robertogreco + confucianism   5

A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying - NYTimes.com
"Just be yourself.

The advice is as maddening as it is inescapable. It’s the default prescription for any tense situation: a blind date, a speech, a job interview, the first dinner with the potential in-laws. Relax. Act natural. Just be yourself.

But when you’re nervous, how can you be yourself? How you can force yourself to relax? How can you try not to try?

It makes no sense, but the paradox is essential to civilization, according to Edward Slingerland. He has developed, quite deliberately, a theory of spontaneity based on millenniums of Asian philosophy and decades of research by psychologists and neuroscientists.

He calls it the paradox of wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action.” Pronounced “ooo-way,” it has similarities to the concept of flow, that state of effortless performance sought by athletes, but it applies to a lot more than sports. Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.

Dr. Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that the quest for wu wei has been going on ever since humans began living in groups larger than hunter-gathering clans. Unable to rely on the bonds of kinship, the first urban settlements survived by developing shared values, typically through religion, that enabled people to trust one another’s virtue and to cooperate for the common good.

But there was always the danger that someone was faking it and would make a perfectly rational decision to put his own interest first if he had a chance to shirk his duty. To be trusted, it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly.

Hence the preoccupation with wu wei, whose ancient significance has become clearer to scholars since the discovery in 1993 of bamboo strips in a tomb in the village of Guodian in central China. The texts on the bamboo, composed more than three centuries before Christ, emphasize that following rules and fulfilling obligations are not enough to maintain social order.

These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”

That paradox has kept philosophers and theologians busy ever since, as Dr. Slingerland deftly explains in his new book, “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.” One school has favored the Confucian approach to effortless grace, which actually requires a great deal of initial effort.

Through willpower and the rigorous adherence to rules, traditions and rituals, the Confucian “gentleman” was supposed to learn proper behavior so thoroughly that it would eventually become second nature to him. He would behave virtuously and gracefully without any conscious effort, like an orator who knows his speech so well that it seems extemporaneous.

But is that authentic wu wei? Not according to the rival school of Taoists that arose around the same time as Confucianism, in the fifth century B.C. It was guided by the Tao Te Ching, “The Classic of the Way and Virtue,” which took a direct shot at Confucius: “The worst kind of Virtue never stops striving for Virtue, and so never achieves Virtue.”

Taoists did not strive. Instead of following the rigid training and rituals required by Confucius, they sought to liberate the natural virtue within. They went with the flow. They disdained traditional music in favor of a funkier new style with a beat. They emphasized personal meditation instead of formal scholarship.

Rejecting materialistic ambitions and the technology of their age, they fled to the countryside and practiced a primitive form of agriculture, pulling the plow themselves instead of using oxen. Dr. Slingerland calls them “the original hippies, dropping out, turning on, and stickin’ it to the Man more than 2,000 years before the invention of tie-dye and the Grateful Dead.”

Variations of this debate would take place among Zen Buddhist, Hindu and Christian philosophers, and continue today among psychologists and neuroscientists arguing how much of morality and behavior is guided by rational choices or by unconscious feelings.

“Psychological science suggests that the ancient Chinese philosophers were genuinely on to something,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”

However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.

Some people, like politicians and salespeople, can get pretty good at faking spontaneity, but we’re constantly looking for ways to expose them. We put presidential candidates through marathon campaigns looking for that one spontaneous moment that reveals their “true” character.

Before signing a big deal, businesspeople often insist on getting to know potential partners at a boozy meal because alcohol makes it difficult to fake feelings. Neuroscientists have achieved the same effect in brain scanners by applying magnetic fields that suppress cognitive-control ability and in this way make it harder for people to tell convincing lies.

“Getting drunk is essentially an act of mental disarmament,” Dr. Slingerland writes. “In the same way that shaking right hands with someone assures them that you’re not holding a weapon, downing a few tequila shots is like checking your prefrontal cortex at the door. ‘See? No cognitive control. You can trust me.’ ”

But if getting drunk is not an option, what’s the best strategy for wu wei — trying or not trying? Dr. Slingerland recommends a combination. Conscious effort is necessary to learn a skill, and the Confucian emphasis on following rituals is in accord with psychological research showing we have a limited amount of willpower. Training yourself to follow rules automatically can be liberating, because it conserves cognitive energy for other tasks.

But trying can become counterproductive, as the Taoists recognized and psychologists have demonstrated in an experiment with a pendulum. When someone holding the pendulum was instructed to keep it from moving, the effort caused it to move even more.

“Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills,” Dr. Slingerland says. “But in many domains actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”

He likes the compromise approach of Mencius, a Chinese philosopher in the fourth century B.C. who combined the Confucian and Taoist approaches: Try, but not too hard. Mencius told a parable about a grain farmer who returned one evening exhausted from his labors.

“I’ve been out in the fields helping the sprouts grow,” he explained, whereupon his worried sons rushed out to see the results. They found a bunch of shriveled sprouts that he’d yanked to death.

The sprouts were Mencius’ conception of wu wei: Something natural that requires gentle cultivation. You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves."
wuwei  meditation  self  2014  relaxation  authenticity  paradox  edwardslingerland  spontaneity  taiteching  confucius  confucianism  materialsm  virtue  rules  willpower  tradition  behavior  flow  effort  effortlessness  cooperation  psychology 
december 2014 by robertogreco
3quarksdaily: Sam Hamill Interviewed
"Shadab: What is the translator’s first allegiance: the original poem in all its cultural specificity (context, tradition-based allusions, nuanced language) or the poem’s more “translatable” aspect— its essence and meaning from a universal viewpoint?

Sam: Each translation brings its own particular challenges. Every translation is unique. Many classical Chinese poems can be translated in a very literal way—like Tao Te Ching for instance. And yet we have perfectly awful translations of it from people like Stephen Mitchell when the translator intrudes on the text. It’s a delicate dance. Mitchell reads no Chinese, so he simply invents and interprets from what others have done. I go through the poems character by character and try to make the poem a poem in English that is true to the original. We can’t replicate the 5 or 7-syllable line of classical Chinese poetry, nor mirror the interior and exterior rhymes, so I seek a speaking music in English to convey the sense of rhythm in our own tongue. In my Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, there are a variety of styles and distinctly different voices. We lose a lot of nuance and subtlety when bringing them into English.

Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?

Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich, while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.

Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?

Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.

Shadab: Is there such a thing as a “poem for all times”?

Sam: Sure. “Ode to the West Wind” would be a great poem in any language any day. Same with the great Zen poets or Rilke’s “Archaic Bust of Apollo” or… I could make a very long list.

Shadab: Are poets duty-bound to include a political consciousness/conscience in their work?

Sam: “Duty-bound?” I think not. But it’s almost impossible to write “apolitical” poetry in a world in which everything has political ties either directly or indirectly. A simple love poem is loaded with politics: is it heterosexual love we celebrate today? Is the “she” submissive or assertive? Is the “he” passive or dominant? Is “she” objectified or are her complexities reflected in the poetry? We’d have no “romance” in our poetry were it not for the meeting of Arabic and European tradition in Provence in the 12th century. I can’t imagine a poetry without conscience. Poetry, because it’s meant to communicate, is a social medium. Art is a social activity because it reaches out. Whether it’s Hopper or Goya, Plath or Rich or Gary Snyder, there is a social engagement that reflects back on culture and history.

Shadab: Is activist poetry effective as a catalyst for change in our times?

Sam: The “women’s movement” of the 60s and 70s was mostly begun by poets: Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich, Robin Morgan, Susan Griffin, et alia. They were inspired by Sappho, by Akhmatova, etc. Poetry has almost always been a part of social revolution. Think of the great poets of the Spanish resistance to fascism or the role of poets in Latin America and elsewhere. Nazim Hikmet struck terror into the hearts of his oppressors.

Shadab: How would you define the term world poet? Has America produced such a poet?

Sam: Whitman. He was read all over Latin America before we northerns realized how important he was. And to a lesser degree, Ezra Pound, and many of the post-modern poets transcend our borders.

Shadab: You once said: “You can’t write about character and the human condition and be apolitical—that’s not the kind of world we’ve ever lived in.”
Unlike most politically inclined poets, “apolitical” poets, such as the supremely popular former poet laureate Billy Collins (and a number of others), seem to have received tremendous success in earning laurels and even money. Why is that?

Sam: They entertain the lowest common denominator. They ask (or demand) almost nothing from their audience. They are the Edgar Guests of our age. They also ask very little of themselves, and certainly nothing the least bit revolutionary. They don’t present any threat to the status quo. Billy Collins was Poet Laureate when the USA invaded Iraq. But you’ll find no protest in his poetry."



"Sam: A poet’s first duty is to open his or her heart and stand naked in the act of revelation. I wouldn’t be a poet laureate even if asked. My “master” is revolution—nonviolent anti-capitalist humane revolution. The greatest threat to the world today is American imperialism, just as it was a hundred years ago. The body count is almost beyond comprehension—millions dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide against Palestinian peoples whose lands are being stolen day by day, 30,000 gun deaths in the USA every year, drone bombings of children in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the sabotage of democratic governments in Latin American and elsewhere, sweatshops in Indonesia and China… the list goes on and on. Who will listen to the cries of the world? Who will dare speak for those who have been silenced?"
samhamill  poetry  capitalism  pacifism  imperialism  2014  interviews  activism  writing  politics  billycollins  translation  waltwhitman  garysnyder  margaretatwood  adrennerich  robinmorgan  susangriffith  basho  rilke  zen  buddhism  sappho  language  taoteching  asia  saigyo  tufu  taosim  confucianism  non-attachment  kennethrexroth 
september 2014 by robertogreco
In Korea, Changes in Society and Family Dynamics Drive Rise in Elderly Suicides - NYTimes.com
"The woman’s death is part of one of South Korea’s grimmest statistics: the number of people 65 and older committing suicide, which has nearly quadrupled in recent years, making the country’s rate of such deaths among the highest in the developed world. The epidemic is the counterpoint to the nation’s runaway economic success, which has worn away at the Confucian social contract that formed the bedrock of Korean culture for centuries.

That contract was built on the premise that parents would do almost anything to care for their children — in recent times, depleting their life savings to pay for a good education — and then would end their lives in their children’s care. No Social Security system was needed. Nursing homes were rare.

But as South Korea’s hard-charging younger generations joined an exodus from farms to cities in recent decades, or simply found themselves working harder in the hypercompetitive environment that helped drive the nation’s economic miracle, their parents were often left behind. Many elderly people now live out their final years poor, in rural areas with the melancholy feel of ghost towns."
socialcontract  2012  korea  society  capitalism  wealth  money  aging  suicide  confucianism  parenting  poverty  socialsafetynet  families  care  retirement 
february 2013 by robertogreco
Confucius on Teaching | Beyond School
The Master said, “I will not enlighten a heart that is not already struggling to understand, nor will I provide the proper words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.”Analects 7.8
confucius  confucianism  clayburell  teaching  motivation  learning  tcsnmy  education  unschooling  deschooling  intrinsicmotivation  from delicious
january 2011 by robertogreco
Advice for Teachers Scorned | Beyond School
"East Asia is blessed by Confucianism. When Han Dynasty...put political support behind [his] teachings...unknowingly rooted in Chinese spirit a devotion to education & scholarship...teachers, students, & schools.
politics  unschooling  schools  education  teaching  clayburell  confucius  confucianism  asia  china  korea  japan  respect  learning  academics  teachers  students  choices  braindrain  eastasia  priorities 
july 2010 by robertogreco

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