Wu wei is a concept frequently mentioned in the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), and is often translated as non-action or not doing. It is also part of another phrase often repeated in Taoist (Daoist) scriptures -- wei wu wei, or "do without doing" -- which makes the paradoxical nature of the concept clearer. How does anything get done if I don't do something to get it done?
Perhaps wu wei is more easily understood when it is not translated so literally -- as "effortless action" perhaps. We find that the more we let go of our need to control events around us, the more we are able to see how Tao (Dao) puts things we need within our easy reach constantly. Like the heron standing patiently waiting for a fish to swim close enough to grab and eat, we can wait for opprotunities to come to us. We can wait for the decisions to come easily, effortlessly.
Chapters 63 and 64 of Lao Tzu's (Laozi's) Tao Te Ching speak to this first aspect of wu wei by stressing timing:
Chapter 64 goes on to further emphasize the idea that by remaining balanced and observant, we can notice things that are just developing, when they are the easiest to handle and direct:
"What is at equilibrium is easy to maintain;
What has not emerged is easy to plan;
What is fragile is easy to dissolve;
What is minute is easy to disperse.
Act when there is yet nothing to do.
Govern when there is yet no disorder."
-- from chapter 64, E. Chen (tr.)
What makes the practice of wu wei so frustrating is that we have a hard time letting go of our fears of deprivation and our expectations that things turn out a specific way. Wu wei is a leap of faith we become more and more willing to take when we realize that nothing horrible happens when we remain humble, surrender to the Way Things Are, and act so effortlessly that we are barely able to recall any deliberation that led to the action. The space between the opportunity to act and the action becomes so short when we learn to trust this level of spontaneity.
And when you meet situations that used to vex or anger you, for example, you will effortlessly and quickly respond to bring balance to the situation, or you will become better at avoiding such situations. For that is the second aspect of wu wei. You have to be in the flow of Tao in order to experience its power. If you are avoiding engaging the world and being where you need to be, it will be more difficult for Tao to assist you in your goals. If you are looking for a romantic partner, for example, you don't necessarily need to go to the extremes of cruising singles bars and placing personal ads; just make sure you're out among people. As a friend reminds me, very few movie stars were discovered in their homes. The heron doesn't wait on the shore for a fish to jump out of the water and land at its feet; it has to be in the water where the fish are.