Lessons from the sage: Lao-tze, Wu Wei and the art of mindful non-action 1

Have you ever heard the saying “Don’t just do something, stand there”? This is Wu Wei.

The concept of Wu Wei, which roughly translates to “non-action” is attributed to Lao-tze, but the jury is still out on that one. Lao-tze is regarded as one of two “fathers” of philosophical Daoism, the other one being Zhuangzi. I would like to stress that we are talking about philosophical Daoism. We shall pay little mind to the more religious aspects of Daoism, which involves esoteric alchemy, ancestor worship and various rituals and practices associated with Chineese folk religion, mostly aimed at achieving longevity and strangely prolonged orgasms.

Here’s some history of religion nerdery for you: The “Don’t just do something, stand there” saying most likely evolved from the “Don’t just do something, sit there” saying, which reeks of Zen, with it’s uncompromising focus on meditation as the one way towards enlightenment.

There’s an old Zen saying:

“Sitting silently, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

…which I find to be rather beautiful.

And interestingly (well, if you’re a freak like me) Zen (or Ch’an, in Chinese) is the buddhist branch that has historically been most influenced by Daoism. And so we have gone full circle. Back to Lao-tze.

The Wikipedia article on the subject of Wu Wei is rather to the point regarding what Wu Wei is:

“Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant.”

Now, I wonder if you make the same connection to systems and emergence as I do, which I wrote briefly about here and here. I perceive the natural flow that exist in all systems as “the Dao of systems”, if you will. And emergence is part of this natural flow.

But what could this mean for you, in practice? Again, the Wikipedia article is rather good:

“An example of active non-action using Wu Wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is dictated to a student (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience”.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like coaching and mentoring to you, practices that are widely agreed to be the most successful “leading styles”?

Doesn’t that sound a lot like empowerment and respect for people to you, practices that modern motivational psychology agree are essential?

For me, the concept of Wu Wei is the art of mindful non-action. To know when to act, and when not to act is a skill one can develop.

A good example can be found in any coaching situation. As the coach listens on several levels and works hard to really be in the moment (this would be the buddhist concept of skillful awareness, remember?), the coach can choose to stay silent in order to see what happens next. I’d say that is a good demonstration of Wu Wei, the art of mindful non-action. Being mindful of the moment, the person in the room, the environment and yourself. And knowing when not to act. Change “person being coached” to “your organisation”, and “staying silent” to “not acting”, and we have arrived at systems level.

This, to dance with the system in the moment, is to adhere to the natural flow of things, the Dao, if you will. And in order to dance,  you have to be able to hear and feel the music of life.

And just as spring will come and the grass will grow, regardless of your intervention, so is it in work and so is it in life.




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