“When people are asleep, their spirits wander off; when they are awake, their bodies are like an open door, so that everything they touch becomes an entanglement.” –Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try
Have you ever tried to do something really hard, and ended up failing miserably? Sometimes, it seems the harder you try to accomplish something, the harder it is to accomplish. For CLS students, it may be that paper you need to write by the end of the week; but the harder you try to make yourself sit down and write, the harder it is to write. Sometimes it feels like we get in our own way and that by trying too hard we actually end up mucking things up.
Alternatively, when we just relax and take a more spontaneous approach, the paper seems to write itself. When we sit down with a more carefree attitude, we enter a state where the words begin to “flow,” and before we know it the difficult paper has been produced. If we are sports fans, we can compare this to when athletes “get into the zone,” when their actions seem effortless yet flawless, when all their shots are perfect.
How can we reach that odd place where we are achieving good results, but it feels natural, like we are barely trying? How do we learn how to get out of our own way and to let our seemingly natural talents and abilities emerge, while at the same time maintaining conscious control of our efforts?
In his book Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (2014, Broadway Books), Edward Slingerland addresses these questions. Slingerland is a professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, with expertise in Chinese thought, comparative religion and the cognitive sciences. Slingerland provides an in-depth consideration of how we can achieve an effortless-effort and get into the “zone.” His book is a critique of both ancient Chinese wisdom regarding a well-lived life and modern society’s preoccupation with achievement and attainment. His writing is often humorous but also very incisive.
“People who are in wu-wei have de, typically translated as ‘virtue,’ ‘power’ or ‘charismatic power.’ De is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei” (p. 8).
Slingerland introduces us to the terms wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). He explains, “Wu-wei literally translates as ‘no trying,’ or ‘no doing,’ but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective” (p. 7).
He further explains, “People who are in wu-wei have de, typically translated as ‘virtue,’ ‘power’ or ‘charismatic power.’ De is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei” (p. 8).
His book details the competing approaches taken by Confucianism and Daoism when it comes to attaining wu-wei and de. Slingerland explains that Confucius advocated a long period of highly specialized training in wisdom, ritual and dance, believing this is necessary for a person to attain a constant state of wu-wei. By comparison, Daoists favored a more naturalistic approach, rejecting the long training required by the Confucian method and emphasizing that a person’s wu-wei emerges only after casting aside the dictates of social convention and expectations.
Slingerland provides a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking introduction to historical Chinese thought, at the same time connecting the concept of wu-wei to current cognitive science. Using recent research in neuroscience and psychology, he illustrates how wu-wei often dovetails with what we now believe about the operation of the human mind.
The book doesn’t provide a foolproof method for attaining and staying in wu-wei, ultimately leaving it to each reader to research and determine which method works best for them—rigorous training or simply trying not to try. It does, however, provide a wide-ranging education into the cultural history of Chinese thought, along with often astute and funny critiques of modern culture.
A 50-minute video titled The Paradox of Wu-Wei is available on YouTube, featuring Dr. Slingerland’s explanation of wu-wei.