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Customer Review

53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Yank Your Sprouts, March 19, 2014
This review is from: Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (Hardcover)
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I enjoyed `Trying Not To Try' a great deal for what it is, but found the blurb description somewhat misleading and the self-help category a less-than perfect fit. The book leans far more towards the philosophical than the practical. This is not some overly self-conscious, hands-on tutorial about applying meditative practices and self-analysis to sleep better and perform at maximum potential.

While there's nothing preventing such a takeaway, Slingerland's argument extends outward from the personal to the societal as he makes the case for the continued relevance of early Chinese thought - primarily that of Confucius and Lao-tzu - to the modern world and how ancient ideas rightly complement, and in many ways parallel, the latest developments in cognitive science.

I found the format very effective and cohesive: Several fairly long chapters open with an exposition of one or more Chinese schools of thought illustrated and contrasted by colorful tales and excerpts of ancient texts. Then, almost without realizing it, Slingerland effortlessly segues into some contemporary reference to a study or publication in cognitive science that confirms or elaborates on the earlier ideas.

I found it a much more pleasant reading experience than the alternate approach of more, shorter chapters expressly alternating Chinese Thought/Cognitive Science/Chinese Thought/etc.

The core of the book is the age-old dichotomy out of which both Confucianism and the ideas of Lao-tzu grew: Must human beings be trained to be virtuous or is it in their essential nature? Are conscious effort and striving to be virtuous admirable goals or are they in fact the source of individual (and by extension, societal) ills? This is the paradox expressed as "trying hard not to try" versus "not trying to `not try'".

It's a bit of a mental tongue-twister but fortunately Slingerland's prose is clear and very readable. In fact, the author's tone was initially a bit of a turn-off and a distraction: it felt so breezy and colloquial as though Slingerland was himself trying too hard to impress a college-aged audience with numerous references to dating rituals and partying. But as the depth of the author's understanding and compassion made itself clear, the offhand pop culture references served as an effective counterbalance to the otherwise existential ideas.

A philosophy professor of mine once suggested the best way to read the learned texts she assigned was to ease back on a comfortable coach, crack open a brew or bottle, and take it slow.

I'd suggest the same for `Trying Not to Try'. Slingerland is certainly learned about early Chinese thought but his prose is far from stuffy and obscure. But don't be fooled - there are some enormously relevant and profound ideas in this book, some more practical than others, but all worth exploring.
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