You Never Know Till You Don’t Try

Edward Slingerland illuminates the Daoist concept of wu-wei, or “effortless action,” that characterizes “the dynamic, spontaneous, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”:

The preoccupation with how to cultivate wu-wei was at the center of early Chinese controversies about how to attain the good life. Characterizations of wu-wei in other early Daoist texts, such as the Laozi, take the form of concise, cryptic poems rather than stories. … In the poems, the Laozian sage attains wu-wei by not trying, by simply relaxing into some sort of preexisting harmony with nature. The Daoist poems are characterized by an effortless ease and unselfconsciousness that also plays a central role in early Confucianism. This may come as a surprise, because Confucianism is typically associated with hidebound traditionalism and stuffy ritual—both of which strike us as the opposite of wu-wei. It can’t be denied that the Confucians do a lot to earn this reputation. In the early stages of training, an aspiring Confucian gentleman needs to memorize entire shelves of archaic texts, learn the precise angle at which to bow, and learn the length of the steps with which he is to enter a room. His sitting mat must always be perfectly straight. All of this rigor and restraint, however, is ultimately aimed at producing a cultivated, but nonetheless genuine, form of spontaneity. Indeed, the process of training is not considered complete until the individual has passed completely beyond the need for thought or effort.