Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity Hardcover – Mar 4 2014
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Praise for Trying Not to Try:
A Guardian Best Book of 2014
A 2014 Brain Pickings Best Book on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully
"Looks like a self-help book, but it’s actually an insightful and lucid introduction to some of the most fruitful ideas in ancient Chinese philosophy."
—Julian Baggini, The Guardian
"Edward Slingerland treats us to a work of seminal importance. Yet never was there such an important book that takes itself so lightly. Slingerland explains the correspondence between ancient Chinese philosophical ideas about wu-wei, or doing by not doing, and modern neuroscience. In doing so in erudite fashion, he also manages to discuss Woody Allen, magic mushrooms, his daughter's storybooks, Luke Skywalker and how hard it is to get a date when you're desperate."
"Trying not to Try is an enlightening introduction to the often misunderstood mindset of wu-wei, the 'being in the moment' that is the key to Eastern wisdom. Slingerland's volume is an invaluable guide to anyone on the quest for a full life, lived spontaneously."
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow
"Ancient Chinese philosophy has never been more accessible. Not even in ancient China. Slingerland is not just a philosopher, he's a time traveller."
—Russell Brand, author of Revolution
"Trying Not to Try navigates the confluence of two mighty rivers: the burgeoning science of the mind and the classic wisdom of China’s Taoist and Confucian traditions. This is a thoughtful, grounded book about traditions that should be better known—and more often put into practice—in the West."
—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell is Human
"East meets West in Edward Slingerland's Trying Not to Try, an entertaining and thought-provoking account of how the principles of ancient Chinese thought continue to apply—indeed, may apply even more—in modern times. Slingerland will make you reconsider your approach to everyday life and will challenge you to approach success—and failure—in a new, refreshing and reenergizing light."
—Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind
"‘I'll give it a try,’ says Luke Skywalker, and Yoda snaps: ‘Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.’ In this fascinating book, Edward Slingerland brings together ancient Chinese philosophy and contemporary cognitive science to solve the secret of wu-wei—the art of acting effortlessly and spontaneously, of being active and effective, even brilliant, without ever trying. The book itself is a testament to the power of wu-wei, as Slingerland explores rich and intricate ideas with confidence, clarity, and grace. Trying Not to Try is intellectually stimulating, a pleasure to read, and might well change your life."
—Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology, Yale University; author of Just Babies and How Pleasure Works
"Trying Not to Try is fascinating, original, and mind-expanding — it shows us a completely different way of thinking about success and happiness."
—Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law, Yale Law School; author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
"Ancient China produced some of the greatest wisdom in human history, and Slingerland makes those riches accessible to modern readers. This book represents the humanities at their best — it's grounded in careful research about an ancient culture, yet speaks to the eternal challenge of being human in a complex and confusing world."
—Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University's Stern School of Business; author of The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind
"A remarkable time-traveling synthesis that shows how classic Chinese philosophers anticipated contemporary brain science and also looked beyond it, offering sage advice about how to live lives that flow. We meet Confucius, Daoists, the first Zen Master, a 6th century hippie, and other ancient Eastern educators, whose ideas have never been rendered more relevant to our times."
—Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies, City University of New York
"Through a combination of hard science and ancient philosophy, Trying Not to Try has convinced me that my usual approach to life—smashing through walls and grinding out painful victories—isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes trying hard is overrated. Slingerland has written a charming, intellectually rigorous book that can help all of us improve our lives."
—Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal
"A fascinating read. With state-of-the art science and interesting stories, Slingerland provides key insights from the East and West for achieving happiness and well-being."
—Sian Beilock, professor of psychology, University of Chicago; author of Choke
"Edward Slingerland is one of the world’s leading comparative philosophers and the foremost advocate of bridging the gulf between cognitive science and the humanities. In Trying Not to Try he reminds us that philosophy truly is a way of life, that classical Chinese philosophy offers deep insights into human flourishing, and that this classical Chinese wisdom anticipates in compelling ways what the best contemporary cognitive science teaches. This is a landmark book— clear, sparkling, and humane."
—Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Duke University; author of The Bodhisattva’s Brain
"This wonderful book not only shows us how to live a more satisfying life, it helps explain why social life is even possible: spontaneity, Slingerland argues, is the key to trust, and ultimately, the evolution of cooperation. A thought-provoking book by a truly gifted writer."
—Harvey Whitehouse, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford
"Slingerland’s book exemplifies the very principles it elucidates. Although the material is sophisticated, we effortlessly glide through a highly original integration of ancient wisdom and modern science towards a deep understanding of how one can simultaneously set a course in life and live spontaneously."
—Jonathan Schooler, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara
"In this fascinating book, Edward Slingerland tackles one of the most infuriating obstacles we encounter in our attempts to live meaningful lives. When we try with too much conscious effort to feel happy, or achieve our goals, we sabotage ourselves – but trying to be spontaneous is equally futile. The way out of this paradox is wu-wei, the ancient Chinese ideal of effortless yet accomplished living. Trying Not To Try is both a deeply researched history of this enviable state of relaxed success, and a witty guide to achieving it yourself. Don't overthink whether you're going to read it -- just read it."
—Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
"I tried hard to avoid reading this book — just too much to do. But I lost control, dipped in, and was swept along by apparently effortless prose describing the contrast between Confucianism and Taoism, and its relevance to our modern lives, including the good evolutionary reasons why commitment is usually more successful than manipulation. This is the perfect book club book."
—Randolph Nesse, Arizona State University Center for Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, and author of Why We Get Sick
"Slingerland lucidly addresses the power of developing a 'cultured spontaneity' and accessibly explains how the need to shut off our minds and bodies can be challenging in an age when smarter and faster is the status quo…A studious and fluent appeal for the benefits of a sound mind."
"Slingerland's book is valuable and refreshing; it illuminates traditions unfairly overlooked in the West, and does so in a way that's clear-eyed, amenable to science, and largely free of the facile relativism that often mars Western accounts of Eastern philosophy."
About the Author
Edward Slingerland is Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia. Educated at Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, he is an internationally renowned expert in Chinese thought, comparative religion, and cognitive science. In addition to over twenty academic journal articles in a range of fields, he has written several scholarly books, including What Science Offers the Humanities and a translation of the Analects of Confucius. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and daughter.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Wu-wei is an approach. It can mean going with the flow, internalizing some process so you can do it without any conscious thought, or suppressing all outside irrelevance to focus unconsciously on what is before you. This is the approach to, in Slingerland’s best example, a baseball pitcher who used to throw strikeouts without a thought, struggling to stay in the game when he thought about what he was doing. The more he tried to refine his actions, the worse the outcome. Another example would be tightrope walking. You don’t want to look down. Better blindfolded than looking down.
De is a state. It is commanding presence. When you exude the non-arrogant confidence of someone who knows, people respect you and flock to you. You get the girl, the job, the meeting – whatever. It just comes to those with de. Noam Chomsky has de. Gerald Ford did not.
The essence of both wu-wei and de, is being as far away from striving to achieve them as possible. So Trying Not To Try examines how different Chinese philosophers backed off from them in order to achieve them. Retreat to advance.
Slingerland, who lives and breathes Eastern culture and philosophy, takes us on an expert guided tour, edited so we get the essence of each philosopher’s approach. They are Confucius, Laozi, Mencius and Zhuangzi. Confucius is the most neurotic of them, insisting on ceremony, ritual, tradition and caution.Read more ›
In the end, Slingerland does not provide any concrete answers. He defines this unanswered question, as the parodox of Wu-wei. The reader must blend the different approaches to life, and attempt to apply them into a multitude of situations. The use of Wu-wie is a grey area. Slingerland provided lots of examples, on the various applications of Wu-wei. This part of the book, I enjoyed.
In the introduction, there was an intolerant passage.The developers of Western society were described as; "a bunch of elite, landowning males, and a collection of celerics, misogynists, and puritan bachelors." I realize this was supposed to be, some strange attempt at humour. But in my opinion, it was an offensive rant. The publisher should have omitted this material. This also provided a negative tone, for the remainder of the book. Slingerland also states; that conservatives have a negative view on human nature, and liberals have a positive view on human nature. Considering how many people have been murdered under Communist regimes, I find Slingerland`s viewpoint on human nature, to be a conterfactual conclusion.
Most of the books content, I found quite interesting. But the introduction, had a negative affect on the book. The conclusion of the book, leaves the reader with a puzzle instead of an explanation.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
While there's nothing preventing such a takeaway, Slingerland's argument extends outward from the personal to the societal as he makes the case for the continued relevance of early Chinese thought - primarily that of Confucius and Lao-tzu - to the modern world and how ancient ideas rightly complement, and in many ways parallel, the latest developments in cognitive science.
I found the format very effective and cohesive: Several fairly long chapters open with an exposition of one or more Chinese schools of thought illustrated and contrasted by colorful tales and excerpts of ancient texts. Then, almost without realizing it, Slingerland effortlessly segues into some contemporary reference to a study or publication in cognitive science that confirms or elaborates on the earlier ideas.
I found it a much more pleasant reading experience than the alternate approach of more, shorter chapters expressly alternating Chinese Thought/Cognitive Science/Chinese Thought/etc.
The core of the book is the age-old dichotomy out of which both Confucianism and the ideas of Lao-tzu grew: Must human beings be trained to be virtuous or is it in their essential nature? Are conscious effort and striving to be virtuous admirable goals or are they in fact the source of individual (and by extension, societal) ills? This is the paradox expressed as "trying hard not to try" versus "not trying to `not try'".
It's a bit of a mental tongue-twister but fortunately Slingerland's prose is clear and very readable. In fact, the author's tone was initially a bit of a turn-off and a distraction: it felt so breezy and colloquial as though Slingerland was himself trying too hard to impress a college-aged audience with numerous references to dating rituals and partying. But as the depth of the author's understanding and compassion made itself clear, the offhand pop culture references served as an effective counterbalance to the otherwise existential ideas.
A philosophy professor of mine once suggested the best way to read the learned texts she assigned was to ease back on a comfortable coach, crack open a brew or bottle, and take it slow.
I'd suggest the same for `Trying Not to Try'. Slingerland is certainly learned about early Chinese thought but his prose is far from stuffy and obscure. But don't be fooled - there are some enormously relevant and profound ideas in this book, some more practical than others, but all worth exploring.
Certainly "Trying Not to Try" deals with a related topic, and he offers some critiques of "Flow" (I'm unwilling to try to spell that guy's name), but really, at its heart and for most of its pages, this an overview of two and a half ancient Chinese religions, and it relates to spontaneity only in that both Confucianism and Taoism believe that truly moral behavior must arise spontaneously within the doer, and so strove to cultivate (or not cultivate) spontaneity for that end. Of course there's a paradox here, and that's what fascinates the author, and what provides the line of thought that makes this -- in the author's mind -- relevant to conversations about flow, etc. It boils down to, "Why can't we be relaxed and charming on a first date?"
Slingerland does incorporate some modern science, and it helps elucidate the Chinese religious stuff, but in no way does this book offer any real pointers on how to live your life so that you can relax on a first date. The book is fundamentally an examination of paradox, not a resolution of any sort.
All that said, although it took me a while to get through it, I enjoyed "Trying Not to Try". I told my husband about interesting points, and I have continued to think about different ways some of the concepts play out in my life.
I ordered this book because I have a slightly-more-than-passing interest in Taoism, and because when I found myself spontaneously interested in a book about the virtues of spontaneity it seemed like I should probably go with that impulse. But I'd recommend this book only to someone interested in ancient Chinese views of The Good Life, not to someone looking for a follow-up to "Flow" or who has a casual interest in spontaneity.
Slingerland touches on all of these ideas as he explores the pursuit of wu-wei and the magical presence of people who possess "de". How do these people have it? Why are we so drawn to them? How can we get it for ourselves? When I think of people like this I realize that they are usually doing something they love - something that comes so naturally to them. I think about brilliant doctors who immediately put you at ease, my mother who effortlessly cultivates beautiful gardens and homes, my friend who is a calming yoga teacher, musicians who knock you off your feet and carry you along for the ride. I'm in wu-wei when I am experiencing a particularly productive session with a client. We are connecting and they are then connecting the dots about their life.
Slingerland incorporates ancient Chinese thought, neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, religion, music, astronomy, and even parenting techniques as he explores this topic. Anyone reading this book will find something to connect to - Slingerland discusses musicians (from jazz to Led Zeppelin), master butchers, carvers, Michelangelo, soccer moms, Greek hedonists, tortured artists, Descartes, Woody Allen, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, Star Wars, Thoreau, Picasso, the benefits of alcohol for inducing wu-wei, and the importance of manners. Oh, and he also talks about all those old Chinese guys and the many wise things they knew - even thousands of years ago.
Despite the depth and intensity of some of the ancient Chinese text, Slingerland's ability to intersperse present day examples and humor make this an easy, flowing read (no pun intended) for anyone. And the humor often comes when you least expect it, which is refreshing. Slingerland sounds like a cool dude - someone with whom sharing good food and wine would be great fun.
Bottom line - do what you love and what feels natural. Be a good person. Be good to others. Listen to those who came before us. Connect with people and places. The de will come and the wu-wei will follow.
It was difficult to find an accessible text on a subject as esoteric as Wu Wei. So when I read about Edward Slingerland's book on the subject, “Trying Not to Try”, I put it on pre-order. Slingerland's book lived up to my expectations. It proves its worth by delving into ancient Chinese philosophy. But it also draws bold connections to contemporary cognitive science and psychology. Despite the deep subject matter, it remains an accessible read. Cultural references to Star Wars, Jazz, sports, and hipsters keep things entertaining.
Slingerland's approach also breaks down the false division between science and the humanities. This expansive perspective makes me curious to read Slingerland's more academic work.
The key connection between Wu Wei and cognitive science lies in “Body thinking”. This semiautomatic behavior flows from the unconscious, with little or no conscious interference. The challenge is to get the mind to take a vacation so the body can do its thing.
This state coincides with what the Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow. This is when a subject is so absorbed in a challenging activity that she loses tracks of time and her sense of self. Flow has strong parallels to Wu Wei. But Slingerland points out the religious underpinnings that distinguish Wu Wei from flow. I'm glad that Slingerland makes the distinction. I'll leave it to his writing to explain further.
Those looking for clear, prescribed 'self help' instructions for achieving Wu Wei may come up short. But Slingerland explains why–because there is no 'one way'. Different things will work for different people at different times of their lives. And while there is no single method or technique, the ancient Chinese philosophers provide many paths. From Confucius (trying hard for a long time) to Zhuangzi (forget about trying at all), the ways to Wu Wei vary. Between the sage advice and contemporary research explored in this book, most of us can find our way, whatever that way may be.
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