BOOK REVIEW: Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland

Trying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of SpontaneityTrying Not to Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.]  Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.

While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.

The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.

Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.

The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.

The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.

I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.

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DAILY PHOTO: Thian Hock Keng

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

Confucius; Taken on October 29, 2016 in Singapore

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This Chinese temple sits in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown. It’s said to be the oldest Hokkien or Hoklo temple (i.e. Han Chinese) in Singapore. It’s a temple related to Han Chinese culture generally, rather than to a particular sect or religion. While the main deity is Mazu (a.k.a. Ma Cho Po,) a maritime goddess from Chinese folklore that is sometimes associated with Taoism, there is also a Confucian shrine as well as homages to several Buddhist Bodhisattvas (a Bodhisattva is one who has achieved enlightenment but sticks around to help others out of compassion.)

DAILY PHOTO: In the Temple of Literature

Taken in Hanoi on December 30, 2015

Taken in Hanoi on December 30, 2015

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Temple of Literature? (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám?) It sounds like a grandiose name for a library, but it’s really what the Vietnamese call a Confucian temple. This one is in Hanoi.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher famous for his ideas such as the hierarchical nature of relationships and how governance is practiced morally. His philosophy provided a popular counterpoint to the more free-wheeling Taoist belief system. Both Confucianism and Taoism came to be practiced by some as religion (though other advocates of each would say that it’s philosophy and not theology.)

BOOK REVIEW: The Sayings of Confucius by Confucius

The Sayings of ConfuciusThe Sayings of Confucius by Bc- Bc Confucius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s no one more firmly associated with Eastern wisdom—particularly in the form of aphorisms that fit nicely onto a fortune cookie—than Confucius. This is a book of such aphorisms.

I must admit, I’m not a wholehearted devotee of the Chinese philosopher, and am more likely to side with the Taoist sages who mocked Confucian ideas at every turn. In short, I’m not a big fan of the Confucian idea of societal hierarchies based on some elements of society accepting being infantilized in exchange for the protection and goodwill of others. It’s not just that I’m a youngest child that causes me to ask, what if the younger brother is smarter?

Once one gets beyond what is probably Confucius’s best known teaching—the five relationships—one sees a great deal of solid wisdom that even a Taoist would be hard pressed to refute.

Many of Confucius’s sayings aren’t novel or unique. Like Socrates, Confucius advocates knowing what one doesn’t know—which implies accepting that there are things one doesn’t know and not acting like one knows it all. (A common enough vice in modern times as in ancient.) Like the Indian sages, Confucius emphasized that one shouldn’t chase fame or act out of a desire for the fruits of one’s actions. Like the Stoics, Confucius said, “A gentleman knows neither sorrow nor fear.”

One of the most quoted sayings in this work is, “A gentleman should be slow to speak and quick to do.” This contains two bits of wisdom rolled into one: a.) Think before you say something stupid. b.) and, Get off your ass and do it, already. Of course, Confucius also produced an early (if not the earliest) formulation of what is usually called “The Golden Rule.) Confucius say, “What I do not wish done to me, I likewise wish not to do to others.”

I think everyone should read this short book of even shorter sayings.

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