Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Art of Trying NOT To Try


Austin Kleon from 'Show Your Work'

In order to achieve success, stop trying. Sounds counterintuitive, right?  I recently came across a theory based on an ancient Chinese concept called wu wei (oooo-way) from Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland.  The literal translation of wu wei is "not trying" or "no doing". Though externally you appear to be very active in the pursuit of your art, there is an internal sense of effortlessness, effectiveness and unselfconsciousness.

What wu wei is NOT, is passivity and resignation.  In short, wu wei is a mindful cultivation of desirable behaviors that are nurtured to the point of being on auto-pilot so you are in the "zone" or "in the flow".  You are in a creative zone where you forget about trying so hard, and forget about not trying, until you are overcome with automatic behaviors that quietly dictates your move where deliberate and continued practice leads to mastery.  Call it flow or spontaneity, wu wei is a force to be reckoned with, a skill all artists crave.

So what does this have to do with photography?  Think about it.  As a photographer you're in constant pursuit of the perfect image, pre-visualized or otherwise, which by the way is unattainable because it is always going to be the next shot. You eventually get snookered into thinking that "if only I had _________ I could _________.  Some photographers fall victim with the obsession to have the latest technology, and not just in a limited quantity of "only one", but more likely an abundance of riches, thinking that's what preventing them from creating great art.  Not to be satisfied with just one lens, some think the greater collection of accessories, the better. If you really think a backpack, or rolling bag and cases filled with gadgets and lenses will make you a better photographer, then we've got a larger problem to address.

My point is this.  Embrace the concept of wu wei and don't get sidetracked by the equipment issue, or play the "what if" game.  Consider the following behaviors to get into your wu wei, or more to the point, try not to try so hard:

  • Quiet your mind, stop the internal "noise"
  • Take images of what interests YOU
  • Be mindful and open to spontaneous possibilities
  • Go on a photo shoot without structure (e.g.,no shot list)
  • Focus on your creative vision for the image 
  • Try something out of your comfort zone
  • Don't over-think the shot, or the project
  • Let your equipment take a backseat; your vision should dictate the shot
  • Give yourself the freedom to be playful and engage with the moment
  • Don't try so hard, let things happen in a spontaneous manner

In closing, here's a poem/story, The Way of Heaven from the book of Zhuangzi that demonstrates how to move through the world in a wu wei manner.

The Way of Heaven
Excels in overcoming, though it does not content;
In responding, though it does not speak;
In spontaneously attracting, though it does not summon;
In planning for the future, though it is always relaxed.
The Net of Heaven covers all;
Although its mesh is wide, nothing ever slips through.

Do not go out the door, and so understand the whole world;
Do not look out the window, and understand the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
This is why the sage understands the world without going abroad,
Achieves clarity without having to look,
And attains success without trying.

For a more in-depth review of wu wei, Slingerland's book, Trying Not To Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity is available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0770437613/braipick-20

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