The art of effortless action: insights from the Daodejing on wuwei

Richard Brown
2 min readFeb 13, 2024

The concept of wuwei (無為), or effortless action, is a central theme in the Daodejing. Laozi keeps returning to the subject throughout the text, emphasizing that it is about achieving the best outcomes with the minimum effort by acting in accordance with the natural order.

Here are five passages from the Daodejing that encapsulate the essence of wuwei. I have also included links to the relevant chapters should you wish to explore the topic further.

Chapter 2
The sage conducts affairs
Through effortless action.
Practices teaching
Without words.
Lets the myriad things happen
Without initiating them.
Lets them grow
Without possessing them.
Gets things done
Without attachment.
Achieves his goals
Without claiming credit.
Because he claims credit,
He never loses it.

Daodejing Chapter 2: effortless action
Daodejing Chapter 2 breakdown: teaching without words

Chapter 3
The sage rules by:
Emptying the heart-and-mind,
Filling the stomach,
Softening the ambitions,
Strengthening the sinews.
The sage frees the people,
From fake knowledge and desire.
Ensures that those with fake knowledge,
Never dare to act on it.
Practice effortless action,
And order prevails.

Daodejing Chapter 3: like the conductor of an orchestra
Daodejing Chapter 3 breakdown: emptying the heart-and-mind

Chapter 37
The Dao does nothing,
But leaves nothing undone.
When nobles and kings
Stay true to the Dao,
The myriad things
Transform of their own accord.

Daodejing Chapter 37: the nameless uncarved block
Daodejing Chapter 37 breakdown: the Dao does nothing

Chapter 48
Learning requires
Increasing every day.
The Dao requires
Decreasing every day.
Decrease and decrease again,
Until you attain
Effortless action.
With effortless action
Nothing is left undone.

Daodejing Chapter 48: decrease and decrease again
Daodejing Chapter 48 breakdown: nothing is left undone

Chapter 63
Act with effortless action.
Manage without interfering.
Taste without tasting.
Treat the great as small
And the many as few.

Daodejing Chapter 63: act with effortless action
Daodejing Chapter 63 breakdown: tackle the difficult when it is easy

As these passages illustrate, wuwei does not mean literally doing nothing, but allowing things to unfold in their own time, without force or unnecessary intervention. It is key to achieving balance and harmony in both your personal and professional lives.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.