A deeply original exploration of the power of spontaneity—an ancient Chinese ideal that cognitive scientists are only now beginning to understand—and why it is so essential to our well-being
Why is it always hard to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a politician who seems wooden or a comedian whose jokes fall flat or an athlete who chokes? In all of these cases, striving seems to backfire.
In Trying Not To Try, Edward Slingerland explains why we find spontaneity so elusive, and shows how early Chinese thought points the way to happier, more authentic lives. We’ve long been told that the way to achieve our goals is through careful reasoning and conscious effort. But recent research suggests that many aspects of a satisfying life, like happiness and spontaneity, are best pursued indirectly. The early Chinese philosophers knew this, and they wrote extensively about an effortless way of being in the world, which they called wu-wei (ooo-way). They believed it was the source of all success in life, and they developed various strategies for getting it and hanging on to it.
With clarity and wit, Slingerland introduces us to these thinkers and the marvelous characters in their texts, from the butcher whose blade glides effortlessly through an ox to the wood carver who sees his sculpture simply emerge from a solid block. Slingerland uncovers a direct line from wu-wei to the Force in Star Wars, explains why wu-wei is more powerful than flow, and tells us what it all means for getting a date. He also shows how new research reveals what’s happening in the brain when we’re in a state of wu-wei—why it makes us happy and effective and trustworthy, and how it might have even made civilization possible.
Through stories of mythical creatures and drunken cart riders, jazz musicians and Japanese motorcycle gangs, Slingerland effortlessly blends Eastern thought and cutting-edge science to show us how we can live more fulfilling lives. Trying Not To Try is mind-expanding and deeply pleasurable, the perfect antidote to our striving modern culture.
From the Hardcover edition.
Throughout human history, successful and charming individuals have been envisioned as people who do things effortlessly, yet in modern Western thought, rational thinkers and "go-getters" are idolized. Slingerland (What Science Offers the Humanities), a professor of Asian studies at the Univ. of British Columbia, runs through historical philosophy and returns to the ancient Chinese idea of wu-wei, or "effortless action," where individuals become in tune with their bodies and exhibit de, an aura that signals trust and relaxation. Individuals in a state of wu-wei can be found in all career paths from the businessman giving an effective speech to the tennis player with an effortless swing, as well as from the presidential candidate to the artist "in the zone." Slingerland presents four different ways of achieving wu-wei, as given to us by Chinese philosophers such as Confucius and Laozi: "long-term training," "embrac simplicity," nurturing "desirable behavior," or "go with the flow." Through anecdotes Slingerland explains the scientific reasoning behind why achieving wu-wei can be difficult he evens presents a small exercise that demonstrates the feeling of disharmony in a small context. This guide is better suited to Chinese philosophy enthusiasts rather than to readers of how-to books; still, there are many insightful strategies for those studying self-improvement.