Trying Not to Try - by Edward Slingerland

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious 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 life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.


Wu-wei literally translates as "no trying" or "no doing," but it's not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like "effortless action" or "spontaneous action." Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures. In many respects, it resembles the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's well-known concept of "flow," or the idea of being in the zone, but with important--and revealing--differences that we will explore. People who are in wu-wei have de, typically translated as "virtue," "power," or "charismatic power." De is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei. De comes in handy in a variety of ways. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don't have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them. On a smaller scale, de allows a person to engage in one-on-one interactions in a perfectly efficacious way. If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are relaxed around you. Even wild animals leave you alone. The payoff provided by de is one of the reasons that wu-wei is so desirable, and why early Chinese thinkers spent so much time figuring out how to get it.

Another important piece in the spontaneity puzzle comes from evolutionary psychology, which gives us insight into why wu-wei is so pleasant for the individual and attractive to others. Things tend to give pleasure when evolution approves of them: think orgasms or chocolate. It feels good to be in wu-wei because a whole slew of tasks simply can't be performed by our plodding, conscious minds--we need to unleash the power of our fast, unconscious processes in order to get them done. Moreover, we are attracted to people in wu-wei because we trust the automatic, unconscious mind. We have a very strong intuition--increasingly confirmed by work in cognitive science--that the conscious, verbal mind is often a sneaky, conniving liar, whereas spontaneous, unselfconscious gestures are reliable indicators of what's really going on inside another person. So although early Chinese thinkers had all sorts of metaphysical theories about how and why de is attractive to others, it can probably be explained by this very simple psychological fact: spontaneous behavior is hard to fake, which means that spontaneous, unselfconscious people are unlikely to be fakers. We're also attracted to effectiveness, and people in wu-wei tend to be socially competent as they move through life. Taken together, these considerations give us an empirically grounded, scientific basis for taking both wu-wei and de seriously as concepts that can help us make sense of our own lives.

Over the past few decades cognitive science has begun to free itself from the conceptual shackles of dualism and to treat human thought as fundamentally "embodied." What this means is that our thinking is grounded in concrete experiences and that even what seem like quite abstract concepts are linked to our bodily experience through analogy and metaphor. The embodied view of cognition also views thought as inherently tied to feeling, which calls into question any rigid distinction between rationality and emotion. Moreover, cognitive scientists are beginning to emphasize the fact that the human brain is designed primarily for guiding action, not for representing abstract information--although it can also do this when necessary.

While recent Western thought has emphasized the importance of abstract, representational knowledge--that is, information about the world, like the fact that Rome is the capital of Italy or that e = mc2--early Chinese thought instead emphasized what we could call know-how: the practical, tacit, and often unformulizable ability to do something well.

We are not autonomous, self-sufficient, purely rational individuals but emotional pack animals, intimately dependent on other human beings at every stage of our lives. We get along, not because we're good at calculating costs and benefits, but because we are emotionally bound to our immediate family and friends and have been trained to adopt a set of values that allows us to cooperate spontaneously with others in our society. These shared values are the glue that holds together large-scale human groups, and a key feature of these values is that they need to be embraced sincerely and spontaneously--in an wu-wei fashion--to do their job.


First, wu-wei is characterized by an internal sense of effortlessness and unselfconsciousness, even though the person in wu-wei may actually be very active in the world. Someone or something else must be doing the work besides the conscious mind that we normally think of as "us." Second, people in wu-wei are extremely effective: huge oxen fall apart with a few swipes of the blade, and complex social situations are negotiated with masterly aplomb.

There is now general agreement that human thought is characterized by two distinct systems that have very different characteristics. The first and most important of these (tacit, hot cognition, or "System 1") is fast, automatic, effortless, and mostly unconscious, corresponding roughly to what we think of as "the body" and what Zhuangzi calls the "Heavenly mechanism." The second (explicit, cold cognition, or "System 2") is slow, deliberate, effortful, and conscious, corresponding roughly to our "mind"--that is, our conscious, verbal selves. Another way to think about how the systems differ is that hot cognition is evolutionarily older and more rigid, while cold cognition is evolutionarily newer and more flexible--and therefore more likely to adapt to novel behavioral consequences. The goal of wu-wei is to get these two selves working together smoothly and effectively. For a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful; the two systems--hot and cold, fast and slow--are completely integrated. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment.

At least some forms of wu-wei appear to involve shutting down active conscious awareness and control while maintaining background situational alertness. When your conscious mind lets go, the body can take over.

The Social and Spiritual Dimensions of Wu-wei

The complexity and challenge of writing a book can induce wu-wei only if they are encountered in the service of something bigger, such as an idea that I really care about and want to share with others. It is this focus on caring--on getting beyond the self--that, in turn, allows us to connect wu-wei states characterized by high complexity and challenge to their infinitely more common relatives: very routine, thoroughly familiar, low-complexity activities that allow us to be fully absorbed in something that we love and value and that we see as being larger than our individual selves.

I would suggest that the distinguishing feature of wu-wei is the absorption of the self into something greater. That is, whether we emerge from a state of effortlessness and unselfconsciousness feeling energized or enervated probably depends, at least in part, on our values: How does the activity in which we just engaged reflect our larger sense of who we are and what we hold dear?

Interestingly, if you were to keep track of the activities that induce wu-wei in me or anyone else, you'd be able to piece together a rough outline of what sorts of things a person values or doesn't. You'd also be able to tell whom they value, and whom they don't, and this is perhaps of even greater importance. Crucially, wu-wei can occur in group activities only when we genuinely value the social relationships involved. We can effortlessly engage with others only when we care about, and feel relaxed with, the people we are with.


Confucius/XunziConfucianismThe Analects, the Xunzi"Carving and polishing"; try really hard for a really long time
LaoziDaoismThe Laozi or Daodejing"Uncarved block"; stop trying immediately, go home
MenciusConfucianismThe Mencius"Cultivate the sprouts"; try, but don't force it
ZhuangziDaoismThe Zhuangzi"Let go"; try to forget all about trying or not trying, just go with the flow


The terms Confucianism and Daoism are a bit anachronistic but helpful in that they pick out two very broad strategies for cultivating wu-wei: trying (education, cultural training) and not trying (de-cultivation, forgetting).

Carving and Polishing the Self (Confucius/Xunzi)

Despite their endorsement of spontaneity as an ultimate end goal, Confucius and Xunzi emphasized cold cognition, on both an individual and a cultural level. For individuals, they stressed the importance of exerting willpower, consciously reflecting on one's behavior, and repressing hot cognition when appropriate--which, in the early stages of training, is almost always.

Our ability to rely on what we might call personal cold cognition (individuals using their cognitive control regions) and borrowed cold cognition (the fruit of many of these conscious acts embedded in our cultural traditions) means that, unlike almost every other species on the planet, we are not prisoners of our unconscious. Conscious control is crucial for civilized human life. You could never get large numbers of people to live and work together without employing it on a large scale. But this sort of control is physiologically expensive, fundamentally limited in nature, and easily disrupted. Cultural information rides for free in people's memories and in the physical environment around us (marks on paper, tools), but our ability to actually use that information is constrained by the choke point of our limited-capacity consciousness. One of the great strengths of Confucianism--and what differentiates it from recent Western thought--is how it draws upon wu-wei to get around this particular problem. As with large wild animals and rivers, the answer lies in domestication: channeling the flood waters, or taming the wild animals. One of the great facilitators of human civilization is the ability of human beings to consciously shape the behavior of plants, animals, and rivers to better accord with our needs. In the same way, the conscious mind can acquire new, desirable goals and then download them onto the unconscious self, where they can then be turned into habits and implemented without the need for constant monitoring. Effortful, conscious action can be transformed into wu-wei.

The mind has the power to comprehend the Way, but this is not enough. One needs to get beyond merely understanding the Way and live it, in a fully embodied manner. Cold cognition must be made hot. The Confucians tried to accomplish this by intensively training people's embodied minds until consciously learned processes could be performed in an wu-wei fashion, like operating a clutch or tying your shoes.

Embracing the Uncarved Block (Laozi)

Unlike Confucius, Laozi thought that less, rather than more, culture was the answer. For Laozi, human nature is fundamentally good, and our innate dispositions are the ones we need to follow. Of all the thinkers in early China, Laozi uses the term wu-wei in a sense closest to its literal meaning of "no doing." In his mind, the energy driving the pernicious cycle of reversion is desire--another parallel to Buddhism. Desire, in turn, is created and strengthened by the two activities so fundamental to the Confucian pursuit of wu-wei: cultural knowledge and active striving. Cultured tastes and artificial needs, he argues, distort our natural enjoyment of the world, and we can counter this by keeping our food simple and our physical desires modest. The more insidious danger, though, is the Confucian goal of training people to be virtuous. For Laozi, trying not to try is not only self-defeating but the source of all human suffering.

To attain Laozian wu-wei, you need to undo rather than do, gradually unwinding your mind and body, shedding book learning and artificial desires. The goal is to relax into a state of perfect nondoing (wu-wei) and unselfconsciousness, like settling into a nice warm bath. When Laozi speaks of returning to the "mind of an infant," this is, from a scientific perspective, more than just a metaphor. Laozian meditation aims to disable precisely the regions of the mind that are developed, or overdeveloped, in adulthood, allowing our more basic and ancient systems to take over. The result is an easy oneness with things, a state of going along with whatever presents itself, with no expectations and no calculation. Such perfect relaxation brings with it incredible efficacy in the world as well as social success, as we would expect from the connection between wu-wei and de.

Cultivating the Moral Sprouts (Mencius)

Mencius was adamant that if moral goodness was your goal, you needed to give people a step-by-step, attainable path to reach it. We do indeed need to foster morality, but any viable model of moral education has to be grounded in embodied spontaneity. When it comes to being moral, you need to try, but not too hard, and in a way that does not go against your natural tendencies.

The Mencian view that morality is about emotion-driven, wu-wei behavior is becoming the dominant view among psychologists. The conscious mind, ungrounded by the wisdom of the body, is remarkably incapable of taking care of business. Damasio labels as "Descartes' error" the idea that morality, or any human behavior, can be guided solely by disembodied reason. Morality in the real world has to be spontaneous, unself-conscious, automatic, and hot. Coming to some rational conclusion about the right way to act, and then trying to force your body to comply, simply doesn't work. It's not effective at the individual level, and it's not sustainable on the social level. Realistic moral behavior has to spring from the spontaneous, embodied mind--from wu-wei.

The Mohists, like their modern utilitarian cousins, think that good behavior is the result of digital thinking. Your disembodied mind reduces the goods in the world to numerical values, does the math, and then imposes the results onto the body, which itself contributes nothing to the process. Mencius, on the contrary, is arguing that changing your behavior is an analog process: education needs to be holistic, drawing upon your embodied experience, your emotions and perceptions, and employing imagistic reflection and extension as its main tools.

Going with the Flow (Zhuangzi)

The way off the hamster wheel, according to Zhuangzi, is to stop trying harder, learning more, and laboriously cultivating the self. We need to learn to let go. Once we can do this, we will be truly open to the world and to other people, and wu-wei will come to us naturally.

More than anyone else in Warring States thought, Zhuangzi perceived the limits of conscious thought and celebrated instead the unique powers of the embodied mind. Hot systems are good at making cognitive leaps. If the conscious mind can be temporarily diverted, the unconscious mind is free to get on with its work.

The Zhuangzian wu-wei is a state of perfect equanimity, flexibility, and responsiveness. Unlike the rigid conscious mind, it can "determine right and wrong" because it doesn't pre-determine it. Being in wu-wei is sometimes compared to being like a pivot or a hinge--the still point at the center from which one can respond to every change, every eventuality. At the end of the day, the Zhuangzi is a text about individual wu-wei, about how you, as a person, can learn to move through the world in a free and easy way. On the surface, you might look like everyone else--going to your job as a butcher, or headed door to door to collect taxes--but on the inside you are quite different because you are now guided by your embodied, hot cognition, not your conscious mind. At one point this ideal is described as being "human on the outside, Heavenly on the inside." It resembles in certain respects the New Testament ideal expressed in John 17, "being in the world but not of it."


We are being urged to get into a state that, by its very nature, seems unattainable through conscious striving. This is the paradox of wu-wei--the problem of how you can try not to try.

The transition to "civilization"--from the Latin civitas, or city-state--was managed not by consciously suppressing our tribal emotions but by using cold cognition to extend or redirect instincts through a process of emotional education. We become violently aggressive if someone injures us or one of our relatives; cultural and religious inculcation can train us to react the same way when "our nation"--a group of unrelated strangers I'll probably never meet in person--comes under attack. According to this view, the key to getting lots of strangers to work together is not to create an endless stream of new laws or institutions but to create a set of shared values. Laws are something you merely obey. Values are something you feel. Once internalized, values function just like other forms of hot cognition--fast, automatic, unconscious, wu-wei. Looked at this way, we can begin to see how the paradox of wu-wei emerges as a kind of natural consequence of our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and city dwellers.

On a less formal level, this is no doubt why intoxicants are a universal feature of all sorts of human social gatherings, from casual cocktail parties to fraternity mixers. Not only is getting drunk pleasant, it also typically causes people to get along more freely and easily (at least to a certain point, after which the drunken fights break out). 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. Getting drunk is essentially an act of mental disarmament. In the same way that shaking right hands with someone assures them that you're not holding a weapon, downing a few tequila shots is like checking your prefrontal cortex at the door. See? No cognitive control. You can trust me.

The connection between wu-wei and de makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. De is the attractive vibe--a combination of body language, microemotions, tone of voice, general appearance--kicked off by people who are honest, sincere, self-confident, and relaxed. It's attractive because it's 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. A key feature of wu-wei is the sense of being absorbed into a larger, valued whole, whether that involves the joys of being with a particular group of friends gathered around a particular kitchen table, or with a certain congregation, or surrounded by the beauty of a particular landscape. The lack of wu-wei--and consequent lack of de--therefore serves as a reliable indicator that I don't care, I do not feel myself effortlessly absorbed into our conversation or our religious ceremony.

The paradox exists because the kinds of virtues that people care about and value in others center on who you are, not necessarily what you do. They are about stable, inner states, not just outward behavior. They are about values, not merely actions, because it's commitment to shared values that allows large-scale societies to function. So it's not enough to perform generous actions, you need to become a generous person. This is an enormously difficult trick to pull off, which is why true wu-wei is both inherently hard to reach and such a great signal of trustworthiness once we've managed to get there. We're attracted to genuinely wu-wei people--they have de--because evolution has shaped us to home in on signals of sincerity that are difficult to consciously simulate and even harder to experience on demand, and to do so in response to basic challenges inherent to human cooperation.


Those with conservative personalities--who are often, though not always, politically conservative as well--generally take a dim view of human nature and emphasize the importance of tradition, authority, and discipline. Liberals tend to have a sunnier view of human nature and therefore place more stock in individual autonomy, creativity, and flexibility. Looked at this way, the swings between Confucian and Daoist strategies for attaining wu-wei could be seen as an alternation between conservative and liberal responses, with Mencius trying to take a moderate view. The same could be said of the "gradual" versus "sudden" debate in Zen Buddhism.

Different phases of life might call for different strategies. Carving and polishing might be more appropriate earlier in life, or when you are just learning something new. There is good evidence that, when it comes to skill acquisition, conscious attention to technique and explicit feedback is actually very helpful. It's only when you reach the expert stage that cold cognition begins to disrupt your performance. The same may be true of morality. A deeply ingrained moral disposition could become too rigid as you age, in which case you might need to shift to the sprout or letting-go approach.

The scholars of Confucianism Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr. have long held that the role-centered, tradition-bound, communitarian model of the self that we find in Confucianism could serve as an important corrective to the excessive individualism, alienation, and materialism that characterize modern Western societies.

Work in cognitive psychology suggests that submerging people in a particular cultural tradition also helps them learn to love something they do not already love. Simply exposing someone repeatedly to a new stimulus--a font style, song, painting--causes them, over time, to develop a liking for it. Familiarity breeds love, not contempt. It also makes us more likely to believe in it (for better or worse). This has immediate, practical implications for how you go about arranging your daily life. If you can set up your home and workplace, to the extent you have control over it, to reflect your tastes and values, the things that make you feel good and at home, you're going to be better off. You'll have more wu-wei and more de. Environmental reminders of your larger framework of values will reinforce your commitment, and in the process foster absorption, relaxation, and confidence. You can imagine other situations, too, in which the carving-and-polishing strategy might work best. The basic idea is simple. You choose a desirable model, then reshape your hot cognition to fit by immersing yourself in reminders and environmental cues.

There are times, though, when cultural training devolves into empty posturing or when intensive effort turns into counterproductive drudgery. That's when we might need to follow Laozi's "do nothing" strategy. When one is stymied by a problem, simply leaving it alone and doing something else is often the best way to solve it. Doing nothing allows your unconscious to take over, and, as we've seen, the unconscious is often better at solving certain types of particularly complex problems. The conscious mind has limited capacity, and often the best thing to do when you run into difficulty is shut it down for a while and let the body take over. When you are faced with a difficult management decision or an intractable technical problem, the best approach may be just to walk away. Sleep in, take a walk, go weed your garden. Trying too hard also tends to backfire in social situations. When it comes to things like dating, or job interviewing, or any situation where the impression you make is important, it's probably best to embrace the uncarved block.

Just as food or wine connoisseurship draws upon innate tastes but refines and extends them, morality and happiness may be amenable to gentle cultivation. We've all experienced moments of insight during conversations with spouses, close friends, or therapists. Just as the four limbs of the body are strengthened by exercise, so are the four sprouts of proper wu-wei behavior nourished by the imaginative workout provided by literature. Various types of guided meditation (loving-kindness) might help develop sprout-grounded wu-wei. It is possible that structured, formalized practices other than meditation could support the growth of our moral sprouts. Happiness researchers have found that individuals asked to perform random acts of kindness one day a week reported overall increases in reported happiness and that simple acts of generosity, such as giving away $5, can increase subjective feelings of happiness. Similarly, although forcing oneself to perform a compassionate act does not immediately make one compassionate, it's likely that, say, volunteering in a soup kitchen regularly might over time strengthen one's "sprout of empathy," especially if the work is accompanied by imaginative reflection. Related work by the psychologist Robert Emmons and colleagues suggests that keeping a gratitude journal--which forces one to reflect upon the positive aspects of one's life--improves physical and mental health and leads to increased compassion for others.

Nonetheless, there are certainly other times when analysis and introspection are decidedly counterproductive. We've seen that focusing conscious awareness on the mechanics of one's performance, while useful in very early stages of skill acquisition, has a disruptive effect on more experienced players or performers. Similarly, regardless of level of expertise, focusing on the environment and effects one wishes to have upon it ("external focus") is more effective than focusing on one's own bodily movements or internal states ("internal focus"). For instance, swimmers told to focus on pushing the water back (external focus) as opposed to pulling their hands backwards (internal focus) swim faster, and this effect has been shown in a large variety of domains. It's in these situations--when the pressure is on and the stakes are high--that Zhuangzi's letting-go strategy really shines. In social situations, having an "external focus" would mean turning your attention to the personalities, conversations, and body language around you, rather than focusing on yourself. Actually caring about the conversation instead of reflecting on whether you can contribute to it or consciously monitoring how people are reacting to you is what's really important. The key is to go with the flow and be moved by the environment rather than trying to control it. Meditation might help you enter this state; a vigorous bout of exercise or a shot of vodka might do the same. What works best for you probably has to be worked out through trial and error.

Alcohol and other intoxicants can function as a chemical short-cut to wu-wei, forcibly downregulating our conscious control regions. The artificial, temporary suppression of our conscious mind given to us by intoxicants may, in some situations, be precisely the little jump start that we need to push through the paradox of wu-wei in social situations. Interpersonal anxiety or awkwardness--an inability to enter wu-wei around other people--is typically overcome by shifting attention from yourself, allowing you to get caught up in the flow of the conversation or performance. It's the first step that's the hardest, although if you can somehow begin to relax, the relaxation will build upon itself in a positive loop.

Scientists have, in recent decades, begun moving away from abstract models of human cognition toward more embodied ones. They're coming to recognize that the sort of knowledge that we rely on most heavily is hot, emotionally grounded "knowing how" rather than cold, dispassionate "knowing that." We're made for doing, not thinking. Education should be analog, holistic, and oriented toward action.