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Surprising Science

The Dao of Letting Go (and Not Trying)

Wu wei is an early Chinese term that means literally no doing or no trying,” says Edward Slingerland, author of the new critically acclaimed book about the power of spontaneity, Trying Not to Try. “But I think a better translation is effortless action.  And it’s the central spiritual ideal for these early thinkers I look at: the Confucians and the Daoists.”

How does one achieve wu wei? “It looks a little bit like flow or being in the zone as an athlete,” explains Slingerland. “So you’re very effective.  You’re moving through the world in a very efficient way–the social world and physical world.  But you don’t have a sense of doing anything.  You don’t have a sense of effort.  You don’t have a sense of yourself as an agent.  You kind of lose yourself in the activity you’re involved in.”

Success without effort? This of course sounds too good to be true. Trying Not to Try explores the ancient lessons of how to achieve this level of “flow,” or effortlessness. A key part of wu wei is the energy one gives off, which can increase the ability to influence others. 

“You also have this power that the early Chinese call–unfortunately the Mandarin pronunciation is ‘duh’ which sounds kind of funny.  But it’s often translated as virtue.  It means like, charismatic power.  Charismatic virtue,” says Slingerland. “It’s this energy you kick off, an aura that you kick off when you’re in a state of wu wei.  And this is why these early thinkers want wu wei, because for both of them–the Confucians and the Daoists–it’s the key to political and spiritual success.” 

Wu wei means living an authentic life, letting spontaneity in. This can be a hard concept to grasp in today’s fast-paced world. We’re often too serious, too stressed as we strive to achieve our goals, leading to the all too common modern condition of burnout. Success, it turns out, can come more naturally, if we let go. 

For more on Slingerland’s discussion on the productivity of not trying, watch a clip from Big Think’s interview and check out his new book Trying Not to Try.


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