Wu Wei (The Art of Sailing, Not Rowing)

Pete Weishaupt
1 min readJun 5, 2021

There is a principle in Taoism called Wu Wei. Wu, meaning non, not, or no. Wei has multiple meanings. Some interpret it as action, or making. I prefer Alan Watts translation of “forcing” — as in “not forcing”.

We can see it illustrated in the performances of actors, athletes, and musicians. We sense it immediately when the performance is forced.

According to Alan, many who study the Tao Te Ching interpret this principle as doing nothing. They endorse a laziness, a laissez-faire approach; always be passive.

It doesn’t mean that. There is a time for action. Alan illustrates the principle using Judo. The action comes when your opponent is overextended and off balance. By adding a little muscle, you’re able to throw your opponent. You never use the muscle at the wrong moment.

Alan says Wu Wei is based on knowledge of the tide. The drift of things; going with the flow. It is the art of sailing rather than rowing.

Superior virtue has no intention to be virtuous.

And thus, is virtuous.

Inferior virtue cannot let go of virtuosity.

And thus is not virtue.

Lao Tzu