About     Work     Services     Blog     Other        ︎

EFFORTLESS BOOKS - A study into Daoism and the Creative Process

Language: English
A meditation on the value of Daoism to the creative process
ISBN-13: 978-0882681283
This study explores ‘wu wei’ in Daoist philosophy, similar to the idea of ‘Flow,’ and how it applies to the creative process of making books - writing, designing, and crafting them.

The aim is to simply explain the fundamental ideas of Daoism, making it accessible for contemporary Western understanding and creative application. Daoism’s native concepts are often unknown or misunderstood in the West due to our disconnection from nature. Despite this initial difficulty, once grasped, Daoism offers a simple way of life. The goal of this study is to shed light on an ancient tradition deeply attuned to rhythms of nature, helping you better comprehend both the external world and your inner world. By introducing and then applying these principles to my artistic practice, through analysis and reflection, I aim to provide you with ways to enhance your creative process.







Introduce Daoism to Western Artists: First, explain Daoism in simple terms to Western artists who may not understand it.

Apply ‘Wu Wei’ to Creativity: Next, apply the central principle of ‘wu wei’, along with other principles, to the creative process and examine how it changes the way artists approach creative acts. Break down the impact of ‘wu wei’ on the artistic mindset.

Reconnect artists with Original Nature: Lastly, examine how moments of flow can help artists return to their true selves, exploring the essence of their creativity.



My introduction to Daoism began with the profound experience of ‘flow,’ a concept familiar to me as an artist. It’s that immersive feeling, losing track of time, completely absorbed in the present task. I first encountered it in childhood through parkour, where I effortlessly flowed over obstacles. Later, when screen printing captured my attention, the world faded away, leaving just me, the screen, a hoodie, and some paint, dancing in a moment of creation. These instances felt natural, and I cherished every moment.

As I delved into understanding this unique feeling, I stumbled upon the concept of ‘flow,’ coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Suddenly, everything clicked, and I began noting moments of losing track of time, guideposts leading me back to my true self. Each instance of flow unveiled my inner creator, eroding the fear of expressing my authentic self. In these moments, the urge to articulate my emotions became apparent. As a man in the West struggling to express myself, I found solace in writing, attempting to make sense of the flow experience.

Writing became a new calling, akin to the essence felt in parkour and screen printing. It provided an outlet for my inner self, fostering a new way of expression. Screen printing and reading had honed my focus, allowing me to channel this energy into writing. With no prior writing experience, I embraced freedom, exploring without preconceived structures, and letting my heart spill onto the pages. What began as a means of reflection evolved into an art, a dance where words flowed effortlessly.

Discovering Alan Watts and his discussion of ‘wu wei’ in Daoism resonated deeply with my experiences of flow. Unaware of the term or the rich tradition surrounding it, I became hooked on exploring Daoism—a philosophy born from observing nature’s stillness, movements of rivers, the emptiness of valleys, and the polarity of day and night. Intrigued, I ventured into the question:

How can a philosophy originating in the Far East over 2500 years ago benefit present-day Western artists in the creative process?


Daoism is an ancient Chinese wisdom tradition that emphasizes an effortless drifting with the current of nature. Finding a balance between tranquility and activity. The middle way.

Daoism centres around the concept of Dao, which has many meanings but simply translated means the Way. It encourages a harmonious way of living, emphasizing spontaneity, simplicity, and a natural flow in one’s actions.

For the artist, Daoism can serve as a source of inspiration by promoting a deep connection with the creative process. The focal point of this study is centered on the Daoist principle of Wu Wei; it suggests that the most profound artistic expressions come when one is in a state of natural, unforced creativity. One who recognizes the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of balance (Watts, 1975).

Daoism offers the Western artist a philosophical foundation that values intuition, simplicity, and a mindful approach to the creative journey, ultimately fostering a deeper connection between the artist and their craft.

Followers of Dao (Deng, 2013) are those moving along a spiritual path. A path within, flowing with the currents of nature towards a deeper understanding of the creative self.


Understanding the history of a wisdom tradition and staying connected to its origins is crucial. In ancient China, shamans laid the foundations of Daoism, before any idea of the Dao existed. Tribes made offerings to the mountains, rivers and sky to renew the bond between humanity and sacred powers. Humans had a deep spiritual connection with nature. (Wong, 1997)

The classical period, 8th-3rd century BCE, produced great philosophers like Lao-tzu and Confucius, this era gave us the Dao-De Jing and its philosophy of nonaction (wuwei) and harmonious living. Between the 1st-7th century CE, (Wong, 1997) Daoism took an interesting turn, transforming into a religion. This study, however, specifically focuses on the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi from the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE) and the guidance present in the books attributed to them, rather than delving into the later religious aspects of Daoism.

Laozi [la-out-zuh], also known as Lao Tzu,  is generally seen as the founder of Daoism. But little is known about the actual person. He was native to the southern feudal state of Ch’u, born into an educated upper class, working as a librarian in the imperial archives. (Wong, 1997) What we know of Laozi is more of legend: it is said he retired from civil services, disillusioned with politics and tired of the ruthlessness of rulers. He reached some level of enlightenment, traveled to the frontier gate of the city, and disappeared (becoming an “immortal”). Before leaving, he wrote a short text of 5,000 words to a frontier guard. Now known as the Dao-De Jing, also called the Laozi.

The Dao-De Jing is the first recorded Daoist text. The Daoists of the Dao-De Jing were not social dropouts. For them, the sage was an individual who understood the natural way of things (the Dao) and lived in harmony with it; therefore changes in society must come from changes within individuals, and changes in individuals could come only from following the principles of the Dao. (Wong, 1997). It was originally a book for rulers on ways to lead that were more in harmony with the Dao. But it is applicable to everything.

Zhuangzi, [joo-wang-zuh] also known as Chuang Tzu, is another significant figure in Daoist philosophy. He lived during the 4th century BCE. (Wong, 1997) Zhuangzi’s contributions to Daoism are found in “The Book of Zhuangzi”. This text expands on Daoist principles through parables, anecdotes, and philosophical reflections. His view on creativity was one of moving away from an effort to be original or novel and focusing on adaptivity and spontaneity. (Chung, 2023). This creative approach highlights the importance of connecting new with old, encouraging a gradual, evolutionary way of thinking instead of a sudden, revolutionary change. In this perspective, creative people make choices in the moment and come up with flexible plans, allowing them to smoothly adapt to the constantly changing world around them.



  1. Dao
  2. Yin Yang
  3. Wu Wei
  4. Harmony with Nature
  5. Process-oriented


The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao 


Dao is the source of all things. It is beyond words and explanation. It is beyond sensory perception. You can’t see, touch, hear, or smell it. It is formless. Although it is difficult to explain, understanding it is crucial to know how things work. It underlies every existence, it keeps the entire universe in order. It is not “God” but a nameless void beyond.

Its difficulty to explain comes from the fact that it can only be felt and experienced by the individual. That feeling of unity with nature.

The main thrust of Daoism is to follow Dao, the path / the way. Simply observing the Chinese character of Dao you can begin to break down its meaning. As explained by Master Gu, a Daoist Master (George Thompson, 2017), the Chinese character for Dao is made up of three parts;

The first strokes represent the yin-yang balance

This means oneself, indicating that Dao is not far from you. Dao is within you.

The last part means to go, to move, or to act. Signifying movement or action.

This idea is powerful because it suggests that we don’t need to rely on an external God. Through our own actions, we can find balance. The next obvious question is,

Great, tell me what is this way?

However, Dao isn’t a tangible thing; it’s the underlying order governing the universe. Trying to define it is futile.

What matters is being sensitive to how the universe operates and allowing yourself to live in harmony with it -George Thompson

Aligning ourselves with this natural order is what is meant by following the Dao. Daoist teachings are guidelines to achieving harmony with this invisible, universal, natural order. The first thing the artist must grasp is that this Dao, observed by the ancient sages of China, has a rhythm.


Figure 2. Chengdu: Ba Shu shushe, (1989). The Taiji Diagram of the Heart of the Changes as Mysteriously Revealed by Fuxi. [BOOK] From Lai Zhide, Yijing Laizhu tujie.

Chinese thought is rooted in the principle of polarity. But not to be confused with opposition or ideas of conflict. (Watts, 1975) Our culture puts dark at war with light, bad with good, death against life, and negative with positive. Thus cultivating an ideal for the later and a desire to be rid of the former. To the traditional Chinese thought, this is as confusing as an electric current without both positive and negative poles. Polarity is the principle that + and -, are just different parts of one whole.

All things carry yin and embrace yang.  They reach harmony by blending with the vital breath.


The art of polarity is not about keeping to yang (light, masculine, creative, active, heaven, hot) and banishing yin (dark, feminine, receptive, passive, earth, cold) but about holding the two in balance. These are polar forces in a constant transforming cycle of birth and death. It is the seamless transition from day into night and night into day. One cannot be without the other.

The key to understanding this is hsiang sheng or mutual arising, interdependence (Watts, 1975). Meaning they couldn’t exist without each other. We breathe in the oxygen trees emit and trees absorb the carbon dioxide we breathe out. Trees and humans are mutually exclusive. This understanding highlights the interconnectedness of nature, including ourselves. Recognizing this interconnected balance is crucial for understanding Wu Wei.

For the Western artist, this symbol can mean finding balance in creativity — embracing both stillness and movement, light and shadow, to achieve a harmonious and well-rounded artistic expression. It’s about recognizing the dynamic interplay of polar forces to enhance the richness of artistic work.


Wu meaning - non, not, no, negation

Wei meaning - action, making, forcing, doing

The best translation for Wu Wei (Watts, 1975) is not forcing. Wu Wei is the principle of not forcing anything that you do.

Wu Wei is based on knowledge of the tides. Drift of things. The art of sailing rather than the art of rowing.

-Alan Watts

Wu-wei [woo-way] is the central teaching in Laozi’s ‘Dao De Jing’. It is the Daoist principle of Trust, (Gregory, J. 2019) urging us to refrain from forcing outcomes, accepting changes, and reducing our need for control. This principle advocates living spontaneously in harmony with the inherent flow of the cosmos, known as Dao, and refraining from actions that disrupt the natural order and rhythm. By relinquishing the urge to manipulate, we discover a profound sense of control. Trusting Wu Wei becomes our vehicle to realize innate freedom.

Wu Wei is the art of being. It is the art of being in such harmony with the Tao that everything happens as it should - not forced, not sought after, not planned, not bought, not desired - it just happens.

-Martin Palmer

Trying to understand Wu Wei by simply reading about it is almost impossible because it is experienced through action. It is the origin of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's conception of ‘flow’. The idea of going with the currents and following the grain. (Zhuangzi, Merton, 2010) The artist whose effortless work produces this feeling of flow already knows Wu Wei even if they don’t understand it. Wu Wei is a guiding principle of flow. When creatives are in a flow state, they are completely absorbed, focused, and involved in their creative activity. It’s effortless and natural (Zach, 2020). Wu Wei is the vehicle in which the artist comes into accord, in harmony, with Dao.


The ultimate union for the Daoist, achieved unintentionally, is to be in harmony with nature. That feeling of one-ness with all. To be in a state of tranquility. This isn’t about forcefully imposing or desiring harmony, but rather about relinquishing our human ambitions and desires. (Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng, and English, 1972) For artists, this pursuit of harmony can be likened to listening to the creative force within and being perceptive enough to discern the appropriate moments for action and repose.

Daoism provides a language. Reading a text is not the most important thing. If we walk in nature with plants, every day for an hour, we develop that sensibility. Writings only give us words to describe the feeling that we can cultivate through these activities and ways of observing.

-Zheng Bo

In essence, the artist’s journey toward harmony involves an acknowledgment that, like the natural world, there is a time for stillness and expression. Embracing these alternating rhythms aligns the artist with the profound flow of the creative process.


One of the foundational distinctions between the Western approach to work and the Daoist perspective lies in their views on progress. In the Western paradigm, progress is often perceived as a linear, step-by-step journey, marked by the pursuit of goals and accolades that provide a sense of achievement and a roadmap for future endeavors. This mindset is characterized by a constant striving for the next milestone, a perpetual quest for improvement that stems from the notion that the present self is insufficient.

Conversely, the Daoist outlook acknowledges the cyclical nature of the world and the inherent processes that govern it. The Daoist philosophy advocates embracing the present moment and recognizing the value of the current self, instead of fixating on an idealized future self. The present artist therefore can ride the waves of change, rather than being subject to the changes in nature. Dwelling on potential future outcomes and external validations can blind artists to the intrinsic value of the creative act.

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets -
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed.
But the prize divides him.
He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting -
And the need to win
Drains him of power.


The wisdom of Zhuangzi, from this quote, encapsulates this Daoist perspective. When the artist creates with no external aim or prize, she exhibits her full skill. However, introducing external goals can disrupt her focus and diminish her skill. The pursuit of prizes divides the artist’s attention, shifting her focus from the pure act of making to the desire to win. A natural connection with the process is lost. In essence, the Daoist philosophy encourages artists to be process-oriented rather than goal-focused, fostering a deeper connection with nature and the present moment. Finding the intrinsic joy within the transformative act of creation.



  1. Tranquil Sitting
  2. Effortless Writing
  3. Wu Design
  4. Making books with ease

Wu Wei is the central theme that binds together this dissertation. In this chapter, we begin to analyze the application of this philosophy to book creation.

It explores the importance of stillness and silence, the free-flowing process of writing, book design inspired by ancient Chinese landscape paintings, and the ease of book arts guided by Daoism.


To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders 


To the ancient Daoists, meditation was simply sitting on the ground. There is no special word for meditation, it is just called sitting. Simply sitting on the earth. (Deng, 2013) After a full day of working the land or trekking mountains Daoists would sit in silence, alone. After enduring the abundance of nature, rest was needed. Contemplation was needed. This helped to settle the turmoil of working and to return easily to the silence that was Dao.

For all time people have worshiped gods. The followers of Dao teach us to look beyond gods. But what is beyond, “a wise person once said: beyond the gods is silence”

(Deng, 2013).

You don’t have to be a god to experience what is beyond. As the artist prepares to begin her craft, she slows down and allows herself to be very quiet, and experience the silence. It is becoming increasingly difficult in our current workaholic culture to experience silence. To follow Dao is a call to silence. A call into nature and tranquility. To sit still for just a few seconds and allow yourself to feel the silence.

To begin on the path of Dao is to observe nature and understand that we are part of it.

(Deng, 2013).

Observation is crucial for learning. The Western world, influenced by Christianity, emphasizes seeking wisdom through words from others, creating a barrier to spiritual experiences. This approach suggests relying on intermediaries like priests for answers. Ancient Daoists, in contrast, taught by letting students travel with them and observe. Sages trusted human intuition to simply observe and understand nature. They didn’t say, “Learn Dao from my words” because it can’t be explained. Dao is best grasped by living and feeling it through personal observation, learning, and listening.

If we want to see Dao, we need only open our eyes and trust what we see.

(Deng, 2013).

The core of this research is the Daoist concept of Wu Wei. Translating from Chinese to English doesn’t have a single linear definition; it has many meanings. While it can be understood as ‘effortless action’ (which we’ll explore later), it can also mean ‘non-doing.’ Wu Wei involves applying only the necessary force at the right time. For Western artists, this can be challenging. With a burning desire to create, it’s difficult to know when to just stop and do nothing, instead of constantly making and risking burnout.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

(Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng, and English, 1972)

It goes against the modern push for constant productivity, where creatives try to make the most of every moment. But just like a plant needs a break from being watered, our work and ourselves need time to breathe and absorb.

Sitting quietly in non-doing,
spring comes and grass grows by itself

(Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng, and English, 1972)

Taking a moment to simply breathe is a fundamental Daoist practice. Your breath reflects the cosmos and nature’s rhythms. With the yin yang symbol in mind. Observe your breath: inhalation and exhalation, the expanding and contracting belly, and the rise and fall of thoughts. It’s an endless cycle of change, the same rhythms ancient Daoists observed in nature. Understanding these rhythms is central to embracing Wu Wei.

Now the artist can either fight inevitable change, or she can begin to understand and observe the rhythms of Dao and flow along with it, with ease.

The ideal Daoist is she who has learned to use all her senses and faculties to intuit the shapes and currents in the Dao, so as to harmonize herself with them completely.

(Rawson, 1973)

It starts simply by sitting and observing the flow. Observing the urge to get up and do something and allowing it to gently fade away back into the mind and sit in non-doing. In the stillness and observation of the inner and outer movements, we begin to empty the mind. Becoming aware of the breath, the attachment to thoughts disappears and a space is created within. For something new to come something old must go, empty the cup (Shi Heng Yi, 2023).

As artists, how can we make anything if we are full? Allowing the mind to empty by simply sitting we create the space for creative intuition to grow.

Empty yourself of everything, let the mind rest at peace


The essence of Dao is found in our natural stillness. In this state, spontaneity effortlessly emerges. That spontaneity and effortless action are the heart of understanding Wu Wei. This is when the artist picks up their tools and starts to play.


Looking in the Mirror … Writing what my heart finds there

-Li Po

Envision the mind as a well filled with water. When the waters are disturbed with ripples of thoughts and worry the reflections become unclear. (Watts, A. 1975) When the waters are still, the reflections above and below become clear. You can see with clarity. Acting from stillness, you act with clarity. That moment when action emerges and the bucket reaches into the water, or the pen is picked up, what emerges is the pure essence of what lies beneath. When the time comes to move, and the effortless act of creating begins, what emerges speaks straight from the stillness of the heart. (Zhuangzi, Merton, 1994)

The title quote belongs to a poem by the Daoist writer Li Po from the 700s. It strikes a chord within my story as a writer. Writing wasn't a deliberate pursuit for me; rather, it unfolded organically during moments of tranquil introspection. In those quiet interludes, a spontaneous compulsion surfaced, urging me to express what was observed. The most fitting medium for this flow of communication was the written word, allowing me to paint pictures with language. Amidst the chaos of thoughts, I found a serene stillness, and from it emerged a unique form of poetry—reflecting my essence and the rhythm within.

Filling the body with light
from earth to sky
breathing in the sun
blowing out the soot

with sun at the roof
everything lets go
and floats up
and out 
and down

Time stops
breath stops
It’s just



This was what I wrote immediately after.

It felt like I was riding a wave when I wrote that. To-ing and fro-ing, following the rhythm of the sea I could feel riding the page left and right. Flowing wherever the pen took me, no thought. Just moving. It felt like I’d lifted into another plane and was listening to the music of the muses. Just translating the notes being played…into ink on paper.

By examining the ancient Chinese oracle bone script for characters, we can grasp the concept of flow, wu wei, and its connection to the Daoist way of life, often referred to as the way of water (Watts, A. 1975). Looking at the script for Water (1), which is the staple image for the idea of wu wei, and the script for Flow (2) we can see a deeper meaning in the ancient script for Art (3).


Examining the age-old scripts depicted in Deng, M.-D. (2013) book "Everyday Tao," it becomes apparent that Daoists, in their unique mode of expression, perceived art as a fusion of fluidity and water. The artist, according to this perspective, embodies the essence of flow, seamlessly intertwining with the cadence within. It involves an intimate dance with the undulating rhythms and surges of water, responding to its nuanced sensations and moving harmoniously with its course.

The Daoist Way is to let go of fixed ideas and self-imposed boundaries and see what life really is. Not through words but movement. To flow into it and with it. Accept what comes along with a joyful awareness. To see the universe as the creative dance of the Dao and move in step with it.

(Bancroft, 1991)

Moving with the flow means grasping the rhythms, navigating the ups and downs, and embracing the highs and lows in any process. In the perspective of a Daoist, nothing is strictly good or bad; everything is a harmonious interplay of complementary opposites (Watts, A. 1975). Understand yourself—know when to work, when to rest, and when to let your art breathe. Tune in to your inner self and your surroundings. The more you feel the urge to force things, the more you realize the importance of letting go and allowing things to be. Desperately trying to fix something we perceive as broken or off-course might disrupt its natural unfolding.

Wu Wei, the art of not-forcing, unveils its essence when faced with a lack of inspiration and fatigue. It entails the wisdom of discerning the natural current's direction and attending to one's well-being. Instead of persisting when drained, Wu Wei encourages a pause, allowing time for rejuvenation. The key lies in recognizing the opportune moment, when the spark or momentum resurfaces.

In essence, Wu Wei is akin to swimming effortlessly with the currents rather than struggling against them. The more one contends with the natural order, the more arduous both life and the artistic journey become. It's a philosophy urging alignment with the innate flow of existence, riding those waves of creative inspiration. Choosing to engage in non-doing during moments that beckon for reflection and respite is a testament to the art of Wu Wei, a harmonious approach to life and artistry.


In Wu Wei, "Wu" means non or no—it's the absence of form, the idea of nothing or space. This concept guided ancient Daoist landscape painters, recognizing the value in emptiness. (Arts, Z.F. 2021). This is the principle I applied to the editorial design of book pages.

Chinese design focuses on the absence of form to stress the spiritual, striving for completeness beyond physical expression. The success of a work is measured in abstract terms, often referring to qi, the spirit transmitted through the work. A design lacking this sense is considered incomplete.

(Minick and Jiao, 1990)

Look around the space you’re in. The usefulness of that area comes from its emptiness. Look at the cup that holds your drink. The only reason that cup can contain that liquid, is because it is empty. Thus it is of use to you.

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.


Our approach often as Western artists is to focus on the material or the matter we can see. This is only because our cultures focus on materiality. Our uncomfortableness with space and silence. This is precisely where the Daoist thrives,in the absence of form. How can you allow the flow of creative intuition in, if you are full? You must be empty. You must create the space within to allow the abundance of creativity waiting to flow in. If this is the mind of a Daoist, how does it translate into the design process?

Emptiness is not the absence of substance but the space that allows all things to exist. A journey into the heart of emptiness, a space where the minds could rest and the soul could expand. This is the art of emptiness.

Arts, Z.F. (2021)

Figure 4. Yuan, M. (2017). On a Mountain Path in Spring. World History Encyclopedia

In Daoist art, the intentional absence of paint leaves a space empty. (Arts, Z.F. 2021) This non-existence of paint transforms the canvas itself into emptiness, serving as a foundation around which paint and matter take form. The artist utilizes the canvas as a strategic void, allowing the creation to evolve organically. This deliberate use of negative space becomes a dynamic element, where the emptiness of the canvas interacts with the artist's expression to convey a profound visual experience. Working with emptiness rather than fearing it and trying to fill up every corner. Allowing emptiness to speak more than the content.

In editorial design, it’s important to find a balance that works well with the elements on the page. However, can you convey meaning through the use of emptiness? A balance between what’s there and what’s not.

What if you took away all the words and placed an image slightly to the side, surrounded by empty space? Let people interpret their own meaning. Imagine using two pages for a bit of text that could fit on one, giving readers time to feel the meaning before moving on. Let the space around the words give readers mental room to understand. Then, flipping the page physically shows something new is happening.

For the book designer, the blank page poses a unique challenge, often more intricate to navigate than a page filled with content. Much like a painter facing an empty canvas, the designer must artfully communicate information through deliberate omissions — embracing the power of absence. (Arts, Z.F. 2021) The reader, in turn, must exercise discernment, avoiding fixation on the literal and the apparent, and instead, employing these empty spaces to discern the deeper narrative that transcends the book’s visual composition. In the world of book editorial design, the interplay of absence and presence becomes a canvas upon which a nuanced and compelling story unfolds.

One of the key things a Western artist could implement from this way of life, is a balance of Yin Yang forces. In the world of Yin and Yang, the West often leans heavily towards the active, the form, with a constant fire and a surplus of masculine energy (Yang). However, just like the changing seasons, this perpetual state can’t endure. Embracing the Yin—femininity, contemplation, space, receptivity—can elevate art from a one-sided physical expression to a harmonious blend of the physical and spiritual.

By cultivating the Feminine side the artist becomes more sensitive to the answers that reside within. The care for nature and your craft elevates. A willingness to be vulnerable and share what comes from the heart, letting it breathe in the space of an "empty" design instead of hiding it in busy content. Instead of, only trying to solve problems purely through intellect. It’s about finding a balance between the masculine and feminine, absence and presence, movement and stillness. True art originates from the heart, transcending mere physical expression of self.

Next, we will see how the cultivation of all these principles and processes combine into one harmonious act of making books. Daoist philosophy as the guide to making books.


In making a wheel, if you work too slowly, you can't make it firm; if you work too fast, the spokes won’t fit in. You must go neither too slowly nor too fast. There must be coordination of mind and hand. Words cannot explain what it is, but there is some mysterious art herein.

(Watts and Al Chung-Liang Huang, 1975)

In a new project, I stumbled upon zines—a wonderfully simple medium, just one A4 paper folded into a pocket-sized book. Drawing from Daoism, I wanted to smoothly transition my writing and research into a simple form without disrupting the natural flow from idea to writing to design to creation. I struggled to find the right way to share it. Full-length books weren’t appropriate. The medium of a mini zine worked. My first attempt had too many colours and visual elements. Still a lot of focus on the presence of form. I learned, refined, and simplified.

The next version came naturally, driven by the need for accessibility. One sheet of sugar paper, one colour, one typeface, and black ink. Reflective of the Daoist way of calligraphy and landscape painting. I distilled the Daoist wisdom into bite-sized books, using a new understanding of the art of emptiness instead of desperately trying to cram everything onto one page.

As I let it unfold naturally, beautiful books emerged. I dived deep into crafting the books, carefully creasing and folding each one. The result? You could feel the care when holding the finished book in your hands. Even the process of sewing the pages together became a meaningful form of binding. Choosing the thread was a spontaneous act, with colours seemingly selecting themselves. The connection to the work was personal—it had sprung from within, eliminating the need to overthink or plan the design. The key was a sensitivity to what reflected a feeling of harmony and tranquility. I allowed the essence of the writing to feed into the design and the iterative making process just unfolded naturally.

It all evolved through play and the effortless flow of the process. Experimentation with form, material, and colour was the driving force.

By setting some creative boundaries, I allowed myself to navigate freely within that space. Surprisingly, this led to breaking out of the initial constraints, revealing the explosion of variety that simplicity and naturalness can bring. I transcended perceived limitations by flowing within the space, focusing on the emptiness within the material, and refusing to let it box me in. I aimed to minimize waste and work in the simplest, most natural way with the resources at hand. In the act of making, I lost myself, yet, in reality, I found Self.

Initially, I played with the form without a specific purpose, but each book, reflecting various facets of my nature, became a more complete expression of my inner artist — the parts we often keep hidden. The roles of teacher, student, artist, writer, designer, and bookmaker converged into one cohesive act. I abandoned compartmentalizing my process, allowing it to flow as an interconnected whole. Rushing one part affected the energy throughout, creating a cyclical process where care or lack thereof cycled into the next phase. Considering where the book would exist and how it would be received connected every step of the process. When I got lost in the making, the products flourished. Only by shedding preconceived notions of how others might perceive it could I fully immerse myself in the present process of making books. Zhuangzi (Merton, 2010)

The excitement of the content guided the design process. Selecting words with the most essence that echoed that subtle voice within, I created a simple layout in InDesign. The words and feelings from the stories I read while designing became integral. Instead of overthinking design techniques, I allowed the work to unfold, using a keen ear and eye to deeply listen and guide the process. When the design felt complete, I resisted the urge to Rule a country like you’d cook a small fish, leave it alone, and don’t turn it over too much (Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng, and English, 1972); instead, I let it be. Transitioning it into its new form was crucial to preserving the flow and discovering its final shape. Selecting the first colour that caught my eye for printing, I avoided second-guessing, recognizing the impossibility of predicting the outcome.

The true precision, craft, and care manifested during the folding process. Rushing would compromise the outcome, failing to capture the simple, calm essence of both the writing and design. Every step in the process was interlinked. When folding, I noticed that excessive force resulted in resistance from my arms. Embracing the bone tool as an extension of my hand allowed for a smooth glide across the pages. This experience resonated with the principle of Wu Wei, not as passivity but as judicious use of force.

Contrary to the misconception of the Daoist “go with the flow” as being lazy, which ‘wu wei’ is not, it was about applying just the right force when essential for creasing the pages. Molding the book with care and ease according to the inner vision. It involved embracing and trusting intuition, adapting the ideal image in the mind to the reality of the unfolding process.

The Daoist ‘art of letting things happen’ in which ‘the light circulates according to its own law. Encourages us to trust the psyche to achieve wholeness and balance through its own ‘natural’ momentum, by contrast with the ever-interfering activity of consciousness

(Jung, 1995)

When the folded book didn’t precisely match the mental image, acceptance prevailed. I played with the newfound form, allowing some to remain unbound and open, while others needed a delicate touch of thread to come together. The flexibility in embracing unexpected outcomes mirrored the Daoist principle of adapting to the natural flow of the creative process. It became a journey where my entire self was engaged, and I felt a  deeper transformation occurring within. (Clarke, 2002)

Here’s where Wu Wei truly found its place. The notion of not forcing unnecessary action guided me in aligning the pages, using the bone tool to create a guide for the needle’s path. With careful precision, I threaded the needle and gently pushed it through the crease. The ease of passage varied with different papers—some allowed for smooth navigation, others required more attention. Distractions led to missing the mark, resulting in the needle emerging through the bend on the other side. When faced with the thicker card, instead of forcing it and risking damage, I utilized the bone tool or the table to assist, allowing the hands to then push the needle through effortlessly.

When threading through multiple times, I’d occasionally miss the last page, creating a new hole and skewing the pages when the thread tightened. Therefore the key was letting the needle push through by itself. If force was required, I paused, withdrew the needle, and tried again until it effortlessly found its way through the hole. The entire process became a dance of precision and grace, mirroring the Daoist philosophy of letting the natural course unfold. The story of the cook cutting an ox in the Book of Zhuangzi illustrates this idea further;

Moving slowly, I exert a very slight force, and the knot has come apart, like earth crumbling into the ground. Then I stand there with my cleaver, looking all around and pausing over the satisfaction in this.

Cleary, T.F. (1993)

In this whole process of making books, I was in a state of flow. But this wasn’t the first. Analyzing past moments of flow and noticing these moments of mental freedom, I took note. I didn’t start out writing or making books. Experiencing other moments of flow I became attuned to this feeling. I used this feeling as a guide that slowly led me back to the uncarved block.



Returning is the motion of the Dao


Discovering moments of flow and returning to that stream as much as possible brings you back to the root, the source of your being. (Gregory, 2019). Understand your original nature by experiencing the simple, natural flow in your creative work. Laozi emphasizes a natural unfolding, a return to our original state of wholeness. This state of wholeness he called ‘the uncarved block’; Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood (Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng and English, 1972). The uncarved block is a symbol of our original state. ‌(Cara Lumen, 2014).

As artists, our path is one of love and care for our creations. Rediscovering fulfilling activities and creating with a sense of purpose opens more pathways to flow, where you lose yourself and find keys to your soul. What did you do as a child that created timelessness, that made you forget time? There lies the myth to live by. (Campbell in Osbon, 1991, p. 181). Joseph Campbell’s way for the artist is to move toward what fills you with a sense of the divine. In the normal way, many pretend and strive to live an inauthentic life, imitating others. The authentic creative way, the way of art, reverses this order, embracing your original nature conditioned by love and fulfillment.

Our true nature, P’u - the uncarved block, lies beneath the layers imposed by modern culture — a journey back to our simple, born-with essence, that only requires a gentle refinement over time to restore its beautiful simplicity. Returning to this state offers a reference point for guiding our experiences and choices.

The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their natural power

(Hoff and Shepard, 2015)

It’s about being whole, shapeable, and simple—embracing the uncarved block within us, allowing life to unfold, shaping things spontaneously as they come. Whole - What is our essence? The uncarved block is the center of our being. Shapeable - You can become anything if you are uncarved, become formless, shapeless, like water (Lee, B. 1971). Return to that state of being able to be shaped rather than staying stuck in your current form, unwilling to be changed. Simple - Enjoy the simple, the quiet, and the natural. When we come from the place of our uncarved block, we do things spontaneously and then release them. We allow our life to unfold and simply shape things as they come. ‌(Cara Lumen, 2014).

The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self, about originality, meaning not that which is new, but that which is fully, originally, ourselves.

(Nachmanovitch, 2010)

Rediscovering your true self unfolds seamlessly as you immerse yourself in the gentle current of Dao. Allow your art to blossom organically, liberated from the shackles of force or imposition. In this authentic creative dance, where nothing is pursued, nothing is lost, and everything gracefully falls into its rightful place—nothing remains undone. Harmonizing with the natural rhythms of both your inner essence and the outer world, your expression becomes a conduit for a more balanced and nourishing existence.

Embracing your uncarved block you allow your genuine nature to radiate effortlessly. Art born from the heart, forged through the experience of Dao, and immersed in the flow of your creative process, resonates deeply within those who encounter it. Through your tranquil stillness and unhurried movements, the reflections of your authentic self become crystal clear. Your work speaks to the Dao without the need for verbal articulation; it's something you feel.

Reconnect with your genuine self and create from your core. Not forcing anything. Let your art flow effortlessly from the wellspring within. Guided by the wisdom of Wu Wei, move in harmony with the winds and currents of your creative journey, allowing the unfolding of whatever wishes to emerge directly from the heart. The magic (Campbell, J. 1991) lies in your willingness to venture into the depths of your darkest waters—the well within.


In answering the question of how a philosophy from the Far East, born over 2500 years ago, can benefit present-day Western artists, I've come to realize that Daoism serves as a timeless guide in navigating the complexities of the creative process. In a world often fixated on rapid progress and tangible outcomes, Daoism encourages a profound shift in perspective—one that values the journey as much as the destination.

The Daoist principle of Wu Wei, and the others explored, offer a refreshing alternative to the Western mindset, urging artists to embrace the present moment, find beauty in simplicity, not force anything, and foster a harmonious relationship with the natural world. This ancient wisdom, when seamlessly integrated into modern Western artistic practices, breathes life into creativity, instilling a sense of authenticity and balance.

The Daoist emphasis on the joy inherent in the creative process challenges the prevailing notion of success as solely measured by achievements. It redirects the focus towards finding fulfillment in the act of creation itself, allowing artists to savour each step of their journey. This paradigm shift, rooted in Daoist philosophy, not only enhances artistic expression but also enriches the overall well-being of the artist.

This study was not an endeavor to advocate or persuade anyone toward a particular way of life. Instead, its purpose was to illuminate ancient wisdom that has withstood the test of time, significantly enhancing my artistic identity and creative practice. This path is presented openly, available for those who may choose to incorporate it into their lives or disregard it.

The profundity of this wisdom lies in its ability to eliminate the interference of the human ego. At its core, it represents the natural way—not a construct of human thought, but a path the willing Daoist can cultivate and refine over time by simply coming into accordance with the flow of nature.

As I continue to infuse Daoist ideas into my writing, design, and bookmaking, I've found a deeper connection with my craft and a heightened sense of fulfillment. Daoism, with its ancient wisdom, has become a bridge across time and culture, offering a profound and transformative approach to the creative process—one that stands resiliently relevant in the fast-paced landscape of the present day.

When applied to creative practice, Daoism becomes more than just a philosophy—it's a guiding force. I continually rediscover deeper parts of my authentic self through moments of flow, allowing the wisdom of Wu Wei to harmonize my journey. Daoism has transformed not only how I approach artistic expression but has also seeped into my overall perspective on life, infusing joy into both my work and daily experiences. An effortless return to the natural world of play.



Ang, T. (2000). Tao of photography. New York: Amphoto Books.

Bancroft, A. (1991). The Spiritual Journey. Element Books, Limited.

Batchelor, Martine. (1999) Thorsons principles of Zen. London, Thorsons.

Blofeld, J. (2000) Taoism : the road to immortality. Boston, MA, Shambhala.

Campbell, J. (1991). Creative mythology. New York: Arkana.

Campbell, J., Moyers, B.D. and Flowers, B.S. (2012). The power of myth. Turtleback Books.

Campbell, J. (2008) The hero with a thousand faces. 3rd ed. Novato, Calif, New World Library.

Chang, C.-Y. (2011). Creativity and Taoism : a study of Chinese philosophy, art, and poetry. London ; Philadelphia: Singing Dragon.

Ch'êng-Ên Wu and Waley, A. (1961). Monkey. Translated by Arthur Waley. Pp. 350. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth.

Chuang Tzu (2006). The Book of Chuang Tzu. Penguin UK.

Clarke, J.J. (2002). The Tao of the West. Routledge.

Cleary, T.F. (1993). The essential Tao : an initiation into the heart of Taoism through the authentic Tao te ching and the inner teachings of Chuang-Tzu. San Francisco: Harpersanfrancisco.

Cleary, T.F. (1996). Immortal sisters : secret teachings of Taoist women = Xian gu nü zhen shen dao nü dan. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1980). The Awakening of Zen. Praj~na Press.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1991). Living by Zen. Random House (UK).

Deng, M.-D. (2013). Everyday Tao. Harper Collins.‌

Goldsmith, E. (1992) The way : an ecological worldview. London, Rider.

Harner, M. (1980). The way of the shaman. New York: Harper & Row.

Hinton, D. (2020). China Root. Shambhala Publications.

Hoff, B. and Shepard, E.H. (2015). The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet : the principles of Taoism demonstrated by Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet. London: Egmont.

Jung, C.G. (Carl G. (1986) Psychology and the East. London, Ark.

Lao Tzu (1985). Tao Te Ching. Translated by R. Wilhelm. Arkana.

Laozi, Gia-Fu Feng and English, J. (1972). Tao te ching : Translated by G.-F. Feng. and Translated by J. English. New York: Knopf.

Lao Tzu (1997). Tao te ching. Translated by G.-F. Feng. and Translated by J. English. New York: Vintage Books.

Lao Tzu (1963). Tao Te Ching. Translated by D.C. Lau. Penguin UK.

Lao Tzu. (2015). Tao Te Ching. Translated by D. Hinton. Catapult.

Merton, T. (2010). The way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions Books.

Minick, S. and Jiao, P. (1990). Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. (1990) Free play : improvisation in life and art. New York, Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam.

Nanao Sakaki (1987). Break the Mirror. North Light Books.

Nasr, S.Hossein. (1997) Man and nature : the spiritual crisis in modern man. Chicago, IL, ABC International Group.

Nhất Hạnh, Thích (2008). Being Peace. Sydney: Read How You Want.

Palmer, M. (1991) The elements of Taoism. Shaftesbury, Element.

Po, L. (2012). Bright Moon, White Clouds. Shambhala Publications.

Rawson, P. and László Legeza (1987). Tao : the Chinese philosophy of time and change.

Slingerland, E.G. and Guoqiang Shi (2020). 无为 : 早期中国的概念隐喻与精神理想 = Effortless action : Wu-wei as conceptual metaphor and spiritual ideal in early China / Wu wei : zao qi Zhongguo de gai nian yin yu yu jing shen li xiang = Effortless action : Wu-wei as conceptual metaphor and spiritual ideal in early China. 東方出版中心, Shanghai Shi: Dong Fang Chu Ban Zhong Xin.

Stuart Alve Olson (2014). Being Daoist : the way of drifting with the current. Phoenix, Arizona: Valley Spirit Arts.

Suzuki, Shunryu. & Dixon, Trudy. (1970) Zen mind, beginner’s mind. New York ; Tokyo : Weatherhill

Suzuki, D.T., Humphreys, C. & Jung, C.G. (Carl G. (1969) An introduction to Zen Buddhism. Rev. ed. London, Rider.

Tao Tao Liu (2022). The Chinese Myths. Thames & Hudson.

Watts, A. (1995). The Philosophies of Asia. Tuttle Publishing.

Watts, A. (1999). The Way of Zen. Random House Inc.

Watts, A. and Al Chung-Liang Huang (1975). Tao : the watercourse way. New York: Pantheon Books.

Wildish, Paul. (2000) Principles of Taoism. London, Thorsons.

Wong, E. (1997). The Shambhala Guide to Taoism. Shambhala Publications.

Zhuangzi and Palmer, M.J. (2006). The book of Chuang Tzu. London: Penguin.


Chung, J. (2023). The Zhuangzi, creativity, and epistemic virtue. Philosophical Studies, 180(3), pp.815–842. doi: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2023]

Hall, D.L. (1978). Process and Anarchy: A Taoist Vision of Creativity. Philosophy East and West, 28(3), p.271. doi: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2023]

Llanos, L.F. and Martínez Verduzco, L. (2022). From Self-Transcendence to Collective Transcendence: In Search of the Order of Hierarchies in Maslow’s Transcendence. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. doi: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2023]

Trouveroy, N. (2003). Landscape of the Soul: Ethics and Spirituality in Chinese Painting. India International Centre Quarterly, 30(1), 5–19. [Accessed 13 Oct. 2023]


Abhishek (2023). Two Alan Watts Quotes That Have Simplified Lao Tzu’s Teaching of Effortless Living. [online] Change Your Mind Change Your Life. Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan, 2024]

Allsopp, J. (2000). A Dao of Web Design. [online] A List Apart. Available at: [Accessed 25 Nov. 2023]

Arts, Z.F. (2021). nothing - part 1. [online] Zettl Fine Arts. Available at: [Accessed 29 Dec. 2023].

Arts, Z.F. (2023). Wu Wei a Key Term. Daoist Talks (X) Zhuangzi and Wu Wei. [online] Zettl Fine Arts. Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2024].

Campbell, J. (2023). JCF: Home – A Network of Information · A Community of Individuals. [online] Available at:

Cara Lumen | Sing a Deeper Song. (2014). Return to the Simplicity of the Uncarved Block. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2023]

Hopkins, D. (2019). The Middle Way is the Better Way. [online] Inspiritus Yoga. Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2024].

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2014). Warring States | Chinese history. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at:

Wudang Pai Tai Chi in London - SG. (2005). Philosophy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2023]. (2023). Zheng Bo — The good life — the nomad magazine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Jan. 2024].

Zach (2020). 3 Lessons From Taoism To Boost Creativity. [online] Creative Enso. Available at: [Accessed 6 Oct. 2023].


Alan Watts - The Principle Of Not Forcing. (2018). YouTube. Available at:

Be Here Now Network (2022). Alan Watts: Man and Nature – Being in the Way Podcast Ep. 8 – Hosted by Mark Watts. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2024].

George Thompson. (2017). Yin Yang: Master Gu shares 2 powerful ideas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Dec. 2023].

George Thompson. (2017). Taoism (Daoism) Explained by Taoist Master. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Dec. 2024].

Gregory, J. (2019). The Art of Effortless Living (Taoist Documentary). YouTube. Available at:

Shi Heng Yi (2023). Be Like Water? | Shaolin Master Shi Heng Yi. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2024].

The Spiritual Voyage (2020). Chuang tzu / Zhuang Zhou Philosophy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2024].

Watts, A. (2000). Work As Play. [online] Alan Watts. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2024].