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The Way Of Spontaneity

The art and power of spontaneity, in ancient philosophy, in jazz, in everyday life. We’ll look at “Trying Not To Try,” the Chinese concept of “Wu-wei”, and the completely focused mental state of “flow.”

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs on day 1 of the 2013 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience at City Park on Friday November 1, 2013 in New Orleans Louisiana. Jazz improvisation is depends on the careful art of "not trying," as explained in "Trying Not To Try" by (AP)

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs on day 1 of the 2013 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience at City Park on Friday November 1, 2013 in New Orleans Louisiana. Jazz improvisation is depends on the careful art of “not trying,” as explained in “Trying Not To Try” by Edward Slingerland. (AP)

The old reggae song says “Try. Try and try. You’ll succeed at last.”  And we know there can be truth in that.  But we also know that grinding, stressful, pounding effort can turn self-defeating.  My guest today studies philosophy and neuroscience.  He says look to the way of spontaneity.  To the old Chinese philosophers of the Tao and more.  Get in the zone.  Act freely, spontaneously.  And you may find your most productive, creative self.  A Ttiger Mom might not get it.  But Yoda would, he says.  This hour On Point:  the Tao of spontaneity, the way of flow.  And trying not to try.

– Tom Ashbrook


Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian studies and research chair of Chinese thought and embodied cognition at the University of British Columbia. Author of the new book “Trying Not To Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.” Also author of “Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University. Founding co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center. Author of “Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life” and “Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” among other books.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Atlantic: How Not To Try — “Woven into most of our natures is a cumbersome desire to be accepted and liked. At odds with that is the equally natural tendency to be turned off by people who wear that desire on their sleeves. If you, like me, essentially reek of effort in all that you do, such that people can sense it blocks away, and it makes you unattractive socially and intellectually, and it makes babies cry, can you practice and learn to cultivate a genuinely spontaneous approach to life? Is it possible to be deliberately less deliberate?”

New York Times: The Music Of ‘Flow’ — “Being in flow can be applied to any context, doing any activity that offers its own rewards, whether playing a grandmaster chess match, performing in the N.B.A. playoffs, listening to music at home, or performing heart surgery. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow charts are insightful and instructive about how to maintain flow during an extended activity: first, one achieves a balance between ability and level of difficulty, then one increases difficulty as ability grows.”

Biographile: Edward Slingerland on the Art of Effortlessness – “Wu-wei means literally ‘no doing’ or ‘no trying’ but is better translated as ‘effortless action.’ It refers to a state of total ease, in which you become completely lost in what you’re doing, feel no sense of exerting effort, and yet everything works out perfectly. When you are in wu-wei, you are maximally effective in the way you move through the world and you emerge from the experience feeling relaxed and satisfied. ”

Read An Excerpt Of “Trying Not To Try” By Edward Slingerland

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  • Shag_Wevera

    I’m a boring enough person that spontaneity holds little allure to me.

  • HonestDebate1

    I can relate to being in “the flow” and trying not to try. But I do think it takes great diligence and effort to put yourself in the position to do so. There is much to learn before you can disregard it as it flows out. I wish there was an easily accessible spigot but it’s in a special place that you can be in but can’t go to. When you are ready it comes to you.

  • skelly74

    Someone get Mr. Slingerland some water…

  • art525

    I’m a painter and painters often talk about flow or being in the zone. I once had an experience where I was painting in my studio and suddenly felt a pain in my lower back. When I looked at the clock I saw that 8 hours had passed. It seemed like no time at all. I did not thin in a conscioous way as I painted. In fact I often find that when I stop and look at the painting I feel like I am a viewer and not the maker. I will see parts that I like the way I see things by the great ones in the museum and appreciate them. Ooo I love that stroke right there. That’s a great color combination. That sort of thing. I worked in advertising as an art director for years. When given an assignment (which often included lots of caveats) I would put it out of my mind and go home and go about my life. In the morning when I sat down at my desk something would be there. Sopmething thst I had given no conscious thought to. It was fun to be surprised by these things.

    • brettearle

      As a writer i have always been mystified by the mercurial of the Muse.

      • art525

        I have often thought that that process of letting go and letting your intuitive self do the work is probably where the concept of the muse comes from. It often seems to me that what I do when I do it unconsciously is coming from somewhere else. I do think that when you let your unconscious drive you get a much more honest expression of who you are. The conscious gets all wrapped up in extraneous things and gets too self conscious. It can get too influenced by trivial inputs.

        • brettearle

          Do you believe that creative talent only, ultimately, arises from the mysterious and arcane nature of the creative voice–a `platform’ that, in the final analysis, might come from the depth of the unconscious?

          I tend to see the `Creative Voice’ as something that co-exists, with the Unconscious–and that `this here’ Unconscious is both the Creative Voice’s potential friend and enemy.

          It may also be true that the Creative Voice and the Unconscious are both intertwined and, perhaps, at times, symbiotic.

          [When i used, `mercurial’ in my comment above, I forgot to include the word, `nature’ after the word, `mercurial’. But you likely inferred that was the case.

          • art525

            I’m not sure how youy would define the ‘Creative Voice”. For me if we work on a conscious level I think we are going to end up with something pretty pedestrian and pretty predictable. I think most art today is coming from the head instead of whatever that other place is and that because of that we have really uninteresting stuff going on. It does not transcend. In fact I think that art ought to take us to another place and I think that most of what passes for art today provides no alternative to the mental world we are living in now. I think that the thinking involved in “creation” today doesn’t really diverge from what goes on in the world of business. Did I go way off track from what you were talking about? Probably.

          • HonestDebate1

            Earning a living in a creative field is hard. I love the idea of being paid for ideas and vision. Of course that is only possible if your passion is such that you will do it for free, you have no choice. IMO the rub is it takes both conscious and unconscious efforts. Many times I’ll fret and search and fret and stretch only to discover what doesn’t work. That’s part of the process too BTW. Often I’ll just sit down and play something with no thought at all that is perfect. Then after the inspiration comes the conscious part. The work. Turning an idea into a recording you can listen to or a painting you can see takes more than inspiration but without the inspiration you’ve got nothing. It’s a cool dichotomy.

            That’s my take anyway.

          • art525

            Thanks folks for a fun and interesting conversation.

          • brettearle

            Well, I guess [ostensibly, without realizing it] I was separating out those creative artists–writers, artists, actors, filmmakers, musicians, etc–who aspire to real raw honesty and vision.

            Rather than the others–who, for any number of reasons, `sell out’.

  • J__o__h__n

    Should George Lucas have tried more or less when he made the three newer Star Wars movies? He certainly should have tried less when he screwed around with the originals’ re-release.

  • hennorama

    In my experience, the best time to take a break is when you’re the busiest. When you return, you’re far more relaxed and productive.

  • anima mundi

    I believe you are speaking about authenticity and surrender. Being totally connected to who you truly are and letting go of effort to be something you are not. Being in that space is energetically attractive to people rather than repelling to others. It takes authentic, true connection to your self to be in the place that’s being talked about today. You must love yourself to be there.

    • brettearle

      Plenty of men and women, who have hated themselves, periodically, over the years, have done good work–or, at least, what some in society regard as good work.

  • John_Hamilton

    Great show. Many years ago I had a weekend job delivering pizzas. You wouldn’t think there is any skill involved in pizza delivery other than driving and knowing parts of town, but there is. Your income depends on how quickly you get back to the restaurant to pick up more pizzas, and that depends on your ability to pick the sequence of addresses to go to, making the deliveries as close to a straight line as possible.

    At first I was terrible at it, taking what seemed like eons to get back. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, and tried harder. I didn’t get any better by trying, and it seemed the harder I tried the worse I got.

    After about three days of this I realized that the choices I made before delivering were the problem, and by taking a little time at the beginning to sort out where to sequence the deliveries got me back faster. In order to do this I had to relax.

    Pizza delivery became a sort of biofeedback machine for me. I could tell how relaxed I was by how much money I was making. I had to be relaxed to make money, so the more relaxed I was the more money I made.

    I miss that job, though not enough to do it again. It was a great learning experience in the need for relaxation, and I apply it to every task I perform.

  • Patrick Aloi

    I think I’m lucky. I tend to think like this most of the time. My mother taught it without really knowing what she was teaching e.g., “If you can’t find something, stop looking and it will peek out at you.” And making my siblings and I go to the movies the night before final exams.” Let it happen.”

    • brettearle

      What about individuals who give up actively looking and therefore never find?

  • Bruce94

    As a piano player who has had a near lifelong interest in jazz and improvisation, I’ve noticed what the guest is describing–sometimes, for example, when I haven’t had a chance to rehearse much before a job and go into to the performance with less preparation than I thought was needed, I do surprisingly better and receive a warmer response than I expected perhaps because my expectations were lower to begin with OR alternately perhaps when I haven’t had the opportunity to practice (i.e. re-familiarize myself with the material/songs I plan to offer), my rendition comes off fresher than it might otherwise sound if hours of rehearsal had been logged beforehand possibly contributing to the material becoming stale. On such occasions, in order to relax I tell myself this is “a live rehearsal” and am pleasantly surprised when the audience reacts enthusiastically.

    Thanks, OnPoint, for providing this fascinating discussion.

    • brettearle

      That, of course, presumes a certain mastery of the techniques, mechanics, and an innate confidence in one’s talent and, more or less, an unfettered access to one’s talent….without the sabotage of Anxiety.

      • Bruce94

        Agreed. What I’ve managed to achieve on my instrument is a far cry from mastery, but I guess any confidence and facility I possess might result from repetition and the “muscle memory” repetition builds over time. Also, pleasant memories of past performances and interactions with audiences help to create confidence and a willingness to “put yourself out there” as HD1 observes. It helps that I’ve been playing the songs on my list for many years–jazz standards whose treatment has evolved as my technique and harmonic vocabulary have changed. You’re right to point to Anxiety as a real culprit; I’ve also experienced the sabotage of Perfectionism.

        • brettearle

          Are you a Mose Allison fan?

          • Bruce94

            Yes. I went thru a period when I couldn’t get enough of his unique blend of blues, country and bebop, not to mention his sardonic lyrics. Had the good fortune of hearing him perform at Snug Harbor in New Orleans a few years ago. Amazing! Stylistically, however, I’ve been more influenced by a contemporary of his who also had a Louisiana connection: Bill Evans. Unfortunately, Evans lacked his longevity.

          • brettearle

            I own nearly all of his records.

            [I know I'm name dropping--but I also know him, a bit.]

            Heard him perform many times.

            There isn’t anybody more perfect for me as a cross-over performer in many genres.

            Although I wish he hadn’t gone off into bebop.

            When I first heard him, it was like I was coming home.

            “Stop This World, Deal Me Out
            I know too well, what it’s all about”

            “Your mind is on vacation and your mouth is workin’ overtime.”

            Two of my favorites.

            There are very few perfect things in this world–and Mose Allsion is one of them.

            Then, of course, there’s Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Dave Van Ronk.

            And, of course, the Novel, CATCH-22.

            [And Roberto Clemente.]

    • HonestDebate1

      In the past you have sold yourself short. It’s plain you are an enlightened performer which is different than being a good player (not that you’re not that too). An audience will always receive you better when you are vulnerable and triumph despite it. It takes a certain level of confidence to ignore your lack of confidence and put yourself out there. At that point it’s not about rehearsal or chops. A performance is the moment, it’s a whole different ballgame.

      • Bruce94

        “An audience will receive you better when you are vulnerable…It takes a certain level of confidence to ignore your lack of confidence and put yourself out there…” Well said.

        In my situation I play solo a lot, and my rehearsal is more about being faithful to the melody of a jazz standard that I’ve inserted into the repertoire. I usually state the melody in the beginning, then go about deconstructing and reinventing–a process some might regard as demolition.

        Anyway, it’s really cool when someone (usually older) in the group I’m playing for comes up afterwards, recognizes the song(s) and “gets” what I’m attempting to do with the material.

        Ensemble work of the type you describe and are involved in requires much more deliberation and collaboration than what I’m currently doing, and in many ways is much more demanding. As a lousy sight-reader, for example, I have to memorize a lot, and working in a group has presented a real challenge at times. However, as a soloist I’m free to go off on tangents and change rhythm, for example, which can become problematic for ensemble players for whom the whole is the sum of their parts.

        Anyway, thanks for your feedback.

    • ToyYoda

      Can I re-word your first explanation and combine it with second? You delivered more than what you expected, and thus surprising yourself.

      The less you expected of yourself, the less pressure you placed on yourself. This allowed you to relax and “flow”. Instead of worrying about that difficult section coming, you just thought ‘well, whatever… can’t do anything about that now….’ and concentrated on the current measure, and before you recalled your worry, you were already past the difficult section.

      • Bruce94

        Yeah. Thanks for the re-wording. You captured it better than I did. Anyway, your last sentence kinda evokes my state of mind when I take on hard compositions like “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn. That piece can be exhausting if you get to far ahead of yourself anticipating the next “section.” Very few songs I tackle have the structure of this exquisite Strayhorn classic–a structure whose complexity reminds me of the sonata form. And when the piece is not inherently difficult like “Lush Life,” I’m sometimes guilty of make it unnecessarily difficult by overplaying or trying to play faster than my technique allows.

  • HonestDebate1

    I have an easy enough time inviting the zone during a performance. I’ll wait patiently and play it safe or at least not reach for it or force it. I’ll settle in and do what I do. I’ll listen to my place in the ensemble instead of focusing on my part. I’ll gauge the audience. Eventually it comes and when it does, it’s on.

    Lately my work has been as a composer/arranger trying to give texture to a Director’s vision. There is lot’s of pressure, deadlines and last minute changes. There are investors, producers and bottom lines to consider. Failure is not an option, it must be done, done now and kick ass. No half stepping. That to me is a huge challenge. Creative streaks are very hard to pull out of thin air. On one project I was instructed to compose a piece that was a cross between Schumann and the theme from Godfather with a naughty edge. On another I needed to think bittersweet rolling hills. In these instances it’s more about discipline and perseverance than spontaneity.

    I would give anything to have the talent to make it easier to be creative without waiting for a spark.

  • Molly M

    I was so happy to catch this program this morning just as I was driving away from performing at the Putney School. It was the assembly where accepted applicants and their families came from far and wide to make sure they really wanted to attend. For many years I have suffered from debilitating performance anxiety – and today’s event was just the sort of thing that would have sent me over the top – the perceived pressure to do well – to prove something, money, prestige at stake. But today my focus instead was on the joy and spirit in the room, the sense of community, the glorious music. So I was extra glad to hear this program, which reinforced what I had just been through – slight change of focus – not so much about “me” and my “worth” or lack thereof, but more about the Way, the bigger picture, what wants naturally to happen – goodness. So Yay! Wu wei rocks!

    • HonestDebate1

      Thats cool. Congrats!

      • Molly M

        Thanks! So happy! Ease really is better!

  • Fredlinskip

    Anyone in a pressurized situation who is capable of transferring from a feeling of “having weight of world on their shoulders” to “feeling one with the universe” (without ‘medicating’), has a valuable and profitable skill indeed.

    Getting enough sleep helps (speaking of which….).

    • HonestDebate1

      For once I agree with you.

  • Jon

    Daoism or Taoism is not psychology. It’s moral philosophy. Wuwei means “Do nothing unto others” – it’s Laozi’s golden rule in comparison with Confucius’ “Do not unto others the way you do not want others do unto you.”

    These scholars totally misinterpreted the text.

    • Joe Harroff

      You clearly display your ignorance here. Try actually reading some Daoist texts before you make claims about what central terms of its philosophy do or do not mean.

      • Jon

        you clearly sound smart and confident. then try to prove my claim is ignorant?

        • Joe Harroff

          I think the burden of proof is on you to show that wuwei 無為 means anything like “do nothing unto others” (I’m not even sure what you mean by this anyway), instead of asking me to condense an entire corpus of classical Chinese philosophy into a blog comment…

          • Jon

            you saying you have no idea how to disapprove me? Iooks like it’s you not I need to do more readings? you can write 无为 but do you really understand what it means (用中文说说看)?

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