Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity


teaching-kids-mindfulnessAnyone who has struggled with insomnia knows that the harder you try to sleep the more likely you are to stay awake all night. There have been stories of folks falling asleep in the chairs outside the emergency room of a hospital because it is there that they must do the opposite — stay awake – in order to articulate the severity of their insomnia. Trying too hard can surely backfire with sports, public speaking, any type of performance, dating, and just about everything at which you want to succeed.

Resolving the paradox of trying not to try, or securing relaxation in order to succeed, has engaged great thinkers throughout history. Some of the most influential lived in China from the fifth to third century B.C.E., hailing from the so-called Confucian and Daoist schools. So crucial was this concept that they all built their religious systems around the virtues of spontaneity and believed that overall success in life came as a byproduct of being at ease and the effectiveness that a person achieves when fully absorbed in an activity.

Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia explores the many facets of spontaneity and why it is so crucial to our wellbeing in his new book, “Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Chinese Art and Modern Science of Spontaneity.” He writes:

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of subconscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our live where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.

Slingerland introduces two concepts that are weaved throughout Chinese thought: wu-wei, which translates literally as “no trying” or “no doing” (meaning “effortless action” or “spontaneous action”); and de, which means “virtue” or “charismatic power.” There are, however, different routes to them. Confucius believes that we achieve a state of wu-wei and get de through hard work, diligence and learning, by a process of self-cultivation that is grueling. Laozi, on the other hand, advises a person to “undo” or gradually unwind the mind and body, relaxing into a state of unselfconsciousness. Laozi’s happy place most likely resembles the “runner’s high,” what neuroscientists explain as the downregulation of the cognitive control regions in the prefrontal cortex that occurs during intense physical exercise.

I am intrigued by the concepts of wu-wei and de because my problem has always been trying too hard, forcing an outcome prematurely, ripping open the caterpillar’s chrysalis before the butterfly’s wings have developed . Ironically, the day “Trying Not to Try” arrived on my doorstep I had just sent my psychiatrist and therapist a new recovery program I designed to ensure I was doing absolutely everything I could to relieve myself of a stubborn depression that is really comfy inside my head. My plan, which I implemented last week, includes:

  • mindfulness-based stress reduction course/weekly (plus weekend retreat)
  • 45 minutes meditation/daily
  • sunbox light lamp 60 minutes/daily
  • prayer 15 minutes/daily (plus Sunday mass)
  • gratitude journal/daily
  • mood and sleep journal/daily
  • swim 200 laps/4 x week
  • run 6 miles/1 or 2 x week
  • yoga for 90 minutes/2 x week
  • meaningful work/20 hours week
  • green diet: based on leafy greens every meal, green smoothies, flax seed, fruit
  • no sugar, white flour, processed food
  • no dairy
  • reduced meat; heavy on lentils, beans
  • no caffeine
  • no alcohol
  • good sleep hygiene
  • psychotherapy/weekly or biweekly
  • psychiatric visit/monthly
  • medications and lab work

This might be a case where I am trying too hard. I just plugged in every effective tool I came across in my research for treating depression. But, as Slingerland explains, the mind-body-spirit doesn’t always respond to a calculation of efforts. One plus one doesn’t always equal two. He writes:

Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder. In a world increasingly dominated by cram schools, treadmills (literal or otherwise), 24/7 connectivity, and punishing amounts of stress, seeing the world in terms of the power and grace of spontaneity can help us to make better sense of our work, our goals, and our relationships.

I suppose a little wu-wei and de should be added to my list.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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1 Response
  1. Therese, I’ve found having a plan is valuable if it is doable. If not doable for you, it is self-defeating and produces more anxiety and depression. I like the outlines of your plan. I know writing things down helps me to stay accountable. Also, including others in on the plan helps with accountability as well. Knowing that it’s ok to be flexible rather than rigid helps with the feelings of failure when things do not happen exactly as planned. I’m one to think the plans in my head but don’t share so the plan gets waylaid during bad days and then I feel worse. As with anything, balance is the key. Why is it so difficult for those of us with a mood disorder to stay in balance??