in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 28, 2021

Podcast #148: Trying Not to Try

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the harder you try doing something, the harder it becomes to achieve the thing you’re trying to do? Take, for example, falling asleep. The more you try to force yourself to fall asleep, the more elusive sleep becomes. Same thing with trying to be charming and relaxed in social situations. The more you think about how you’re performing with your small talk, the more nervous you get, which in turn makes you start acting like a social spaz.

Chinese philosophers understood this problem thousands of years ago and they worked on developing techniques to help followers “try without trying.” Fast-forward to today and modern neuroscience and cognitive psychology are confirming the insights these philosophers had 2,000 years ago. In Trying Not to Try, Asian Studies professor Edward Slingerland takes readers on a tour of the ancient Chinese philosophies that provided insights on how to try not to try. Today on the podcast, Edward and I discuss what these ancient philosophies can teach us about trying not to try and how they can help us live more spontaneous and sincere lives.

Show Highlights

  • Why ancient Chinese philosophers were so concerned with spontaneity
  • What it means to try not to try
  • How modern scientific studies are confirming 2,000-year-old wisdom
  • What a butcher can teach you about trying not to try
  • Why whenever you try hard to do something it’s harder to achieve the thing you’re trying to do
  • How hipsters and hippies aren’t new things (they were around in 19th century America and in China 2,000 years ago)
  • The different approaches four Chinese philosophers used in trying not to try
  • And much more!

Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland, Book Cover.

As someone who didn’t know much about Eastern philosophy, Trying Not to Try was the perfect introduction to the big Chinese thinkers. But besides providing an introduction to ancient Chinese philosophy, Slingerland does a great job extrapolating actionable points that we can take from it to help live a more flourishing life. Pick up a copy on Amazon.


Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever noticed whenever you try really hard at something you end up not being able to achieve the thing you’re trying to do? For example, you can’t sleep at night, you try really hard to fall asleep and it just makes falling asleep harder to do. Or you’re going to a party, you want to make small talk, feel comfortable, relaxed doing it, you try really hard and it just makes you uptight and nervous and it makes you feel the conversation doesn’t flow the way you want it.

Well, what’s interesting is Chinese philosophers thousands of years ago understood this paradox. Whenever you try to do something it makes the thing you’re trying to do harder to achieve. Confucianism, Daoism, they all understood this well. My guest today has written a book exploring these different Chinese philosophies, the insights they have about trying not to try, combining it with insights we’ve gotten from neuroscience and cognitive psychology on how we can have a more spontaneous life and how we can actually achieve this, trying not to try so we have a more spontaneous, relaxed life and things go the way we want.

His name is Edward Slingerland. He’s the author of the book, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. Today on the podcast we’re going to discuss some Chinese philosophy and this is great because I’ve never really been a student of Chinese philosophy. This book does a great summary of the early Chinese philosophers so we’re going to discuss that, their insights on how to live a more spontaneous life and what neuroscience and cogniscience can teach us about trying not to try. Really great podcast, you’re going to get a lot out of this, without further ado, Edward Slingerland.

Edward Slingerland, welcome to the show.

Slingerland: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: Your book is Trying Not to Try and it’s about the art and science of spontaneity. You approach this by looking at what ancient Chinese philosophers, how they approached spontaneity. There’s 2 big concepts that you talk about in this book that’s going to connect our conversation. The first, is wu-wei, and I guess this is the word that Chinese philosophers used to describe this spontaneity you’re talking about. Can you talk a little more about what exactly you mean by spontaneous and what these philosophers meant by wu-wei and spontaneity?

Slingerland: Yeah, wu-wei literally means no doing or non doing. It’s sometimes translated as inaction but I think really the best translation for it is something like effortless action. It’s a state where you lose a sense of yourself as an agent. You have a feeling that you’re not exerting effort or even really doing anything and yet everything works out perfectly. It’s a bit like being in the zone as an athlete. You have these stories in the early Chinese text of a skillful butcher who cuts up this enormous ox and he just kind of moves his knife through it and it falls apart. The lord who’s watching him is amazed because it seems like magic that he could do this so skillfully. Or you have these people who are in social situations so you have the Confucius moving through social situations or political diplomatic situations with this effortless ease and he doesn’t seem to be trying, he doesn’t seem to be really working at it and yet everything works out.

Brett McKay:Here’s another first question, how does it connect to this other concept of, is it de, d-e?

Slingerland: Yeah, de, it’s my favorite, de, like no de.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Slingerland: Unfortunately in modern manner. Yeah, so if you’re in a state of wu-wei you get this power called de, which maybe you’d translate it as charisma, charismatic power. It is something that, if you’re a Confucian, attracts people to you and makes them want to follow you. The ideal Confucian ruler is in a state wu-wei and then everything just falls into order around him. He doesn’t have to command people to follow him. Everyone just wants to follow him. If you’re a Daoist, it’s what- If you’re a Lao Tzu Daoist it does the same thing. It kind of brings the world into order but no one knows that you’re doing it. You’re kind of this dark figure that no one knows about and yet suddenly everyone feels natural and starts acting naturally. If you’re a Dao Ni Xiang, this other Daoist thinker, it seems to be a kind of power that relaxes people around you so they feel comfortable around you. It helps; it’s almost like a kind of spiritual therapy you have on other people when you can emanate this power of do. It’s a power that you get when you’re in the state of wu-wei.

Brett McKay: Interesting and what I found was curious is that all these different philosophers who were talking about how to achieve wu-wei, they all sort of came to rise during the same time period, which I guess is the Warring States period?

Slingerland: Mm-hmm

Brett McKay: Do historians have any idea why that is?

Slingerland: Well, the Warring, a lot of things happened during the Warring States period. This was really when Chinese philosophy starts. It’s the beginning of explicit philosophizing in China and it’s probably because it was a period of, first of all, expanding population and expanding literacy so you have a lot more people who are actually able to write thoughts down. I think primarily it was a period of chaos so it was a period where China was divided into these various states who are all fighting viciously with one another to try to obtain supremacy. Eventually one of them succeeding in swallowing up all the others and that became the Qin Dynasty, the fist unifier of China.

I think what was interesting is you have all these different states. They all have courts so the rulers of these various states had essentially think takes so they have these academies where they invite thinkers to come and give them advice about how to be successful. It’s not an academic issue because they’re in danger of being wiped out. It was really a time of creativity. You get a lot of schools where all the major indigenous schools of thought in China arise and they’re not just focused on wu-wei. There are actually a lot of thinkers who are opposed to wu-wei and think you need to use rationality or cognitive control to properly order a state. I think all of this is happening in this time period because it really is when the intellectual foundations of Chinese thought get laid.

Brett McKay: Interesting and what I thought was interesting about some of the differences between say, Western thought, so in Western philosophy the whole top down, rational approach won out.

Slingerland: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Brett McKay: In wu-wei it seemed it was relying more on what you call hot cognition, right?

Slingerland: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Brett McKay: That’s just like, not even having to think about what you are doing, and things will just work out but also the emphasis on community so I think in Western philosophy it’s very individualistic.

Slingerland: Yep.

Brett McKay: In Chinese or the wu-wei concept, community seemed to play a big role in it. Can you describe the roll community played in wu-wei.

Slingerland: Yeah, so first of all wu-wei does involve some cold cognition. Cognitive scientists talk about 2 systems sometimes. We’ve got the hot system, which is tacit, it’s mostly unconscious, it’s very fast, it’s frugal, it does most of what we do during the day. We also have this ability to switch into cold cognition so this is relatively slow, conscious, rational, calculating. There are 2 different modes in which we can engage in cognition. What you see is a tendency in Western, you know you can make these generalizations about the West and the East that are almost always inaccurate, but plausibly you could say the dominant models of ethics in the West, in the past few hundred years, have focused on what I’d call cold models. Ethics is about either following rules, or following maxims, or calculating utility so if you’re a utilitarian, calculating what the best pay-off is and then making yourself do it. They’re both cognitive control models so what you want to do, not what your hot systems wants to do, is not what you should do.

What you have to do as an ethicist or as an ethical person is engage in cold cognition, figure out what the right thing to do is and then force yourself to do it, force your hot cognition to do it. In this Chinese idea of wu-wei, they also are, most of them, not necessarily the Daoist but certainly the Confucians are suspicious of the kind of hot cognition we’re born with. They do think you have to cultivate yourself and use cold cognition but the difference is they think you’re going to reshape your hot cognition into the right form and so you’re basically, one way to look at it is your downloading insights you get through cold cognition onto your hot systems. That makes them much more reliable, and faster, and able to respond to the world in an effective way. It also allows you to integrate yourself in your community so the Confucian models certainly are very communal.

What’s involved in cultivating the right dispositions is learning how to fulfill your social roles properly, learning how to be an obedient child, learning how to be a caring parent, learning how to be a loyal minister and a large part of the training that’s happening is training you to fulfill the social roles properly. You do see analogs of this in the West. In Aristotle’s vision of how to train people it’s very much training you to be a good Athenian citizen, take your place in Athenian society so there are analogs in the West.

Brett McKay: Interesting. Here’s something, this cognitive wu-wei, is it similar to what, let me get this name right, Mehichinksintkmehi.

Slingerland: Csikszentmihalyi, yeah.

Brett McKay: Csikszentmihalyi, yeah, is his concept a flow? Is it very similar to that?

Slingerland: There are a lot of similarities. I read flow in grad school. I actually went to grad school with Csikszentmihalyi’s son, Mark, who’s a colleague of mine. He teaches at Berkley now; does the same kind of stuff I do. There are a lot of parallels. Phenomenologically, so in terms of the way it feels on the inside, it’s very similar. You lose a sense of time. You lose a sense of yourself as an agent. The difference is really how Csikszentmihalyi characterizes what distinguishes flow from other types of states. He’s very eager, and he’s right about this, to distinguish flow from states where you lose a sense of time and you lose a sense of yourself as an agent but you emerge feeling weakened, and dirty, and kind of mad at yourself so like sitting in front of a stupid TV show or playing a dumb video game. It has some of the features of flow but you don’t feel good, you don’t feel energized when you come out of it.

He says, “What’s different about flow states then?” What he decides is different is that they involve complexity and challenge. You get into flow when your abilities are perfectly calibrated to the situation. If it’s too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get frustrated. He thinks in flow, he sometimes talks about a flow channel where you’re, kind of your challenges are perfectly calibrated to your skill. What that also means is your skills are going to get better so you have to keep ramping up the challenges so if you’re a rock climber you’ve got to always be trying a hard face to climb or you’re going to get bored. I think this is an accurate description of certain aspects of certain instances of what we want to call flow or wu-wei. It’s certainly high performance sports, rock climbing, probably also a lot of things, maybe some things in the social world, some business challenges, kind of striking a good deal or winning a court case.

The interesting thing is that Csikszentmihalyi, when I originally read that book, there are a couple of examples that he gave that just didn’t seem to fit. Particularly the one that stood out was this woman who lives in the Italian Alps and she describes getting into flow every day when she gets up and goes to milk the cows. Then he gathers wool. Then she weeds her garden and these are the same steps she’s been doing her whole life. It’s what her ancestors have done. There’s nothing particularly complex or challenging about it. She knows how to do all this stuff and even Csikszentmihalyi’s own survey data, so he and his colleagues have since gone on to collect data from people about when they get into flow states, and it seems to be for most people in actual situations of low complexities and low challenge, so walking down a favorite path that you’ve walked down a hundred times, or hanging out with family and having a nice meal, or playing with kids.

The complexity challenge thing doesn’t really seem to capture those experiences. This is where I think wu-wei is more helpful because for the early Chinese, the distinguishing feature of wu-wei is that you’re embedded, you’re involved in something bigger than yourself so you’re absorbed in something that’s both bigger than you, so it’s outside of your narrow little ego, and it also is something that you value, that you think is a good thing and so people get into wu-wei when they’re walking in a beautiful landscape because they are absorbed by nature. This woman Csikszentmihalyi interviewed in the Italian Alps, the way she described it is, “I feel at one with nature. I feel connected to my ancestral traditions and that’s what gets me into this state.” I think, actually, the way in which the early Chinese characterized wu-wei is a broader and more accurate description of how people get into these states.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I love it. I think everyone has been in those states before and I think we all want to try to force us into that state, right, because we enjoy it. That’s what you talk about, the different Chinese philosophers, there are 4 of them you highlighted, and they had different approaches on how you can achieve wu-wei.

Slingerland: Yes.

Brett McKay: You mentioned Confucius, for example, and so the name of the book is Trying Not to Try. I guess the best way to describe Confucius’ approach is you try really hard in the beginning so you don’t have to try later on. Is that right?

Slingerland: Yeah, you basically, he thinks you need to try very hard to obtain wu-wei, so we’re nowhere near the state of wu-wei in our natural state but he thinks that if you train intensively over a lifetime, and it takes a long time, it’s going to take your whole life, but if you train in rituals, if you study the classics, and memorize the classics. One of the contributions I think I’ve made to the study of wu-wei is it always used to be associated with Daoism because the Daoist talk about wu-wei all the time. People don’t think of, typically, the Confucians as having wu-wei as a goal but they do. It’s just at the end of a long process of self-cultivation.

Confucius himself describes, he’s got this one passage that I call a spiritual autobiography, he says, “At age 15 I set my heart on learning. At 30 I took my place with ritual,” and he describes going through these different stages until finally at age 70 he says, “I could follow my hearts desires and never transgress the bounds.” He’s gotten to a point where he can do whatever he wants, whatever spontaneous thought comes into his head and yet he’s ritually perfect so he’s trained himself so he can finally be in this state of wu-wei. That’s what his goal is, is to get other people to undertake this training.

Brett McKay: You talk about ritual and the importance of ritual in Confucianism and how- What is the cognitive scientists have discovered about ritual and how it can actually help put us into a state of wu-wei or flow, whatever you want to call it?

Slingerland: Yeah, so one of the things we’re starting to realize that the early Chinese had these insights, what’s happening in cognitive science is in the last few decades there has been, you can think of it as a rediscovery or a re-uncovering the power of spontaneity so that our hot systems are actually very powerful. Most of what we do involves hot systems and scientists and psychologists have therefore, kind of stumbled on the importance of ritual. They said, “Well, if that’s the case, how do you get people to change their behavior? Well, it would be good if you gave them scripts to practice or things to do. Oh okay, I guess that’s called ritual,” so psychologists have kind of been getting back to this point just through trial and error and realizing the way human beings work in terms of our cognition.

I think this is a good example of how early philosophical traditions can be a great resource for us in the contemporary world because actually the Chinese have been thinking about how you would use rituals in training and these sorts of things to change people, and get them to act in a better way for 2500 hundred years. They and a lot of clever people have thought about this long and hard so there’s probably a lot to learn from the sorts of actual concrete techniques they came up with.

Brett McKay: Interesting and one of the critiques that even Confucianism had 2500 hundred years ago, or 22,000 years ago was that, you know, the goal is spontaneity but you’re putting, basically you’re faking it, right? Like you don’t actually have it but you’re playing a role and there’s this risk of being, I guess what Confucius called being the village poser.

Slingerland: Yeah, that’s my translation of this term Xiao Jing, which sometimes is done, village honest person or village worth. Confucius was very worried about this problem so you know you’re faking it until you’re making it. You’re going through the motions of, let’s say, being a filial child with the idea that that’s going to help you really experience this feeling, this spontaneous feeling, eventually of filiality. The danger is that you just learn the outside behavior and you don’t actually make it wu-wei, you don’t actually reach a state where you really internalizes it and made it spontaneous. He was worried about that and he was very worried about people pretending to be true Confucian gentlemen who actually had mastered it in this way. This then leads to the first real philosophical critique of Confucianism, which is that of Lao Tzu and the Dao Ni Xiang where Lao Tzu says you should be worried about this and in fact your techniques are inevitably going to produce nothing but a bunch of village posers.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and we’ll get to Lao Tzu in just a second but the other problem with Confucianism is there’s sort of a boot strap problem in that you have to like want to get into that Confucius approach to- You have to desire the Confucius approach to get going on it but if you don’t desire it, it’s like what do you do?

Slingerland: Yeah, how do you teach? He’s very frustrated because he thinks if you really love wu-wei, then you won’t have to worry about the village poser problem. You’ll love wu-wei. You’ll learn to embody it in a new way of fashion. He’s also frustrated because nobody loves wu-wei. Everyone loves, at one point he, a great line, he says, “You know I don’t have to teach you to love food and sex. How come I have to teach you to love wu-wei? Where can I find someone who really is passionate about it,” and this is the tension that he has. How do you cause someone to genuinely, sincerely love something they don’t already love and that’s the basic tension at the heart of the basic Confucian approach to wu-wei.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think you see that tension play out even today in people’s lives, like people want to be fit.

Slingerland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But they don’t love the way that you have to get fit.

Slingerland: They’ve got to learn to actually treasure it for the internal good. See, now you have to find-

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Slingerland: They’re like if you want to get fit, the best way to do it is to find something you actually like to do that, as a side product, would get you fit, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Slingerland: Like lay tennis or do something fun. It’s also a problem within learning. You have kids, you know my daughter’s in elementary school and fortunately she’s one of these people who are born loving to read. She just loves to read. We actually have to yell at her to stop reading sometimes when we want her to do something.

Brett McKay: What a problem.

Slingerland: Yeah, it’s a problem, but schools are really interested in getting kids to love learning and love reading but how do you get them to do it if they don’t really want to do it? Their solution is well, force them to read, make them read for 2 hours a day and it’s not clear that that’s actually productive. It could, in fact, be counterproductive.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that brings us to our next guy, Lao Tzu.

Slingerland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: He disagreed with Confucius and you bring in this concept of ironic effects, the modern cognitive behavioral concept.

Slingerland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Lao Tzu seemed to have insight into that, 2,000 years ago.

Slingerland: Yeah, so there’s a movement, the late Dan Wagner did a lot of work on that, and it’s ironic effects. You ask people not to think of a white bear and they think of a white bear. There was one great experiment he did. You have people putting, doing a golf put, and if you tell them, “Try to get it in the hole but whatever you do don’t overshoot the hole,” they overshoot the hole a lot more than if you don’t tell them that. You’re basically priming people with behavior you want them to not do and that causes them to not do it so he called this the ironic effects. Lao Tzu seemed to be aware of this so he was worried that, in the same way a contemporary say situation you force a kid to read for 2 hours a day and you think you’re doing it to get them to love reading but in fact it makes them hate reading because it’s a chore.

Lao Tzu thought if you forced people to act out virtue by doing these filial piety rituals and doing these rituals to show that you respected your colleagues it would actually make you a hypocrite and in fact make you, at some level, hate virtue and that the only real way- So he really thought inevitably because of something like this ironic effect, he actually had a term for it. This term Fon, which it means return or kind of turning back, but he thinks anything that’s pursued consciously turns into it’s opposite so if you try to be witty, you’re not going to be witty. If you try to be virtuous, you’re not going to be virtuous. Therefore, for the only way to actually really be witty or virtuous is to not try, to stop trying. His basic approach was, let’s stop doing everything. Stop doing all the stuff that Confucians tell you to do. Go back to being natural again and that’s how you’re going to get these things that you want.

Brett McKay: He was really advocating trying not to try?

Slingerland: Yeah, and he, but of course it’s the tension right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Slingerland: Nobody escapes. There’s a genuine- Part of the point of the book is that this tension of trying not to try is a real paradox and I actually explore from a cognitive scientific perspective why it is a paradox. Essentially you’re using your conscious part of the brain to shut down your conscious part of the brain. It’s a direct psychological paradox. You see all these thinkers struggling with the problem. Lao Tzu thinks the solution is to just stop trying, and embrace, if you can, really embrace weakness and not try to be strong, then in the end you’ll somehow be strong.

The problem he has is this, what I call the instrumental problem. If you know that then aren’t you really at some level valuing strength? Like, “Okay, I’m going to pretend,” I think a modern equivalent would be people who, you know a dating situation and they’re like, “Okay, well the way to get a date is to not try to get a date and so I’m going to go out and be at a bar but I’m going to act like I’m not interested in meeting anyone.” The problem is that people like that really look like they’re acting like they’re not trying to meet anyone. They don’t actually seem sincerely uninterested and so that’s the tension. How do you genuinely not want something?

Brett McKay: Yeah, what I thought was funny, you know I kind of chuckled when I was reading it, was how much parallel there is to what happened 2,000 years ago in China to what we see today. I think Lao Tzu and his followers, they sort of romanticized naturalness, right? They rejected technology. They’d go and farm with rudimentary tools and they were very hippie like.

Slingerland: Yep, yep they’re the first hippies.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and it’s the same sort of like tensions that you see in those different approaches then, you still see them now.

Slingerland: Yeah, well these 1960s hippies, back to the land, they’re like, “Let’s go. We’re going to be natural. We’re going to live in harmony with nature,” and yet it seems to be somehow in conflict with basic human desire. All of those, most of the communes that got founded in the 60s, very quickly broke down and most of those people who were following the Grateful Dead around now drive Beamers and are investment bankers, right? Lao Tzu, the tension he has, from my perspective, seems to be if he’s telling people they have to be natural, and yet if he has to work so hard to tell us to be natural, maybe what he’s telling us to do isn’t natural.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Slingerland: Why do we have to work so hard to be in harmony with nature?

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s that whole thing about technology isn’t natural but like we love to use technology.

Slingerland: We love technology, yeah.

Brett McKay: There must be something natural about it.

Slingerland: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: Okay, so there’s Lao Tzu. The other one, he seemed to take more of a, I guess, a middle approach?

Slingerland: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Brett McKay: It’s Mencius, is that how you pronounce it?

Slingerland: Mencius.

Brett McKay: Mencius.

Slingerland: Mencius, yeah, Mengzi in Chinese.

Brett McKay: Mengzi, okay, so he had this idea of we have these sprouts within us and there are 4 of them. Can you describe these sprouts and what we’re supposed to do with these to cultivate wu-wei?

Slingerland: Yeah, so in some ways you can see him responding to the Daoists’ critique of Confucianism being unnatural. The Daoists are saying, “We need to be natural. We can’t do these Confucian virtues.” What Mencius says is actually doing the Confucian virtues is what’s natural for us because we have those virtues inside of us. They’re in our nature in this incipient form or a kind of weak form and we need to develop them. His metaphor that he uses is a sprout. We have these 4 sprouts. We’ve got a sprout of benevolence or compassion. We’ve got a sprout of righteousness. We’ve got a sprout of ritual propriety, doing the ritually proper thing, and we have this sprout of wisdom. He thinks these are these tendencies.

If we introspect, if we look inside we can see that we have these in some kind of basic form already and they want to grow into the full virtues. This beginning feeling of passion really wants to turn into true benevolence and in order to do that we need Confucianism. We need the rituals. We need the classics. We need this type of training that we get from teachers but that training shouldn’t be seen as unnatural because it’s actually helping this thing inside of us to grow. He’s really trying to split the difference, if you want to look at it that way, between the Confucians and the Daoists. He still wants to be Confucian. He thinks he’s a follower of Confucius. His picture of what society is going to look like looks a lot like what Confucius wanted but he thinks it’s really tapping into these natural tendencies inside of us.

Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, he solves the boot strap problem that Confucius-

Slingerland: Yeah, yeah how do we get someone to love something they don’t love? Well, we do love it at some level and I’m, as a teacher, going to help you see that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, you talk about some of the stories where you’d help these like terrible kings realize, “You do have empathy, look.”

Slingerland: Yep, yep, yep, so yeah there’s the famous story is this really evil king. Mencius says, “You can be a true benevolent king,” and the king says, “No, I really just like to party and hang out with my concubines and oppress people. That’s what I’m going to do.” Mencius just tells him the story about where he heard that he spared this ox that was being led to slaughter and what he does is get him to introspect and realize that it’s kind of like the puppy in the window situation. The king saw this animal that was in terror and about to be killed and he felt compassion for it. He gets him to realize that he did feel compassion and that if he could just kind of almost meditate on that feeling, focus on it, and learn to strengthen it, that would allow him to turn into a truly benevolent king.

Brett McKay: The other thing too, you mentioned Mencius had this idea that you have these sprouts, you want to help them grow but you don’t want to try too hard.

Slingerland: Yep.

Brett McKay: You mentioned the parable of this farmer who saw the sprouts in his garden and he went and just pulled them out.

Slingerland: Yeah, trying to get them to grow faster.

Brett McKay: Trying to get them to grow faster, so it is Confucianism but not really hard core Confucianism.

Slingerland: Well, he doesn’t want you to force it. His target there is really these Utilitarians, so these people called the Mohists and the Mohists think that they’re not into wu-wei at all. They think what you can do is rationally figure out that behavior X results in the best consequences for everyone and so force yourself to do behavior X. In this view it’s impartial caring. They want you to act impartially toward all people. Their ideas, in a lot of ways, sound like some modern Utilitarians like Peter Singer, and they’re similarly rationalistic in the sense that they think we just have to rationally grasp this thing and then put it into practice.

Mencius’ critique of that is that it’s actually you’re forcing people to go so far against their nature that it’s just going to result in disaster so forcing people to act completely impartially and not favor their own kids over other people’s kids, or favor their own parents over other parents is so unnatural that it’s like pulling on sprouts to try to get them to grow in a direction you want them to grow. You’re actually going to kill the plant and it’s not going to work so it’s-

Brett McKay: Go ahead.

Slingerland: You need guidance but it needs to be gentle guidance, just in the way you can’t make a plant grow faster than it’s going to grow.

Brett McKay: How does his approach confirm what many cogniscientists are discovering to be true about how human motivation or human cognition works?

Slingerland: Yeah, so I talk about Mencius a lot when I’m talking to philosophers because I think his model actually has a lot going for it from a contemporary empirical standpoint. First of all, it’s becoming increasingly clear that moral cognition and especially moral behavior is driven by emotions. Mencius was right about this, that we have these 4 feelings, these sprouts that really are driving our behavior. He also seems to be right that they’re distinct. Philosophers often talk about morality as if it’s a unitary thing, Western philosophers. In Mencius’ model, what we could call morality is just a blanket term for these distinct moral emotions so empathy, and justice, you know a feeling of anger when people are being unjust.

The important thing to see is that these are really different types of feelings. They’re inspired by different situations. They have different behavioral outcomes. They have different phenomenological, on the inside, feeling to them and so Mencius seems to be right about that, that the way to look at it is morality is modular. It’s emotional, it’s based on our emotions and it’s modular so we have these distinct moral emotions that are very different from one another. Although they all, we call them all moral because they have to do with helping people get along with other people and society. He seems to have been very prescient in the sense that he thought morality was about cultivating embodied emotions.

Brett McKay: Interesting.

Slingerland: That’s a message that I think modern ethicists really need to get.

Brett McKay: Look, we talked about 3. There’s one last one. You’ve got to help me with his name because –

Slingerland: Yeah, Chuang Tzu.

Brett McKay: I was pronouncing it different in my head. What was his approach to wu-wei? It seemed like it was very similar to Lao Tzu’s approach too.

Slingerland: Yeah, there are similarities. Chuang Tzu is typically paired together with Lao Tzu and they’re called the Daoist school but that term’s a later invention. The Confucians actually saw themselves as Confucians, as followers of Confucius, as members of a school. They were fighting about who really got Confucius right but they all thought they were following Confucius. The Daoist weren’t following each other, as you would expect maybe of the Daoist. They were a little bit less organized. Chuang Tzu, he’s classed with Lao Tzu because he’s similarly worried about trying too hard so he does think the solution, as Lao Tzu does, is to try less, to go toward more the not trying part of the strategy, but his technique is a bit different. He doesn’t have any kind of concrete-

Lao Tzu’s got a very concrete vision of what a natural life should look like and he wants you to pursue that vision. Drop out of society, go live in a small village, use primitive technology, never leave your village, that’s going to make you natural. Chuang Tzu thinks actually having a concrete vision about what’s natural is part of the problem so I think he’d be as critical of Lao Tzu as he, and he is actually, as critical of these primitivists that are very much like Lao Tzu, as he is of the Confucians. He thinks the similar problem they all have is they’re sure they know what the right way to live is. He thinks, in fact, we don’t know what the right way to live is. That the only way we can live properly is to surrender, to make our mind empty, to make it tenuous, this is the Shu, this term he uses. If we can do that we’ve got a kind of onboard guidance system sent from heaven.

He believes the kind of sacred force in the world, heaven, has implanted this thing, called the spirit, inside of people and that normally we don’t listen to our spirit because we’re using our mind too much. We’re full of thoughts about we know what the right thing to do is or we have these maxims we’re trying to follow, or we’re trying to maximize utility. He thinks if we could stop trying and make our mind empty, this spirit would be able to take over and guide us in the proper direction.

Brett McKay: Interesting.

Slingerland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What I thought was really great, at the end of the book you wrapped this up and you made this connection to wu-wei or flow, we’ll call it wu-wei-

Slingerland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: That I never really thought about before, why we value it so much and it comes down to human trust.

Slingerland: Mm-hmm (affirmative) What is it about spontaneity that makes us more trustworthy? Yeah, so one of the things I’m trying to explain in that last section is why wu-wei and De should fit together. I said in the beginning, if you’re in a state of wu-wei you get this power, this charismatic virtue or charismatic power. The Chinese explanation is religious, it’s a theological explanation. They think the reason you have De when you’re in wu-wei is heaven gives it to you as a reward. When you’re in wu-wei you’re following heaven’s Dao, heaven’s way and so it gives you this power as a reward. What I’m wondering in the book is, from a modern perspective, we don’t share this metaphysics. We don’t believe there’s a heaven that’s giving us this power necessarily so what’s a naturalistic explanation of why these 2 things should fit together?

I think the answer has to do with problems of cooperation we have in large scale societies and civilization. When people are living in civilization, they’re having to cooperate all the time with people who aren’t related to them and who they don’t really know well personally necessarily. There are some really basic cooperation dilemmas that arise in situations like that. One of the things you need to be sure of to get coordination off the ground is that people, these people you’re interacting with are committed to the same values as you, that you can trust them. If we’re in an army unit together and we’re going to be sent over this ridge to attack the enemy, I’ve got to believe that you’re as gung-ho as I am and that when the sergeant says, “Charge,” you’re going to run just as fast as me. You’re not going to be like hanging a few paces back letting me take the first bullet. How can I be sure of that? I’ve got to trust you.

One of the things I do is review a bunch of literature coming out of social psychology and cognitive science suggesting that we trust people who are spontaneous. We trust people who are not kicking off signs of conscious effort and that seems to be because actually in order to lie, or cheat, or deceive people, you have to exercise cognitive control and so there’s something about somebody who is not trying. There’s something about someone who is in wu-wei that inspires trust in us because people who are not trying are usually honest. Whatever it is they’re doing or saying is probably true because they’re not kicking off signs of lying or trying to fake it.

Brett McKay: Really interesting stuff, this has all been great. We’ve covered a lot of different approaches to wu-wei. I’m curious, before we end the conversation, is there one thing that a person who’s listening to this podcast can start doing today to maybe cultivate a bit more wu-wei into their life? Or do you have a favorite approach?

Slingerland: Yeah, this is a tricky thing and the book was marketed as a self-help book and a lot of people got pissed off because there’s not- They thought there’d be a little pull-out section.

Brett McKay: Yeah, where was the bullet points at the end of the chapter?

Slingerland: The bullet points, no bullet points, there’s no one solution because it’s genuinely a paradox and if there were a solution it wouldn’t be a paradox. What I think is helpful, a kind of take away from the book, is first of all, just having a word for wu-wei is helpful. I find that people who know about this stuff who I’ve talked to about it, they start using it in their daily lives because we just don’t have a good word for it. One of the reasons we don’t have a good word for it is because we don’t tend to recognize the power of spontaneity in our everyday lives. I think we’ve really been trained that to reach our goals or to get what we want we just have to try harder. We’re not where we want to be, we’ll try harder, work harder, put effort into it. What we don’t see is when it comes to a lot of goals, so happiness, creativity, attractiveness, that’s completely counterproductive. That consciously pursuing it means we’re not going to get it.

Knowing about wu-wei, kind of recovering a sense of the power of spontaneity, I think helps us to see, to recognize in our lives situations where we’re trying and we shouldn’t be and actually what we need to do is stop. How we’re going to do that may vary. It may be that we need to do a kind of Chuang Tzien meditation where we just clear our mind before an important meeting, let’s say. We know that when we go to the meeting we have a tendency to talk too much and try too hard to impress the boss and we’ve got to stop doing that. How do we actually do that? Maybe it involves meditating, doing little mindfulness exercise before you go in. Maybe it involves actually going for an intense run beforehand and just tiring your body out so much that you’re not able to be too pushy.

The thing is that what the barriers to wu-wei are for any given individual really depends on the individual. I think that’s why there are these different strategies because which one is the right one is going to vary from individual to individual and it’s also going to vary from situation to situation. That’s where I think having this kind of grab bag of strategies, the early Chinese, I think, really explored all of the logical possibilities you could have and so you’ve got them there. You’ve got these different strategies and which one is going to be the best one is really something that you’re going to have to evaluate in your own life and based on what the challenges, the spontaneity are that you’re facing.

Brett McKay: All right, well Edward Slingerland, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Slingerland: Yeah, thanks a lot.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Edward Slingerland. He’s the author of the book, Trying Not to Try and you can find that on and bookstores everywhere.

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at and if you enjoy this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you would give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or whatever it is you use to listen to the podcast or just tell your friends about us. I’d really appreciate if you’d get the word about the podcast. I really appreciate your support and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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