What is Intelligent Spontaneity?


– Contemplating Taoism’s Art of Wu-Wei



The embodied model of the self was the primary viewpoint during the Warring States period of China and other parts of Asia. But it is in China especially that we discover the embodied mind model. During the Warring States period there were numerous philosophers and sages whose names we still know today. They were, in historical order, Lao-tzu, Confucius, Mencius, and Chuang-tzu. Though their philosophies may differ somewhat, their way for understanding the mind and body was the same. Their view of human nature was mind-body holism. Their philosophies, social systems, religions, and ritual practices reflect this holistic view. For centuries, ancient Chinese people followed their philosophies and rigorous training to cultivate harmonious dispositions in the self, and they had no doubt that human cognition was embodied. Any other model, such as mind-body dualism, was shown the contempt it deserved.


If the embodied model of the self was understood to be how humans were hardwired, then we can see why a healthy skepticism developed toward mind-body dualism and its rational agents. In the East, in general, the skepticism shown toward rationality has culturally held firm. The battle within us, then, is not between a rational being attempting to lord it over an unruly body but instead is a tug of war between an allocation of function between the two systems of hot and cold cognition.


In the West and the modern developed world, the majority of our energy is allocated to the function of the cold system trying to control the natural hot system. But in the ancient East it was considered absurd to try to overemploy the cold system, since the main driving force and our essential nature were thought to be within the hot system. The focus in ancient China, then, was more about ingrained skill and shaping our character because they can both be cultivated in our hot system as natural and spontaneous.


So Eastern thought, especially the ancient Chinese embodied model of the self, can be seen as (1) an essential corrective to the way modern Western philosophy has a tendency to focus on the cold cognitive aspects of conscious thought, rationality, and willpower and (2) a partial inspiration for the modern revolution of embodied cognition in cognitive science. This is why merging cognitive science and Eastern thought into one coherent model can be helpful for developing skill and attaining peak performance.



Skill Stories of the Effortless Mind in Ancient China


Perhaps no other sage or philosopher during the Warring States period explores the development of skill more than Chuang-tzu. The Chuang-tzu text is like a manual for cultivating skill and training spontaneity, and a lot of other things, which synthesizes well with modern cognitive science. The skill emphasized by Chuang-tzu in his writings is not only about expertise but also life skills, which are supposed to contribute to developing harmonious dispositions in the self. Chuang-tzu, on a subtle level, examines the science of skill and how to reach peak performance to the point of explaining what the actual experience is like. Chuang-tzu understood that spontaneous skill comes from the deeper, more evolutionary ancient hot system.


Somehow we need to ignite the spontaneity within the hot system naturally. The cold system interferes with the spontaneity of life. Even in ancient China people overly identified with the cold system that gives one this sense of being an isolated self. Chuang-tzu explains that our real nature, the authentic self, is beneath the rational cold cognition. He articulates this through skill stories that exhibit this transfer of functional allocation from the cold system back to the hot system.


Chuang-tzu is one of the most unusual and humorous sages throughout history. His stories of skill reflect his nature. Instead of using examples of musicians, painters, or any world class performers for his stories, he chose an unusual bunch of misfits, including a butcher, woodcarver, and swimmer and also commended the hunchback and the drunk. Chuang-tzu had a tendency to focus more on the ordinariness of life to showcase the beauty inherent within it. He used the craftsmen as examples to explain how skill and virtues can become so much a part of us (hot cognition) that they are instinctive and spontaneous.


One of the most famous stories in the Chuang-tzu text is about a butcher called Cook Ting (or Butcher Ting). The Cook Ting story setting is a traditional religious ceremony where an ox will be sacrificed in public for the ruler Lord Wen-hui and a large crowd of onlookers. Cook Ting is at center stage for this religious event. This ritual of animal sacrifice demands the difficult skill of using a blade with precise timing and perfect execution. But this appears not so difficult for Cook Ting. He slices and dices the ox up so effortlessly that Lord Wen-hui is astonished. He cannot believe such a mundane skill can reach the heights of beauty similar to an artistic performance. He approaches Cook Ting to ask how he can cut an ox up so effortlessly. Cook Ting explains that after years of cultivating his skill, he now perceives the ox with his spirit, and it spontaneously guides him in the right direction:


What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

Allowing spirit to move where it wants from a contemporary perspective is the spontaneity of the hot system naturally functioning without the hindrance of cold cognitive analysis. When Cook Ting says, “Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants,” what he is really saying is, “When I have stopped the cold cognitive thinking apparatus, the spontaneous nature of the hot system takes over and moves effortlessly with the environment” (in this case the blade moving effortlessly between bones without touching ligaments or tendons).


And yet this ability of Cook Ting’s expert butchery was something that took three years to master. From years of repetition and discipline, the skill of butchery had become as effortless, instinctual, and spontaneous as walking. The need to think about what he was doing evaporated. All that was left was a movement of effortlessness that encountered no resistance in mind, body, or environment. Cook Ting and his skill as a butcher were one because the skill was so ingrained in his hot cognition that it was as effortless as walking for him. His embodied mind had reached the height of skill, a state of emotional intuition, or intelligent spontaneity. Intelligent spontaneity is a common experience for the skillful craftsman and is one of the foundational concepts of Eastern thought.



What Is Intelligent Spontaneity?


The main focus of many ancient Chinese sages and philosophers during
the Warring States period was the concept wu-wei. Wu-wei literally means nondoing, nonforce, and effortless action. The effortlessness of wu-wei is ultimately a state of intelligent spontaneity. However, the concept of how wu-wei is achieved differs slightly among the sages. Chuang-tzu’s focus is on skill, which actually adapts perfectly to modern cognitive science.


The effortlessness of wu-wei can be seen in situations where we are trying too hard and not allowing life to naturally happen. For example, when we put a key in a lock and try to turn it too fast, we feel resistance. To unlock the door you need to be loose and relaxed, and when you jiggle the key ever so softly the door unlocks effortlessly. By moving with the lock rather than forcing the key against it you effortlessly unlock the door. The key and door analogy is not only about how expert skill is effortless but also a metaphor for how we move through life.


The story of Cook Ting is about how we can effectively move through the world with skill and not feel resistance. Reaching peak performance is the same: you attain expert skill in your desired craft, and that extends out into life in general. This feeling of effortlessness is a state of psychological ease and emotional intuition we feel through our whole body. The goal of wu-wei, then, is to effectively move smoothly through all aspects of your life, where even unexpected events are dealt with spontaneously and with intelligence. No obstacle is too big or even really perceived as an obstacle anymore. In a state of wu-wei you don’t press up against obstacles but instead act in the same fashion as with the gentle key in the lock: when you may absorb the pressure of an obstacle rather than resist it, your actions become skillful and effective. This absorb-and-respond technique is one of the foundational pillars of
traditional martial arts.


The foundation of martial arts is wu-wei at its core, cultivating intelligent spontaneity to move perfectly without having to think about it. From the first remnants of spiritually oriented martial arts, with its focus not only on intelligent spontaneity but also health, longevity, and physical immortality attributed to the philosophy of Yang Zhu, until present day martial arts, nothing has fundamentally changed. But many modern-day martial artists forget that their art is really about intelligent spontaneity, because they are attracted to competition and the chance to appear better than their opponents. This attitude also eliminates one of the primary goals of martial arts, which is to cultivate harmonious dispositions in the self, such as humility, compassion, honor, respect, honesty, and forgiveness.


Transforming your character through martial-arts training is the real proof that you understand the core philosophy of martial arts: there is no opponent other than yourself. Your perceived opponent in martial arts is reflecting back to you what it is you need to change or what it is you need to train harder to overcome within yourself. The idea of a winner and loser is purely a combative approach to martial arts and is in direct opposition to the spiritual core at its foundational roots, which is to cultivate skill to be a better person. And that spiritual core, no matter whether you use martial arts for combat or transformation, is the ability to be in intelligent spontaneity. While modern martial artists (especially mixed martial artists) often use the word flow to describe the state of being very lucid and in the zone, this more common understanding of the flow concept is at a novice level and not really at the depth of Csikszentmihalyi’s original study.


The spontaneous nature expressed through us in a state of wu-wei is the deeper and more powerful raw material of our hot cognition functioning optimally. It puts emotional intuition into adept action. Without the interference of the overanalytical cold system, you express the spontaneity of human nature intelligently. Intelligent spontaneity, then, is a fully embodied state of mind where one is perfectly calibrated to the environment.


The environment essentially becomes an extension of your skill. For example, when you are in a state of intelligent spontaneity in martial arts, you are perfectly calibrated to the obstacles you face with an opponent. The opponent will try everything to land a blow, but you see his movements almost in slow motion. As a result, you act spontaneously without its feeling like a reaction because there is no conscious thought driving it. And even if you do absorb a blow, you move with it, which is a technique in the Korean martial art hapkido. This makes the opponent overextend and lose balance, usually falling to the ground. In Chinese thought this approach is explained by the concepts yin (feminine/passive) and yang (masculine/active). In Chinese thought, yin nourishes yang. This means that when we are intelligently passive (poise) we give birth to correct action minus aggression. We usually overextend in hapkido (or any martial arts and life in general) when we are full of aggression and emotions. Essentially, if we are not receptive enough we will be hard and rigid. Hard and rigid is easily overcome by someone who is soft and flexible because they have poise and are fully present in the moment. As Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water, my friend.”


This effortless cognitive style is similar to the movements of a graceful dancer. Intelligent spontaneity is not only the effect of a dancer’s being perfectly calibrated to the environment, but it is the essential goal of martial arts, or any skill for that matter. In a state of intelligent spontaneity we approach life with a mind of no deliberation. An expert craftsman embodies this effortless state of mind. The craftsmen integrate the two systems into mind-body holism, so they are perfectly adapted to the world around them. Though to cultivate expert skill and skill in life we have to understand how a craftsman disengages from the cold system to allow the hot cognitive virtues of nature to spontaneously flower.







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