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Showing 1-10 of 43 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 93 reviews
on March 21, 2014
I carried a tattered copy of the Tao Te Ching in my backpack through college. The writings of the early Chinese philosophers now classified as Daoists fascinated me. Their idea of 'effortless action' intrigued me even more. What was this elusive Wu Wei the Daoists spoke of (and it's byproduct, de)? We've all had moments where we've been 'in the zone'. This may happen when we make a painting, play a sport, or get lost in conversation with close friends. Such moments suggest that the ancient Daoists were on to something.

It was difficult to find an accessible text on a subject as esoteric as Wu Wei. So when I read about Edward Slingerland's book on the subject, “Trying Not to Try”, I put it on pre-order. Slingerland's book lived up to my expectations. It proves its worth by delving into ancient Chinese philosophy. But it also draws bold connections to contemporary cognitive science and psychology. Despite the deep subject matter, it remains an accessible read. Cultural references to Star Wars, Jazz, sports, and hipsters keep things entertaining.

Slingerland's approach also breaks down the false division between science and the humanities. This expansive perspective makes me curious to read Slingerland's more academic work.

The key connection between Wu Wei and cognitive science lies in “Body thinking”. This semiautomatic behavior flows from the unconscious, with little or no conscious interference. The challenge is to get the mind to take a vacation so the body can do its thing.

This state coincides with what the Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow. This is when a subject is so absorbed in a challenging activity that she loses tracks of time and her sense of self. Flow has strong parallels to Wu Wei. But Slingerland points out the religious underpinnings that distinguish Wu Wei from flow. I'm glad that Slingerland makes the distinction. I'll leave it to his writing to explain further.

Those looking for clear, prescribed 'self help' instructions for achieving Wu Wei may come up short. But Slingerland explains why–because there is no 'one way'. Different things will work for different people at different times of their lives. And while there is no single method or technique, the ancient Chinese philosophers provide many paths. From Confucius (trying hard for a long time) to Zhuangzi (forget about trying at all), the ways to Wu Wei vary. Between the sage advice and contemporary research explored in this book, most of us can find our way, whatever that way may be.
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on October 27, 2014
In this book, Edward Slingerland combines his deep learning about the classics of Chinese culture with an appreciation of important work in contemporary psychology. Slingerland shows that the traditional Chinese concepts of wu-wei (not-doing) and de (virtue) found in the works of Confucius, Laozi, and others in the Warring States period accord with a growing appreciation of embodied psychology in contemporary thinking. He makes a convincing argument that the Chinese tradition identified issues that we’re still trying to sort out today.

Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Xunxi, and Zhuangzi, in other words, both the Daoist and the Confucian traditions, attempted to identify and cultivate spontaneity within individuals. We can identify spontaneity in a mundane task such as butchering an ox, as related in the famous story of Cook Deng told by Zhuangzi, but its greatest value arises in social interactions. The virtuous person (a person with de) is at ease with others, acting spontaneously, thereby putting those others at ease. Confucius argued that appropriate spontaneity arises through assiduous cultivation, while Laozi and Zhuangzi wrote in favor a more spontaneous spontaneity. (Mencius argued to split the difference.)

In recent Western psychology, such as in the work of Daniel Kahneman, psychologists have developed the concepts of System 1 and System 2 "thinking". System 1 is quick, spontaneous, and habitual, while System 2 is slower, more intense, and more energy demanding. We identify System 1 with the body and instinct, while System 2 is rational, calculating, and centered in the head. Slingerland argues that achieving true wu-wei that results in a realization of de comes from the melding of these two systems into a dynamic harmony. The Dao any anyone?

Slingerland fills the book with examples of the action-less doing of wu-wei (the “zone” or “flow” in sports, for instance) as well as examples from contemporary psychology and neuroscience. To my mind, perhaps the most common example for most is riding a bike: after learning through early, self-conscious effort, we finally let go and just do it. It comes “naturally”. Slingerland argues persuasively that our modern, Western individualism and attendant emphasis on conscious effort isn’t always the best way to accomplish an end. Sometimes we have to let go to reach obtain our goal. (Yes, there is a discussion of Luke Skywalker and his antecedents in Zhuangzi).

This is a thoughtful and delightful book, one that enlightened me a great deal about some of the classics of Chinese culture while using those ideas to elucidate the findings of an important area of contemporary psychological research. The quandary of spontaneity versus focused, planned action is indeed a familiar one, whether one is attempting to fall asleep (never can be forced), continue a shooting hot streak in basketball (often lost as soon as realized), or in writing a blog. Sometimes writing a blog seems effortless, sometimes forced, but it always needs both flowing inspiration and careful, rational editing. Slingerland’s book gives us ideas about how we might realize our de, our virtue, in new and productive ways—or simply perhaps via The Way.
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on March 11, 2016
This book lays out the essence of Eastern philosophical thought in very accessible language. The focus is on Warring States China, approximately 700-300 BCE. The author relates various philosophic principles to modern studies in psychology, social psychology, neurobiology and evolutionary biology. Applications include dating, politics, sports performance, music, family life, body language interpretation and many aspect of relationships. I expected learning about ancient Chinese philosophy might have the flavor of stilted academic lectures. Instead I found insights into why our political and social systems are so difficult to navigate. And there are philosophic, psychologic and physiologic bases for why you can't relax when the dentist says "relax,' or why thinking about a golf swing can ruin it or why preachers so often sound phony. Tension created by the paradox lurking deep inside each school of thought becomes the reason why finding answers to life's most basic questions is elusive.

Slingerland's gift to the reader is that he uses his ability to translate and interpret ancient Chinese in order to share the common threads of various philosophical schools of thought and make them relevant to today's major issues and challenges.

Slingerland's gift to the reader is that he uses his ability to translate and interpret ancient Chinese texts and then shares the common threads of various schools of thought (most of which evolved during the Warring States time period) and makes them relevant to the issues of today.
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on November 16, 2014
I took an online class from this author. His online lectures were a bit tedious but then who can sit in front of a video screen as opposed to a live class and make things super interesting? Russell Brand liked this book enough to get involved in the online class videos. The book reads better than listening to his lectures. I would recommend it for anyone that is into eastern philosophy or personal growth. Due to technical issues with the college's web site I was unable to finish the online class, but I'm glad I was introduced to the book in the process.
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on March 17, 2014
Anyone who reads TRYING NOT TO TRY will find it necessary to re-assess the oft-heard complaint that academic researchers usually fail to present their findings in a form that attract and holds the attention of ordinary readers. In this book the author uses a genial and beguiling prose style to explore some of the fruitful insights that occur when humanistic learning, in this case of an ancient age, is partnered with the results of on-going scientific inquiry into the workings of the human brain (the "embodied mind"). By the time I finished reading I felt that I encountered a refeshing new way of understanding "spontaneity" (the state in which we typically deliver our best efforts) in both its individual and social aspects, along with a deepned appreciation of the implications, for good or ill, of the rationalistic dualism that has characterized modern Western civilisation. Altogether, a remarkable achievement.
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on September 13, 2017
This, thoughtful, intellectually rich and interesting book starts with an explanation of mindball, a game where to win a player must relax to the point of not caring. This isn't just an entry point, but rather a physical representation of the paradox of virtue that is part of Slingerland's general thesis. In fact the book runs two parallel lines of argument that roughly correspond to the 'Art and Science' subheading. The 'art' narrative is concerned with a literary analysis of the key Chinese philosophical texts such as the Analects and Dao De Jing produced during the warring states period focusing on 'wu wei' or effortless action. The state of wu wei, confers 'de' or charismatic power on its possessor, and is, according to Slingerland essential to understanding these texts. There is a chapter devoted to each of the four major texts of the period. Slingerland's approach is focused on wu wei so while readers who want a wider sense of the texts may be disappointed, Slingerland's analysis is clear, readable and enlightening. A wonderful way to begin to engage with these texts.

The science element of the narrative seeks to find an evidence base for the claims made by each of the scholars who wrote these texts. Drawing on a range of disciplines but chiefly neuroscience and experimental psychology Slingerland is clear and readable, if less critical, here too. Drawing this together is Slingerland's general claim that the paradox of virtue or 'trying not to try' is pervasive problem wherever humans have chosen to live together in societies and that the thinkers of the warring states period in China offered some useful insights into the problem. This is popular scholarship at its best: an important idea, a weight of knowledge and careful analysis all dealt with, with a light but never patronising touch. Recommended.

There is a weight of scholarship behind Slingerland's breezy, readable style and there is a huge amount in his text to be admired. It's general thesis should be interesting to anyone with an interest in ideas, while the main body of the text provides a genuine insight into early Chinese thought. I would highly recommend it.
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on September 24, 2015
I loved this book. My first exposure to Slingerland was through his free online course on Edx and I felt he was an unusually gifted teacher. In this book, I got a chance to learn from his considerable experience and depth, a paradox about life itself that is at the heart of being human. He impressed me with the deftness at which he weaves ancient Chinese philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology in a down to earth, approachable writing style with humorous personal anecdotes that shows he has internalized his study. Great book
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on August 1, 2014
Because of the title this book might seem like one of those "I have the solution to your life!"books, that ends up being Shallow and Useless. Hence, I recommend you read this book for, although you may not find an immediate and quick solution to your life problems or the key to being succesful (if this is why it caught your eye in the first place), it will illuminate you in more ways than one and show you a glimpse of the long and historic path you tread.
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on April 6, 2015
Fascinating book on a likely dimension of Zen and Taoist practice as well as other religious practices that use altered consciousness. In fact, something like this is likely to be the main function of religion for humans - integrating all aspects of mind, conscious and unconscious. I think the author may overestimate his prowess in neurosciences, but makes really interesting points nonetheless. Books like this are helpful to those of us in my demographic, which has strayed so far from our roots by over thinking and over planning everything.
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on March 23, 2016
The book gives a very good overview of the ancient Chinese philosophy with some astonishing ideas which have some basis in the contemporary cognitive science. I highly recommend to combine the reading of this book with the online course on early Chinese thought given by edX and the author. Fascinating and mind-expanding!
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