Writer, Facilitator + Consultant

The Art of Non-Action

Several years ago, after spending months of getting the word out for a retreat, I thought to myself “I wonder what will happen if I practice the Taoist art of Wu-Wei–the art of non-action for the next one?”

Since I had already ran one successful retreat that summer, I was unattached if a second one would fly, and really – it was an experiment of the Tao principle of Wu-Wei – non-action.

So I did nothing. Asides for the retreat being listed on my website, I did not spread the word in my classes, to friends or anybody. I did not make any posters or do any marketing or promotion at all.

I thought: “Let’s see if this art of Tao works”

And you know what happened? Nothing happened.

My experiment of doing nothing taught me that The Art of Wu Wei must mean something beyond its literal naked meaning.

The Art of Non-Action

The art of non-action, also known as Wu-Wei in Taoism doesn’t mean sitting on the couch like a couch potato doing nothing and expecting clients and money to fall into your lap. That’s like visualization without action, or practicing the art of manifesting without moving beyond your affirmations and daydreams. It doesn’t yield what you desire.

Non-action has a greater meaning: it’s action that feels like non-action because you’re swimming downstream. You’re moving with the current. You’re moving from a place of joy and ease.

 

Joy and ease could mean you tell every person you meet about your next event: you’re so filled with excitement about it you can’t stop yourself from telling your neighbor, mailperson, and cashier at the supermarket about it.

Swimming downstream means taking the action that feels so fulfilling and energizing that it feels like you’re doing nothing at all.

Have you ever done something where time seems to vanish? You’re so in the moment, having so much fun, that time seems to escape to another dimension–until you look up at the clock and can’t believe 4 hours whooshed by. Often our creative work aligns us with this magical force of flow–which is the essence of non-action.

On the contrary – swimming upstream is when every minute you look up at the clock and you can’t believe it’s only 9.15 am. You have no idea how you’re going to make it through the day. Every action you take feels like you’re moving through concrete, and the heaviness of the task feels like hardcore labor.

The art of non-doing isn’t about literally doing nothing. It’s about taking the action that lifts you up, propels you forward with a force that seems to carry you–it feels like you’re not doing anything because it feels so natural, joyful, and liberating.

 

Sometimes what seems like non-doing could be heavy-duty-doing.

For example, all those years ago when I thought I was practicing the Tao by not telling anyone about the retreat, there were several times I wanted to mention it to friends or at the end of a class and invite students, but my commitment to what I thought was the Tao led me to go against my inclination–against ease by withholding the information. That took more work than if I had shared it.

That is not practicing the Tao. If doing nothing takes more effort than doing something than you’ve misunderstood the wisdom of Wu-Wei (like I did!)

Doing nothing doesn’t mean doing nothing unless it does…

There are certain times where doing nothing is the right action. For example you receive an ultimatum about something. It makes you feel sick. Instead of instantly responding you follow your inner guidance of non-doing to guide you by taking some time to meditate, breathe and allow some space before making a decision.

Through your non-doing on the outer realms, you actively do in the inner realms through prayer, meditation and seeking insight on the best way to handle the situation.

Here’s another example I always see on Law Shows like Law & Order and The Good Wife–Attorneys asking the judge for more time–delaying proceedings because they’re awaiting new information to come through.
Some people call this a delaying tactic–buying time to get more information before taking action.

Buying time is a smart choice when the clear choice isn’t clear.

Whenever you have a decision to make that doesn’t feel ease-y–the best action is to delay.

Give yourself the time to focus on meditation, prayer and higher counsel to help direct your next move: an action that will feel filled with ease, joy, and like you’re flowing downstream–so that whichever action you end up choosing, you are ultimately practicing the Taoist art of Wu Wei.

So how do you know you’re practicing The art of Wu Wei?

1. If the most ease-filled joyful action is clear – act on it. No matter how vigorous the action appears on the outside it’s like non-doing because it happens with such flow and grace that this is the definition of non-doing. It’s allowing grace and flow to take over and guide the actions forward.

2. If the decision is unclear, and you need time to reflect in order to make a decision that feels like the Tao then you will consciously non-do by taking time for meditation, reflection and seeking further information in order to come to a decision that allows you to proceed from a state of flow, ease, and grace.

The Taoist art of Wu Wei holds great wisdom, but like all great wisdom, the surface literal meaning isn’t always what it seems.

However, by taking the action that feels most honest and aligned with that inner YES feeling – you are riding the wave of the Tao.

Have a story about how you followed the The Art of Non-Doing in helping you take action or get a dream outcome? Please share in the comments below:

4 comments… add one
  • Barb November 8, 2015,

    Good article and concept. Funny, that’s exactly what I did recently – I stopped. I realized that I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself to get things done, to make progress, to keep chasing the dream…to the detriment of my ability to feel peaceful. So, I stopped. I spend a weekend doing nothing that involved “work.” Meditated, read and took in a few good shows. It was like a mini retreat, and it helped me to feel renewed in my efforts to achieve what I want to achieve. We are programmed to keep “doing,” and if we stop, there’s that little voice (at least in my head), that says, “Don’t waste time…keep going!” Sometimes it’s just the ticket to stop. I plan to allow myself to do nothing every so often so that when I am working on my dreams, I’m rested and ready to plunge in with my whole heart and soul.

    Reply
    • Tova Payne November 8, 2015,

      Hi Barb. Thank you for sharing. Your story is inspiring and creating your own mini-retreat is something that I hope inspires others too! And yes, I so agree – allowing for a few “do nothing” days are so revitalizing – and in the end…..they usually spark a whole lot of creativity too!

      Reply
  • Alex October 29, 2015,

    Wow! This is a great article.

    The past month I have made a vow to myself : to follow my highest excitement/joy in every waking moment. Like you say : nothing has changed!

    I flow effortlessly in between my daily tasks and whenever an unclear choice pops up, I buy time and fall back into the excitement and clarity.

    This really is an amazing process that everybody should try.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Alex.

    Reply
    • Tova Payne October 30, 2015,

      Hi Alex. Thank You, and thank you for sharing your art of flow 🙂

      Reply

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