Once I, Chuang Tse, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tse. I do not know whether it was Tse dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tse.
Philosophical Taoism, before it became overlaid by the magical and religious aspects, was very clear on the principle of wu wei, non-action or emptiness. In some ways wu wei simply means being sensitive to everything that is occurring and flowing with it. When this sensitivity is cultivated the individual becomes aware of the constraints, requirements and outcomes of the various situations in which he finds himself, and thus, in doing so, is able to tailor his activity accordingly and to decide what may be appropriate action - if any. He is able to be reflective rather than proactive and to act 'like water' in the process.
The willfulness and waywardness of man tends to check the cosmic order of things so the solution to any problem is to stop trying to control events. If the will is resigned to the Tao - the greater scheme of things - the individual becomes an instrument of its eternal Way. This does not mean becoming passive and fatalistic but actually means becoming more involved in the wider issues of the physical plane.
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The true man is free of all limitations, has abandoned all concepts and attained total freedom. The ability to see various possibilities in situations is an aspect of wu wei, although this does not mean that we must be especially alert in order to ensure that we are truly following the way that is for the Greater Good.
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Chuang Tse uses the term wu wei to represent a kind of aimless wandering. This is the kind of travelling that is understood in the West as the journeying that the true hermit undertakes - being in the right place at the right time for the right reasons. Because above anything else he is in tune with himself, the sage - or wise man - does this easily. His wandering is carefree in that he is non-attached, least of all to his wandering. Earlier in the book we mentioned Chaung Tse's dream of being a butterfly. The freedom of spirit inherent in this dream is an essential quality of wu wei.
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Wu wei is probably the Taoist principle that is the most difficult to understand. Part of this difficulty is that, for the majority of people in the West, it goes completely against the accepted mode of existence. The principle of having to put in a great deal of effort to have something take place is so entrenched in the Western psyche that to allow things to unfold in their own way, in their own time, feels like some kind of betrayal. The fact that acting at the appropriate time with the appropriate amount of force is more likely to bring about success appears to be going against the natural tide of events. We might use a quotation from The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff to demonstrate this:
When you work with Wu Wei, you have no real accidents.
Things may get a little Odd at times, but they work out.
You don't have to try very hard to make them work out;
you just let them.
When we learn to put ourselves in the flow of the world around us we need only expend the energy that is required for that particular moment, not energy to deal with the past or to cope with the future. Living fully in the moment means being aware, at a very subtle level, of what is going on around us. There is no point in holding on to anything for everything is transient; there is no need to do anything in particular except to sense our own energy.
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As with Tao, which loses something when we use words to describe it, as we have seen, so does wu wei. Wu wei, or Emptiness, is not passivity, it is simply accepting the inevitability of what goes on around us. It is the Taoist way of life, a spontaneous form of both conscious and unconscious adeptness along the lines of least resistance.
It cannot be striven for or cultivated, and it is not time-specific. It means that we recognize that we have no need to force things to happen. We can look at everything in a fresh light and, in awaiting the fullness of events, can be much more compassionate to our fellow man, for we know that when things evolve in this way there is a rightness about them. If we have no objective or purpose within a situation, there are no expectations or goals and therefore no purpose to fulfil. We no longer strive to succeed, but can quietly accept that we are simply present in the moment.
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...in order to experience true emptiness it is more correct to think of wu wei as the space in which things can happen. No action need be taken and we can rest quietly awaiting events. On a personal level this means that we are open to any experience, any happening, any adjustment that occurs from within ourselves. When we are with other people, if we are 'empty space' we are non-judgmental, supportive and creative - we give people room to be themselves. In a still wider sense, the emptiness that we are is capable of perceiving the need for change, responds rather than reacts and returns to its original state of equilibrium as rapidly as possible.
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Even in music it is the space between the notes that comes to have as much meaning as the sound itself. The same principle of emptiness or space can be applied to any circumstances or situations around us. If we find the wu wei or emptiness within a situation we are able to perceive the meaning.