In That Stillness is the Great Dynamic Activity

Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland. Crown. 296 pp. $26.00.

When he was a teenager, we all noticed that my nephew Charlie was surrounded by beautiful young women, though he seemed less accomplished than his older brothers (he wasn’t; he was just younger). You’d go over in the morning and one girl would be hanging around, playing chess, go by in the afternoon and another was there. It was like a beauty pageant. We were never sure what was going on, but they were around, and obviously liked Charlie. I of course thought he was a great human being, but felt that way about all three of my nephews. What was it with Charlie and all these girls?

Finally I asked his sister Tade, the oldest of the siblings.

Her face broke into a big smile. “Charlie has so many girlfriends because he doesn’t care,” she said.

So that was the secret! I’d spent my whole adolescence thinking girls wanted me to care. They probably did! But the guy they kept hanging around was the guy who didn’t care. I can see how that might be more relaxing. Maybe they were trying to get him to care.

Various of my friends and I noticed the phenomenon in early manhood that, once we were spoken for, women suddenly seemed interested in us. It was as if they had a sixth sense. As soon as I had a wife, they were much more relaxed around me, even flirtatious. Then when I got divorced—how did they know?—their guard came up.

I must have been giving off vibes.

Edward Slingerland investigates this whole phenomenon in his fascinating book Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, which I have now read twice. Slingerland is a professor of Asian Studies, and approaches this issue from the vantage points of the Chinese ancients, not just the Daoists, whom we might have expected, but also Confucius and Mencius, both of whom I knew little about.

All of these thinkers were interested in two concepts, wu wei (which translates literally as “no trying” but which Slingerland would render as “effortless action,” or “spontaneous action”; Alan Watts talked about doing without doing) and de (which could be translated as “virtue,” or “charismatic power,” but which really means being in accord with the Dao, the way of heaven. That’s where the power comes from). I’d had the impression that only Daoists were interested in these concepts, but that was incorrect. Though Confucius seems more conservative and traditional than the other thinkers, his whole aim was to be at one with the Dao. He happened to think that acting with decorum and accepting your place within the hierarchy was the way to achieve that. In a way, of course, he was right.

Slingerland is talking about the kind of skill that a great athlete exhibits when he is in the zone; he is also talking about a kind of man who attracts people because he is in touch with some fundamental energy. The example he uses, since he didn’t know my nephew Charlie, is Picasso. That great artist was in some ways a monster to women, had a tempestuous career with them, but it was because he was so devoted to his work, so in touch with his creative energy, that he attracted them. Creative energy is the Dao.

I of course am interested in both of these subjects, especially inasmuch as they apply to writing; like all writers, I’ve felt the spontaneity of writing and wondered how to access it when it wanders away. Nevertheless, I immediately focused in this book on the spiritual traditions. And I was stunned by how the thinking of these men, Laozi and Zhuangzi, but also Confucius and Mencius, is behind the practice of Zen Buddhism, my spiritual practice now for twenty years. The heart of the practice is rooted in their teaching.

I was especially struck by the influence of Confucius. Zen is definitely hierarchical, with the abbot (in my case the abbess) and the priests and a whole slew of positions below them. The key, of course, is not to take any of that too seriously, to realize that your position, however lofty, is not who you fundamentally are. It’s just a function in the organization. Confucius believed deeply in acts of decorum—there’s a certain way to treat a guest, a certain way to greet an elder—and Zen is full of that as well. There’s a way to do literally everything in the zendo, and we make every effort to get all that right. Some people go crazy with it.

The genius of such behavior is that it makes you present with your experience. Decorum is the way of heaven not because there’s only one way to do things (human beings made all that stuff up), but because it compels your attention. Even once you know rituals by heart, in your body—the only way to know them—you still pay attention to everything you do. It’s like Father Vincent conducting the Catholic ceremony in Lost Christianity, or the housewife Needleman describes who has an extreme economy to her movements in the kitchen. There’s something about that work, he says, that is deeper than other kinds. That’s because it connects you with the Dao, the way of heaven, the energy of the universe. “More important” work doesn’t necessarily do that.

But it is the way these notions apply to sitting practice that really struck me. Anyone who has meditated for a long time—that might be years and years; it might be decades—finally realizes that what meditation is actually about is doing nothing. Teachers give you techniques, they sometimes tell you to master them, but they know that, eventually, the student will give up (perhaps without telling the teacher) when he realizes he simply can’t do the damn thing. There was a long time when I figured I was a total klutz, meditation was one more thing I couldn’t do (like all the other things in my life). But sooner or later everyone realizes that meditation, as Larry Rosenberg used to say, is the art of doing absolutely nothing. That seems to be the one thing most people can’t do, especially these days, with all these devices around. People work every minute. They text as they drive 90 miles an hour.

Yet all the benefits, I would say, come when you learn to do nothing, just to sit there. Or perhaps I should say, to the extent that you’re able to do nothing (does anyone really do it?) you taste the joys of meditation, and the joy of life.

This is what Krishnamurti ranted about his whole life, banging his head against a wall, trying to find a new way to say it (he should have sat there in silence). It’s what Ramana Maharishi was all about, sitting in a loincloth in that cave. He wasn’t doing anything. That was his greatness. He hadn’t accomplished anything. He hadn’t tried.

This is the subject of my favorite koan in all of Zen literature. As far as I’m concerned, you can throw the rest out. It is the enlightenment experience of the teacher Joshu, who was a teenager at the time and then lived—according to legend—to be 120 years old. It’s no wonder.

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way” “Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied. “Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked. “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen. “How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

There is much to notice here; you see more the more you look at it. I will point out two things; when you’re searching for the way, “If you try for it, you become separated from it.” That’s the dilemma we all struggle with. That’s why that priest in Lost Christianity had that air of surrender. I understand that the word Islam itself means surrender. I’ll also note that “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” We want to know everything. That wanting is an obstacle.

Edward Slingerland does a wonderful job of showing us that all of these ideas have their roots in ancient China. The writer whom he thinks is the most interesting—actually the greatest writer of all time, according to him—is the one who is in many ways the least comprehensible, the most inscrutable. Zhuangzi. His writing reminds us, again and again, that it’s not about knowing. And it’s not about trying.

We need to live these teachings in our bodies. There are things that sound like paradoxes when you say them, but you’re able to do them with your body.