Wu-Wei or The Way of Water

Dear friends,

I subscribe to Heron Dance Art Studio’s daily email A Pause for Beauty, but confess that during the busy work week, I don’t always make time for that pause. This morning I did, and what I found was exactly the reminder I need as I face a challenging situation at work:

…Taoism considers a person wise if he accommodates himself to the rhythms of the universe. Likewise, a boater is wise if he accommodates himself to the river’s flow: He must paddle with the water, not against it. Through practice and sensitivity comes an intuitive understanding of the water’s way.

One important Taoist principle is wu-wei, which literally means “not-doing.” In practice, wu-wei means letting things be themselves and not forcing them. This does not imply non-action; rather, there is an understanding of how to take the path of least resistance and apply one’s strength correctly. …

The boater who understands water does not attempt to force his way through rapids, fighting the water and seeking to overcome it. Rather, he applies his strength at the proper moment and in the most efficient way. A light stroke, executed with finesse, will do more to control the craft than any amount of determined but insensitive flailing.

The process is explained by Chuang-Tzu, a fourth-century B.C. Taoist sage. He tells the story of an old man who fell into a terrible rapid and emerged safely downstream. When asked to explain his survival, the man replied, “Plunging into the whirl, I come out with the swirl. I accommodate myself to the water, not the water to me. And so I am able to deal with it after this fashion…”

 – Christopher Norment, In the North of Our Lives

You can read the whole post in the Heron Dance Art Studio archives,  where you can also sign up to be on the daily Pause for Beauty email list.

Sometimes all we need are these small reminders, that quiet but decisive shift in perspective, that pause that allows us to see how we can effectively work with, not against, what’s around us, so that we, too, can “plunge into the whirl and come out with the swirl.”

This week, consider how you might use this principle in your life. Do you face any situations where the most skillful action could be discerning how to work with the forces, not fight them?   Taoism uses the metaphor of a paddler running a river.  See if you can come up with your own metaphor, then share it with us here.   

Yours in river running,


2 thoughts on “Wu-Wei or The Way of Water

  1. I call it walking through the open door. On a typical day, I might plan to finish up essay number three and send it on to my critique group. I open the laptop. Nothing happens. I type the words “insert a smoother transition here,” and hope my fingers will start composing. Not this time. I grab a snack. Nothing. I sweep the hallway, because that helps me relax into the writing. But the sweeping produces a head full of ideas for perfecting essay number seven. I jot them down so I can get back to number three. But number seven won’t leave me alone. The rhythms, the missing paragraph, the ending – they all appear fully composed. But I have a deadline! That’s when I remember to walk through the door that’s open. Essay three goes back into the file, essay seven goes on to the critique group.