Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
The Hardest of All Things: Jung on Wu Wei
What did these people do in order to bring about the development that set them free? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen. … The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself … became for me the key that opens the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this is an art of which most people know nothing. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating, never leaving the psychic processes to grow in peace. It would be simple enough, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.
Recently, in a discussion with a student, his frustration with the pace of inner change came up. He told me, “I’ve been really diligent, waking up, recording my dreams, analyzing them, trying to extract every bit of insight I can. But I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. Isn’t there something, anything, I could do to move the process along?” His tone melded frustration with hope.
I hated to dash it. “I know you aren’t going to like what I have to say, but it really is true that, the more we try to push and drive to make change happen, the slower it goes.” And then I noted Jung’s appreciation of the ancient Chinese concept of wu wei, “the art of letting things happen.”
What Jung Meant by Wu Wei
Jung was explicit that wu wei—action through non-action—is not to be confused (but often is in our Western habit of thinking) with sitting on one’s hands:
Wu wei means “not doing” (which is not to be confused with “doing nothing”). Our rationalistic “doing,” … is the greatness as well as the evil of our time, …”
This is a paradox. On the one hand all our marvelous achievements, from flush toilets to vaccines, to computers and the Internet derive from our Western love of action, of making things happen. But Jung recognized this penchant for activity also has its dark side, and in no area more so than in personal life, in our quest for inner growth and higher consciousness. We have become so enamored of “doing” that we find it hard to be content with “being.”
We can’t make inner growth happen because the ego is not in charge in the inner realm. In our “inner city” the ego must cede the guiding role to the psyche, to the source of dreams. In other words, the ego cannot be in the driver’s seat (How often do dreams put some other figure in the driver’s seat?). We must, as Jung says (quoting Meister Eckhart), “let go of ourselves.” And, as Jung notes, this is an “art,” that “opens the door to the way.”
How to Learn the Art of Letting Things Happen
Like any type of skill, this art is something we can learn, but it is never taught in schools, so few people know about it. Even if our educational institutions were to be transformed, it would be hard to teach the art of wu wei because it is more like learning to ride a bike than learning the times tables: We learn it by doing it, and the instruction is very much individual and unique to the person. So in what follows I can only speak in generalities about how to learn this art.
The first step is accomplished by your reading this essay: Know about it. Most people in Western culture are not aware of the art of action through non-action. Given its paradoxical nature, most people would recoil at the very phrase. To continue the bicycle analogy, you would never learn to ride a bike if you never knew there was such a thing as a bike.
The second step is another piece of discovery: Recognize the reality of your “inner city.” Just as we live in the outer world, so we each have within an entire world of inner figures, a world that shows up in our dreams. When we remember, record and work with our dreams, we begin to discover this world. This is the world of the psyche, a realm beyond the ego’s control. At first this world seems very strange, with a vastly different “take” on both time and space. I think it never ceases to be different from material reality, but with steady exposure via dreams, it can come to have a certain familiarity.
The third step is concurrent with the second: Stay active in your “ordinary occupation.” That is, Jung (quoting the Chinese Master Lao Tzu) would have us continue to function in the outer world, meeting the demands of outer life—work, family, friends, the myriad quotidian aspects of daily life. This is important for keeping us grounded (lest some folks think we’ve “gone off the deep end”) as well as for paying the rent and keeping food on the table.
Also concurrent with steps 2 and 3 is step 4: Engage in appealing activities that support the process of spiritual growth by keeping the mind occupied and the feelings satisfied. Here is where the process becomes highly individualized and unique to your particular interests, talents and type. Thinkers might find appeal in reading and learning about Jung and his psychology, dream work, archetypes, myths and fairy tales, while Feeling types might prefer to listen to music, keep a journal, write stories and share impressions with carefully chosen friends. Sensates might draw, paint, dance or sculpt figures that came up in dreams, and Intuitives might work with mandalas, meditate or delve into the mantic arts. There is an endless array of activities that can keep the mind occupied, and thereby mitigate the sense that “nothing is happening.” By paying attention to dreams, you can see that actually a lot is happening, although it might not show up in outer life yet. The challenge in this step is to stay active without allowing consciousness to try to interfere, help, correct or negate: Jung urges us to “leave the psychic processes to grow in peace.”
Step 5 is where “the rubber hits the road,” where (to continue the learning-to-ride-a-bike analogy) we get on the bike without the training wheels. This is the step where you “let go of yourself” so as to “let things happen in the psyche.” Just as the little kid might need to face his/her fear setting out on the bike without the comfort of the extra wheels or Daddy holding the seat, we have to begin to relinquish ego control to the Self. This is what Jesus meant when he urged people to “lay up treasure in Heaven.” Given the materialism of Western culture, most people focus on the “treasure” part of that phrase, but the real key is the verb: “laying up” is an ongoing process of building trust in the Self, the god within. The more we feel safe trusting in the Self, the easier it is to let go of ourselves.
Step 6 is closely linked to Step 5. “Letting things happen” is a process, but it is also a goal. Many dream students focus on the goal and wind up much like the little kid on the long road trip, asking every five minutes “Are we there yet?” It is better, at this point, to operate in the understanding that the process is as important as, maybe even more important than, the goal.
Finally, or perhaps firstly, be willing to wait. This work requires patience, and I have not had a single dream student who didn’t at some point feel impatient. I know in my own life, working these steps, time and again, I have told my analyst that the only patience I could find at the moment was in the dictionary under “P.” Where Jung claimed that simplicity was “the most difficult of all things,” in my experience I have found the hardest thing is being patient, being willing to wait. In one moment of exasperation, having heard my advice to wait yet again, one of my students said that he would instruct his family to engrave on his tombstone, “Here lies Bob. He waited a lot.” A good epitaph for all of us who undertake the spiritual journey.
Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Gilley, Rosemary Ellen (1998), Dreamwork for the Soul. New York: Berkley Books.
Collected Works 13, ¶20. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 6, ¶369.
 One student recounted to me a sermon she heard in which the priest reminded his parishioners that we are called “human beings,” not “human doings.” Indeed.
 For more on the concept of the “inner city,” see the essay “Our Inner City” archived on this blog site.
 CW 13, ¶20.
 Atemporality and non-locality seem to be features of this realm, which both Jung and Buddhism liken to the Bardo; see Jung’s “Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” CW 11, ¶s759-858.
 Buddhist masters encourage their advanced students to become adept at lucid dreaming as a way to prepare for their journey through the Bardo, in the recognition that it is possible to become familiar with the dream world and, in this way, lessen fear during the Bardo passage. Note that only advanced students are given this training, for only students at this level have so tamed the ego that it would not try to control the dream process. Jung would have no truck at all with lucid dreaming as practiced by ordinary Westerners: he would regard it as just another way in which the ego tries to control all aspects of life. Gilley (1998), 75.
 CW 13, ¶20. Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching was Jung’s source here. This classic of Chinese philosophy is available in many translations.
 Jung was very glad he had the demands of his work and his roles as father, husband and doctor during his “confrontation with the unconscious;” Jung (1965), 188-189.
 Not just any friend: only those able to listen without judgment or the need to give advice.
 CW 13, ¶20.
 Matt. 6:19.
 If one were to posit the “goal” as becoming fully conscious, Jung would dismiss this as a possibility: he regarded the collective unconscious much as the ocean, and no one could hope to fully drain the ocean. So we can never set as a “goal” completely unpacking the collective unconscious of its contents. A more realistic goal is to achieve enough consciousness that life works better, most of our major complexes get “depotentiated,” and we are able to achieve satisfaction in both love/relationships and work.
 CW 13, ¶20.