In Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland offers a deeply original exploration of the power of spontaneity. But the question remains: How do you try not to try?
The very nature of spontaneity means that there will never be one foolproof way to obtain it. Different situations, personalities, and times of life will require different approaches.
Slingerland examines the four main strategies that Chinese thinkers, from Confucius to Zhuangzi, formulated over the course of centuries, and he shows us what modern science has to say about each one.
He also offers a toolkit of strategies to help you achieve spontaneity where and when you need it, for example:
Carve and Polish the Self
Confucius thought wu-wei could only be attained by working very hard for a very long time, until you’ve so internalized the positive aspects of your culture that you embody them effortlessly. He believed that proper spontaneity could only come from immersing yourself in tradition, literature, and an aesthetic environment—clothes, colors, music, architecture—that reflect and encourage your culture’s values. Children perhaps benefit most from this approach (as all Tiger Mothers know), as does anyone who needs to acquire a new, complicated skill, break a bad habit, or stick to a diet.
Embrace the Uncarved Block
The Daoist Laozi argued that Confucian cultural training too often devolves into empty posturing, and intensive effort into counterproductive drudgery. He advocated committed nondoing as the route to wu-wei. Quit your job, stop trying, and embrace your innate naturalness. It’s no accident that his writings inspired the 1960s counterculture movement—Laozi was the original hippie, dropping out and railing against The Man 2,500 years before the first joint was ever fired up in the Haight-Ashbury. His “no trying” strategy also has much to recommend it today, serving as the perfect antidote to writer’s block and as a means for resisting the endless treadmill of consumerist culture. It might also help you get a date.
Cultivate the Moral Sprouts
Mencius was a Confucian who tried to split the difference between trying and not trying. Proper wu-wei is something we have inside us, he argued, but you can’t just sit on your uncarved block and wait for spontaneity to alight on your shoulder. You need to cultivate it, like a patient spiritual farmer, weeding and watering your sprouts. The Mencian approach seems tailor-made for developing new intuitive skills, like a refined taste in wine, and cultivating long-term personal happiness. It can also help us learn how to broaden our innate—and innately limited—spontaneous empathy for others.
Forget About It
We’ve all seen performers freeze on stage or athletes choke in crucial moments. It’s in these situations—when the pressure is on and the stakes are high—that the letting-go strategy of the Daoist Zhuangzi really shines. Zhuangzi thought that both trying and not trying were wrong: the key to wu-wei is simply to empty your mind and let the flow of events pull you along. His stories of skillful butchers and woodcarvers provide a model for any athlete or performer aspiring to perform their best, or any of us hoping to move through a knotty social situation or professional challenge with ease. Sometimes a bit of meditation, a vigorous bout of exercise, or even a well-timed shot of vodka can be precisely what we need to turn off the overactive monkey brain blocking our route to wu-wei.
Trying Not to Try author Edward Slingerland shares his thoughts on how spontaneity can change your life.
Photo Credit: DGL Images/iStock