Some books are meant to be read, re-read, and then re-re-read. I think I'm on my re-re-reading of Edward Slingerland's marvelous Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.
I've written a couple of previous blog posts about the book:
The social value of getting wasted
"Trying Not to Try" is a great book about wu-wei, spontaneous action
I love this book because I love Taoism. Or Daoism, if you prefer that spelling. I also love modern neuroscience. Since Slingerland combines ancient Taoist philosophy and cutting edge psychological research in his book, Trying Not to Try hits a literary sweet spot for me.
Here's some passages that illustrate key themes in the book.
The psychologist Daniel Wegner has spent a good deal of his career exploring what he terms the "ironic effects" of conscious, intentional effort. In words that sound like they could have come straight from the Laozi, he observes:
"Many of our favorite goals, when pursued consciously, can be undermined by distractions and stressors to yield not just failure of goal achievement but the ironic opposite of that attainment. We achieve exactly what we most desired not to do."
He and his colleagues have amassed a large body of evidence suggesting that we get depressed when we're consciously trying to be happy, anxious when we're trying to relax, and distracted when we're trying to concentrate. When we try to consciously forget something, we remember it more clearly; when we try to make ourselves sleep, it makes our insomnia worse.
Trying to stop thinking of sex is the best way to think of sex. If you want to make someone overshoot when they are attempting a putt in golf, tell them to try as hard as they can to not overshoot.
In a wonderful study entitled "The Putt and the Pendulum: Ironic Effects of the Mental Control of Action," Wegner and colleagues not only documented the pernicious effect of golfing instructions but also showed that asking someone not to move a pendulum suspended from their hand causes them to move it even more, and specifically in the direction they were told to avoid.
...Ironic effects are not confined to physical movements, emotions, or physiological processes like trying to fall asleep -- they extend to the moral realm as well. Subjects who are explicitly instructed to be fair and unprejudiced actually become more prejudiced.
...Thinking that you are good can make you bad. Talking about positive behavior can encourage negative behavior. Laozi is clearly on to something when he warns us that consciously trying to be righteous will, in fact, turn us into insufferable hypocrites and that anyone striving to attain virtue is destined to fail.
Now, the fact that I'm reading Trying Not to Try for the third time, or maybe the fourth, shows how subtle and difficult to grasp is the distinction between trying, not trying, not trying to not try, and any other way of looking at spontaneity. You either have it, or you don't.
Maybe. Perhaps you can both have it and not have it. Or partly have it and partly not have it.
What I do know, both by observing myself and others over my 71 years of living, is that the last paragraph in the quotations above is right-on. Trying to be righteous does indeed turn us into insufferable hypocrites.
Which is one reason I'm pleased to have discarded religious belief. Almost always, religions have rigid moral codes. Thou shalt do such and such. Thou shalt not do this and that. Religious believers feel proud of their humility, while often failing to act with as much kindness and concern as a young child.
They try so hard, they fall flat on their hypocritical butts. They're so concerned with doing something wrong, they're incapable of naturally acting rightly.
Here's another passage from the book regarding Chan/Zen Buddhism.
One famous koan story, for instance, begins like this: "A monk said to the Zen master: 'I have just entered the monastery. I beg you, teacher, to provide me with instruction.'"
This monk sounds a lot like the pre-fast Yan Hui, an eager Boy Scout, with clear expectations about what he is to learn, and probably a subtle desire to demonstrate his ambition. A keener, as we would say in Canada.
The master asked, "Have you eaten your rice porridge?"
The monk replied, "Yes, sir. I have."
The master said, "Then go wash your bowl."
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
The key to enlightened wu-wei is not learning more about doctrine but seeing and responding appropriately to what is in front of you.
The Chinese Zen master who compiled the collection in which this koan appears comments, "It is only because it is so clear that it is so hard to see. People go looking for fire using a lighted lamp; if they only realized that the lamp itself was fire, they'd be able to cook their rice much sooner."