In Chinese culture, the benefit of not trying too hard—of “going with the flow” or “being in the zone”—has long been appreciated by me. The jazz great Charlie Parker is said to have advised aspiring musicians, “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.” This same openness is also crucial in acting and other performing arts, which fundamentally rely on spontaneity and seemingly effortless responsiveness. A stand-up comedian who is not in the zone is not funny, and an actor who is not fully inhabiting his or her role comes across as wooden and fake. Explaining how to prepare for a role, the actor Michael Caine cautions that simply memorizing the script and trying to act it out step by step will never work; when it comes time for your line, the only way to bring it off authentically is to not try to remember it. “You must be able to stand there not thinking of that line. You take it off the other actor’s face. He is presumably new-minting the dialogue as if he himself just thought of it by listening and watching, as if it were all new to him, too. Otherwise, for your next line, you’re not listening and not free to respond naturally, to act spontaneously.”
Getting the mind to shut off and allow the body to do its thing is clearly a challenge. An even bigger problem—and one we encounter much more often—is the trick of getting your mind to let go of itself. In our everyday lives, this tension is perhaps most intensely distilled in the throes of insomnia. You have a big meeting tomorrow and need to be at the top of your game, so you go to bed early and try to relax into sleep, only to find yourself tortured by incessant thoughts, helpless in the grip of the restless monkey-brain. Counting sheep just makes it worse, no position seems comfortable; you feel in your bones how tired you really are, but how do you make your brain shut off? RELAX! you think to yourself, but it’s no use.
Insomnia is a fairly simple case, but the problem also manifests itself in more complex—typically social—situations, where the impact is far greater. Consider dating. Anyone who has ever been single for a significant amount of time is familiar with the “never rains but it pours” phenomenon: you can sometimes go for long periods of being miserably alone, desperately trying to meet someone but having absolutely no luck. Then something happens, an encounter occurs, you go out, you have a great time, and suddenly it’s raining women or men (or both, if you’re so inclined). Attractive potential partners smile at you on the street, strike up conversations with you in cafés. The previously inaccessible beauty at the video store counter—who in the midst of your dry stretch would never even make eye contact with you—suddenly shows an interest in your predilection for Wim Wenders films, and the next thing you know you have plans for that Friday (a Friday!) to watch Wings of Desire and get an Indian take-away. (This example is in no way autobiographical.) You sniff your clothes trying to detect any special pheromones you might be emitting, but if the phenomenon is biochemically based your senses are too dull to detect it. Bathing appears to have no negative effect.
Everyone enjoys these periods of deluge, but once you’re back in a dry spell the pattern seems wasteful and fundamentally unjust. There are too many potential dates when you can’t enjoy them all, and none when they are really needed. Serious reflection—and during a drought you have a lot of time to reflect—suggests a possible reason for the pattern, or at least why it is so hard to consciously alter: the best way to get a date seems to be to not want to get a date. The problem is that it’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge. How do you make yourself not want something that you actually do want?
For the most part, we are preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying. Three-year-olds attend drill sessions to get an edge on admission to the best primary school and then grow into hypercompetitive high school students popping Ritalin to enhance their test results and keep up with a brutal schedule of after-school activities. Both our personal and our professional lives increasingly revolve around a relentless quest for greater efficiency and higher productivity, crowding out leisure time, vacation, and simple unstructured pleasures. The result is that people of all ages spend their days stumbling around tethered umbilically to their smartphones, immersed in an endless stream of competitive games, e-mails, texts, tweets, dings, pings, and pokes, getting up too early, staying up too late, in the end somehow falling into a fitful sleep illuminated by the bright glow of tiny LCD screens.
Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive. This is because the problem of choking or freezing up extends far beyond sports or artistic performance. A politician who is not, at some level, truly relaxed and sincere while giving a speech will come off as stiff and uncharismatic—a problem that plagued U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In the same way, a real love of reading, a genuine commitment to learning, and a deep curiosity about the world cannot be forced. Like that most elusive of modern goals, happiness, spontaneity seems to be as tricky to capture and keep as the hot hand in football. Consciously try to grab it and it’s gone.