The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Zen Buddhism and Taoism

Because we live in a world in which so much of what we need and want can be purchased with a tap, where a college degree is merely an easy five clicks away and instant gratification is measured in nanoseconds, one might be led to believe that the just-do-it principle is especially appealing in contemporary culture. Perfection right at our fingertips seems to be our culture’s motto. But although the maxim in its myriad forms is enormously popular today, it is not merely a fad, for it has been promoted by great thinkers of the past and is argued for today by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, among others.10 I now turn to some of these contexts, beginning with a discussion of just-do-it in the Zen Buddhism and Taoism. For those of you who crave distinctions, I counsel patience; you will get a flurry of them in the next chapter where I discuss stronger and weaker forms of just-do-it and the different kinds of mental processes that are thought to be banned by just-do-it; indeed, so many distinctions arise in the next chapter that I shall need to council perseverance (or at least a good strong cup of coffee). But for now, let us merely become acquitted with some of the background.

We was that in Herrigel’s popularized version of Zen, the best actions of the expert archer are not even done by the archer himself: it shoots, not the archer. This particular aspect of Herrigel’s view, however, may not capture classical Zen teachings. As Yamada Shoji (2001) explains in his congenially titled article, “The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery,” Herrigel did not speak Japanese, and the translator whom Herrigel typically relied on during his lessons with Awa (the master archer whose teachings Herrigel claims to impart to the reader) was out sick when the crucial idea of “it shoots” was conveyed. Moreover, Shoji points out, the phrase “it shoots” does not appear in the first draft of the book at all. The conclusion Shoji draws is that the idea of “it shoots,” was either a misinterpretation of the Japanese “that’s it,” or simply invented by the author himself.

Shoji’s dispelling of the “it shoots” myth, notwithstanding, he does not discredit the “it shoots” council entirely, for he also suggests that at the highest level of performance actions may very well just happen. Indeed, his ultimate claim is that Harrigel is not representative of traditional Japanese archery practice only inasmuch as he imparts that the view that from the beginning of one’s practice the thinking mind, or self, should not be present. For as Shoji explains, some traditional Japanese archery manuals do advocate that once an archer has achieved a certain degree of expertise, the archer dissolves. This is the doctrine of “nothing is needed,” and is illustrated in what are referred to as the secret teachings in The Book of Yoshida Toyokazu’s Answers: “as for the stance, the positioning of the body, the positioning of the bow, the grip on the bow, the grip on the string, the raising of the bow, the drawing of the bow, the draw length, the extension, the tension, the balance of hard and soft, the stretch, the rainfall release, and the morning storm release: I see that none are needed” (quoted by Shoji, p. 8). All of the technical advice that a student learns, according to this manual, is abandoned when the student becomes an expert.11

Daoism, in its two classic texts, the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, has also been seen as supporting a just-do-it mentality inasmuch as it advocates a way of acting in the world that does not involve trying or effort. Though there is controversy over just how to interpret these texts, Slingerland (2014) sees them as promoting the idea that the pinnacle of skill involves a type of effortless action captured by the Chinese concept of wu-wei, which is variously translated as the injunction to act yet avoid action, or to act yet avoid purposeful action, or conceptualized action, or false action, all of which have at least a just-do-it flavor.

The contemporary philosopher J. David Velleman references this idea in “The Way of the Wanton” (2008), in which he questions whether the pinnacle of performance involves a reflective stance towards one’s own actions. According to Velleman, in performing well, one need not “keep one’s eye on an ultimate goal, or… follow the precepts of a method, or even…focus on one’s actions themselves” (p. 184); rather, according to Velleman, we learn from examples of skills in the Zhuangzi that for the skilled artisan, actions just flow; actions are not guided by the self, as it is put in the Zhuangzi, but rather “by what is inherently so” (Ivanhoe and van Norden, 2005, p. 225). Indeed, Mrs. Craster’s poem—the epigraph for this chapter and a humorous take on just-do-it—might have been inspired from a story in the Zhuangzi and discussed by Velleman, in which a mythical one-legged beast asks a millipede how she manages to control all her legs, to which the millipede responds, “I just put my heavenly mechanism into motion. I don’t know how it works!” Velleman does not advocate that we should be like the millipede, as he sees value in thoughtful training that involves self-reflection. However, he does suggest that ultimately, the ideal action leaves reflection behind. Experts, as he sees it, “have acquired their skills through training that involved self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and self-correction…[but this capacity to reflect] is no longer exercised after they have perfected their skill” (p. 188).

Closer to Velleman’s conception of expertise, is another story from the Zhauangzi that Velleman also cites. This is the story of the butcher:
When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn’t see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. (Ivanhoe and van Norden, 2005, p. 225)12
On this account, the action of the knife is not is guided, not by the butcher, but, as it is put in the Zhuangzi, by “what is inherently so” (Velleman, p. 184).

We see a sensationalized version of the butcher’s effortless action in Herrigel’s account of archery. In the same way that the butcher’s knife proceeds without the butcher visually guiding it, Awa, as Harrigel describes him, is able to hit a bull’s-eye without visually guiding his arrow. The apogee of the book occurs when, practicing in the dark, Awa hits a bull’s-eye and then his second shot cracks the nock of the first arrow. According to Herrigel, Awa’s explanation of this amazing feat is that “it did not come from me, it was not me who made the hit” (1936, p. 206).

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