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Trying Not to Try

Modern science and Chinese philosophy tell us similar stories about how we think.

In a famous story from ancient Chinese philosophy, Butcher Ding has been called upon to play his part in a traditional religious ceremony. The ritual, to consecrate a newly cast bronze bell, requires the butcher to sacrifice an ox in a public space, with the ruler and a large crowd looking on. The still-smoking bell is brought fresh from the foundry and cooled with the blood of the sacrificial animal—a procedure that demands precise timing and perfectly smooth execution. Butcher Ding is up to the task, dismembering the massive animal with effortless grace: “At every touch of his hand, every bending of his shoulder, every step of his feet, every thrust of his knee—swish! swoosh! He guided his blade along with a whoosh, and all was in perfect tune.” Ding’s body and blade move in such perfect harmony that a seemingly mundane task is turned into an artistic performance. When questioned later by Lord Wenhui, the village master, about his incredible skill, Butcher Ding explains, “What I, your humble servant, care about is the Way [Dao].” He then launches into an explanation of what it feels like to perform in such a state of perfect ease:

When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. And now—now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. My senses and conscious awareness have shut down and my spiritual desires take me away. I follow the Heavenly pattern of the ox, thrusting into the big hollows, guiding the knife through the big openings, and adapting my motions to the fixed structure of the ox. In this way, I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

The result is that Butcher Ding is not so much cutting up the ox as releasing its constituent parts, letting the razor-sharp edge of his cleaver move through the spaces between the bones and ligaments without encountering the slightest resistance.

It is not all smooth sailing. Occasionally Butcher Ding’s effortless dance is interrupted when he senses trouble, at which point his conscious mind seems to reengage a bit, although he still remains completely relaxed and open to the situation confronting him: “Whenever I come to a knot, I see the difficulty ahead, become careful and alert, focus my vision, slow my movements, and move the blade with the greatest subtlety, so that the ox simply falls apart, like a clod of earth falling to the ground.” Lord Wenhui clearly sees something in this account that goes far beyond simply cutting up oxen. “Wonderful!” he exclaims. “From the words of Butcher Ding I’ve learned how to live my life!”

This remark signals to us that we should be taking the story of the ox as a metaphor. The story of Butcher Ding comes from a book called the Zhuangzi, an important work of Daoist philosophy, and one that is principally concerned with a value known as wu-wei, or effortless action. 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, spontaneous, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. 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. Just as Butcher Ding’s blade remains razor-sharp because it never touches a bone or ligament—moving only through the gaps in between—so does the wu-wei person move only through the open spaces in life, avoiding the difficulties that damage one’s spirit and wear out one’s body. This is a metaphor that has not lost any of its power. I, for one, can attest that, after 40-odd years of sometimes hard living, my own blade feels a bit nicked and dull.

Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction.

The preoccupation with how to cultivate wu-wei was at the center of early Chinese controversies about how to attain the good life. Characterizations of wu-wei in other early Daoist texts, such as the Laozi, take the form of concise, cryptic poems rather than stories. They often describe the “Way of Heaven” as a model for how a properly cultivated person should move through the world. In the poems, the Laozian sage attains wu-wei by not trying, by simply relaxing into some sort of preexisting harmony with nature. The Daoist poems are characterized by an effortless ease and unselfconsciousness that also plays a central role in early Confucianism. This may come as a surprise, because Confucianism is typically associated with hidebound traditionalism and stuffy ritual—both of which strike us as the opposite of wu-wei. It can’t be denied that the Confucians do a lot to earn this reputation. In the early stages of training, an aspiring Confucian gentleman needs to memorize entire shelves of archaic texts, learn the precise angle at which to bow, and learn the length of the steps with which he is to enter a room. His sitting mat must always be perfectly straight. All of this rigor and restraint, however, is ultimately aimed at producing a cultivated, but nonetheless genuine, form of spontaneity. Indeed, the process of training is not considered complete until the individual has passed completely beyond the need for thought or effort.

My guess is that we have all experienced this combination of effortlessness and effectiveness at some point in our lives. While we are completely absorbed in chopping and sautéing, a complex dinner simply assembles itself before our eyes. Fully relaxed, we breeze through an important job interview without even noticing how well it’s going. Our own experiences of the pleasure and power of spontaneity explain why these early Chinese stories are so appealing and also suggest that these thinkers were on to something important. Combining Chinese insights and modern science, we are now in a position to understand how such states can actually come about.  

Colloquially, we often speak of ourselves as if we were split in two: “I couldn’t make myself get out of bed this morning,” “I had to force myself to be calm,” “I had to hold my tongue.” Although we use such phrases all the time, if you think about them they’re a bit weird. Who is the self who doesn’t want to get out of bed, and what is its relationship to me? Does my tongue really have a will of its own, and how do I go about holding it? (And who am I if not my tongue?) Since there is always only one “me” involved, this split-self talk is clearly metaphorical rather than literal. Talk of split selves is certainly not limited to English: we can see it in many wu-wei stories from early China that involve a narrative “I” confronting a part of the self that is more or less autonomous.

We can see our autonomous self in action when we walk. We don’t worry about how to walk, we don’t consciously monitor ourselves while we’re walking, we just walk. In fact, actually thinking about walking while trying to walk is a great way to trip. And walking is just one of many things our body knows how to do without any input from our conscious mind. When we reflect upon this, we get a strong sense of being split between a conscious “I” and an unconscious body, which often seems to have a mind of its own.

Recent research suggests that there might be some basis to this idea. Although there is only one me, in an important functional sense we are divided into two beings. 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 the 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.

So if I say that I had to force myself not to reach for that second helping of tiramisu, there is a more than metaphorical struggle going on. My conscious, cold system, which is concerned about long-range issues like health and weight gain, is fighting to control the more instinctive hot system, which really likes tiramisu and doesn’t share my cold system’s concerns about the consequences. This isn’t because hot cognition doesn’t take future consequences into account. The problem is that this system’s conception of relevant consequences was fixed a long time ago, evolutionarily speaking, and is fairly rigid. “Sugar and fat: good” was for most of our evolutionary history a great principle to live by, since acquiring adequate nutrition was a constant challenge. Today, on the contrary, allowing ourselves to indulge in them to excess has a variety of negative consequences. The great advantage of cold cognition is that it is capable of changing its priorities in light of new information. So 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.

These two systems are even, to some degree, neuroanatomically distinct—that is, they are implemented in different parts of the brain. In fact, our first hint that the two systems existed came from clinical cases where selective brain damage allowed researchers to watch one of them functioning without the other. Anyone who has seen the movie Memento (2000) is familiar with a condition called anterograde amnesia: Patients afflicted with this condition cannot form new, explicit short-term memories. They remember who they are and the more distant past but are condemned—consciously, at least—to a perpetual forgetting of the present. What’s interesting is that, although these patients can’t form new conscious memories, at a subconscious level they are able to form new, implicit ones. They cannot consciously recall ever having met the doctor who greets them every day with a thumbtack hidden in his palm, but for some reason they don’t want to shake his hand. We see a similar disjunction when it comes to different types of skills: Unconscious “knowing how” seems distinct from conscious “knowing that.” As with emotional memories, the two types of knowledge seem to be created and preserved in different parts of the brain. Not only can amnesiac patients “remember” not to shake hands with Dr. Thumbtack, they are also able to pick up new physical skills after a period of instruction without having any conscious memory of the training, even while remaining completely unable to explain how or why they have this new ability.

So although talk of “mind” and “body” is technically inaccurate, it does capture an important functional difference between two systems: a slow, cold, conscious mind and a fast, hot, unconscious set of bodily instincts, hunches, and skills. “We” tend to identify with the cold, slow system because it is the seat of our conscious awareness and our sense of self. Beneath this conscious self, though, is another self—much bigger and more powerful—that we have no direct access to. It is this deeper, more evolutionarily ancient part of us that knows how to spit and move our legs around. It’s also the part that we are struggling with when we try to resist that tiramisu or drag ourselves out of bed for an important meeting.

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. The ease perceived by observers of his performance mirrors Ding’s own internal experience, in which his “spiritual desires” take him away and the ox falls apart effortlessly.

Recall the stages of “seeing” that the butcher describes to his lord: “When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. And now—now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes.” These lines appear to describe the act of “seeing” by using different parts of the self. When Butcher Ding is a complete novice, and all he can see is “the ox itself,” he is merely looking with his eyes, gazing upon this massive, daunting creature that he must somehow reduce to pieces. Anyone who has ever seen an ox up close—not a common experience in our modern world—can vividly imagine the plight of the neophyte Butcher Ding. There he is, standing in front of this massive wall of hair and flesh, cleaver in hand, with no idea where to begin or what to expect once he makes the first cut.

After three years of practice and training, Butcher Ding reached a point where he “no longer sees the ox as a whole.” Perhaps Butcher Ding now looks at the ox and sees, superimposed upon it, something like the charts that hang in butchers’ shops, illustrating the different cuts of meat. The ox, for him, is no longer simply a dumb, inert object in his path. Drawing upon his training and analytic mind, Butcher Ding now perceives it in terms of its constituent parts, as a set of cuts that he can make, or a set of challenges to be traversed.

Finally, Butcher Ding reaches a stage where, as he puts it, he no longer looks with his eyes: “My senses and conscious awareness have shut down,” he explains, “and my spiritual desires take me away.”

But to understand how the deliberate part of his brain shuts down, we need a clear understanding of what effort and consciousness feel like from the inside.

Let’s begin with a little exercise. Go down the column of words below, and as quickly as possible read each word silently and then say out loud either “upper” or “lower,” depending on whether the word itself is written in upper-or lowercase letters.

UPPER
lower
lower
upper
LOWER

Unless you are an alien cyborg from Alpha Centauri, you were probably cruising along until you reached the last two, where you stumbled a bit and took longer to say “lower” while reading upper, and then “upper” while reading LOWER. That slight catch as you began to talk—that feeling of needing to stop yourself, to not read the word but instead focus on its case—has been referred to as the oomph that is the hallmark of conscious will or effort. A task that presents someone with this kind of mismatch between the meaning of a word and its physical appearance is commonly referred to as a “Stroop task,” after the American psychologist who published a paper on the effect in the 1930s, originally using words printed in incompatible colors (for example, the word green printed in red ink). The Stroop task is a classic example of what’s called a cognitive control or executive control task—that is, a situation where the cold, conscious mind (System 2) has to step in and override automatic, effortless processes (System 1).

Brain imaging studies suggest that two brain areas in particular are involved in cognitive control: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the lateral prefrontal cortex (lateral PFC). Together these are the “cognitive control regions” of the brain. There is still some debate about the precise role played by each of these regions, but one plausible characterization is that the ACC is a kind of smoke detector, and the lateral PFC is the fire response team. Like a smoke detector, the ACC is in constant monitoring mode, waiting to detect a whiff of danger, such as an instance of cognitive conflict. In the case of the Stroop task, we’ve got two automatic processes that are in conflict: the identification of a typeface or color versus the automatic processing of a simple word (assuming you’re literate and it’s your native language). This conflict alerts the ACC, which then sends out an alarm to the lateral PFC to come deal with the situation.

The lateral PFC is responsible for many higher cognitive functions, such as the integration of conscious and unconscious knowledge, working memory (the small spotlight of consciousness that allows us to focus on explicit information), and conscious planning. Most relevantly, when it comes to the case of the Stroop task, the lateral PFC also exerts control over other areas of the brain by strengthening the activation of task-relevant networks at the expense of other networks. By weakening certain neural pathways, the lateral PFC essentially tells them to stop doing what they are doing, which is the neural equivalent of fire-retarding foam.

Butcher Ding’s story—and the science that’s beginning to back it up—shows us that many desirable states are best pursued indirectly.

In the Stroop task presented above, you were asked to read the word LOWER but say the word upper. The ACC lets the lateral PFC know about the conflict between your perception of the word’s case and your knowledge of the word’s meaning. The lateral PFC then draws upon its understanding of what the task requires—you’ve been asked to say aloud the case, not read the word itself—and decides that saying “upper” should take precedence. It then sends a signal telling the visual system, which detects case, to get on with its business; this strengthening of the visual system encourages the word recognition system to just shut up. This whole rigmarole is what results in the slight delay and the feeling of effort that you don’t get when the word lower is actually printed in lowercase letters. In the latter case, the two regions work together happily, the ACC conflict detector is not activated, and the lateral PFC is not called upon to adjudicate between squabbling sets of neurons. You can also get a sense of what cognitive control feels like internally if you think about the process of learning a new skill (driving, kayaking, whatever). In the early stages, constant vigilance and effort are required (the ACC and lateral PFC are very active), but as you master the skill, control gets passed to subconscious, automatic systems, and your conscious mind is now freed for other tasks.

Armed with this information, we can now see how a brain on wu-wei might function. We can even get a reasonably precise picture of it, thanks to some recent neuroscientific work on wu-wei–like states. A clever study by Charles Limb and Allen Braun peered into what’s happening in the minds of professional jazz pianists in action. They designed a special, nonferromagnetic keyboard that could be taken inside the fMRI scanner, which is basically a huge magnet. The researchers then had them play in two different conditions. In the first, “Scales,” they were required to play, over and over, a one-octave C scale. In the “Jazz Improv” condition, they were asked to remain in the same key but improvise a melody based upon a composition they’d previously been asked to memorize.

The researchers’ most striking finding was the pattern of activation when the pianists switched into improvisation mode: wide­spread deactivation of the lateral PFC and increased activity across relevant sensorimotor systems, the ACC, and the frontal polar portion of a region known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). What this study suggests is that, in a spontaneous yet high-skill situation such as jazz improv, the conflict-detecting ACC remains alert in the background even when the lateral PFC is turned off. This particular neural configuration may correspond subjectively to the kind of relaxed but vigilant mode we enter into when we’re fully absorbed in a complex activity. In other words, 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 early Chinese ideal of wu-wei involves just this sort of effortless action, and the body unleashed is impressive to behold. After all, when Lord Wenhui sees Butcher Ding’s performance, he doesn’t thank him for teaching him to cut an ox, he makes the bigger claim that Ding taught him how to live his life better. That’s the power of wu-wei. We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. But Butcher Ding’s story—and the science that’s beginning to back it up—shows us that many desirable states are best pursued indirectly. Harnessing the power of spontaneity can give us a deeper understanding of how we move through the world and interact with others and can help us to do it effectively, and with ease.


Edward Slingerland is a professor of Asian studies and the Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia.


Adapted from Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity Copyright © 2014 by Edward Slingerland. To be published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, LLC on March 4.

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