Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

22 APRIL, 2014

Susan Sontag on Beauty vs. Interestingness

By:

Defying consumerism and the banality of the beautiful, or why our capacity for astonishment endures.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her fantastic meditation on the psychology of beauty. Indeed, beauty is a complex beast surrounded by our equally complex attitudes, and who better to tease those complexities apart than the greatest public intellectual of the twentieth century? Months before her death, Susan Sontag — who had a lifetime of strong opinions on art and who coined the notion of “aesthetic consumerism” — wrote a spectacular essay titled “An Argument Against Beauty,” found in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), the superb volume that gave us Sontag on courage and resistance and literature and freedom.

The essay was in part inspired by Pope John Paul II’s response to the news of countless cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: He summoned the American cardinals to the Vatican and attempted to rationalize the situation by stating that “a great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” In this concerning assertion as a springboard for a broader reflection on our confused attitudes toward beauty, Sontag set out to transcend the common social definition of beauty as “a gladness of the senses” and instead “to multiply the notion, to allow for kinds of beauty, beauty with adjectives, arranged on a scale of ascending value and incorruptibility.”

Sontag writes:

However much art may seem to be a matter of surface and reception by the senses, it has generally been accorded an honorary citizenship in the domain of “inner” (as opposed to “outer”) beauty. Beauty, it seems, is immutable, at least when incarnated—fixed—in the form of art, because it is in art that beauty as an idea, an eternal idea, is best embodied. Beauty (should you choose to use the word that way) is deep, not superficial; hidden, sometimes, rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, rather than ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.

Arguing that beauty has ceased to be a sufficient standard for art, that “beautiful has come to mean ‘merely’ beautiful: there is no more vapid or philistine compliment,” Sontag notes:

The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

And yet there is more to beauty than a lackluster cultural abstraction:

Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called “political correctness,” but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.)

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag traces the paradoxical and convoluted cultural trajectory of our relationship with beauty:

That beauty applied to some things and not to others, that it was a principle of discrimination, was once its strength and its appeal. Beauty belonged to the family of notions that establish rank, and accorded well with a social order unapologetic about station, class, hierarchy, and the right to exclude.

What had been a virtue of the concept became its liability. Beauty, which once seemed vulnerable because it was too general, loose, porous, was revealed as — on the contrary — excluding too much. Discrimination, once a positive faculty (meaning refined judgment, high standards, fastidiousness), turned negative: it meant prejudice, bigotry, blindness to the virtues of what was not identical with oneself.

The strongest, most successful move against beauty was in the arts: beauty — and the caring about beauty — was restrictive; as the current idiom has it, elitist. Our appreciations, it was felt, could be so much more inclusive if we said that something, instead of being beautiful, was “interesting.”

To call something “interesting,” however, isn’t always an admission of admiration. (For a crudely illustrative example, my eighth-grade English teacher memorably used to say that “interesting is what you call an ugly baby.”) Turning to photography — perhaps the sharpest focus of Sontag’s cultural contemplation and prescient observation — she considers the complex interplay between interestingness and beauty:

[People] might describe something as interesting to avoid the banality of calling it beautiful. Photography was the art where “the interesting” first triumphed, and early on: the new, photographic way of seeing proposed everything as a potential subject for the camera. The beautiful could not have yielded such a range of subjects; and it soon came to seem uncool to boot as a judgment. Of a photograph of a sunset, a beautiful sunset, anyone with minimal standards of verbal sophistication might well prefer to say, “Yes, the photograph is interesting.”

(Curiously, Francis Bacon famously asserted that “the best part of beauty [is that] which a picture cannot express.”)

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

What we tend to call interesting, Sontag argues, is that which “has not previously been thought beautiful (or good).” And yet the qualitative value of “interesting” is exponentially diminished with the word’s use and overuse — something entirely unsurprising and frequently seen with terms we come to apply too indiscriminately, until they lose their original meaning. (Contemporary case in point: “curation.”) She writes, echoing her meditation on the creative purpose of boredom from nearly four decades earlier and her concept of “aesthetic consumerism” coined shortly thereafter:

The interesting is now mainly a consumerist concept, bent on enlarging its domain: the more things become interesting, the more the marketplace grows. The boring — understood as an absence, an emptiness — implies its antidote: the promiscuous, empty affirmations of the interesting. It is a peculiarly inconclusive way of experiencing reality.

In order to enrich this deprived take on our experiences, one would have to acknowledge a full notion of boredom: depression, rage (suppressed despair). Then one could work toward a full notion of the interesting. But that quality of experience — of feeling — one would probably no longer even want to call interesting.

With her strong distaste for unnecessary polarities, Sontag observes:

The perennial tendency to make of beauty itself a binary concept, to split it up into “inner” and “outer,” “higher” and “lower” beauty, is the usual way that judgments of the beautiful are colonized by moral judgments.

She counters this with a more real, more living definition of beauty:

Beauty is part of the history of idealizing, which is itself part of the history of consolation. But beauty may not always console…

From a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”

Unlike beauty, often fragile and impermanent, the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful is astonishingly sturdy and survives amidst the harshest distractions. Even war, even the prospect of certain death, cannot expunge it.

Echoing young Virginia Woolf’s insight about nature, imitation, and the arts, Sontag elegantly brings her point full circle:

The responses to beauty in art and to beauty in nature are interdependent… Beauty regains its solidity, its inevitability, as a judgment needed to make sense of a large portion of one’s energies, affinities, and admirations; and the usurping notions appear ludicrous.

Imagine saying, “That sunset is interesting.”

All the essays and speeches collected in At the Same Time are treasure troves of timeless wisdom on culture, art, politics, society, and the self. Complement them with Sontag on writing, boredom, sex, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated meditations on art and on love.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 APRIL, 2014

Patti Smith’s Advice on Life

By:

How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.

In May of 2010, beloved performer, poet, and renegade philosopher Patti Smith got up in front of the graduating class at Pratt and delivered a short and exquisite masterpiece of a special modern art form: the commencement address. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

She starts out with her characteristic fusion of wit and wisdom:

Now that I’m here, my greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your fuse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to help your fellow man — you don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.

And then — boom! — the classic Patti Smith stealthy sagacity that slips in through the back door to deliver a powerful point. Recounting her early days in New York City — roaming the streets with her soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, and being so poor that they frequently dined on the starving-artist staple of lettuce soup — Smith considers a profound human universality:

Pinocchio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinocchio, in the end, became himself — because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinocchio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinocchio over and over again — we achieve our goal, we become a level of ourselves, and then we want to go further. And we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships, but we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

On the question of finding one’s purpose, Smith recounts the advice William S. Burroughs memorably gave her, which she advocates for frequently:

What should we aspire to as we go on our road? When I was in my early twenties, I was lucky to have William Burroughs as a friend and mentor. Once I was with him and I asked him this question: “What should I aspire to?” and he thought, and he said: “My dear, a gold American Express would be good.” But after that, he said very thoughtfully, “Build your name.” And i said, “William, my name is Smith.” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to build a little harder.” But what William meant when he told me to build my name. Build a good name — because a name is not to get famous. He wasn’t talking about celebrity — he was talking about let your name radiate your self, magnify who you are, your good deeds, your code of honor. Build your name and as you go through life, your name will serve you.

She considers our most reliable anchors in life:

We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry and you make mistakes or seem to be veering off, just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do. And when you make a mistake, it’s alright — just as the song goes, pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again.

On the importance of our cultural roots and sense of belonging:

When you proceed on your course, never forget you are not alone. You have friends and family, but you also have you ancestors. Your ancestors sing in your blood. Call to them. Their strength through the ages will come into you. And then there are your spiritual ancestors. Call on them. They have set themselves up through human history to be at your disposal. Jesus, he said, “I am with you always, even into the end of the world,” Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman — they are with you. Choose the one you wish to walk with and he or she will walk with you. Don’t forget that you are not alone.

She ends by recounting the advice her father gave her, bringing it all back to the bigger point behind her seemingly silly dental care counsel:

When I left home, I asked my father what advice he could give me. My father was very intelligent, very well-read — he read all the great books, all the great philosophers. But when I asked his advice, he told me one thing: Be happy. It’s all he said. So simple. I’m telling you, these simple things — taking care of your teeth, being happy — they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are. And it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things — it will enforce your work.

Be happy, take care of your teeth, always let your conscience be your guide.

Complement with Dream of Life, the fantastic documentary about Smith, then revisit some excellent commencement addresses by Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Debbie Millman, Anna Quindlen, Bill Watterson, Joseph Brodsky, and Ann Patchett.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

21 APRIL, 2014

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

By:

“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).

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.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.