Trying not to Try – Wu Wei and De

How do we fall asleep? Trying to sleep only worsens insomnia. Trying to achieve something worsens the result in many areas of life. In Chinese philosophy this paradox is described through the twin principles of ‘wu wei‘ and ‘de‘. Wu Wei is roughly what we would call ‘flow’. The experience of being in the moment, simply letting things happen and yet doing what needs to be done, whether it’s working in your garden, taking a walk or giving a speech. De is what people who live wu wei exude. It can be roughly translated as ‘charisma’ except that it can apply to the famous as well as the humble.

Edward Slingerland is trying to catch a cloud in his hand in this book. He doesn’t succeed, of course, but since the topic is roughly ‘how to catch a cloud in your hand’, that doesn’t really matter. He DOES succeed in showing us the ‘shape’ of trying to catch a cloud in your hand.

That probably doesn’t make any sense. The problem is that this book attempts to do several things at once:

  • Explain issues with spontaneity and flow, from a neurological perspective
  • Explain basic Chinese philosophy (Taoism and Confucianism), specifically how it dealt with ‘wu wei’ and ‘de’
  • Explain how we can live more meaningful and grounded lives

The problem is a familiar one: how can we ‘learn to relax’? I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life and so I know just how tough that assignment can be. In my experience, yes, you can learn to relax, but it doesn’t start with relaxing. After all, that’s impossible when you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack. What IS possible is training in a number of techniques that will, in time, help relax.

Similarly, a great artist attains flow when they perform. Worshiping spontaneity as many people do, we tend to think that means they start out spontaneous, free flowing etc. Wrong. A great artist starts out learning a whole lot of technique. When that’s part of his/her system, letting go can bring the performance to that higher level that characterizes the real artist.

I loved this book. It’s not easy, it’s not filled with simple answers to a complicated problem. Instead it’s a combination of recent western neurology and ancient Chinese and Japanese philosophy.

You’ll learn about the difference between hot and cold cognition. Cold cognition is what we normally call rational thought: thinking things through based on arguments. Unfortunately cold cognition, however prized in our society, is way to slow for day to day decisions. Hot cognition is intuitive, fast, habitual and based on our preconceptions and desires. It’s often irrational – it explains why social change is so slow, for instance – but we can’t do without it, because it’s fast. Cold cognition is the new years resolution not to smoke. Hot cognition is what makes us break that resolve again and again.

The thing is that modern neurology has shown that we can use our cold cognition to train our hot cognition. That is: we can train ourselves and feed our unconscious to act in ways that are productive instead of destructive. Learning how these things work can help us keep that new year’s resolution, for instance. However it’s hard – that’s the ‘trying’ part in ‘trying not to try’.

Ultimately trying not to try – learning to tap into the spontaneous natural flow – is paradoxically tough. However, it can be done and this book can help you take steps in that direction.

Chinese philosophy has debated the issue for over 2000 years with the result that they have a rich literature on both sides of the issue: the trying side (Confucianism) and the letting things happen side (Taoism). Edward Slingerland does a good job in presenting both and the paradox they’re trying to solve in a way that’s (reasonably) accessible as well as educational.