For more than 20 years now, I’ve beaten my head against the concept of wu-wei, an esoteric bit of a mind-boggle that underlies a lot of the Taoist way of walking.

What to say about wu-wei?  Even trying to describe it makes the people doing the explaining dizzy.

Here’s a You-Tube video featuring British philosopher Alan Watts talking about wu-wei.  This version of it was uploaded by True Meaning in 2022.

The guys who run on logic and straightforward thought patterns just dismiss the whole thing as an airy-fairy bit of nonsense.  Martial artists love the stuff and get all mystical-magical about it.

The video explains wu-wei very handily.  Before I stumbled across it, the “simplest” description of it I found said that wu-wei is the way of “doing nothing and everything gets done.”  [Huh?  (Yeah, I know.  Weird, right?)]


After all these years, I’ve finally figured out something.

Mostly we know about the “Fight or Flight” body-reactions we get when something happens to us unexpectedly.

BOOM!  Something happens, and you either put up your fists and snarl, ready to duke it out, or else you run like hell, screaming your head off.

“Boom!” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
You can get lots of information and opinions and so on about those Fight or Flight body-reactions. Lots of studies have been done on those reactions and we are the beneficiaries of them all.

There is a third body-reaction that isn’t talked about so much except by guys who are into studying anxiety:  Like deer in the headlights or bunny rabbits or prairie fowl shivering in the grass as a hawk cruises overhead, we freeze in total panic-attack mode at the threat of danger.

“Those eyes are so intense nothing escapes this hawk” by Steve Baker via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
All kinds of studies have been done by the guys in white lab coats about the Freeze as well, but they aren’t as widely known.

Wu-wei, I think, is a lot about that third body-reaction.  It’s part of an ancient theory about the patterns and movements of the flow of energy in the world and how that all works.

After mapping out these patterns and movements and using the I Ching as a repository for their knowledge, Taoist wise guys developed strategies and game plans about how people could work with these patterns of flow to create the world they wanted to live in.

The origins of the theories of wu-wei are lost in the mists of time.

And, it seems to me, the disciplines and practices that developed around it are all about how we can use the Freeze to help us survive whatever has scared us so badly that we cannot think or move or do anything except experience that panic.

We humans do naturally freeze.  The wise guys tell us we can use the Freeze once the panic dies down (and if we’re not dead or maimed severely) to suss out what the heck is going on so we can go do something about it.

Since the wise guys who studied the paradoxes involved in wu-wei and worked on developing the (still-evolving) disciplines were all way gone into the Mystic, they tended to go hog-wild with the poetry of it all and leave us regular folks sitting on the side of the road, confused as all get-out about it all.

(They can’t help that, those wise guys.  When stars get in your eyes, I think, you just naturally lose the ordinary language that regular people use or something like that.)


Humans are naturally hardwired to handle crisis.

Often we act too quickly as a way of avoiding the crisis or else we distract ourselves from it.  Either way we mostly get smashed.

“What Would Dorothy Do?” by Rich via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The alternative, according to the wise guys, is to stop and do nothing until we achieve clarity.  Once the panic dies down, we can think clearly enough to figure out what to do next (if we haven’t gotten killed off by whatever caused us to freeze.)

Rabbi David Wolpe, author of MAKING LOSS MATTER:  Creating Meaning in Difficult Times, points out, “The gift in pausing is to allow the wave of shock to pass before you are forced to react to the world….The pause allows you to recover yourself enough to figure out the process of integrating whatever the result of the shock is in your life.

“All I wanted to be when I grew up was yours,” by Jessica Kennedy via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Humans love action.  We are probably addicted to it.

Mostly us humans think when we are doing something – even if it is random, unfocused and uninspired doing – we are being “productive.”

Often we are doing a lot, but nothing much gets done.  We run around like chickens without heads, bumping into things and flopping down futilely.  Not good.

“we gals are detail oriented in our busywork” by bptakoma via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Soren Gordhamer who wrote WISDOM 2.0:  Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected, says, “Until we can be at peace with nothing happening, in a strange way nothing really can happen since our actions will be an avoidance of non-doing.

Um, yeah.  Even the smartypants guys get poetic around wu-wei.

In other words, rather than splashing around in giant, boggy mud puddles, stirring up the muck all around us, we just have to not-move and not-do, it says here.  We have to forego setting off even more silty muddiness and adding to all the gunk that’s swirling around in the chaotic confusion of it all.

We just have to stop and let the mud settle down so we can see what the heck is going on under our feet.

“Hana red mud green trees” by Brandy Saturley via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Once we can see that there is not some big old hole right in front of us that we are going to fall down into or some big beast waiting to chomp us, we can figure out where to put our feet and maybe get out of that stupid mud puddle.

What we are trying to do, really, is “create conditions that invite opportunities for nothing to occur.”

The problem is, as Gordhamer points out, “The more out of touch and uncomfortable we are with our inner life, the more difficult stopping becomes.

He resurrects that old 1970s hippie bumper sticker, “Don’t just do something, sit there.

By just sitting there — waiting, watching and listening to whatever urgent possible catastrophe is unfolding all around – you make room for not-doing and you stop yourself from just mindlessly doing, doing, doing and getting more and more tangled up.

Maybe you’ll find some fellow “soul-mates” to whom you can talk.

“Birds: A Tragedy” by Shannon Kokoska via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Memories of remarkable people who’ve wandered through your life, echoes of old lessons learned from them and all that other stuff in your mind can help you wait for the panic attack to subside.  By sitting still and not doing anything hasty, you also give yourself enough time to figure out the right responses and allow the best answers to show themselves.

Once you’ve got those answers in your grasp, then you can move to go do something that gives you the chance to get outa there!

And, mostly, whatever you do will work better than if you just dive in head-first without checking whether the swimming pool has water in it.


There are all kinds of ways to stop yourself from over- or under-reacting to the assorted situations that come up in your life unexpectedly.

Here’s one that was developed by Elisha Goldstein, a licensed psychologist who has written a number of books and who teaches clinically proven mindfulness-based programs on his own and through InsightLA.

Goldstein introduced it in his book, THE NOW EFFECT:  How A Mindful Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life.

“Stop Sign” by thecrazyfilmgirl via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
  • S = Stop what you are doing.

  • T = Take a breath. Make it slow and purposeful.

  • O = Observe what is happening around you and acknowledge how you feel right now.

  • P = Proceed after asking yourself, “What’s the most important thing right now that I need to pay attention to?”

Once you’ve answered that P question, you’ll at least have a direction you can go.


Goldstein’s S.T.O.P. strategy is a lot like what the wise guys tell you to do.  The wise guys have more poetic verbiage and way more interesting practices to try, but basically it’s the same stuff.

Here’s what I tell myself to do about it all so that it kind of makes sense for me:

What you have to do is gather in all the nebulous clouds of panicky thoughts about the possibly catastrophic future as well as the feelings you’ve generated about what has happened in the past – both about the most recent incident and about similar incidents that you’ve already worked your way through (or not).

You can reel in all the thoughts and feelings back into yourself and put yourself back into your own body in this present moment right now.

You can then give yourself a state-of-the-body report:

“Okay.  So this happened and this is how my body is feeling right now.  My neck is stiff.  I’ve got a dull pain in my lower back.  My stomach’s upset and I feel like throwing up.  Fine.”

“Okay.  These are my emotions:  I am feeling sad/mad/bad/scared…or whatever.  Fine.”

“Am I dead?  No.  Am I maimed?  No.  Fine.”

(You do this to make yourself solid again and concentrate the you-ness of you back into your body.)

Then you can give yourself a state-of-your-immediate-world report:

“Are the bad guys at the door right this minute?  No.  Has the someday-maybe catastrophe actually happened?  No.  Fine.”

“Are most of the good things in my life still there?  Yes.  Will the sun come up tomorrow?  Yes, probably.  Fine.”

After that, you can start to look at the situation at hand and begin to assess what you can do as damage control or how you can move towards resolving whatever the difficulty is.

You have made yourself ready to go into deep-thinking and maybe if you play around in there for a while you will be able to come to some insights about what your next move will be.

From there you might decide to fight or run or just get on with your day, ignoring the glitch that will probably self-correct without help from you.

And that’s it.

“Way of Peace and Solitude” by Hartwig HKD via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Here’s a poem:


Okay…here I am again,

Trying to suss out why

This latest scheme of mine

Just sits there like a lump

No matter HOW much energy

I am putting into it.


It feels like there’s quicksand

All around me,

Waiting to suck me down, down, down…

Glub, glub, glub.



I’m supposed to let go now.

I’m supposed to stop struggling.

I’m supposed to just stop.


I can do that.

Sure I can.


So, why doesn’t THAT feel like

A really good thing to do?

Here I am on this stupid tuft

Of supposedly solid ground.

There’s mist blowing all around.

I cannot see ANYTHING!


I could use a rescue here, guys.

Is anybody out there?


Are those EYES staring at me,

All red and glowing?

Oh, wow!  Oh, gee!  Oh, my!  Oh, me!



Wait a minute.


I just remembered something.

I am a Dragon.

Dragons have wings.


What am I doing standing here

Having a panic attack?


Get ON with it, Dumbo!

You can FLY, remember?

created by Netta Kanoho

Header Photo Credit: “portal” by Alice Popkorn via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]



(Click on each of the post titles below and see where it takes you…)


Thanks for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.


  1. Carol5162 says:

    Very weird. Doing nothing to get everything done? I cannot wrap my head around it. 

    Those are really interesting facts about the third body reaction. Now I somehow get that part when you are in complete shock and the only thing you can do is freeze. And yet this is the time you might need to scream and warn others or even run for your life.

    I agree with Soren Gordhamer theory. I believe if we sit still and not set off running like crazy, we can be able to get clarity of what just happened or is happening.

    Such an intriguing article. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Carol.  It is a strange one, huh?  

      Please do come again….

  2. RoDarrick says:

    Very interesting read for me. I love every bit of the information I got through this article. 

    Wu-wei is definitely the way to go about it. 

    Fight or flight. I actually believed in this ideology that one should stay calm irrespective of the situation or circumstance till everything becomes clear. Only then can meaningful actions be taken. Giving time to the situation for it to be understood and then taking proper actions to achieve calmness before a reaction can be done against the situation.

    This is a knowledge enricher. Thanks

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, RoDarrick.  I do appreciate it.

      Trying to figure out the wu-wei thing is an ongoing project for me.  I have found that being able to get to stillness before doing any major irrevocable moves has helped tremendously in finding good resolves to a number of complex problems.   

      Trying to explain it (and get it right) is always a bitch, though.

      Please do come again….

  3. Henderson says:

    This is so accurate. We panic in the face of turbulence and problems and we sometimes over react. Its true that we love action and when we get the chance to exercise action, we jump at it. 

    It’s the first time I’m hearing of wu wei and it sounded weird to me until you elaborated to the point of the STOP technique which I think I should try out. Nice poem there and thank you for such inspirational post.

    1. Henderson, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad I was able to introduce you to the concept of wu-wei.

      It is a confusing mind-boggle indeed.  It has fascinated me for many years.

      Please do come again.

  4. An amazing post this it, despite the difficulties in explaining Wu-wei your explanation actually have given me an insight on what it is. 

    I personally get frightened and want to flee even before the presumed danger arrives. I love the quote by Rabbi Davis Wolpe in the post. Also the poem at the ends is so captivating I felt I was the one in it. 

    I, however, have learned to fight shock and face a situation rather than running even before the main event. Thanks for this post, I’ll make sure I inform others about what I’ve learned here. 

    1. Dane, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad the post has proved useful for you.

      It is a truth that reaching for the pause button does help you face a problematic situation more steadily.  And, for real, facing the thing gives you a better chance at resolving it.  

      Please do come again.

  5. The information you shared on wu-wei via the video you embedded is an eye-opener “Non-interference”.

    I can relate with my life, often before things happening because of the tension and fear I messed up things (running like a chicken without head lol it’s true). You not only discussed the problem but the best thing is you have provided with the solution as well – Stop and do nothing until we achieve clarity.

    I got great insights from your post and your post certainly made me think more on the subject.

    I believe one read is not enough to grab all the valuable information you shared in this post. So I am bookmarking your post for future reference.

    You can fly Remember? – Wow, Amazing Poem I really enjoyed it.

    I personally appreciate all the research and hard work you put into creating this post. It’s dished out to us freely, but it cost you a lot. Thank you!

    Much Success!


    1. Paul, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I am so glad that this post spoke to you.  

      Please do come again….

  6. Your article showed up exactly when I needed. I recently experienced unpleasant things and I just panicked what I should do… until recently. The art of pausing yourself to find clarity is magnificent. I stopped doing anything and just think. Thinking about the past, about the current issue that I have, and the future that I want to happen. I got some clues about what I want to do, though I feel I will do pause myself again when taking a hot bath. Thanks very much 🙂

    1. Allblue, thanks for the visit and for sharing your story.  I am sure that it will be a help to others as well.

      Please do come again.

  7. Hi! I perceive that some of us are more inclined to freeze than others. And I think I’m in the group of those that freeze easily. Up to this point I have regretted it. 

    But reading your post has made me realize that there may be some benefits to freezing. I’ll try to implement some of the things mentioned here. Thanks for this post. It has changed my perspective.

    1. Paolo, thank you for your visit and for sharing your experience with freezing.  I am glad that the post has given you another perspective on a very human trait that can be a really useful tool.

      Please do come again.

  8. The term Awakening is one of a series of terms (others are Enlightenment, Identification of the Cosmic Consciousness, Christ Consciousness, Buddha Consciousness, etc.) which signify liberation from consciousness related to objects – ie egoic consciousness (whereby objects are thought and thought, felt, models and etc.) and the birth of a Spatial Consciousness or Presence which is an inseparable part of the Cosmic or Divine Consciousness. 

    Today, the consciousness of humanity is at this fateful transitional phase of its evolution from the egoic to the Cosmic consciousness. This phase was also a serious matter for the physical survival of humanity. 

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Kozakiv.  I do believe you are right that getting to cosmic consciousness is probably the next, very important step in human development and really necessary for our continued survival as a species.  

      Please do come again….

  9. Thank you so much for sharing such a thoughtful post as always. 

    I have heard of Wu Wei before and you are absolutely right that it is hard to describe it. It is like you decided not to take action. It is action within not taking action lol, complicated stuff. But it leads you to clarity for sure. 

    I love Goldstein method of stopping 101. Sometimes it is more productive for us to stop and think first and compartmentalize and prioritize which are more important. 🙂

    1. Nuttanee, thanks for your visit and for your thoughtful response.  I do agree with you.

      Please do come again.

  10. I must say you are so on point.  Over the years I have discovered that for every little situation we just grumble and most times we over react without firstly looking for a logical way to curb the situation. 

    What I really liked about this article was the Stopping 101.  At first I was confused but I really go to understand things as I read on.

    Thanks slot for this awesome article.  It would be of great help to the public

    1. Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Feji ben.  I do appreciate it.

      Please do come again.

  11. I enjoyed reading about you and how you have been able to move forward and start writing poetry again.  I also think its awesome that you accept guest poetry!  I agree you always have to have guidelines.   

    My favorite part is the poem vault… i’m always looking for great poems and its so nice that you have them posted all in one place.. 🙂  

    Thanks for sharing

    1. AlyseS, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I really am pleased that you enjoyed the site.

      Please do come again.

  12. Micheal N says:

    I want to thank you for writing this article. Recently we had a fire outbreak at our school and two girls lost their lives (So sad). 

    We were asked by the authorities to train the staff and all on the premises what to do in case of a fire. 

    So we hired fire experts to help with that. We were surprised that those girls would not have died if they had not panicked. One the experts said we need to learn and practice wu wei. 

    I had never heard of the word so I asked him and he gave me this link and said I should study it. 

    I appreciate so much the wealth of information in the article. I am sure I have something to share with the administration come Monday. Thank you also for the youtube video.

    1. Micheal, thank you for your visit and for sharing your story.  I am so glad this post was helpful to you.  

      Learning how to work with yourself in the middle of a panic attack is such an important skill-set to learn.  Good luck with developing a system to help with that and helping to prevent such tragedies.

      Please do come again.

  13. Oh how I love your posts!  It is often not looked at, but there is the other option, which is freezing.  This is something that I had learned in my psychology classes as well.  Everyone assumes you either fight, or flight, but you can also freeze, which happens more often that people realize.  

    I do find it interesting how you connect this to wu-wei though!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jessie.  It’s an amazing thing when you can integrate old wisdoms and new ones in ways that make sense to you.  Try try!  It’s fun!

      Please do come again.

  14. Linda Cooper says:

    Doing nothing is way of remaining still so you can look inwards. Having seen the name ‘wu-wei’ I assumed that is what it was really about. Being mindful can get a great deal done.

    Fight or flight of course, comes from caveman times. Freezing could save their life so the predator couldn’t see or notice them. Of course it could get them killed as well.

    Very interesting post, thank you. I will be looking for more information on this because I hadn’t heard of it before.

    1. Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Linda.  I’m glad the post introduced you to a new concept.  Cool!

      Please come again….

  15. LineCowley says:

    What an interesting and intriguing read this has been. I cannot quite wrap my head around the wu wei idea of doing nothing to get everything done. It doesn’t seem to be logical to me. 

    But I can very much relate to Goldstein’s S.T.O.P. principle. Proceed after you accessed the situation and established what is necessary. A great poem as always. 

    1. I know….  Wu wei is an extraordinarily counterintuitive mindset for Western minds to wrap around.  It truly is NOT a logical or even rational way of moving.

      The thing I’ve noticed though is that very often if I can just wait a little bit longer than my recovering Control Freak self usually can stand, often a particularly gnarly situation will jiggle or wriggle or something and all of a sudden room for making a graceful move will present itself.  Then I can make that one move in that time and the way forward opens.

      It is really, really weird.

      Goldstein’s thing can work too, but, frankly, there’s just less magic in it.  Probably that’s just me.

      Thanks for the visit, LC.  Do come again.

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