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Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity
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Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity [Format Kindle]

Edward Slingerland

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Skillful Butchers and Graceful Gentlemen

The Concept of Wu-wei

The story of butcher ding is perhaps the best-known and most vivid portrayal of wu-wei in the early Chinese tradition. The butcher has been called upon to play his part in a traditional religious ceremony involving the sacrifice of an ox, in a public space with the ruler and a large crowd looking on. This is a major religious event, and Butcher Ding is at center stage. The text is not specific, but we are probably witnessing a ceremony to consecrate a newly cast bronze bell. In this ritual, the still-smoking metal is brought fresh from the foundry and cooled with the blood of a sacrificial animal--a procedure that demands precise timing and perfectly smooth execution.

Butcher Ding is up to the task, dismembering the massive animal with effortless grace: “At every touch of his hand, every bending of his shoulder, every step of his feet, every thrust of his knee--swish! swoosh! He guided his blade along with a whoosh, and all was in perfect tune: one moment as if he were joining in the Dance of the Mulberry Grove, another as if he were performing in the Jingshou Symphony.” The Dance of the Mulberry Grove and the Jingshou Symphony were ancient, venerated art forms: Ding’s body and blade move in such perfect harmony that a seemingly mundane task is turned into an artistic performance. Lord Wenhui is amazed and is moved to exclaim, “Ah! How wonderful! Can skill really reach such heights?” Butcher Ding puts down his cleaver and replies, “What I, your humble servant, care about is the Way [Dao, 道], which goes beyond mere skill.” He then launches into an explanation of what it feels like to perform in such a state of perfect ease:

When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. And now--now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. My senses and conscious awareness have shut down and my spiritual desires take me away. I follow the Heavenly pattern of the ox, thrusting into the big hollows, guiding the knife through the big openings, and adapting my motions to the fixed structure of the ox. In this way, I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

The result is that Butcher Ding is not so much cutting up the ox as releasing its constituent parts, letting the razor-sharp edge of his cleaver move through the spaces between the bones and ligaments without encountering the slightest resistance:

A skilled butcher has to change his cleaver once a year, because he cuts; an ordinary butcher has to change his cleaver once a month, because he hacks. As for me, I have been using this particular cleaver for nineteen years now, and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet its edge is still as sharp as when it first came off the whetstone. Between the joints of the ox there is space, and the edge of the blade has no thickness; if you use that which has no thickness to pass through gaps where there is space, it’s no problem, there’s plenty of room to let your cleaver play. That’s why, after nineteen years, the edge of my blade looks like it just came from the whetstone.

It is not all smooth sailing. Occasionally Butcher Ding’s effortless dance is interrupted when he senses trouble, at which point his conscious mind seems to reengage a bit, although he still remains completely relaxed and open to the situation confronting him: “Whenever I come to a knot, I see the difficulty ahead, become careful and alert, focus my vision, slow my movements, and move the blade with the greatest subtlety, so that the ox simply falls apart, like a clod of earth falling to the ground.” Lord Wenhui clearly sees something in this account that goes far beyond simply cutting up oxen. “Wonderful!” he exclaims. “From the words of Butcher Ding I’ve learned how to live my life!” This remark signals to us that we should be taking the story of the ox as a metaphor: we are Butcher Ding’s blade, and the bones and ligaments of the ox are the barriers and obstacles that we face in life. Just as Butcher Ding’s blade remains razor-sharp because it never touches a bone or ligament--moving only through the gaps in between--so does the wu-wei person move only through the open spaces in life, avoiding the difficulties that damage one’s spirit and wear out one’s body. This is a metaphor that has not lost any of its power. I, for one, can attest that, after forty-odd years of sometimes hard living, my own blade feels a bit nicked and dull.

Another of my favorite portrayals of wu-wei also concerns an artisan. A woodcarver named Qing has received commissions to carve massive wooden stands for sets of bronze bells--precisely the sort of bells that were consecrated in Butcher Ding’s ritual sacrifice. Again, this is high-stakes public art, commissioned by the ruler himself, and involving the promise of a juicy monetary reward and official honors. As with Ding, Qing demonstrates almost supernatural skill: the bell stands that he produces are so exquisite that people think they must be the work of ghosts or spirits. Like Butcher Ding, he is praised by his ruler, who exclaims, “What technique allows you to produce something that beautiful?” Again, like Ding, the woodcarver demurs, denying that what he does is all that special. “I, your servant, am merely a humble artisan. What technique could I possibly possess?” After being pressed a bit, though, he acknowledges that perhaps there is a secret to his success, having to do with how he prepares himself mentally to begin the work: “When I am getting ready to make a bell stand, the most important thing is not to exhaust my energy [qi], so first I fast in order to still my mind. After I have fasted for three days, concerns about congratulations or praise, titles or stipends no longer trouble my mind. After five days, thoughts of blame or acclaim, skill or clumsiness have also left my mind. Finally, after fasting for seven days, I am so completely still that I forget that I have four limbs and a body.” The idea of carving a bell stand without a sense of one’s limbs or body might seem odd, but the point is that Qing has so focused his attention that all external considerations have fallen away. “There is no more ruler or court,” he explains, “my skill is concentrated and all outside distractions disappear.” He’s ready to get to work.

Now I set off for the mountain forest to observe, one by one, the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I come across a tree of perfect shape and form, then I am able to see the completed bell stand already in it: all I have to do is apply my hand to the job and it’s done. If a particular tree does not call to me, I simply move on. All that I am doing is allowing the Heavenly within me to match up with the Heavenly in the world--this is probably why people mistake my art for the work of the spirits!

It’s striking how similar this story is to the lore surrounding a great public artist from an entirely different time and culture, Michelangelo. When questioned about his own apparently supernatural sculpting talents, he supposedly replied that, when given a commission, he simply waited until he found a piece of marble in which he could already see the sculpture. All he then had to do was cut away the stone that didn’t belong. Here, as with Woodcarver Qing, there is a sense that the materials themselves dictate the artistic process. The artist’s own contribution is portrayed as minimal, and the creative act is experienced as completely effortless.

The stories of Butcher Ding and Woodcarver Qing both come from a book called the Zhuangzi, one of the two Daoist works that we will be looking at, and the richest hunting ground for wu-wei stories among Warring States texts. Characterizations of wu-wei in the other of our early Daoist texts, the Laozi, take the form of concise, cryptic poems rather than stories--much of the book probably rhymed in the original Chinese pronunciation, which we can now only imprecisely reconstruct. A typically mysterious passage from the Laozi describing the “Way of Heaven” is clearly meant to provide a model for how a properly cultivated person should move through the world:

The Way of Heaven

Excels in overcoming, though it does not contend;

In responding, though it does not speak;

In spontaneously attracting, though it does not summon;

In planning for the future, though it is always relaxed.

The Net of Heaven covers all;

Although its mesh is wide, nothing ever slips through.

The “wide mesh” that nonetheless captures everything is reminiscent of the relaxed concentration of Butcher Ding or Woodcarver Qing: at ease and yet open, profoundly attuned to the environment. Unlike our Zhuangzian exemplars, however, who attain perfection only after long periods of training in particular skills, the Laozian sage attains wu-wei by not trying, by simply relaxing into some sort of preexisting harmony with nature:

Do not go out the door, and so understand the whole world;

Do not look out the window, and understand the Way of Heaven.

The farther you go, the less you know.

This is why the sage understands the world without going abroad,

Achieves clarity without having to look,

And attains success without trying.

These sorts of passages, where wu-wei is an explicit focus, are quite common throughout the Zhuangzi and the Laozi, which is why the concept of wu-wei is typically associated with Daoism.

What is less widely appreciated, however, is that the sort of effortless ease and unselfconsciousness that characterizes these Daoist accounts also plays a central role in early Confucianism. This may come as a surprise, because Confucianism is typically associated with hidebound traditionalism and stuffy ritual-...

Revue de presse

Advance Praise for Trying Not to Try:
"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."
—Kirkus Reviews

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 1536 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 306 pages
  • Pagination - ISBN de l'édition imprimée de référence : 0770437613
  • Editeur : Canongate Books; Édition : Main (3 avril 2014)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B00GLQ4B34
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.0 étoiles sur 5  49 commentaires
34 internautes sur 36 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Interesting book, but not quite as described 16 mars 2014
Par Julia Rietmulder-Stone - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I assume that this author wanted to write a popular book about his area of academic expertise, pitched it to a publisher, and then the publisher decided to cash in on the popularity of "Flow" and related trends -- without a whole lot of regard to how much this book is actually likely to appeal to fans of "Flow".

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.
28 internautes sur 29 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Don't Yank Your Sprouts 20 mars 2014
Par frankp93 - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I enjoyed `Trying Not To Try' a great deal for what it is, but found the blurb description somewhat misleading and the self-help category a less-than perfect fit. The book leans far more towards the philosophical than the practical. This is not some overly self-conscious, hands-on tutorial about applying meditative practices and self-analysis to sleep better and perform at maximum potential.

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.
21 internautes sur 22 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Ancient Chinese Thought Meets Modern Day Life 15 mars 2014
Par Jen from Jersey - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I am fascinated by the concept of wu-wei or "trying not to try". We live in such a competitive, dog eat dog society. We are always looking to be bigger, better, faster. Our daily life is often frenetic and rushed. There is always too much to do. And there is so much pressure (often self-induced). I am a therapist and I often talk with with my clients about slowing down, breathing, being grateful, being present in the moment. Figuring out what they love - what they do best - how they want to live out this one life they have in front of them.

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.

Jen C.
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An engrossing tour de force 18 mars 2014
Par Giovanna Lammers - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Anyone who reads TRYING NOT TO TRY will find it necessary to re-assess the oft-heard complaint that academic researchers usually fail to present their findings in a form that attract and holds the attention of ordinary readers. In this book the author uses a genial and beguiling prose style to explore some of the fruitful insights that occur when humanistic learning, in this case of an ancient age, is partnered with the results of on-going scientific inquiry into the workings of the human brain (the "embodied mind"). By the time I finished reading I felt that I encountered a refeshing new way of understanding "spontaneity" (the state in which we typically deliver our best efforts) in both its individual and social aspects, along with a deepned appreciation of the implications, for good or ill, of the rationalistic dualism that has characterized modern Western civilisation. Altogether, a remarkable achievement.
7 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 This is it! An engaging and accessible look at the elusive state of Wu Wei 22 mars 2014
Par Brandon Bailey - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I carried a tattered copy of the Tao Te Ching in my backpack through college. The writings of the early Chinese philosophers now classified as Daoists fascinated me. Their idea of 'effortless action' intrigued me even more. What was this elusive Wu Wei the Daoists spoke of (and it's byproduct, de)? We've all had moments where we've been 'in the zone'. This may happen when we make a painting, play a sport, or get lost in conversation with close friends. Such moments suggest that the ancient Daoists were on to something.

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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