It is too clear and so is hard to see. There is no exact, word-for-word translation of this Chinese concept. Translated as “non-action” to distinguish it from reaction and volitional action, leaves it easily confused with in-action – doing nothing. “Right action” leads too quickly to moral inferences of good and bad. A Taoist saying observes that, “The way that can be spoken is not the way,” and that is exactly the difficulty in translating this taoist tenet. The meaning of Wu Wei can only be pointed to with an illustration.
In the early eighties Sara and I went to the Quillieute Indian Reservation on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula to watch migrating gray whales. That stretch of the Washington coast is dotted with craggy islands that shoot up about a hundred and twenty feet and more above the ocean.
Two tribesmen ferried ten of us at a time about a half mile out to such an outcropping in sixteen foot, open-hulled, aluminum, outboard-powered fishing boats. The sun shined brightly. The tide was going out. We clambered from the boat when it grounded on the sandy beach and scampered up a couple hundred steps to the top of the island. We walked another thirty feet or so to the west side of the island, sat down on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and watched the migrating whales.
Surrounded by nature, it is easy to loose track of time and other things as well. Like the weather. No one noticed until the cooling breeze had already turned to chilling wind and swells had turned to white caps that a storm was blowing in. With no food, warm clothing or shelter, we were looking at a long, miserable night.
Whitecaps had grown to ten foot breakers before we spotted the first boat that came to carry us back to the mainland holding just offshore before riding the next big wave into the bay. When the tide receded, the boat rested neatly atop three huge rocks. We splashed through the surf, scrambled up the rocks and into the boat just in time for the next big wave to float us off the rocks, out of the bay and into the storm driven waves.
To our amazement, the ride back was as peaceful as the ride out to the island had been. Our pilot inched the boat to the crest of a wave and then, as the storm raged around us, perfectly in time with the wind and sea, we rode the wave to shore.
Wu Wei is about acting in synch. Interacting. Fluidly adapting to the needs of the moment, doing only as much as is needed of exactly the right things in precisely the right time. Working this way requires a very refined ability to feel, follow, absorb, interpret and direct energy. Such a sense is possible only when things are in harmony – in balance. Such a balance is possible only to the extent one can feel, follow, absorb, interpret, and direct ones self.