Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: Trying Not To Try by Edward Slingerland

This book attempts to blend the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei with some recent researches from cognitive sciences. Wu-wei or “non-action” implies that our action is done without our doing. We are the object through which the natural forces work.

As much as the author tries to explain how wu-wei can be achieved in our daily lives, he alludes to the elusiveness of this task or as he quoted from Shunryu Suzuki in chapter 8: “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong.”

I do quite like some of the things he said, many of which I find to be very meaningful and consistent with my own Christian beliefs. For example in Chapter 4, he wrote: “Knowing the contentment of contentment” requires resisting the siren call of consumer culture and instead holding fast to primitive and simple pleasures.” The Bible too has much to say about contentment: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain.  (1Ti 6:6 NKJV)” and  “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content (Php 4:11 NKJV)”.

Slingerland further wrote: “The desires of the eye form, of course, the entire basis of modern advertising industry, which has turned the continuous ramping up of our desire for “goods hard to come by” into a refined science. The minute the latest iPhone is released, our current iPhone suddenly seems less attractive. And as author puts it “Our belly may be perfectly comfortable in our current car, but our eye can see the nicer, newer car in the driveway next door (or in the magazine ad or billboard), and this perception immediately decreases our satisfaction with what we’re currently driving. The car itself has not changed the slightest bit, but our benchmarking mind has demoted it anyway.”

The Bible says: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. (1Jn 2:16 NKJV)”

This is called the hedonic treadmill, where positive or negative events result in only temporary increases in happiness or unhappiness ( Or to state it in another way, human beings have the tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. This term was first coined by two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, in 1971.

One of classic experiment on the concept of hedonic treadmill is a study by Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman in 1987 titled “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?” (Download full text in pdf: In that study, the authors found that, although there were strong initial emotional reactions of happiness and sadness respectively, but in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. 

The basic mechanism for hedonic treadmill is adaptation. It is a phenomenon where after perceiving something for a certain period of time, your sensory system “adapts” to it, causing it to recede into the background. Adaptation can be good as it helps to cope with our tragedies. But adaptation can also be bad when we begin to covet what others have that we do not. And this never-ending cycle of initial euphoria, adaptation and covetousness results in a rat race.

As Slingerland says, again in chapter 4: “Another source of dissatisfaction is our incessant need to measure our achievements against those of our peers…once a certain minimum threshold of material well-being is reached, our objective level of wealth seems to be much less important than our relative wealth – that is how we stack up against our neighbors or colleagues. Once you have enough money to buy the basics and indulge in some pleasures, like eating out or buying new clothes, ranked status comes to matter much mire than wealth per se.  Status, in turn, is inherently unstable because it is by its very nature relative – the benchmark is always moving as others around us rise or fall. Moreover, we seem designed to focus more on what we don't have than what we do; we are much more irked about those two people ahead of us than pleased about twenty behind.”

The Bible has much to say about the deceitfulness of our heart that can never be truly satisfied with the material things. "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? (Jer 17:9 NKJV)”

The Bible also has much to say about covetousness: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5 NKJV)”

There are also a number of Christian paradoxes that have similarities with the wu-wei concept. For it is in surrendering our lives that we can find true meaning of life (Matt 10:39).  For it is humbling ourselves that we find ourselves exalted (Matt 23:12).  For it is in giving that we receive (Luke 6:38). For it is in our weaknesses that we become strong (2 Cor  12:9,10). 

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

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