, who lived in the sixth century B.C. One of the central ideas expressed in the Tao Te Ching is the virtue of wu wei, or roughly, “not-doing.” Whatever it means, it is clearly an important principle that readers are urged to follow. But how does one actually make sense of an apparent call to inaction? Doesn’t it contradict common sense? Without doing anything, how will we eat, build houses, write software, and accomplish all the other essential tasks of life? Volumes have been written on those two words, which have also been translated into English using terms like “equanimity,” “patience,” and “nonresistance.” While interpretations differ, the general idea is a context-dependent one: whatever you’re doing, do less. Don’t overdo; don’t panic; don’t exaggerate. The call to “not-do” is not a prescription for laziness or complacency; it’s a recommendation to work with, rather than against, the forces of both physical and human nature. To act in accordance with wu wei is, more or less, to go with the flow.
Such a principle may seem odd in the context of a martial art. If someone’s trying to beat you up, you’re not likely to prevail if you just stand around like a human punching bag. But mindless inaction is not the intention of wu wei. Quite the contrary: alertness and the ability to respond instantly are extremely important in t’ai chi. The goal, however, is to respond without force, using the subtlest actions possible. Wu wei means allowing your opponent’s strength to do the work of defense for you. So whenever my instructor sees someone in the class making extra flourishes, extending limbs too far, or tensing muscles, he says, “Do less. Relax. Let go of muscular strength.” It’s surprisingly hard to do, partly because it’s contrary to our western conditioning, and partly because we have to “do less” while our thighs are burning from the strain of standing on one leg, knee bent, for an hour at a time. [Article Continues…]