Should we try to change ourselves or the world? Can we?

A conversation with Edward Slingerland about Taoist philosophy, wu wei, and the paradoxes of spiritual life

Many of us in the western world come to eastern philosophy early in life, particularly if we are turned off by mainstream religions like Christianity or Islam. I was no different, first delving into this different way of viewing our lives and our place in the universe in my late teens, then in college courses, and then more seriously as I became a scholar in philosophy and neuroscience.

How does eastern philosophy fare after closer adult scrutiny, not as an exotic and rebellious alternative to western philosophy and religion, but on its own two feet? We dig a little into these questions in my interview with Ted Slingerland, a scholar of early Chinese language, philosophy and religion.

For me, the key question I’ve been grappling with in various areas of my life — personal, professional, spiritual — is knowing when to push and when to just relax and wait for things to arise without effort. This is all about discernment, knowing how to deploy (or not) the tools we learn along life’s path to wisdom. The idea of wu wei, of effortless effort, is both paradoxical and wise. But knowing how to apply wu wei is always a challenge.

Slingerland is Professor of Philosophy, an associate member of the Departments of Asian Studies and Psychology, and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I met him in Santa Barbara a few years ago and after reading and re-reading his popular book on Taoism (or Daoism, as he prefers to write, and which spelling I’ll use from now on) I reached out to him for this interview, which we conducted by email.

What got you inspired enough by Chinese philosophy to make it the focus of your career?

I came to feel that the early Chinese thinkers had a realistic and grounded model of human cognition, and a healthy appreciation of our social nature, in a way that I did not find true of post-Enlightenment Western thought. I was able to explore a lot of themes of interest to me — moral psychology, ethics, effective action — though the lens of Chinese thought.

Why is philosophy relevant for us today?

Well, philosophy in general allows us to think more clearly about important issues like ethics, politics, science, etc. Early Chinese philosophy, because it was starting from different assumptions (like a more embodied model of the self, recognition of the moral relevance of emotions, importance of social roles, etc.), can give us new perspectives on contemporary issues.

What is wu wei and why is this important?

Literally it means “no doing.” I prefer, however, to translate it as “effortless action,” a state where one is very effective but not consciously aware of exerting effort. My 2014 book, Trying Not to Try, is basically an extended answer to the question of why this kind of spontaneity is important. The short answer, however, is that there are a lot of goals or important values in life that cannot be attained through direct striving or trying, but because we live in a culture focused on striving we don’t always see that.

When it comes to happiness, or attractiveness, or creative breakthroughs, we need to learn how to let go and allow these things to happen, rather than trying to force them.

It seems to me that the tricky aspect of wu wei is knowing when to try and create your own wave versus simply riding the waves presented to us. Obviously, there’s no easy answer here but what tips can you offer on this key type of discernment for the challenges of modern living?

Yeah, this is of course the problem. One tip is to realize that there are some goals — like a relaxed tennis swing — that require letting go to be successfully achieved, but that also may require some preparatory work to make possible. You can’t just pick up a racquet for the first time and think you’re going to swing like Federer. Giving a successful public talk requires wu-wei in the moment, but lots of wei (effort, doing) beforehand so that you are prepared enough to relax. Other goals, like being happy in a particular moment or engaging during a first date, are fatally compromised by effort, and that’s where you need to be more willing to ride the wave presented.

China has been strongly influenced by Buddhism at various times in its long history, including Buddhism’s general aversion to violence and grasping, but how Buddhist is China today?

Not very much, I’d say, but my area of expertise is 4th century BCE China, I have really only a layperson’s grasp of what happens after that period.

You’ve written a number of books, including a general audience book, Trying Not to Try. The title alludes to the seeming paradox of the effortless effort of wu wei, one of the key notions in Daoism. What is your resolution of this seeming paradox: how do we try not to try?

There is no resolution, because it’s a real paradox, and actually one that falls out of the structure of the human brain. When you are trying to not try, the part of your brain that you are activating (cognitive control, executive function) in order to do so is actually the very part you are wanting to shut down. That’s why there was never a perfect solution to the paradox in early Chinese thought, or contemporary life; it can only be worked around, not solved.

It seems that the Daoist ideal of silent wisdom offers yet another paradox in terms of those who desire to spread this wisdom. In order to become prominent enough to effectively spread these ideas through books, media, etc., we often need to become more ego-based, in order to teach how to become less ego-based. This is kind of like the ancient Daoist writers claiming that “those who speak do not know” and yet writing entire books teaching their wisdom. Do you agree these are additional paradoxes, and if so what’s your personal solution to being less ego-hungry while also trying to write successful books, be a successful teacher, etc.?

Yes, many of these paradoxes are simply restatements of, or corollaries of, the central paradox of how you could try not to try. So there is no “solution,” unfortunately, but for me the personal key is just checking in with whether or not I’m genuinely caring about what I’m writing or teaching, and making sure my work is driven by the material itself, rather than external considerations.

You raise in your book a serious ethical dilemma of Daoism: is it ethical to not try to improve the world in the face of so many obvious problems? Traditional Daoist teachings would say: yes, don’t even bother trying to save the world. It’s futile and not your role in the design. Alan Watts, the British-American philosopher who was also partial to Daoism, would sometimes say this kind of thing, and I always had a hard time with that part of his teachings (I’m a policy lawyer and activist so my whole life is about trying to change things for the better). Many people attracted to eastern philosophy are also going to be engaged and conscientious people who are active in various causes to improve the world. How do we address this additional paradox?

Well, I think one way to reconcile it is to understand that Daoism doesn’t make sense, in my view, except as a counterweight to Confucianism, a compensation for it or a potential corrective for it. Daoism is focused on the negative aspects of being an activist or someone trying to manage or change the world, but, yes, we still need to be active and manage the world, somehow. The story in my book’s chapter on the book known as the Zhuangzi (traditionally known as the Chuang Tzu, one of the two key texts for Daoism), about the advice that “Confucius” gives to Yan Hui about trying to advise a bad ruler, is in part an attempt to answer this question.

If we accept that paradox is a strong sign of a problem with the logical and conceptual structure of a given philosophy, should we see these various paradoxes as pointers suggesting that we may need an update to Daoist and other ancient eastern philosophical teachings? A number of modern thinkers, for example, Stephen Batchelor, have suggested updates to Buddhist thinking that seem to match better with modern science and the needs of a modern world. Has anyone done the same yet for Daoism?

No, I don’t think it’s a problem with the philosophy itself, I think the philosophy does a great job of focusing on a tension that is built into the structure of the human mind, and that will always be with us. In that respect I don’t think the central teachings need updating, they are just as relevant now as they were 2,000 something years ago.

How widely practiced is Daoism today?

I guess it depends on what you mean by “Daoism.” As a devotional practice, it’s very widespread in the Chinese cultural sphere, with some Western devotees as well. If you are referring to the general worldview or way of life, people in both China and the West continue to find it appealing, again, as counterweight to the more standard or “Confucian” emphasis on hard work, discipline, learning and striving.

What’s the best way for modern readers to incorporate the insights of ancient Daoism into their lives? Is meditation or withdrawal from the world part of the traditional Daoist path to wisdom?

The book known today as the Daodejing (or Laozi, also known as the Tao Te Ching), one of the early “Daoist” texts (although there was no self-identified school at the time), advocated both meditation and withdrawal from ordinary life into a kind of primitive lifestyle, without technology, learning, books, or contact with the outside world. The Zhuangzi text, on the other hand, focused on how to be free or in harmony with Heaven (the natural world) even while “in the midst of the human world,” as one of the chapters is entitled.

The Zhuangzian exemplars are butchers, woodcarvers, Confucian politicians, even tax collectors. The Zhuangzi thinks that it is our fate to be human, and live in the human world, so we need to accept it but learn how to remain in touch with the Heavenly.

There are hints in the text that it finds primitivist views like that in the Laozi themselves too rigid: too caught up in denouncing or renouncing things to be truly free. I’m more of a Zhuangzian in this regard.

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Tam Hunt

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