Saturday, April 18, 2015

Trying Not to Try

Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sum it up in a sentence (or two): (from the subtitle) - Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity.

First Thoughts: this was less about "the Power of Spontaneity" and more about several (four, to be exact) schools of thought on how to reach a state of "wu-wei," similar to what we might call flow. Slingerland gives background on each philosophy, explains how they differ, where they possibly fall short, and in the last few chapters connects these philosophies to real world/contemporary examples of usage. He doesn't make a claim as to which is best/worst/etc, which I liked, but instead lays them all out and encourages readers to "try" them out.

Wu-What?: Wu-wei is best described as "effortless action" and is marked by an absorption of the self into something greater. Think of an athlete at peak performance or a musician fully immersed in song--or how you feel when you get sucked into a project and lose sense of time. It goes along with "de" (pronounced "duh"), or the virtue/power someone in wu-wei has, ie, others trust them, want to emulate them, and are generally awed by their actions.

Schools of Thought: These can best be defined with their chapter titles. "Try Hard Not to Try" involves learning "good" behavior and committing teachable wu-wei to memory. "Stop Trying" says there's no need to learn since the good is already in us, we just need to be natural and let it flow out of us. "Try, But Not Too Hard" takes from either end of the spectrum, recognizing good in ourselves, but admitting the need to cultivate it. "Forget About It" disengages from the good/bad dichotomy by focusing on our bodies as neither right nor wrong, just present.

The Paradox: How do we try without trying? How do we not want something we want? Are there long term payoffs only when you don't care so much? These are the problems with each philosophy. At some point we all claim things as goals/needs/wants, but in order to get what we want we need to think about it indirectly. It's like having beginner's luck at something, but as soon as you try to practice the skill or get better at it, you fail. Again, Slingerland gives no hard and fast solution to this paradox, but offers up practical application of each school of thought. We're to try each one out in different scenarios and see what works. Life is, after all, the never-ending realization that we still have a lot to learn.

Favorite quotes:
"We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. Unfortunately, in many areas of life this is terrible advice. Many desireable states - happiness, attractiveness, spontaneity - are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment." - p18

"[We are blades and] the bones and ligaments of the ox are the barriers and obstacles that we face in life. Just as Butcher Ding's blade remains razor-sharp because it never touches a bone or ligament - moving only through the gaps between - so does the wu-wei person move only through the open spaces in life, avoiding the difficulties that damage one's spirit and wear out one's body." - p21

Final Thoughts: Trying Not to Try gave me lots to take notes on and think about. I like that Slingerland doesn't water things down, and while I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, it will definitely suit people who love non-fiction reading and learning, as well as those of us who are always "trying" to improve themselves.

Editor's Note: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

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