Review (Guest): Trying Not to Try – The Art and Science of Spontaneity

5 Star, Consciousness & Social IQ, Culture, Research, Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design, Philosophy
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Edward Slingerland

5.0 out of 5 stars Paradigm shifting look at Csikszenmihaly’s concept of flow, March 23, 2014

By Just Me

When I discovered Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s book Flow, about 10 years ago, I recognized that he was talking about a concept that I had experienced many times, that was important in my life, and that I craved. Learning about flow has helped me, but has also provided frustrations, both because of difficulties and because of a lack of greater meaning. Slingerland’s Trying Not To Try offers the solution to these problems. Slingerland compares the Western concept of flow to the Eastern concepts of wu-wei and de. Wu-wei is “the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective”; de is a charismatic power “that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei.”

Slingerland looks at early Eastern philosophy and at modern science and sees how the connections between the two explain the how and why of wu-wei and de. As Slingerland says, “A growing literature in psychology and neuroscience suggests that these (early Eastern) thinkers had a much more accurate picture of how people really think and behave than we find in recent Western philosophy or religious thought and that early Chinese debates about how to attain wu-wei reflect real tensions built into the human brain. Scientists are beginning to better appreciate the role that “fast and frugal” unconscious thinking plays in everyday human life and now have a clearer sense of why spontaneity and effectiveness hang together.” Evolutionary psychology is very helpful in explaining the “why”, which was very helpful in solving the problems that the concept of flow presented to me. Slingerland explains that, it “gives us insight into why wu-wei is so pleasant for the individual and attractive to others… It feels good to be in wu-wei because a whole slew of tasks simply can’t be performed by our plodding, conscious minds — we need to unleash the power of our fast, unconscious processes in order to get them done. Moreover, we are attracted to people in wu-wei because we trust the automatic, unconscious mind. We have a very strong intuition — increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science — that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what’s really going on inside another person.”

My problems with the lack of meaning in flow are addressed by wu-wei. Slingerland explains, “In addition to helping us get beyond strong mind-body dualism, the Chinese concepts of wu-wei and de reveal important aspects of spontaneity and human cooperation that have slipped through the nets of modern science, which is still very grounded in another basic feature of Western thought: extreme individualism… In reality, we are not autonomous, self-sufficient, purely rational individuals but emotional pack animals, intimately dependent on other human beings at every stage of our lives. We get along, not because we’re good at calculating costs and benefits, but because we are emotionally bound to our immediate family and friends and have been trained to adopt a set of values that allows us to cooperate spontaneously with others in our society.” This ties in with the Chinese concept of dao, but this need not be a religous experience. Wu-wei provides “a sense of being at home in some framework of values, however vague or tenuous. This will make it clear how wu-wei differs from modern psychological concepts such as “flow,” allowing us to recover the crucial social dimension of spontaneity.”, Slingerland offers. This was a key concept for me.

De is related to wu-wei, as Slingerland explains, “We can redescribe de as the body language that someone exhibits when their cognitive control centers are downregulated — when they are being genuinely spontaneous.” “De is powerful, then, because it reveals who you really are. Not who your conscious mind thinks you should be in this particular moment, for this particular audience, but how you really are when you have relaxed into hot cognition… If we’re trying to be something that we’re not, it usually shows. Wu-wei reveals your inner character — your de or lack of de — not only because it’s automatic, and thus not subject to the conscious spin-doctor, but because the very fact that you’re not exerting cognitive control indicates that you have no need to.” “The connection between wu-wei and de thus makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. De is the attractive vibe — a combination of body language, microemotions, tone of voice, general appearance — kicked off by people who are honest, sincere, self-confident, and relaxed. It’s attractive because it’s a relatively hard-to-fake signal of a trustworthy cooperator”. If you are particularly interested in de, I highly recommend that you also read Adam Grant’s new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Despite the title, it actually has much to do with de and is a very worthwhile book in it’s own right.

The bulk of the book explores differing concepts of wu-wei, as presented by several different Chinese philosophers. Slingerland summarizes these chapters, and concepts, well in his final chapter, when he writes, “Fortunately for us, the early Chinese explored every conceivable strategy for moving a person from a state of alienated trying into perfected wu-wei. You can carve and polish: subject yourself to rigorous, long-term training designed to eventually instill the right dispositions. You can embrace simplicity: actively reject the pursuit of goals, in the hope that the goals will then be obtained by themselves. You can cultivate your sprouts: try to identify incipient tendencies of desirable behavior within you, then nurture and expand them until they are strong enough to take over. Or you can just go with the flow: forget about trying, forget about not trying, and just let the values that you want to embrace pick you up and carry you along.” Different people will find different strategies appealing, and which is best will also depend on the situation, etc. I myself get the most value from the “sprouts” method, exposed by Mencius.

Highly recommended! This book really offers a path to a more rewarding life.

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