The art and power of spontaneity, in ancient philosophy, in jazz, in everyday life. We’ll look at “Trying Not To Try,” the Chinese concept of “Wu-wei”, and the completely focused mental state of “flow.”
Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian studies and research chair of Chinese thought and embodied cognition at the University of British Columbia. Author of the new book “Trying Not To Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.” Also author of “Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University. Founding co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center. Author of “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life” and “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” among other books.
From Tom’s Reading List
The Atlantic: How Not To Try — “Woven into most of our natures is a cumbersome desire to be accepted and liked. At odds with that is the equally natural tendency to be turned off by people who wear that desire on their sleeves. If you, like me, essentially reek of effort in all that you do, such that people can sense it blocks away, and it makes you unattractive socially and intellectually, and it makes babies cry, can you practice and learn to cultivate a genuinely spontaneous approach to life? Is it possible to be deliberately less deliberate?”
New York Times: The Music Of ‘Flow’ — “Being in flow can be applied to any context, doing any activity that offers its own rewards, whether playing a grandmaster chess match, performing in the N.B.A. playoffs, listening to music at home, or performing heart surgery. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow charts are insightful and instructive about how to maintain flow during an extended activity: first, one achieves a balance between ability and level of difficulty, then one increases difficulty as ability grows.”
Biographile: Edward Slingerland on the Art of Effortlessness – “Wu-wei means literally ‘no doing’ or ‘no trying’ but is better translated as ‘effortless action.’ It refers to a state of total ease, in which you become completely lost in what you’re doing, feel no sense of exerting effort, and yet everything works out perfectly. When you are in wu-wei, you are maximally effective in the way you move through the world and you emerge from the experience feeling relaxed and satisfied. ”
Read An Excerpt Of “Trying Not To Try” By Edward Slingerland
In a famous story from ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding has been called upon to play his part in a traditional religious ceremony. The ritual, to consecrate a newly cast bronze bell, requires the butcher to sacrifice an ox in a public space, with the ruler and a large crowd looking on. The still-smoking bell is brought fresh from the foundry and cooled with the blood of the 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.”
Ding’s body and blade move in such perfect harmony that a seemingly mundane task is turned into an artistic performance. When questioned later by Lord Wenhui, the village master, about his incredible skill, Butcher Ding explains, “What I, your humble servant, care about is the Way [Dao].” 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.
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 story of Butcher Ding comes from a book called the Zhuangzi, an important work of Daoist philosophy, and one that is principally concerned with a value known as wu-wei, or effortless action. Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, spontaneous, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. 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.