Don’t Try Too Hard: The Art of Wu-Wei

Employing the ancient Chinese art of wu-wei is now being touted by modern science as a way to enrich life.
By Edward Slingerland
February 2014
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Wu-wei can be roughly translated as "no trying." Practicing the ancient art can relieve stress, help cure insomnia, and make one more at ease in social situations.
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In Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Chinese Art and Modern Science of Spontaneity (Crown Publishers, 2014), author Edward Slingerland introduces the basics of the Chinese art of wu-wei, an integral component of Taosim. Through tales filled with wit and clarity, Slingerland melds Eastern thought and modern scientific research to illuminate how to live happier, more spontaneous, and authentic lives. The following excerpt from the introduction provides excellent examples of how elusive spontaneity and letting go are in modern society.

There is a wonderful game at my local science museum called Mindball. Two players sit at opposite ends of a long table. Each wears a headband equipped with electrodes, designed to pick up general patterns of electrical activity on the surface of the brain. Between the players is a metal ball. The goal is to mentally push this ball all the way to the other end of the table, and the player who does so first wins. 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.

The Art of Wu-Wei

In our culture, the benefit of not trying too hard—of “going with the flow” or “being in the zone”—has long been appreciated by artists. The jazz great Charlie Parker is said to have advised as­piring musicians, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.” This same openness is also crucial in acting and other performing arts, which fundamentally rely on spontaneity and seemingly effortless responsiveness. A stand-up comedian who is not in the zone is not funny, and an actor who is not fully inhabiting his or her role comes across as wooden and fake. Explaining how to prepare for a role, the actor Michael Caine cautions that simply memorizing the script and trying to act it out step by step will never work; when it comes time for your line, the only way to bring it off authentically is to not try to remember it. “You must be able to stand there not thinking of that line. You take it off the other actor’s face. He is presumably new-minting the dialogue as if he himself just thought of it by listening and watching, as if it were all new to him, too. Otherwise, for your next line, you’re not listening and not free to respond naturally, to act spontaneously.”

Getting the mind to shut off and allow the body to do its thing is clearly a challenge. An even bigger problem—and one we encounter much more often—is the trick of getting your mind to let go of itself. This is the central problem in Mindball, where you can win the game only by relaxing, which seems to mean that you can win only if you don’t try to win. In our everyday lives, this tension is perhaps most intensely distilled in the throes of insomnia. You have a big meeting tomorrow and need to be at the top of your game, so you go to bed early and try to relax into sleep, only to find yourself tortured by incessant thoughts, helpless in the grip of the restless monkey-brain. Counting sheep just makes it worse, no position seems com­fortable; you feel in your bones how tired you really are, but how do you make your brain shut off? RELAX! you think to yourself, but it’s no use.

Insomnia is a fairly simple case, but the problem also manifests itself in more complex—typically social—situations, where the impact is far greater. Consider dating. Anyone who has ever been single for a significant amount of time is familiar with the “never rains but it pours” phenomenon: you can sometimes go for long pe­riods of being miserably alone, desperately trying to meet some­one but having absolutely no luck. Then something happens, an encounter occurs, you go out, you have a great time, and suddenly it’s raining women or men (or both, if you’re so inclined). Attrac­tive potential partners smile at you on the street, strike up conver­sations with you in cafés. The previously inaccessible beauty at the video store counter—who in the midst of your dry stretch would never even make eye contact with you—suddenly shows an inter­est in your predilection for Wim Wenders films, and the next thing you know you have plans for that Friday (a Friday!) to watch Wings of Desire and eat takeout Indian food. (This example is in no way autobiographical.) You sniff your clothes trying to detect any special pheromones you might be emitting, but if the phenomenon is bio­chemically based your senses are too dull to detect it. Bathing ap­pears to have no negative effect.

Everyone enjoys these periods of deluge, but once you’re back in a dry spell the pattern seems wasteful and fundamentally unjust. There are too many potential dates when you can’t enjoy them all, and none when they are really needed. Serious reflection—and during a drought you have a lot of time to reflect—suggests a possi­ble reason for the pattern, or at least why it is so hard to consciously alter: the best way to get a date seems to be to not want to get a date. The problem is that it’s hard to know what to do with this knowl­edge. How do you make yourself not want something that you actu­ally do want?

Spontaneity: The Elusive Experience

For the most part, we—and by “we” I mean pretty much anyone with access to this book, inhabitants of modern, industrialized soci­eties around the world—are preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying. Three-year-olds attend drill sessions to get an edge on admission to the best preschool and then grow into hypercompetitive high school students popping Ritalin to enhance their test results and keep up with a brutal schedule of after-school activities. Both our personal and our professional lives increasingly revolve around a relentless quest for greater efficiency and higher productivity, crowding out leisure time, vacation, and simple un­structured pleasures. The result is that people of all ages spend their days stumbling around tethered umbilically to their smartphones, immersed in an endless stream of competitive games, e-mails, texts, tweets, dings, pings, and pokes, getting up too early, staying up too late, in the end somehow falling into a fitful sleep illumined by the bright glow of tiny LCD screens.

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. This is because the problem of chok­ing or freezing up extends far beyond sports or artistic performance. A politician who is not, at some level, truly relaxed and sincere while giving a speech will come off as stiff and uncharismatic—a problem that plagued U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In the same way, a real love of reading, a genuine commitment to learning, and a deep curiosity about the world cannot be forced. Like that most elu­sive of modern goals, happiness, spontaneity seems to be as tricky to capture and keep as the hot hand in basketball. Consciously try to grab it and it’s gone.

Excerpted fromTrying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneityby Edward Slingerland.  Copyright © 2014 by Edward Slingerland. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

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