Friday, April 6, 2012

Wu-Wei or How Do They Do It?

Scott Bradley


The concept of wu-wei, "not-doing", so important to Daoist thinking, often raises a great deal of intellectual perplexity and misunderstanding. Yet it is not dissimilar to the unipede, millipede, snake and the wind, each of whom envies the next because of the remarkable way it is able to propel itself. Addressing the millipede, the unipede marvels that it can move so many legs without getting them all tangled up! How do you do it? "All I do is set my Heavenly Impulse in action," replies the millipede, "I have no idea how it is done!" (Zhuangzi, Chap. 17; Ziporyn) Doing what you are is wu-wei.

But perhaps the best way to understand what is meant by wu-wei is to look at Dao, where this, like all Daoist virtues, originates. Dao does nothing; yet nothing is left undone. The Universe emerges, yet no action makes it so. Birds fly, yet Dao does not hold them up.

To speak of "doing nothing" without referencing the fact that "nothing is left undone" is to immediately diverge from what is meant by wu-wei. Wu-wei, whatever it is, does not result in anything lacking what is essential to its nature. All that requires to be accomplished is accomplished. What does not accomplish this is not wu-wei.

The opposite of "not-doing" is not "doing". Wu-wei is doing in a certain way. What differentiates and artist from an artisan (though an artisan can also be an artist) is that what she 'creates' has as its essence a quality the origins of which she herself cannot explain. It is somehow 'un-created'. Like the wheelwright in the Zhuangzi, she has a 'knack' which she cannot even identify so as to be able to communicate it to another. Were it known and communicated, it would cease to be an embodiment of wu-wei. It would become mere "craft".

But craft, like all we do, can also be wu-wei. The best antonym to wu-wei might be 'contrived'. Something contrived is something mediated through the egoic consciousness. It has an ulterior motive. It seeks some kind of self-confirming gain. It wants to impress. It wants fame. It just wants to be someone!

Between rain and snow fall, I've been painting the 'ranch house'. This is not a great artistic endeavor, yet it could fully participate in the same qualities of wu-wei evinced in art. Not surprisingly, however, it often becomes a 'chore', something done because it has to, and thus, something done with a view to having it over and done. I also frequently find myself hoping to be observed hard at work so as to be seen earning my keep. These, and many other motivations, daily serve to teach me what is wu-wei.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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