The digital story “Eastern Philosophy: Wu Wei” is hosted the on School of Life’s YouTube channel. I first encountered this channel when I was attempting to decipher the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche for an undergraduate philosophy course. The School of Life produces short videos wherein they endeavor to explain philosophical concepts that one can employ to improve their quality of life. I’ve found these short videos quite valuable in introducing a subject, or concept, that is otherwise often difficult to grasp. They describe themselves in the following extract from their website, “The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.” Ambitious goals indeed, but the contemporary philosopher and author Alain de Botton certainly understood the challenge of sharing his “philosophy of everyday life” when he co-founded the school.
In this digital story de Bottom tackles the natural Chinese philosophy of Lao Tzu and focuses on the widely misunderstood concept of “wu wei.” The direct translation of the Chinese term wu wei is non-doing or doing nothing, which is at the root of its misunderstanding by many in the West. As de Bottom explains this is not an “… invitation to relax or fall into laziness or apathy…” but instead a call to the “noblest kind of action.” Wu wei is a vitally important concept in Daoism (often transliterated as Taoism) and invites one to follow the way, which is the Dao. Dao is the core concept of Daoism and is described in the following passage from the Dao De Jing, which entwines wu wei and the Dao, “The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.” Wu wei advises a flowing natural action, as a stream might gently flow its course and around any natural obstacles it encounters, like boulders, and yet it flows on while eroding the obstacle.
It advises one to be naturally aware, as others act frantically and then lightly adjust one’s actions accordingly, so as not to react. Acting with purpose, and to be at peace while engaging in frenetic activity so that one can employ their skill and perform the task with optimum efficiency. It also invites us to abandon egotistical ideals that we might be tempted to force too violently on the world and instead focus on the true needs of the situation. No war on anything, but a natural awareness of, and unity with, one’s environment, through a reduction in one’s rigidity while flowing with one’s spiritual momentum. Change will come, like the gentle stream eroding the boulder.
I find much to value in Eastern philosophy and have studied it for many years, both formally and informally, although I don’t consider myself an expert. And yet, when it comes to wu wei, I argue that de Bottom understands, and furthermore, does a superb job of describing this confusing, yet simple, and very important concept. The story is narrated by de Bottom who again demonstrates his skill at storytelling while explaining difficult philosophical concepts. The story is professionally produced and the evidence of this is in the engaging images, theme music, and pacing. The text remains on screen long enough to afford one the opportunity to reflect on it, without disrupting the pace. Another quality production from The School of Life!