New Year’s Resolution number one: Try not to try
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.