Being whole in power: feeling good in Chinese philosophy

Feeling good consistently reminds me of the image of water depicted in the Yi Jing:

Water sets the example for the right conduct…It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions.

Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed.

Water reaches its goal by flowing continually. It fills up every depression before it flows on. The superior man follows its example; he is concerned that goodness should be an established attribute of character rather than an accidental and isolated occurrence.

We tend to think of “goodness” in a modern moralistic sense, but the Chinese idea of virtue – like the premodern Western idea – is much more holistic than that.

To be a good person is to be more fully human. Virtue in Chinese thought is equated with the “power” that flows to all things from the Dao.

Daoist and Confucian depictions of virtue therefore tend to the more mysterious and metaphysical than the legalistic or judicial contexts found in the Abrahamic religions.

Here’s an example from the Zhuangzi, where Confucius is depicted describing mysterious power:

What do you mean when you say his powers are whole?” asked Duke Ai.

Confucius said, “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate. Day and night they change place before us and wisdom cannot spy out their source. Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the Spirit Storehouse.

If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy, if you can do this day and night without break and make it be spring with everything, mingling with all and creating the moment within your own mind – this is what I call being whole in power.”

I used to interpret this text as a statement of detachment and dispassion. But now I see in it the clear references to happiness, joy, harmony and delight.

This is not a cold and empty sage who feels nothing. It is a person who dwells in joy and happiness independent of external circumstances and thus masters them all.

Creating the moment within your own mind means actively choosing to focus on what feels good rather than letting circumstances dictate how you feel.

It is our worry and concern about external circumstances that disturb our spirit, harm our virtue, and interfere in the harmony and guidance of the Dao.

Happiness Day 26

Letting go vs highest control.

I’ve had some difficulty with meditation in the past, following all sorts of advice.

But I was listening to another Abraham-Hicks video where a woman had a similar problem, and Abraham’s response really spoke to me.

I am a very deliberate person. I like to be in control and I’m not used to “letting go”.

I’ve had a lot of success taking charge of problems and situations and questions and finding the answers by being in control.

So when meditation is presented as letting go of that…I struggle.

But that’s not the only way of looking at meditation. Meditation can be seen not as letting go of control but as utilising my highest control.

My inner being is vastly more powerful and wise than my problem-solving mind.

Or to look at it differently again, my mind is vastly more powerful and wise when it is aligned with my inner being.

It’s like in martial arts: beginners try to do everything with their arm strength alone. Punching and pulling and throwing, they copy the techniques but the power is very little because it’s limited to their arm and shoulder muscles.

But we learn over time to use the whole body in every technique, and the arms become merely the last link in the chain, conveying the much greater strength of the whole body rather than trying to do it on their own.

And in martial arts I faced the same problem: people could say “relax your arms” and for some that is enough of a cue for the rest of the body to be activated.

But I’m so used to being in control, if I relax I just get…weak arms that don’t move!

What I needed was to know that it’s not about relaxing the arms or letting go, it’s about activating and aligning with a much greater strength and a much greater control that the arms (or my mind) can then follow.

And Oh my goodness! This feeling of higher control is such a relief, now I see why people call it “letting go”!

If you’re all about control you can’t simply “let go”. You need to go to a place of higher control, and in that place the small-scale struggle and conflict just disappears.

Abraham recommends meditation not as an end in itself but because it’s the quickest way to let go of resistance. But meditation still has to be tailored to the individual because everyone has different forms of resistance in their experience.

Letting go of resistance allows our natural ease and alignment and flow to resume. And isn’t that what we’re seeking in our efforts to control things anyway?

What is understanding?

For many years I’ve taken for granted the power of understanding to change one’s perspective for the better.

But seeking to always understand more, better, or deeper is as much a form of escapism as any addiction or distraction.

The trouble with understanding is that it masquerades as a pure positive. It’s hard to say “I understand well enough” or “I don’t need to understand better” let alone “I’m okay with not understanding”.

Even coming to the realisation that “understanding is escapist” feels like yet more evidence of the value of understanding!

Perhaps it will help to know what “understanding” really means? That might risk us seeking to understand understanding, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Understand literally means “to stand in the midst of”.

In practice, understanding is another word for “knowing”. Yet it implies the kind of intimate knowledge that comes with standing amidst or among the thing known. To me it also implies a kind of immersion in the thing known. That’s why I prefer it to “comprehend” which is literally to seize or take hold of something, with implications of use, mastery, and control.

This linguistic clue is significant.

Some people seek knowledge for the sake of power. Others seek it because “the truth shall set you free”. The difference in intention and locus of control is the difference between thinking you can use this knowledge to attain your desired end, versus thinking that reality itself is already perfect if only we could experience it truthfully.

The latter is theoretically superior from a spiritual perspective. Yet in practice it risks being just another way of escaping from your experience of reality.

This is what fuels the escapist pursuit of understanding: the idea that the more we know about reality and the better we understand our spiritual predicament, the closer we come to a different, more positive experience.

There’s merit to the pursuit of understanding because many of the mistakes we make are due to ignorance. “Understanding” stands for the kind of knowledge that defeats ignorance and saves us from suffering and error.

It is not unusual to have great realisations along the spiritual path, to understand things better, and experience significant changes as a result. The problem arises when we tune in to understanding as the path itself, and seek to replicate these realisations again and again through our own power.

Yet it often feels as though we only had the realisation because we sought to understand in the first place. If we hadn’t tried to work it out, would we ever have found the answer?

Perhaps we should ask instead where this knowledge, realisation, and understanding comes from. Do we really just set out to know, and by applying our minds gain the knowledge we seek? Do we truly control our acquisition of knowledge? Are we really responsible for finding the answers that cause change?

At first it seemed like this was the case. But over time it’s become more and more apparent that we’re not in control of our lives, we are the product of them. We are our lives, our experience of reality.

In that sense it is better to observe that my thoughts – whether ignorant or knowing – arise and fall as if of their own accord.

My sense of control is a delusion, because the ‘me’ and the feeling of control are likewise thoughts and impressions that arise and fall. My mind creates an impression of who I am, and an impression of being in control. It creates an impression of understanding but it also creates the impression of ignorance.

This train of thought is a strange one. It is mysterious and seems paradoxical. It’s as if I’m saying that everything is outside my control, yet that implies a control in the first place.

The truth is that I don’t direct the course of my understanding, because the impression of doing so is just another impression. The struggle to cut through the ignorance is another impression. The sense of “aha!” at finally understanding is likewise another impression.

What is motivating me to write this now, to examine this now, is not “me”. It is all coming from the same source, whether it be the thought of continuing, or the thought of seeking distraction in food or household work.

That’s why one branch of Buddhism says:

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

Delusion and realisation belong to a self that is made up of thoughts and impressions but mistaken for the real self. If that mistake is not made, there is no delusion and hence no realisation.

Yet we continually fall back into this non-self that takes up the mantle of a real self and we sustain it continually through thoughts and impressions.

Why do we do that? Well, what if the answer is that we don’t do that. It’s simply done.

It reminds me of something I was trying to write a while ago. We’ve all heard of Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. What it means is that Descartes was looking for something, some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t possibly doubt.

He settled on the idea that he couldn’t doubt that he exists, because in doubting his own existence it proves that someone must exist to do the doubting. Hence, if I’m doubting, I must exist to doubt.

But subsequent philosophers have argued that this is a mistake. Descartes only assumed from experience that doubts must belong to minds that can doubt. But even that can be doubted.

So what can Descartes know for sure?

Just that thinking is happening.