Wu Wei and the Art of Flow State

“The Tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Wu Wei, a paradoxical concept that stems from the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu, is a key paradigm within Taoism.

Wu Wei is more or less what we refer to as “flow state” ― or better known in the athletic community as the zone, or catching fire. 

Wu Wei in a way means to not do anything, or more accurately defined ― effortless motion. However, Wu Wei should not be confused with idleness. 

Think of Wu Wei as a wave upon the ocean, or perhaps, the wind. 

“The master lets things come and go… The master acts without doing anything… The master does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone….” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Wu Wei is non-purposeful participation, it is void of agenda, and enables one to take a natural course through his or her life. Wu Wei does not force anything and flows with the rhythm of nature.

Wild animals are in a constant state of flow. They live in the present moment. They follow their innate instincts. And they are a part of the greater harmonious whole.

The wild animal does not wallow in the past, nor does it fear the coming future. The wild animal lives in a perpetual state of acute awareness. 

Wu Wei is to act in accordance, or align, with the cyclical pattern of the natural world.

“Seeing into darkness is clarity. Use your own light, and return to the source of light.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“Don’t Try” is the proverbial adage engraved upon the gravestone of the late German-American author, Charles Bukowski. What Bukowski meant was not “don’t try at life” ― but instead ― don’t try to be something you’re not.

Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Don’t get in your own way ― for you are your own worst enemy if you’re not mindful of the ebb and flow of the current of life. 

The art of flow or Wu Wei essentially means getting out of our own way ― and tuning into the rhythmic flow of nature. 

Life is a series of spontaneous mutations. This is the reality of evolution ― Darwinism at its conceptual core. So don’t resist this immutable natural law. But instead, let reality reveal its vivid colors. And let life flow naturally.

“I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom… Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

We too should be like the sapling that cowers from the face of a mighty headwind. We must flow with the current ― not swim against it. And let go. We must let go. 

Wu Wei is to go with the flow of life ― to flow with the rhythm of the universe. 

Wu Wei is a leaf floating down a stream of water. The leaf does nothing yet could travel all the way to the sea if the current is right. 

Wu Wei is the downhill skier who forgets his own existence and becomes the mountain.

Wu Wei is the archer who becomes the arrow, and feels that it is impossible to not hit his target. 

We know not where the flow of life will take us, but we can, at the least, try and enjoy the ride. For beauty abounds, and surrounds us all. All we must do is merely perceive it. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

Be like water. For water has no agenda. Water moves through low, and to lower places. Water nourishes everything it saturates, without trying. Water is soft and gentle, yet will snuff the life out of those who are not mindful of its properties. Water flows with the rhythm of nature and effortlessly travels ever lower, all the way to the sea.

As an artist, I have experienced flow state firsthand. And can only illustrate it as a blissful oneness with the cosmos. Pain, anxiety, and fear seem to melt away, and all that is left is harmonic bliss and fulfillment. It’s almost like floating on a cloud. But at the same time, is like being possessed by an all-consuming entity of maternal darkness ― making creative work seem effortless ― while time seems to become a relative concept.

Flow is chaos in all its harmonic order. And from this dark abyss flows the nectar of creativity.

A quote often attributed to Lao Tzu, who may or may not have even been a real (single) individual, (so maybe nothing attributed to him is really even a Lao Tzu quote). Goes something like this: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” While Confucius reminds us that “The noble-minded are calm and steady. Little people are forever fussing and fretting.” 

“When the wind blows, the grass bends”. Said, Confucius. So bend like the grass. And be like water my friend. Do not force anything. And everything will turn out in the end. 

Those who try to control their environment will be struck down by nature and relegated to a life of remorse and anxiety. They will be like the farmer who beats a dead mule. 

Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place…When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

If the higher human aligns with nature, he or she is capable of living a virtuous life beyond good and evil ― and in accordance with his or her own personal values.

“When you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you are not able to achieve.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


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J.R. Gilmore

J.R. Gilmore was born in the woodlands, on planet earth, 4.5 billion years after the planet was formed out of a mixture of dust and gas. And at least 3.5 million years after hominids stopped swinging in trees and began walking upright.

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