The Dao of Letting Go (and Not Trying)

Edward Slingerland: Wu wei is an early Chinese term that means literally no doing or no trying.  But I think a better translation is effortless action.  And it’s the central spiritual ideal for these early thinkers I look at.  So the Confucians and the Daoists.  And what it looks a little bit like flow or being in the zone as an athlete.  So you’re very effective.  You’re moving through the world in a very efficient way – 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.

And you’re not only efficacious in terms of skill in the world.  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.  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.  So if you’re a Confucian getting into a state of wu-wei gives you this power duh.  And this allows you to attract followers without having to force them or try to get them to follow you.  People just spontaneously want to follow you.

If you’re a Daoist it’s what relaxes people, puts them at ease and allows you to move through the social world effectively without harm.  So everybody wants this because it’s a very – it’s the key to success.  But they’re all involved in this tension then of how do you try to be effortless.  How do you try not to try.

So the first strategy is the early Confucian strategy which I refer to as carving and polishing strategy which is essentially you’re gonna try really hard for a long time.  And if you do that eventually the trying will fall away and you’ll be spontaneous in the right way.  So you practice ritual, you engage in learning with fellow students and eventually somehow at some point you make the transition from trying to having internalized these things you’re learning and being able to embody them in an effortless way.  The second strategy, the uncarved block or going back to nature strategy is the Daodejing or the primitivists Daoists.  And they essentially think the Confucian strategy is doomed.  If you are trying to be virtuous, if you’re trying to be  a Confucian gentleman, you’re never gonna be a Confucian gentleman.  Anyone trying to be benevolent is never gonna actually be benevolent.  They’re just gonna be this hypocrite.

So their strategy is undo all this learning that you’ve been taught.  So get rid of culture, get rid of learning, actually physically drop out of society.  So they want you to go live in the countryside in a small village.  It looks a lot like kind of 1960s hippie movement, you know.  Back to nature and get rid of technology.  Get rid of all of the bad things that society has done to us.  There’s good points to this strategy, too.  One of the main insights I think of the Daoists, these early Daoists is a way in which social values, social learning can corrupt our natural preferences.  So we’re, you know, body images in advertising teach women that they have to be anorexic if they’re attractive.  We’re taught that we always need to have the latest iPhone.  So, you know, we have a perfectly good iPhone but then we see the new iPhone and suddenly our old iPhone isn’t good anymore.

There’s a lot of good literature on this in psychology on the hedonistic treadmill.  We’re never quite happy with what we have.  As soon as we get it we want the next thing.  And the Daode jing thinks Confucianism encourages that.  And the solution to get off that hedonistic treadmill was to just stop and go back to nature and be simple.  So that’s the uncarved box strategy.  And probably which strategy is the best varies by the situation.  So it probably varies from situation to situation what your particular barrier to spontaneity is in the moment.  And it also probably varies person to person.  So people who have innate personality differences that probably determine which strategy’s the best for them.  And then also, you know, we’ve got – people are introverted who need one sort of push.  And people are extroverted, you know, the other kind of maybe be getting pulled in. And also probably varies by life stage.

So early on in life especially if you’re trying to develop a new skill the carving and polishing strategy makes the most sense.  And then some of these Daoists approaches maybe make more sense. When the training is done, the learning is done and you’ve got to learn to just let go and let this thing you’ve internalized take over and do the work for you.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Dr. Edward Slingerland on "wu wei," the Confucians and the Daoists' key to political and spiritual success.

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