March 22, 2014

Trying not to try by Edward Slingerland

Trying not to try by Edward Slingerland

[Wonderful and worth reading-n-rereading. I want to buy this book]

[As per the author, Zhuangzi is the most profound and beautiful book ever written. In terms of subtlety, insight into the human condition and sheer genius, there is no match in the world literature. Only Nietzsche comes close, although his intoxicating brilliance is ultimately overshadowed by a darkness and incipient insanity that contrasts unfavorably with the breezy, healthy optimism of Zhuangzi]

Mindball is a two person game controlled by players’ brain waves in which players compete to control a ball's movement across a table by becoming more relaxed and focused. Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm, which mean that you can win only if you don’t try to win.

In our culture, the benefits of not trying too hard - of going with the flow or being in the zone - has long been appreciated by artists. The Jazz great Charlie Parker is said to have advised aspiring musicians, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you”.

The goal of this book is to explore the many facets of spontaneity as well as the conundrum it presents: why it is so crucial to our well-being and yet so elusive. Looking at our lives through the early Chinese lens will require learning about two tightly linked concepts: the first is wu-wei (pronounced ooo-way and means ‘no trying or no doing) and the second is de (pronounced as duh and means, virtue, power or charismatic power).

The Chinese King asked wood carver named Qing, “what technique allows you to produce something that beautiful”? Qing replied, “I fast in order to still my mind. After 3 days of fasting, concerns about congratulations or praise, titles no longer trouble my mind. After five days, thoughts of blame or acclaim have also left my mind. Finally after fasting for seven days, I am so completely still that I forget I have four limbs and a body. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions disappear”.

“Now I set off for the mountain forest to observe, one by one, the Heavenly nature of trees. If I come across a tree of perfect shape and form, then I am able to see the completed bell stand (wood work) already in it: all I have to do is apply my hand to the job and it’s done. If a particular tree does not call to me, I simply move on. All that I am doing is allowing the Heavenly within me to match up with the Heavenly in the world - this is probably why people mistake my art for the work of the spirits”

Unlike Zhuangzian exemplars, however, who attain perfection only after long periods of training in particular skills, the Laozian sage attains wu-wei by not trying, by simply relaxing into some sort of pre existing harmony with nature:

Do not go out the door, and so understand the world
Do not look out the window, and understand the Way of Heaven
The farther you go, the less you know
This is why the sage understands the world without going abroad;
Achieves clarity without having to look’
And attains success without trying”

Confucius himself, in a passage that serves as a wonderfully concise spiritual autobiography, portrays wu-wei as the goal for which he has spent his entire life striving:
“The Master said, ‘At fifteen I set my mind upon learning; at thirty I took place in society; at forty I became free of doubts; at fifty I understand Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty my ear was attuned; and at seventy I could follow my heart’s desires without transgressing the bounds of propriety”.

Cognition control or executive control - that is a situation where the cold, conscious mind (system 2) has to step in and override automatic, effortless processes (system 1).

There is a story of drunken rider from the Zhuangzi, who drove home after a night of heavy drinking. A drunken man who falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, does not die. His bones are the same as other people; but he meets his accident in a different way. He is not conscious of riding in the cart; neither is he conscious of falling out of it. Ideas of life, death, fear and the like cannot penetrate his breast; and so he does not suffer from contact with objective existence”

Despite popular images of wise old Daoist recluses relaxing in the countryside, for attaining wu-wei, Confucius and his follower Xunzi were convinced that our inborn tendencies, if indulged, would lead to ugly consequences. In their minds, the only way to achieve a fulfilling life and social harmony was to reshape our nature in accordance with cultural ideals inherited from the past. Their aim was still wu-wei, but this was understood as a kind of artificial spontaneity, a cultural and educational achievement rather than the results of simply going with the flow.

“I once stood on my tiptoes to look into the distance, but this is not as good as the broad view obtained from climbing a hill. Climbing a hill and waving your arms does not make your arms any longer, but they can be seen from farther away; shouting downwind does not make your
voice any louder, but it can be heard more clearly; someone who borrows a carriage and horses does not improve the power of his feet. Someone who borrows a boat and paddle does not thereby become able to swim, but he can cross great rivers. "The gentleman by birth is not different from other men; he is just good at employing external things." Hsiin Tzu also remarked:

These external things’ are the various cultural practices passed down by the Zhou kings- the fruits of cold cognition inherited from the past. He wanted to emphasize that hot cognition needs to be restrained and then extensively reshaped by cold processes before it can be trusted.

To begin with, unlike Confucius, Laozi thought that less, rather than more, culture was the answer. Confucius saw human taste as something to be slowly refined over time, much as a connoisseur acquires an ever more subtle appreciation of increasingly complex wines. Lozi saw acquired tastes and cultural innovations as a source of disorder:

The five colors blind our eyes
The five notes deafen our ears;
The five flavors deaden our palate;
The chase and the hunt madden our hearts
The pursuit of goods hard to come by impedes our way forward
This is why the sage is for the belly and not for the eye
He casts off the one and takes up the other.

The belly is the seat of our basic desires, which in Laozi’s view are quite modest: some plain food to eat, water to drink, a roof over the head, maybe a little low-key fun in the sack, and basta. The eye on the other hand, is constantly getting us into trouble, because with our eyes we can see things that are far away, things that we don’t have but want as soon as we spot them. In the distance we can see other foods that look more delicious than ours, shiny objects that draw us closer, women and men who are younger and more attractive than our current partners.

In Laozi’s view, two of the main forces leading us away from wu-wei are the negative effect that thinking and verbalizing have on our ability to simply experience life, combined with the tendency of our desires to grow incessantly, becoming temporarily sated but then aroused again by some more desirable mirage in the distance. As he argues in one passage:

There is no crime greater than indulging your desires;
There is no disaster greater than not knowing contentment;
There is no calamity more serious than wanting to get ahead
If you can know the contentment of contentment, you will be forever content.

The highest Virtue (de) does not try to be virtuous and so really possess Virtue
the worst kind of Virtue never stops striving for Virtue, and so never achieves Virtue
The person of highest Virtue does not act (wu-wei) and does not reflect upon what he is doing
The person of highest benevolence act, but does not reflect
the person of highest righteousness acts, and is full of self consciousness
The person of highest ritual propriety acts and when people do not respond, rolls up his sleeves and forces them to respond

Hence when the Way was lost there arouse Virtue
‘When Virtue was lost there arouse benevolence
When benevolence was lost, there arose righteousness
When righteousness was lost there arose the Confucian rituals
Rituals is the wearing thing of loyalty and trust
And the beginning of disorder.

When we try to consciously forget something, we remember in more clearly; when we try to make ourselves sleep, it makes our insomnia worse. Trying to stop thinking of sex is the best way to think of sex. If you want to make someone overshoot when they are attempting a putt in gulf, tell them to try as hard as they can to not overshoot.  The famous tennis player John McEnroe, intuitively perceived the power of this technique. When faced with an opponent whose forehand for instance, was working smoothly and perfectly, McEnroe would supposedly compliment him on it as they changed sides: “Wow your forehand is really great today”. His opponent would then, of course, suddenly start botching easy shots in the next set.

Demanding nothing in return for his kindness,
the sage eventually obtains everything
The sage does not accumulate things
Yet the more he gives to others, the more he has himself
Having given to others, he is richer still

He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand form.
He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.
He who tries to shine dims his own light.
He who defines himself can’t know who he really is.
He who has power over others can’t empower himself.
He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go. ~Lao Tzu

He has no regard for himself and so is illustrious
He does not show himself, and so is bright
He does not brag, and so is given credit
He does not boast, and so his name endures

If you want to be in front of the people
You must, in your actions put yourself behind them
This is why the sage is able to take a superior position
But the people do not resent it
Able to take the lead without the people minding
It is why everyone in the world is happy to help him along
And never tires of it.
Because he does not contend with others
There is no one in the world who is able to contend with him.

[Laozi is the most translated book in the world after the bible and has had considerable impact on Western culture, esp. over the past few decades]

The goal of education should not be to teach people logic and self-control but rather to guide them in nurturing a set of positive, innate tendencies into full wu-ei dispositions.
Confucius says, ‘Unify your intentions, it is better to listen with your mind than to listen with your ears, but better still is to listen with your qi. The ears only record sounds, the mind can only analyze and categorize, but the qi is empty and receptive. If you make yourself empty, nothing e=less than the Way itself will appear to you. This emptiness is what I meant by the fasting of the Mind.

Alcohol a very effective means of temporarily paralyzing our cognitive control abilities, has also been shown to enhance various types of creativity. One study asked subjects to perform a Remote Associates test (RAT). In the RAT, subjects are given three apparently unrelated words 9say, peach, arm, and tar) and asked to come up with a fourth word that will connect them (in this case pit). Although the RAT is often used to probe ‘convergent’ thinking - which seems distinct from ‘divergent’ thinking and requires more cognitive control - it is become clear that when initial guesses are incorrect or subjects just can’t see the solution immediately. divergent thinking becomes crucial. In the study in question, the researchers found that subjects brought to a moderate level of inebriation - a blood alcohol of .075 - did better i=on the RAT than sober controls. Moreover, the inebriated subjects were more likely to attribute their success to sudden ‘insight’ rather than more plodding analytic strategies. Getting a bit drink seems to weaken cognitive control and enhances insight-based creativity.

If the conscious mind can be temporarily diverted, the unconscious mind is free to get on with its work.

In one study that has proven enormously useful to law enforcement agencies, researchers found that police officers could significantly improve their ability to detect false statement if suspects were asked to give their alibis in reverse order, starting with the most recent event and working their way back. This is not the way we normally tell stories, so being forced to do it increases cognitive load. Dishonest suspects, in turns out, are less effective liars if you handicap their conscious minds in this way.

There are others ways to achieve the same effect though. the police study aimed to reduce subject’s cognitive control ability by increasing the load - adding more weight, as it were. Alternately, you can keep the load constant but decreased cognitive control ability - weaken mental muscles - by suppressing cognitive control centers. One way to do this is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which involves applying a powerful magnetic force to the appropriate region of the skull.

It is therefore no accident that intoxication of various sorts are frequently employed by human beings as social lubricants. Alcohol, kava, cannabis, magic mushrooms, you name it: any intoxicant that people can get their hands on quickly comes to play a central role in social occasions, both formal and informal.

Not only is getting drunk pleasant, it also typically causes people to get along more freely and easily. Intoxication enhances cooperation in at least two ways. First of all, it reduces social faking by inhibiting cognitive control centers. Second, if we all get drunk together, we create a situation of mutual vulnerability that makes trust easier to establish.

In ancient China, no major treaty was signed without first bringing everyone together in an extended alcohol soaked banquet. In fact, this is one feature of Chinese culture that has not changed a bit in over forty thousand years. Any modern business person hoping to ink a deal with Chinese partners had better get his or her liver in shape first.

A large experimental literature has shows that when you exert mental effort, the pupils of your eyes become slightly dilated. This is probably why we try to look into the eyes of people we are not sure we trust, and why untrustworthy people avoid eye contact.

Confucius advises that when judging the character of someone, you should pay attention to their eyes, their offhand remarks, their subtle body language, esp. when they ink that no one else is around. If you do that, he says, how can a person’s true character hide?

Zhuangzi  shares with our other thinkers a conviction that we-wei leads to de, although the power of Zhuangzi de lies not so much in attracting others as in relaxing them. One story tells a man who is training fighting roosters for a king. After ten days of training, the king asks if they are ready.

"Not ready yet," said the trainer. Two weeks later he saw that his rooster barely raised his neck feathers and wings.

"Not ready yet," said the trainer. Another week passed. His rooster looked as tame and docile as a chick.

"You've ruined my fine fighting bird!" screamed the man at the trainer.

"Not at all," the trainer replied, "See how calm and secure he is, how serenely strong he stands today. The other fighting birds take one look at him and they all run away!"

De is the attractive vibe - a combination of body language, micro emotions, tone of voice, general appearance,- kicked off by people who are honest, sincere, self-confident, and relaxed. It is attractive because it is a relatively hard-to-fake signal of a trustworthy cooperator, and the logic of civilized life makes us very keen to distinguish reliable cooperators from unreliable defectors. And the best time to look for these signals of reliability is when everyone’s guard is down: when we’re dancing, singing, drinking and playing.

When it comes to things like dating, or job interviewing, or any situation where the impression you make is important, it is probably best to embrace the uncarved block. If you can follow Laozi’s advice and refrain from trying too hard, it’s almost inevitably going to go better for you. Fire won’t burn you, wild beasts won’t attack you and you may get a second date. Musician Jonathan Richman, who possess considerably more insight into the human heart than Doc Love, he addresses obnoxious ‘bellbottom bummers’ stylish, shallow men who try hard to pick up women but end up getting rudely blown off. He urges these hipsters to remember the example of Pablo Picasso who exerted an effortless, yet magnetic pull on women. When he strolled through town or walked into a cafe, ‘girls could not resist his stare / Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole”

Simply memorizing the classics (or books) does not make one a true gentleman or lady - you need to incorporate this knowledge, make it part of your embedded being. This is what early Chinese training focused on. The goal was to produce a kind of flexible know-how, exemplified in effective engagement with the world. Education should be holistic, and oriented toward action.

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