Trying Not to Try : The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, Paperback

Trying Not to Try : The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity Paperback

5 out of 5 (1 rating)


A Guardian Best Book of 2014 A 2014 Brain Pickings Best Book on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully Why is it hard to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a comedian whose jokes fall flat or an athlete who chokes?

What if, contrary to what we have long been told, spontaneity - not striving - is the answer to success?

Through stories of mythical creatures and drunken cart riders, jazz musicians and Japanese motorcycle gangs, Slingerland effortlessly blends Eastern thought and cutting-edge science to show us how we can embody a spontaneous way of being and live more fulfilling lives.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Popular psychology
  • ISBN: 9780857863485



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I casually ordered this book because I had read an article in Nautilus magazine of Butcher Ding and his effortless and unselfconscious way with a meat cleaver, having dispatch an ox smoothly and efficiently for the emperor. I thought this was an eastern spin on the idea of flow, a concept that Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi established in western psychology literature. While Csikszentmihalyi approached it from a strictly western way, using neurosciences and psychology to try to teach how to get flow in all that we do, Slingerland took a decidedly eastern route, and I found his approach completely satisfying and indeed, I found it inspirational. Slingerland is a professor of Asian Studies in the University of British Columbia, it is not surprising that he would take the Asian route. He is in fact a very astute scholar and teacher. Slingerland tells a great story, with a scholarship and attention to detail that is rare to find these days, especially given the immediate gratification oriented ethos of our culture. He does, however, have a sometimes unfortunate and sometimes welcomed quirky propensity to use slang terms in certain portions of his explanation. It was sometimes distracting, yet also is a sometimes welcomed digression. The book is broken up into eight chapters, each of the first two chapters set the stage for explaining flow, or wu wei as well as de. The next four chapters explains how each of the major Chinese school of thoughts, divided between the Confucian and Daoist schools. We are introduced to Confucius, Mencius of the Confucian school; with Laozhi Zhuangzhi presenting the Daoist schools. If this sounds kind of long and boring, be warned, it isn't. Slingerland has a wealth of understnading of Chinese religious and philosophical schools. More importantly, he is quite at ease explaining these convoluted and coupled approaches to the idea of wu wei. In fact, it is almost as if he was demonstrating how to work in a wu wei manner while explaining the wu wei concept. The last two chapters explains the contradictions embodied by wu wei and finally, what do we do with the concept and how do we can attempt to reach a state of wu wei ourselves. The entire idea with wu wei is very strange, or shuen, in Chinese. Slingerland was able to encircle the vast amount of tendrils that makes up the idea, sort and separate each one, and present the essence without making it dumbed down or diminished. It is, in fact a bravura performance and fascinating. In a way, as a Chinese person, I felt almost ashamed that it took a Canadian academic to show me the essential philosophy of my culture. But that shame went away quickly, as my joy of having finally understood the idea made me overlook the discretion.Another fortunate characteristic of this book is that it does not promise a quick and easy formula, something most popularizing books try to accomplish. There is a belief that what the reader is looking for is not a deep understanding but a quick application. In this case the loss that would have been incurred on the body of knowledge would have been too great and take away from the richness of the history and philosophy. What Slingerland did was to be quite Confucian: carving and polishing the topic for us.But this is not just an exercise in aimless pedagogy. The idea is to draw parallels between Asian history and philosophy with the latest in neuro science and mind research. I feel that goals was also met successfully. Slingerland pulls ideas from Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, as well as many other western research in mind psychology to round out an excellent presentation of wu wei.