Has this ever happened to you?
You're going to bed a bit early because you have an important meeting in the morning and need to be well rested. Reclining your head on the pillow, you say to yourself "I need to get to sleep, so I'll make sure I'm relaxed."
An hour later, you're still awake, even though usually you fall asleep in just a few minutes. It's dawning on you that trying to sleep is keeping you from sleeping.
So now you try not to try to fall asleep. Which, of course, is still trying. That doesn't work either. Eventually you do get to sleep. But it isn't from trying. Nor is it from not-trying. It's from just doing what comes naturally: falling asleep.
I'm re-reading Edward Slingerland's marvelous book about the Chinese notion of wu-wei, which Slingerland says is best translated as "effortless action" or "spontaneous action." Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity is one of my favorite books about spirituality (using that word in a non-supernatural sense) now that I've given up religiosity.
I've given away several copies to friends, which shows how much I love Slingerland's book. Reading it a second time, I'm gaining fresh insights about wu-wei -- what it is and how to achieve it.
I'm pretty sure the only previous blog post I've written about Trying Not to Try was "The social value of getting wasted." Excerpt:
Slingerland, a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, clued me in to some aspects of both Asian and Western culture that had largely escaped me before.
For example, why getting wasted -- imbibing copious amounts of alcohol or some other intoxicating, mind-altering, inhibition-dampening substance -- is so important in closing business deals, as well as in other social contexts.
The basic reason is that we admire and trust good-hearted people who act naturally, spontaneously, unselfconsciously. Schemers who always seem to be calculating what to do and how to act, not nearly so much, even if they proclaim their beneficent intentions.
Slingerland explains from both a philosophical and neuroscientific outlook that virtue (de, in Chinese) can be faked by what often is called "cold cognition."
That's the slower, more intellectual, thoughtful part of the brain's workings. This is contrasted with "hot cognition," which is faster, more emotional and intuitive. So, Slingerland says:
These techniques take advantage of the fact that deception is fundamentally a cold-cognition act and relies on cognitive control centers. This means that if we can impair the cognitive control abilities of people we're trying to judge, we'll do a better job of sussing them out: they will be less likely to confuse our cheater-control systems.
There's a lot more to Slingerland's book, of course. Here's some passages I liked in two chapters I read this morning.
The ridiculousness of splitting ourselves into parts.
Colloquially, we often speak of ourselves as if we were split in two: "I couldn't make myself get out of bed in the 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.
We are one being with two functional systems.
So although talk of "mind" and "body" is technically inaccurate, it does capture an important functional difference between two systems: a slow, cold conscious mind and a fast, hot unconscious set of bodily instincts, hunches, and skills. "We" tend to identify with the cold, slow system because it is the seat of our conscious awareness and our sense of self.
Beneath this conscious self, though, is another self -- much bigger and more powerful -- that we have no direct access to. It is this deeper, more evolutionarily ancient part of us that knows how to spit and move our legs around. It's also the part that we are struggling with when we try to resist that tiramisu or drag ourselves out of bed for an important meeting.
The goal of wu-wei.
The goal of wu-wei is to get these two selves working together smoothly and effectively. For a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful; the two systems -- hot and cold, fast and slow -- are completely integrated. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment.
...For the early Chinese, being in wu-wei is not just about how one feels internally, or to what extent one's conscious brain is in charge. It is, at the end of the day, about being properly attuned in the cosmos. And this too has important implications for contemporary life.
Wu-wei is about giving yourself up to something bigger than you.
It's now easy to see why wu-wei is about more than isolated individuals incrementally improving their personal bests in the Ironman Triathlon or mastering a new level of Tetris. Wu-wei involves giving yourself up to something that, because it is bigger than you, can be shared by others.
For those of us who no longer embrace the early Chinese faith in the Way and Heaven, the precise nature of this "larger whole" -- the framework of values that gives shape and meaning to the wu-wei experience -- is going to vary from tribe to tribe, even person to person or moment to moment.
By its very nature, though, this framework needs to be something larger than just the self. An essential fact about wu-wei is that it's not just about the experience unfolding within the mind of an isolated individual but also about social connections between people.