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Wú Wéi - Effortless Action and the Power of Silence.

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Overtalking!! Overthinking!!! It often happens in a leadership coaching session. Thoughts get mixed with beliefs and emotions in a big ball of yarn and a client who wants "his money's worth" will try to unravel it all for you in 45 minutes! The "result" is a huge KNOT which does (k)NOT bring clarity. I often explain to clients that MEANINGFUL change or insight does not occur until the ego quiets down, and the heart and mind are aligned. Getting to that state takes silence.

The underlying foundation for leadership coaching is that on some deep level, the best approach to a situation will reveal itself to the client, if only he or she doesn't stand in the way. The Way, incidentally, is the translation for the Chinese character Dao 道 (the Dao of Daoism) but is not to be confused with the character 为 - also pronounced Wei (Way) and is the second syllable of wú 无 wéi 为.

What follows are a few reflections on the little understood concept which Sinologist Jean François Billeter describes as "a state of perfect knowledge of the reality of the situation, perfect efficaciousness and the realization of a perfect economy of energy".

Looking at each syllable separately may shed a ray of light.

Wú 无 - is a negative prefix meaning not or without and wéi 为 can best be translated as - to do or to act. It would be a terrible mistake, however, to equate 无 为 with passive reflection or non-action. A succinct translation would be "effortless" (unforced) action or in today's management terminology, being in a "state of flow".

When a client gets lost or stuck in his/her head, more information or advice won't help. When the ego gets disconnected from the heart/mind 心 (or Xīn in Chinese), it is impossible to hear the wiser and softer voice of intuition. This separation is an illusion and keeps the client from appreciating the full context of a complex situation. A "time is money" approach can lead to a forced reaction instead of an appropriate and well-timed response. Going within, even in the safe space held by the coach, is not at all second nature for a client under pressure for a quick fix solution.

The Chinese sense of Necessary Time.

A Chinese supply chain manager told me a story he often repeats to Westerns impatient to "get the ball rolling" in China. He said,

"It takes a woman 9 months to have a baby. No amount of resting, diet or exercise will change the time period - it's just going to take 9 months. That's what we Chinese call necessary time."

I am repeatedly told that the Chinese are "non committal" and "passive" but I wonder if "patient" might be a better description. Believing that "history repeats itself" and that everything is in a constant state of just makes sense to wait until "the fruit is ripe and falls from the tree" rather than shake the branches in vain. This isn't to say that Chinese business people don't manage their time in a mono chronic fashion (budgeting time carefully and organizing tasks sequentially). It would also be absurd to imply that Chinese people consciously apply Daoist principles in business. Nevertheless, when confronted with a complex and unfamiliar situation, the Chinese tend to study the context more fully and take their time doing it.

Daoist texts often mention the virtue of stillness. In the 13th book of the ( 天地) Zhuangzi, the Daoist sage speaks of the man who knows the joy of heaven.

"His movements are those of Heaven: his stillness is that of Earth; his whole mind is fixed, and he rules over the world."


Alan Watts, the Anglo American philosopher best known for introducing Chinese thought to the West in the 1970s said pretty much the same thing.

"When you stop talking to yourself and are simply aware of what suddenly find that the past and the future have disappeared."

While a perfectly still mind may seem like a noble ideal, in reality most Westerners put up resistance or even feel discomfort with even sixty seconds of silence. Yet silence is the door to going within. It is conducive to introspection which, when introduced at key moments, can be powerful. It allows a client to observe his or her own negative self-talk. Silence can also set the stage for valuable insights with regard to a complex situation. Words can be wonderful vehicles for meaning but they do have their limits. In fact, one of the paradoxes of talking about wú 无 wéi 为 is that it defies definition. Thinking about it sends one back into the head! It cannot be grasped, it simply IS.

So what more can I say? I hope that you, dear reader, are more curious than confused! If you have an interest in Daoism, I am offering a specially priced 90-minute workshop on March 24th (in English) and March 25th (in French). More details here:

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