Wei-wu-wei – doing without doing.
A number of years ago, I taught Tai Chi Chuan at a local community college. The concept of wei-wu-wei left many of my students entirely flummoxed. “How can I do something without doing it?” My response – that the student should allow the thing to do itself – was understandably unsatisfying to beginning students. “When you relax and take yourself out of the equation, you can permit things to happen without your guidance,” I would explain, “You live under the misconception that nothing happens without your willing it to occur.” In response to the confused looks on my students’ faces, I would usually respond, “Don’t think – do this.”
In his book “Zen in the Art of Archery ,” author Eugen Herrigel writes of an exchange with his archery master. “The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed . . . . What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”
But, wei-wu-wei is more than “do nothing.” Contrary to being in a state of uninvolvement, the “non-action” of wei-wu-wei is a form of relaxed alertness in which one is moved not by the desire to attain a goal, but rather by a sense that one does the appropriate thing to do at the time. It is natural, it flows with the Tao, it does itself.
The photographer Ruth Bernhard once said, “I never look for a photograph. The photograph finds me and says ‘I’m here!’ and I say, ‘Yes I see you. I hear you.’” Thus, the photograph makes itself.