New Year’s Res­o­lu­tion num­ber one: Try not to try

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICAS -

Just in time for the sea­son of re­form and New Year’s res­o­lu­tions, comes a new book that uses an­cient Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy to ar­gue that some­times try­ing hard is not the best way to get ahead.

“We’ve all been taught that the best way to achieve our goals is to work harder, think more care­fully, to strive more in­tensely,” says au­thor Ed­ward Slinger­land in an on­line in­ter­view, “but that’s of­ten ter­ri­ble ad­vice and in a lot of ar­eas of life, try­ing hard just leads to fail­ure.”

One ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple he uses is in­som­nia. The harder you try to go to sleep the longer you are go­ing to be awake, he says. And it ap­plies to a lot of other things as well.

In his new book, Try­ing Not To Try: The Art and Sci­ence of Spon­tane­ity( Crown, have de, peo­ple like you, trust you, and are re­laxed around you. Even wild an­i­mals leave you alone,” Slinger­land writes.

The two con­cepts are es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing the five ma­jor Chi­nese philoso­phers of the co- called “War­ring States” pe­riod (fifth to third cen­tury BCE), who, dur­ing an era of great vi­o­lence and chaos, built their re­li­gious sys­tems around spon­tane­ity and nat­u­ral­ness. “They all wanted to reach a state of wuwei to get de,” he ex­plains.

The key is to stop try­ing and Slinger­land uses two ex­am­ples from Star Wars. Yoda telling Luke Sky­walker: “Do. Or not do. There is no try.” And Luke try­ing to use com­puter tech­nol­ogy to make an im­pos­si­ble shot on the Death Star and the voice of Obi-Wan tells him to “Use the Force, Luke…Let go!” Which works, of course. Slinger­land con­vinc­ingly traces the lin­eage of George Lu­cas’ Star Wars mythol­ogy back to Chi­nese Chan via Ja­panese Zen, and it is only one of the ways he makes his analy­ses of an­cient Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy seem rel­e­vant.

More in­ter­est­ingly, he in­tro­duces mod­ern state-of-the-art sci­en­tific brain re­search and the var­i­ous tools now avail­able for “see­ing” what the brain is do­ing in var­i­ous states. Two key cog­ni­tive func­tions seem to be at play when, for in­stance, a jazz pi­anist is asked to play repet­i­tive mun­dane scales or im­pro­vise a melody and jam, the state of wuwei sug­gested by the later.

The main goal of wuwei is to move through the phys­i­cal world in a way that is both spon­ta­neous and in com­plete har­mony with the nat­u­ral and hu­man worlds – the “way”, or dao.

How to get there was some­thing the five philoso­phers didn’t com­pletely agree on. The most fa­mous of them, Con­fu­cius, be­lieved that it was through a lifetime of try­ing and try­ing very hard, pay­ing at­ten­tion to the most minute de­tails of be­hav­ioral rules, rit­u­als, eti­quette and teach­ings, to the point that they be­come sec­ond na­ture (ef­fort­less) and bring joy.

“The sage gives free rein to his de­sires and ful­fills all of his emo­tions, but hav­ing been reg­u­lated they ac­cord with civ­i­lized norms,” Con­fu­cius’ dis­ci­ple Xunzi ex­plains.

Con­fu­cius’ ap­proach of just keep plug­ging away be­came so dom­i­nant in China that all sub­se­quent philoso­phers had to con­tend with it. The big­gest chal­lenge came from the some­what mys­te­ri­ous au­thor of the work en­ti­tled Daode­jing, of­ten at­trib­uted to Laozi, or “The Old Master”.

Slinger­land makes the fun point that some of Laozi’s pas­sages, in­dict­ing the cor­rup­tion and so­cial inequities around him, could have come from the “Oc­cupy Wall Street” play­book: The court is cor­rupt, The fields are over­grown, The gra­naries are ex­hausted. And yet some wear clothes with fancy de­signs and col­ors.

Stuff their bel­lies with fine food and drink, and pos­sess more wealth than they need.

This is what is called “be­ing proud of be­ing a rob­ber”.

Laozi, de­scribed as an orig­i­nal hip­pie who might have been com­fort­able in San Francisco’s Haight-Ash­bury dur­ing the 1960s, thought that less, rather than more, of Con­fu­cian re­fine­ment was bet­ter. Hu­man na­ture was fun­da­men­tally good and it was so­ci­ety that botched it all up.

Be­tween th­ese two poles, Slinger­land folds in the think­ing of the other great Chi­nese thinkers of the era, here and there glimps­ing them through the lens of mod­ern sci­ence. The quest for ef­fort­less grace and har­mony is also by no means ex­clu­sive to China.

A bud­ding su­per­star short stop who loses his mojo – and knows in his heart the an­swer to get­ting it back – sits on the field pout­ing to him­self: “You could only try so hard not to try too hard be­fore you were right back around to try­ing too hard.”

So for self-im­prove­ment in 2015, this wuwei stuff cer­tainly seems worth a try. Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@chi­nadai­

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