If you ever had a sleepless night, then you will perfectly understand why trying to fall asleep does not usually work. Instead, by making yourself fall asleep, you became more awake and soon began to ruminate how much time had been wasted and how dreadful the next morning would be. The moment when sleep became a deliberate and effortful action, sleepiness vanished, leaving us wide awake.
There is one defining feature about sleep—it is totally spontaneous. We simple do it and we do not know why and how. If you ask a good sleeper how they fell asleep last night, they would probably be stunned and speechless. We sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. It is as simple as that.
However, to insomniacs or troubled sleepers (I was once one of them), sleep is a constant battle. We do every thing that should help—we make sure bed is only used for sleep, we do not eat or exercise before going to bed, we avoid caffeine, we try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, we take care of noise and light, but despite all these efforts, we went to bed with full hope but only to find ourselves lying awake. The more you try, the more you bet on sleep, and the more frustrated you will become when you cannot fall asleep.
Here is the trick: for good sleepers, sleep is such a natural and spontaneous activity like breathing, but for troubled sleepers, sleep is an effortful and delicate exercise that is no easier than working out a math problem. We cannot help but ask: why effort is not translated into success?
This is exactly what Slingerland tried to answer in this book. He reviewed four different schools of early Chinese philosophy, including Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi, and how they proposed to attain spontaneity and reach the state of “wu-wei”. Yes, you heard me right. Confucianism was considered by Slingerland as a system to promote wu-wei, just like Taoism. Here is his argument.
Whether Confucianism or Taoism, the goal is quite alike—to achieve order, to relieve suffering, and to reach a balance between individuals and between states.The end-state is no different between Confucianism and Taoism—spontaneous conducts that promote peace and happiness.
Slingerland made an excellent summary of each philosopher’s approach: Confucius: try hard not to try; by stringent education, acculturation, and rituals. Mencius: try, but not too hard; we only need to identify and promote the sprout. Laozi: stop trying; by giving up and unlearning what we have acculturated, let things happen. Zhuangzi: forget all about it; there is no trying, nor is there not trying. Forget everything and everything will be yours.
I prefer Zhuangzi over all others—there isn’t any good justification but my natural disposition and temperament. How beautiful was his stories! How nonchalant but wise he was! How adorable is his love for pleasure and imagination and his contempt for rules and dogma!
The essential message is, no matter which school of philosophy you follow, trying something deliberately does not often lead to success—dating, sports, cooking, just to name a few. Instead of trying, we might consider the opposite—try not to try, so we “try” to be spontaneous and “try” to be less effortful, although such a statement is fundamental self-contradictory. The fact is clear—being spontaneous is often more successful and attractive. However, the solution to being spontaneous is entirely unclear. From philosophy to psychology to neuroscience, we are all puzzled by this paradox. We want to become spontaneous, but by trying to be spontaneous is already not spontaneous.
To me, too much trying is also the reason for many psychological problems. We try too much, so we worry about future and ruminate about past. We focus too much on the outcome, while we ignore the process. We try to make things happen, but we forget that at times, what we could best do is to let things happen.
To end this review, there is one interesting strategy for your troubled sleepers. Try to stay awake as long as you could. Then you will find yourself falling asleep without even knowing it.