The Disadvantages of Depth

One of the first attractions of philosophy was that it offered a deeper understanding.  It may not have promised answers, but some things are too big for questions and answers, and philosophy was the one discipline that allowed no limitations on its inquiry.  I took for granted that a deep understanding was superior to a shallow one; that a considered answer would always trump an ill-considered response.  But it turns out that there are realms where a shallow understanding is more than sufficient, and an ill-considered response is by no means disadvantageous.

How is this possible?

It is possible because regardless of the merits of depth, it has the following drawbacks: depth is slow, depth is cautious, depth is elitist.  Depth is therefore easy to decry as unnecessary, wasteful, and inappropriate.  Better still, depth can be characterised as something other than depth entirely – it can be superficially described as uncertainty, hesitation, arrogance, obstinacy, or inactivity.  In fact all of these descriptors may seem entirely justified from the point of view of someone with no interest in depth or appreciation of its value.  So long as one is judged by shallow people, one’s pursuit of greater depth will be entirely unappreciated and disparaged.

In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.  Why look for greater depth than is required to convince one’s peers?  Greater depth will just slow you down, and when it comes to selling oneself, creating an image, or making an impression: qui prior est tempore potior est jure.  ‘He who is earlier in time is stronger in law’.

As one of the most enigmatic passages from the Dao De Jing explains, he who pursues a deeper understanding finds himself at odds with the rest of humanity:

How joyous the mass of people are, as if banqueting on the sacrificed ox, as if mounting a tower in spring –
I alone am still, without visible sign, like a new born baby yet to smile, all listless, like one with no home.
The mass of people have more than enough –
I alone appear bereft; I, with the mind of a dolt, so slow.
Ordinary men are brilliant –
I am dim.
Ordinary men are perceptive –
I am closed.
Sudden, like the sea, like a tempest, as though endless, the mass of people all have their means –
I alone am obstinate, uncouth.
I alone wish to be different from others, and value feeding from the mother.

translated by Robert Eno


The pursuit of depth separates us from the majority of people.  It brings with it different priorities, different concerns, a different way of perceiving the world.  But for us it is self-evidently the better part of life.  And if the better part of life is ridiculed by others, then as the Dao De Jing states:

When the man of highest capacities hears Tao
He does his best to put it into practice.
When the man of middling capacity hears Tao
He is in two minds about it.
When the man of low capacity hears Tao
He laughs loudly at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Therefore the proverb has it:
“The way out into the light often looks dark,
The way that goes ahead often looks as if it went back.”
The way that is least hilly often looks as if it went up and down,
The “power” that is really loftiest looks like an abyss,
What is sheerest white looks blurred.
The “power” that is most sufficing looks inadequate,
The “power” that stands firmest looks flimsy.
What is in its natural, pure state looks faded;
The largest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel takes the longest to finish,
Great music has the faintest notes,
The Great From is without shape.
For Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet Tao alone supports all things and brings them to fulfillment.

translated by Arthur Waley


Stifling Creativity

What is it that stifles creativity?

I have an idea, and then an almost undetectable movement in my mind nullifies it.

If I gave this movement words, it would say “don’t worry. it’s not important. it won’t matter” and surely part of me agrees.

But the part that wants to write is stymied. It’s very difficult to be productive when your own mind is telling you your creation has no real significance.

I’ve tried to trace out the contours of this strange mental landscape where intriguing thoughts and moving ideas can fall away as sudden as their first appearance. I’ve searched for a logic or a balance to it: maybe my desire to publish distorts and inflates the apparent worth of ideas that don’t really have enough substance? Like someone who falls for get-rich-quick schemes, confirmation bias exagerrates the evidence of success and hides any evidence to the contrary.

If I forget about wanting to write, I will recognise worthy ideas and motivations when they do arise. Yet the fear is that this laissez-faire, natural approach will not be enough, that I must really push if I want to get anywhere. I’m too easily caught up by hopes and expectations, and for all the stress and strain that follows, accomplish little more than anxiety. Such fears are totally contrary to my own deeper beliefs.

This lesson is reflected in Zhuangzi’s anecdote of the archer:

“He who is contending for a piece of earthenware puts forth all his skill. If the prize be a buckle of brass, he shoots timorously; if it be for an article of gold, he shoots as if he were blind. The skill of the archer is the same in all the cases; but (in the two latter cases) he is under the influence of solicitude, and looks on the external prize as most important. All who attach importance to what is external show stupidity in themselves.”

This idea of the natural, ‘ziran’ 自然 , is prominent in Daoist philosophy and we shall return to it in future posts. For present purposes ziran means that it is better, in relation to new ideas, to let them arise naturally and without pressure. Having a purpose in mind distorts perception, judgement, and reflection, even to our peril.

You cannot force your creativity, though you can feed it. We can also, like the archer, hone our skills through hard work and diligent practice. These aspects of self-cultivation mean that hard work does take place, effort is fruitful, and creativity remains spontaneous and free, because these diverse functions retain their proper place, the correct relationship with one another. External influences – hopes and expectation, worries and fears – throw our internal state into disorder such that we end up trying to be creative by force, make our efforts spontaneous and diffuse, and, in Daoist terms, neglect the root in favour of the branches.

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:


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!