The use of being useless

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

Sometimes when reading the Yi Jing or Confucian books, we can forget that the “superior man” is not recognised as such by our society or culture.

The Daoist classics offer a more colourful account of the sage or the man of virtue as someone who stands apart from society and culture, someone whose words and actions are as likely to bemuse or confuse as they are to enlighten.

In emulating the “uncarved block” Laozi describes himself as seemingly inferior to others:

All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self-assured;
I alone depressed.
(I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.)
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.

His description is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s “use of what is useless”, and we find it echoing again in the theme of this blog – the superior man is not a utensil.

To be interested in this stuff, to take it seriously, let alone to try to practice it, is to invest in something profoundly anti-social and counter-cultural, at least as our society and culture currently stand. Like choosing poverty over wealth, low status over high, solitude over popularity.

Understanding the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end sounds well and good until you realise that “the transitory” includes everything that occupies and demands our attention in nearly every moment of ordinary life.

Who wants to be dull, dark and depressed? Who wants to be intractable and boorish? But that’s what remains when your desire for the transitory begins to fade.

Advertisements

The rectification of names

Replying to another of Matthew’s comments, I thought it worth making a new post to draw attention to a significant theme in Confucian thought.

If I may channel my inner Confucian: what bothers me about the phenomenon of Yoga drifting from its ancient roots is not a disdain for “cherry picking” nor a direct concern for the spiritual well-being of Western pseudo-yogis, but an appreciation for what Confucius called ‘the rectification of names’.

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

When someone says “Yoga”, but what they refer to is not actually Yoga, then we have the beginnings of ignorance and confusion. Defining our terms is vital from a philosophical perspective, and relying on incorrect terms or misappropriated terms is simply wrong; why do it if you don’t have to?

But the truth is that I enjoy looking at the meanings, natures, and definitions of things, as well as the origins and use of words.  I don’t really care if no one else thinks it important or relevant or worth the time and effort.

 

“In springtime the dragon is useless”

A good friend recently gave me a copy of a book called ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘ by Simon Leys, the pen name of the late Pierre Ryckmans, the renowned Belgian-Australian sinologist, literary critic, and writer.

The ‘uselessness’ theme is not incidental.  In his foreword the author quotes Zhuangzi:

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

In case there was any doubt, the first chapter ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ demonstrates Ryckmans’ deep appreciation of useless:

“In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to the “smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.

What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): the successful man adapts himself to the world.  The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

I’m already into the second chapter, which includes an amusing private exchange between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ irreverent attack on Mother Theresa.

I’m especially looking forward to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, amidst a wealth of other literary commentary; but I suspect the most intriguing section will prove to be the significant minority of the book dedicated to Ryckmans’ work as a sinologist, exploring Chinese political and literary culture from the misunderstood Confucius to contemporary political dissidents.

I’ll leave you with a poem from Tao Yuanming, quoted in Ryckmans’ essay on Chinese aesthetics:

I built my hut among people
And yet their noise does not disturb me
How is this possible, I ask you?
Solitude can be created by the mind, it is not a matter of distance.
Plucking Chrysanthemums at the foot of the hedge,
I gaze toward the faraway mountains.
At dusk the mountain air is beautiful,
When birds are returning.
Truth is at the heart of all this:
I wish to express it, yet find no words.

Thank you greatly for the gift Mark, I know I will enjoy it!

An intellectual journey: dodging the culture wars, thinking for myself

MercatorNet.com has just published my latest article on seeking truth instead of victory, and avoiding the pitfalls of a partisan approach:

It is vital that we likewise resist the temptation to let old answers take the place of live reason. If we succumb to this temptation we cease to exercise the virtues of wisdom and instead become mere partisans of a different stripe. We risk replacing naïve liberal narratives and attitudes with conservative or neo-conservative ones. The problem is not that the narratives are liberal or conservative, but that in either case we allow narratives to inform our thoughts instead of doing the hard work of thinking for ourselves. The truth is neither liberal nor conservative, and we should be wary of any tendency in ourselves to let the difficult and elegant pursuit of truth collapse into a partisan attitude.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/an_intellectual_journey_dodging_the_culture_wars_thinking_for_myself

Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.

China’s Virtuous President

My latest article on MercatorNet examines Chinese President Xi Jinping’s penchant for quoting Chinese philosophers.  China has come a long way since the Cultural Revolution, when Confucius and other great thinkers were derided and contemned.  What does the changing regime have in store for the great tradition of the sages?

Does Xi truly believe with Confucius that “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage”? Or is he just looking for a pragmatic new facade for the much more recent ‘tradition’ of unchallenged Communist Party rule?

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.

Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.

Communicating Value

The Master said, “If the search for riches is sure to be successful, though I should become a groom with whip in hand to get them, I will do so. As the search may not be successful, I will follow after that which I love.”
– Confucius, the Analects (7:12)

The previous article declared that:

the idealist dream is to find a way of earning a reasonable living without compromising his ideals.

But this ‘dream’ is itself a form of compromise, in recognition of a fundamental divide between wealth and ideals.

In comments on the previous article, Jack Saunsea presented a different angle on this intersection of wealth and ideals:

For me, the question is not whether or not my “idealistic” endeavors can be used to make money; rather, if I do find them valuable, as is it likely I would find them to be the most valuable, am I communicating their value to others? Are others finding them valuable? If others do find them valuable, then my needs in life, whether being provided through monetary gain or simply through the relationships that the value I offer benefits, will be met.

This is, quite appropriately, an ideal vision of how to make a living. Rather than seek a compromise between the pursuit of ideals and the need for wealth, Jack has identified what they have in common: value. Both money and ideals are premised on value, value to oneself and value to others in relationship. The exchange of money for goods and services can be further summarised as an exchange on the basis of perceived value.

Indeed, there are plentiful examples of talented artists or craftsmen – idealists who do excellent work but fall into the melancholic trap of doubting the objective value of their creation. Their failure to set an appropriate price for their time and labour arguably reflects a general failure to honour and communicate the value of their work. Melancholics are typically more afraid of over-promising than under-selling, confident that the true value of their ideals and creations will shine through in the end.

But what if it doesn’t? Or rather, what if we are neglecting to examine how we communicate the worth of our ideals? It is typically idealistic to think ‘let the results speak for themselves’, but the reality is that we ourselves are a part of that ‘result’. The melancholic harbours a fear, or better yet: a self-consciousness, that he is a poor exemplar of the ideals he values, and that presenting himself as a product of his ideals will somehow tarnish those cherished ideals in the eyes of others. He will experience shame and humiliation, something the melancholic dreads.

As we discussed in the previous post, it is in the nature of most skills and disciplines that as we make progress, we find that there is always more progress to be made. By its very nature, attaining skill makes one more aware of the greater horizons and hence the limitations of whatever skill is attained. This is especially true of philosophy, where the search for answers brings with it an ever expanding awareness of the unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions.

It is counter-intuitive for someone in the midst of their philosophical journey to turn to others and say “You see how much I have gained? You see the skills I have developed and the rewards those skills have brought me? You see how satisfied I am in my pursuit of philosophy?”
Instead the philosopher is intent on the horizon, on the limits of his understanding. It is hard for someone always focusing on his limits to start telling others about his strengths.

But the answer may lie, as Jack suggests, not in telling others how great you are and how philosophy or some other ideal made you popular, famous, rich, and attractive; but in taking stock of how the yet-unattained ideal has enriched your life and brought value to it. You may not have answers to your philosophical questions, but you have the great enjoyment of losing yourself in the consideration of matters far beyond the trivia of everyday life. If that is something you value, perhaps you can do a better job of conveying it to others?

And if you find (to your melancholic horror) that you are not, for example, an impressive exponent of your martial art or a thrilling performer of your ancient chant, perhaps it is time to consider whether you have directed sufficient time and effort toward achieving -or better yet: expressing– in your own person the things you value in your discipline? It is, after all, typical of the melancholic idealist to forget in private enjoyment of his interests that there is a value in communicating that enjoyment to others; and that letting the results speak for themselves can mean, at times, that you are the one doing the speaking.

Pigs and Fishes – Dealing with Intractable People

According to Rev. Conrad Hock, the melancholic temperament:

reveals his inmost thoughts reluctantly and only to those whom he trusts. He does not easily find the right word to express and describe his sentiments.

Presenting one’s thoughts clearly can feel like an almost impossible task. On the one hand, having spent days, weeks, or months considering a problem, the melancholic often finds his thoughts and ideas have progressed too far to be easily communicated. On the other hand, it seems like there is a more systematic barrier to successful communication, as if there is some elusive secret to conveying the true meaning of his thoughts. As Pascal wrote:

We think we are playing on ordinary organs when playing upon man. Men are organs, it is true, but, odd, changeable, variable with pipes not arranged in proper order. Those who only know how to play on ordinary organs will not produce harmonies on these. We must know where the keys are.

Perhaps the problem is inherent to communication generally; perhaps melancholics are unique only in that they put so much stock in their precious ideas from the outset, and hence are left wondering always whether others *really* understand. There surely is a general problem of communication and influence, enough so that the Confucians and Daoists each had their perspective on how the sage, or the aspiring sage, could be sure of the effect his words, deeds, and bearing might have.

The previous post described the power of sincerity, which, in a Confucian context, is a quality with almost supernatural efficacy and reach.

In a Daoist context, the analogous concept is ’emptiness’, according to which the sage empties himself of desires or cravings, contrived thoughts and plans, and personal interests in order to embody the emptiness of the Dao itself. Section 4 of the Zhuangzi is instructive in this regard. In it Zhuangzi depicts Confucius discussing with his favoured pupil Yan Hui how to go about influencing the tyrant lord of Wei:

Yan Hui went to see Confucius and asked for permission to travel.
Confucius asked him, “Where are you going?”
“To the state of Wey.”
“What will you do there?”
“I have heard that the lord of Wey is in the prime of youth and his behavior is impetuous. He is quick to send his armies off to war and fails to see his faults. He regards it as a light matter that his people should die; corpses fill the marshlands like dried reeds and there is nothing his people can do. I have heard it from you, Master: ‘Depart the well ordered state and go to the state in disarray. The gate of the doctor is filled with the ill.’ I wish to put into practice the teachings I have learned, and so, perhaps effect some healing in Wey?”

“Ach!” said Confucius. “You’re just going to get yourself executed. What you don’t want in a Dao is some assortment of teachings. An assortment is just a profusion of notions, and if you follow a profusion of notions you’ll lose control of them. When you lose control you’ll be governed by anxiety, and once that happens you’re be beyond help. In the old days the Perfect Person cultivated the way within himself before he tried to cultivate it in others. When you haven’t yet settled what’s within you yourself, what leisure have you to concern yourself with the conduct of a tyrant?

The whole exchange is worth reading, but ends with Confucius sharing with his disciple the method for having a true and lasting influence on the tyrant:

Confucius said, “You must fast! Let me tell you. Can any action be accomplished with ease if pursued by means of the mind’s intentions? If you think it is, bright Heaven will not befriend you.”
Yan Hui said, “My family is poor, and I have not drunk wine or eaten meat for several months. Doesn’t that constitute fasting?”
“That is the fasting one does before performing rites of sacrifice. It is not the fasting of the mind.”
“May I ask, what is the fasting of the mind?”
Confucius said, “Unify your will. Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind – don’t listen with your mind, listen with your qi. The ears are limited to listening; the mind is limited to sorting. But the qi, all empty it awaits things. The Dao gathers in emptiness – emptiness: that is the fasting of the mind.”
“Before hearing this,” said Yan Hui, “and grasping it in full, I was solidly I myself. But now that I have grasped it – why, there has never been any I at all! Is this the emptiness you mean?”
“You’ve got it!” said Confucius. “I tell you, now you may go to roam inside his coop, and you’ll never be moved by fame. If he listens, then sing; if not, be still. Have no gate, have no doorway – make oneness your home and lodge in the unavoidable. That’s as close to it as can be!”

People are often disturbed by talk of ’emptiness’ and the Zhuangzi contains some of the more idiosyncratic of such statements. James Legge provides an alternative translation of the key phrase:

Hui said, ‘Before it was possible for me to employ (this method), there I was, the Hui that I am; now, that I can employ it, the Hui that I was has passed away. Can I be said to have obtained this freedom from pre-occupation?’

The Chinese is not easy:

顏回曰:「回之未始得使,實自回也;得使之也,未始有回也。可謂虛乎?」

A clumsy, literal translation might be: ‘Hui not yet begin to use, real self Hui; using it, not yet begin to have Hui. Can this be said to be empty?’

The significant difference is in whether Hui, upon using the method of ‘fasting of the mind’ finds à la Legge that “the Hui that I was has passed away” or à la Eno “there has never been any I at all!”, or instead, finds that Hui has not yet begun to exist. Why is this significant? Because the idea of self-destruction is much more severe than self-preemption, but also because Daoist metaphysics encourages a view of emptiness as prior to ‘being’. The point is not to destroy the self or watch it fade away, but to find the point prior to the emergence or actualisation of one’s most developed thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In pragmatic terms, if you are full of yourself you have nowhere to go and no way to develop. To approach the tyrant full of plans, ideas, and schemes is to have already played one’s hand, to have actualised one’s potential too soon. Emptiness is the ‘root’ while phenomena are the ‘branches’. As the Zhuangzi concludes:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit. Let your ears and eyes communicate with what is inside and put mind and knowledge on the outside. Then even the spirits will come to dwell with you, not to speak of men. Such is change in the world of things – the pivot of Emperors Yu and Shun, the constant practice of the sages Fu Xi and Ji Qu. How much more should it be a rule for others!