Posted by: B Gourley | December 6, 2011

Wu Wei: Effortless Martial Arts

Wu Wei is often translated as “actionless action.” While that may sound like the unfortunate wording of bad fortune cookie, it’s an important tenet of Taoism and a valuable lesson to learn. “Actionless action” is not a literal translation, which is closer to “without effort”, but it does convey the notion of achieving without effort or action nicely.

In sparring, I’ve found leaving one’s elbow in the path of attacking limbs to be a quite effective tactic. One may think it necessary to supply the kinetic energy, but allowing the opponent to do so offers a number of benefits. First, it’s energy-efficient. Anyone who has spent a few minutes in free form training will realize that one can become tired quite rapidly, and anything one can do to burn less oxygen is beneficial. Second, it’s hard for the opponent to see and adjust to because they are fully committed to their attack without one having moved a muscle. Finally, for the attacker, it hurts like a son-of-a-_ _ _ _ _.

Kamae, or posture, is another means by which wu wei is practiced in martial arts. Kamae instills an impression in the mind of the opponent that can serve to discourage attack or to manipulate the nature of an attack (e.g. its direction or timing.) Because kamae seem static (appearances can be deceiving) they are often given short shrift, but this is done at one’s peril because they are one’s first line of defense.

Yet another example of wu wei in the martial arts are the brief pauses within forms during which one is still and observing. It is a common problem to miss the rhythm of a form by speeding through these instants without taking to heart the importance of not doing. This wu wei is essential because one needs to be able to adapt to the changes exhibited by the opponent. Speeding through the still points, one may mindlessly venture into dangerous territory when facing an individual who doesn’t follow the “script” of the form.

Wu wei is among the hardest lessons for most martial artists to learn. Bugeisha are people of action. As I’ve been known to say, “vicarious living, ain’t living.”

The idea of wu wei should extend beyond the practice of martial arts and into daily life. There is often a bias against doing nothing, and it can be strategically unfortunate. Consider people’s reaction to silence. When there is a social pairing or a small group, there is almost a compulsion to fill the silence. Most of the time this is a harmless enough social protocol, but it can work to one’s disadvantage. In the 80’s there was a fair amount of discussion about how Japanese executives sometimes defeated Americans in negotiations because the Americans, feeling the need to fill the silence, would start bidding themselves downward before the Japanese even spoke a word. I’m not suggesting one should be anti-social [though I sometimes am], but one should not fall into a compulsion to speak, or do, when not doing might yield better results.


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