Brain Pickings

Trying Not to Try: How to Cultivate the Paradoxical Art of Spontaneity Through the Chinese Concept of Wu-Wei

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“Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.”

“The best way to get approval is not to need it,” Hugh MacLeod memorably counseled. We now know that perfectionism kills creativity and excessive goal-setting limits our success rather than begetting it — all different manifestations of the same deeper paradox of the human condition, at once disconcerting and comforting, which Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and a renowned scholar of Chinese thought, explores in Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (public library | IndieBound).

Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with an illustrative example: a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver, in which two players sit opposite one another, each wearing an electrode-equipped headband that registers general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball from the center of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins. There is, of course, a rub:

The motive force — measured by each player’s electrodes, and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table—is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed: the more alpha and theta waves you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball. Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm. It’s fun to watch. The players visibly struggle to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures. The panic they begin to feel as the ball approaches their end of the table is usually balanced out by the overeagerness of their opponent, both players alternately losing their cool as the big metal ball rolls back and forth. You couldn’t wish for a better, more condensed illustration of how difficult it is to try not to try.

Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like “a massive game of Mindball,” when we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we spend our lives “preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying,” only to find that the more we try to will things into manifesting, the more elusive they become. Slingerland writes:

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.

Art by Austin Kleon from 'Show Your Work.' Click image for more.

Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant pursuits are happiness and spontaneity, both of which are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit. Two ancient Chinese concepts might be our most powerful tools for resolving this paradox — wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). Slingerland 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. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.

This notion is remarkably similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pioneering concept of flow — that precious state of consciousness where we feel a deep and total immersion in life or creative work, forgetting the passage of time and even such physical needs as hunger and thirst — and subsequent psychological theories that emphasize the value of “problem-creating” over problem-solving as a source of creative energy and fulfillment. It is also at the heart of Lewis Hyde’s famous distinction between work and creative labor. But wu-wei is also different its counterparts in Western psychology:

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. de comes in handy in a variety of ways. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them… If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are relaxed around you.

If this too sounds familiar, it might be because it sounds like precisely what David Foster Wallace described in what’s easily the best definition of leadership ever articulated.

We’re drawn to people with wu-wei, Slingerland argues, because we inherently trust the automatic, unconscious mind due to a simple fact from the psychology of trust — because spontaneity is hard to fake, we intuit that spontaneous people are authentic and thus trustworthy. But Western thought has suffered from centuries of oppressive dualism, treating intuition and the intellect as separate and often conflicting faculties — a toxic myth that limits us as a culture and as individuals. Fortunately, Slingerland points out, recent decades have brought a more embodied view of cognition acknowledging the inextricable link between thought and feeling and debunking, as Ray Bradbury so eloquently did, the false divide between emotion and rationality. (We’ve seen, too, that metaphorical thinking is central to our cognitive development, and metaphor is itself rooted in emotion.) The Chinese tradition, on the other hand, has a millennia-long history of cultivating a more integrated model of the human experience:

For the early Chinese thinkers … the culmination of knowledge is understood, not in terms of grasping a set of abstract principles, but rather as entering a state of wu-wei. The goal is to acquire the ability to move through the physical and social world in a manner that is completely spontaneous and yet fully in harmony with the proper order of the natural and human worlds (the Dao or “Way”). Because of this focus on knowing how rather than knowing this or that, the Chinese tradition has spent a great deal of energy over the past two thousand years exploring the interior, psychological feel of wu-wei, worrying about the paradox at the heart of it, and developing a variety of behavioral techniques to get around it. The ideal person in early China is more like a well-trained athlete or cultivated artist than a dispassionate cost-benefit analyzer.

Slingerland poses a pause-giving contrast:

The ideal person in Western philosophy is not only disembodied but also radically alone.

And yet this ideal runs counter to our biological and social truths:

In reality, we are not autonomous, self-sufficient, purely rational individuals but emotional pack animals, intimately dependent on other human beings at every stage of our lives. We get along, not because we’re good at calculating costs and benefits, but because we are emotionally bound to our immediate family and friends and have been trained to adopt a set of values that allows us to cooperate spontaneously with others in our society. These shared values are the glue that holds together large-scale human groups, and a key feature of these values is that they need to be embraced sincerely and spontaneously — in an wu-wei fashion — to do their job. This is why the tensions surrounding wu-wei and de are linked to basic puzzles surrounding human cooperation, especially in the anonymous, large communities we tend to inhabit today.

What wu-wei gives us, Slingerland argues, is “a sense of being at home in some framework of values, however vague or tenuous,” which allows us “to recover the crucial social dimension of spontaneity” — something else that distinguishes it from Western concepts like “flow.” Because contextual fuzziness is a central feature of human psychology, the barriers to spontaneity tend to vary among people and between situations, but the result is the same:

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 desirable states — happiness, attractiveness, spontaneity — are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment.

Page from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One centerpiece of the paradox comes from an important cognitive duality: Our thinking is steered by two distinct systems, each beholden to its own rules and characteristics — the same two systems responsible for the marvels and flaws of our intuition. The first, known as System 1, is dominated by “hot cognition”; fast, automatic, and largely unconscious, it is primitive and significantly older in evolutionary terms, which means that, thanks to eons of practice and repeat use, it tends to be fairly fixed. The second kind, System 2, is characterized by “cold cognition” — slow, deliberate, rational, and conscious reasoning, which evolved more recently and is thus more flexible. The former is what we associate with the body, the latter with the mind. When System 1 takes over, with its impulsive and short-sighted reactivity, we often run into problems in the long run. Slingerland explains:

This isn’t because hot cognition doesn’t take future consequences into account. The problem is that this system’s conception of relevant consequences was fixed a long time ago, evolutionarily speaking, and is fairly rigid. “Sugar and fat: good” was for most of our evolutionary history a great principle to live by, since acquiring adequate nutrition was a constant challenge. For those of us fortunate enough to live in the affluent industrialized world, however, sugar and fat are so widely and freely available that they no longer represent unqualified goods — on the contrary, allowing ourselves to indulge in them to excess has a variety of negative consequences. The great advantage of cold cognition is that it is capable of changing its priorities in light of new information.

Slingerland points to two key theories that explain how “one (relatively) hairless ape managed the transition from tribe to state” and why the two systems of cognition arose. One holds that the development of external social institutions like laws, punishments, money, and rewards gradually came to keep our pre-wired, internal hot cognition in check as our cognitive control centers perpetually churn to override, repress, or redirecting it. Slingerland sums it up:

Civilization is about the triumph of cold cognition over hot.

But more recent work in Western philosophy and social science has pulled this theory into question for reasons more aligned with the concept of wu-wei, suggesting that cold cognition simply doesn’t have the strength and stamina to keep hot cognition under control 24/7. Instead, it’s something else that motivates our cooperative behavior — something not based on rewards as punishments but instead bridging the two systems through a deeper mechanism:

According to this view, the key to getting lots of strangers to work together is not to create an endless stream of new laws or institutions but to create a set of shared values. Laws are something you merely obey. Values are something you feel. Once internalized, values function just like other forms of hot cognition — fast, automatic, unconscious, wu-wei. Looked at this way, we can begin to see how the paradox of wu-wei emerges as a kind of natural consequence of our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and city dwellers.

Slingerland cites Cornell psychologist Robert Frank’s pioneering work on why we cooperate, which suggests that the most important lubricant of our social interactions are powerful emotions that keep us honest rather than cognitive evaluations of prospective rewards and punishments. In the long run, the payoffs of cooperation come only when we stop consciously trying to force them — a finding in stark contrast with the basic tenets of contemporary Western culture, which rewards cold cognition to an extreme and invariably pushes us to strive deliberately and systematically for things only attainable once we let go. Slingerland writes:

If you’re just using rewards and punishments — the rational, self-interested, cold-cognition strategy — it doesn’t matter what people feel on the inside. You set up the incentives, let people figure them out, and then judge them purely on their behavior. In the values model, on the other hand, what people are really feeling on the inside is crucial: if I can’t trust that you’re committed to the same ideals that I’m committed to, there’s no way we can work together.

That’s where “the paradox of wu-wei” arises — the conundrum of trying not to try. To be sure, this isn’t advocacy for passivity and resignation but for the mindful cultivation of those tendencies in ourselves that promise to bear fruit as behaviors and qualities we aspire to in the long run. Slingerland puts it elegantly:

You can cultivate your sprouts: try to identify incipient tendencies of desirable behavior within you, and then nurture and expand them until they are strong enough to take over. Or you can just go with the flow: forget about trying, forget about not trying, and just let the values that you want to embrace pick you up and carry you along.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

There is also an ebb and flow of the two systems over the natural course of life: Cold-cognition strategies like “carving and polishing” tend to be more beneficial earlier in life as well as when we’re acquiring new skills, where deliberate practice is the key to mastery. But after a certain point of expertise, the very strategies that helped us make progress early on now lodge us into the “OK plateau” of autopilot and cold cognition starts hindering rather than powering progress. This, Slingerland notes, might also be true of morality:

A deeply ingrained moral disposition could become too rigid as you age, in which case you might need to shift to the sprout or letting-go approach.

On a social level, one solution to this paradox is what Slingerland calls “ethical bootstrapping” — the idea that the desirable behaviors and qualities we cultivate within ourselves emanate out to have a small but perceptible positive effect on others, “which causes them to act in an incrementally more morally positive way, which in turn feeds back on us.” Slingerland brings this back to the reality of our everyday lives, by way of the ancient Chinese:

This has immediate, practical implications for how you go about arranging your daily life. The early Confucians put an enormous amount of effort into modifying their immediate aesthetic environment — clothes, colors, layout of living spaces, music — so that it would reflect the values of the Confucian Way. Although most of us no longer embrace the Way, we can use the same techniques to foster our own particular set of values. If you can set up your home and workplace, to the extent you have control over it, to reflect your tastes and values, the things that make you feel good and at home, you’re going to be better off. You’ll have more wu-wei and more de.

[…]

The basic idea is simple. You choose a desirable model, then reshape your hot cognition to fit by immersing yourself in reminders and environmental cues. How this repetition eventually causes the new internal disposition to become sincere and self-activating is a bit of a mystery — intellectually, the paradox remains — but it seems to work in practice.

This disposition isn’t rooted in just philosophy. Recent findings in psychology and social science, Slingerland points out, have indicated that this is a central feature of our how our minds work:

A growing literature in the psychology of perception has demonstrated that, when it comes to certain difficult visual tasks — exercises where subjects are asked to locate a target shape in the midst of a large array—simply relaxing and letting the answer “pop out” works much better than actively trying. Similarly, when one is stymied by a problem, simply leaving it alone and doing something else is often the best way to solve it. Doing nothing allows your unconscious to take over, and, as we’ve seen, the unconscious is often better at solving certain types of particularly complex problems.

This, of course, is something nearly every model of the creative process accounts for, acknowledging the importance of an “incubation” phase, or what Lewis Carroll so memorably termed “mental mastication.” To create the conditions for this essential state, Slingerland advises that we do what we tend to intuit is important but rationally resist: “Sleep in, take a walk, go weed your garden.” He encapsulates the essence of this approach:

The sort of knowledge that we rely on most heavily is hot, emotionally grounded “knowing how” rather than cold, dispassionate “knowing that.” We’re made for doing, not thinking. This has significant implications for everything from how we educate people to how we conduct public debates, make public policy decisions, and think about our personal relationships.

[…]

Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.

In the rest of Trying Not to Try, Slingerland further explores the social and spiritual dimensions of wu-wei, how to better cultivate them in our daily lives, and why spontaneity is central to our ability to trust, play, and love. Complement it with Oliver Burkeman on how over-planning limits our happiness and success and Alan Watts on why living with uncertainty is the secret to a full life.

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