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Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity par [Slingerland, Edward]
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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--both of which strike us as the opposite of wu-wei. It can’t be denied that the Confucians do a lot to earn this reputation. In the early stages of training, an aspiring Confucian gentleman needs to memorize entire shelves of archaic texts, learn the precise angle at which to bow, and learn the length of the steps with which he is to enter a room. His sitting mat must always be perfectly straight. All of this rigor and restraint, however, is ultimately aimed at producing a cultivated, but nonetheless genuine, form of spontaneity. Indeed, the process of training is not considered complete until the individual has passed completely beyond the need for thought or effort.

Confucius himself, in a passage that serves as a wonderfully concise spiritual autobiography, portrays wu-wei as the goal for which he has spent his entire life striving: “The Master said, ‘At fifteen I set my mind upon learning; at thirty I took my place in society; at forty I became free of doubts; at fifty I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty my ear was attuned; and at seventy I could follow my heart’s desires without transgressing the bounds of propriety.’ ” The phrase “my ear was attuned” literally means “my ear flowed along / went with the flow” and suggests that when hearing the teachings of the ancients Confucius immediately grasped and took joy in them. By age seventy, he had so internalized the Confucian Way that he could act upon whatever thought or desire popped into his head and yet still behave in a perfectly moral and exemplary fashion. The end result looks as effortless and unselfconscious as that of the Zhuangzian butcher or Laozian sage but is, in fact, the product of a lifelong process of training in traditional cultural forms.

Confucius’s form of wu-wei--an effortless, unselfconscious but eminently cultured spontaneity--was inherited as an ideal by his two Warring States followers, Mencius and Xunzi, although they disagreed profoundly about what’s required to reach this state. Mencius tried to split the difference, as it were, between the Daoists and Confucius by presenting wu-wei as the natural outgrowth of cultivating our nature. For him, morally proper wu-wei was like a sprout waiting to break through the ground, or a body prepared to move with a catchy beat. Xunzi, on the other hand, was unimpressed by the Daoist celebration of nature and returned to the model championed by Confucius, whereby wu-wei was the result of a lifetime of rigorous education. For Xunzi, “not trying” was neither easy nor fun: the perfection of form and emotion that finds its ideal expression in dance was, for him, a hard-won achievement resulting from years of difficult training and cultural learning. In any case, this preoccupation with how to cultivate wu-wei was at the center of early Chinese controversies about how to attain the good life. This is a conversation worth paying attention to, because it brings to the forefront ideas, like spontaneity and charisma, that have fallen through the cracks of our contemporary mind-set.


In the early Chinese accounts of wu-wei described above, a couple of features are immediately apparent. First, although there is only one Butcher Ding or Confucius in the world, these wu-wei exemplars experience themselves as split. They seem to feel a gap between an “I” (the locus of consciousness and personal identity) and various forces--spiritual desires, desires of the heart--that take over when they enter wu-wei. Wu-wei is characterized by an internal sense of effortlessness and unselfconsciousness, even though the person in wu-wei may actually be very active in the world. Someone or something else must be doing the work besides the conscious mind that we normally think of as “us.” Second, people in wu-wei are extremely effective: huge oxen fall apart with a few swipes of the blade, and complex social situations are negotiated with masterly aplomb. My guess is that we have all experienced this combination of effortlessness and effectiveness at some point in our lives. While we are completely absorbed in chopping and sautéing, a complex dinner simply assembles itself before our eyes. Fully relaxed, we breeze through an important job interview without even noticing how well it’s going. Our own experiences of the pleasure and power of spontaneity explain why these early Chinese stories are so appealing and also suggest that these thinkers were on to something important. Combining Chinese insights and modern science, we are now in a position to understand how such states can actually come about.

Colloquially, we often speak of ourselves as if we were split in two: “I couldn’t make myself get out of bed this morning,” “I had to force myself to be calm,” “I had to hold my tongue.” Although we use such phrases all the time, if you think about them they’re a bit weird. Who is the self who doesn’t want to get out of bed, and what is its relationship to me? Does my tongue really have a will of its own, and how do I go about holding it? (And who am I if not my tongue?) Since there is always only one “me” involved, this split-self talk is clearly metaphorical rather than literal. At the same time, the fact that we fall back upon this kind of language so frequently means that it must reflect something important about our experience. And talk of split selves is certainly not limited to English: we can see it in many wu-wei stories from early China that involve a narrative “I” confronting a part of the self that is more or less autonomous.

Revue de presse

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."
—Huffington Post

"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."
—Kirkus Reviews
"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."
—The Skinny

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  • Editeur : Crown (4 mars 2014)
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) (Peut contenir des commentaires issus du programme Early Reviewer Rewards) 4.0 étoiles sur 5 90 commentaires
46 internautes sur 47 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.
11 internautes sur 11 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.
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 To Try, or Not to Try, That Is the Question 28 octobre 2014
Par Stephen N. Greenleaf - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
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.
57 internautes sur 58 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 d‘un membre du Club des Testeurs ( 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.
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5.0 étoiles sur 5 The Relevance of Ancient China 11 mars 2016
Par Barbara N. Kuehner - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
This book lays out the essence of Eastern philosophical thought in very accessible language. The focus is on Warring States China, approximately 700-300 BCE. The author relates various philosophic principles to modern studies in psychology, social psychology, neurobiology and evolutionary biology. Applications include dating, politics, sports performance, music, family life, body language interpretation and many aspect of relationships. I expected learning about ancient Chinese philosophy might have the flavor of stilted academic lectures. Instead I found insights into why our political and social systems are so difficult to navigate. And there are philosophic, psychologic and physiologic bases for why you can't relax when the dentist says "relax,' or why thinking about a golf swing can ruin it or why preachers so often sound phony. Tension created by the paradox lurking deep inside each school of thought becomes the reason why finding answers to life's most basic questions is elusive.

Slingerland's gift to the reader is that he uses his ability to translate and interpret ancient Chinese in order to share the common threads of various philosophical schools of thought and make them relevant to today's major issues and challenges.

Slingerland's gift to the reader is that he uses his ability to translate and interpret ancient Chinese texts and then shares the common threads of various schools of thought (most of which evolved during the Warring States time period) and makes them relevant to the issues of today.
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