Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Trying Not to Try: The Art & Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland

Published in 2014

In this book, Edward Slingerland combines his deep learning about the classics of Chinese culture with an appreciation of important work in contemporary psychology. Slingerland shows that the traditional Chinese concepts of wu-wei (not-doing) and de (virtue) found in the works of Confucius, Laozi, and others in the Warring States period accord with a growing appreciation of embodied psychology in contemporary thinking. He makes a convincing argument that the Chinese tradition identified issues that we’re still trying to sort out today. 


Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Xunxi, and Zhuangzi, in other words, both the Daoist and the Confucian traditions, attempted to identify and cultivate spontaneity within individuals. We can identify spontaneity in a mundane task such as butchering an ox, as related in the famous story of Cook Deng told by Zhuangzi, but its greatest value arises in social interactions. The virtuous person (a person with de) is at ease with others, acting spontaneously, thereby putting those others at ease. Confucius argued that appropriate spontaneity arises through assiduous cultivation, while Laozi and Zhuangzi wrote in favor a more spontaneous spontaneity. (Mencius argued to split the difference.) 

In recent Western psychology, such as in the work of Daniel Kahneman, psychologists have developed the concepts of System 1 and System 2 "thinking". System 1 is quick, spontaneous, and habitual, while System 2 is slower, more intense, and more energy demanding. We identify System 1 with the body and instinct, while System 2 is rational, calculating, and centered in the head. Slingerland argues that achieving true wu-wei that results in a realization of de comes from the melding of these two systems into a dynamic harmony. The Dao any anyone? 

Slingerland fills the book with examples of the action-less doing of wu-wei (the “zone” or “flow” in sports, for instance) as well as examples from contemporary psychology and neuroscience. To my mind, perhaps the most common example for most is riding a bike: after learning through early, self-conscious effort, we finally let go and just do it. It comes “naturally”. Slingerland argues persuasively that our modern, Western individualism and attendant emphasis on conscious effort isn’t always the best way to accomplish an end. Sometimes we have to let go to reach obtain our goal. (Yes, there is a discussion of Luke Skywalker and his antecedents in Zhuangzi). 

This is a thoughtful and delightful book, one that enlightened me a great deal about some of the classics of Chinese culture while using those ideas to elucidate the findings of an important area of contemporary psychological research. The quandary of spontaneity versus focused, planned action is indeed a familiar one, whether one is attempting to fall asleep (never can be forced), continue a shooting hot streak in basketball (often lost as soon as realized), or in writing a blog. Sometimes writing a blog seems effortless, sometimes forced, but it always needs both flowing inspiration and careful, rational editing. Slingerland’s book gives us ideas about how we might realize our de, our virtue, in new and productive ways—or simply perhaps via The Way.