Zhuangzi on worldly life

Dear friends,

I present you with a Taoist text — one of the schools of Chinese philosophy summed up here by A.C. Graham.

It follows on in spirit of that first extract by Spinoza. But, while the Neo-Confucian text found its point of synchronicity from the notion of a dual path of mental purification and an ever-deepening understanding of the Absolute (as well as emphasizing patience, assuring you that the slowness of your progress is not a disaster, but rather a product of the gradual nature of the path), this passage picks up on the first of Spinoza’s three guidelines for pursuing our everyday lives while still endeavouring towards attainment of the loftiest goals:

To speak to the understanding of the multitude and to engage in those activities that do not hinder the attainment of our aim. For we can gain no little advantage from the multitude, provided that we accommodate ourselves as far as possible to their level of understanding. Furthermore, in this way they will give a more favourable hearing to the truth.

This, though — as some of you may have already found — is not exactly a simple proposition. There are seemingly endless difficulties that can result from this: if we are too rigid in keeping to our sense of what is valuable, there is the danger of being perceived as arrogant or stand-off-ish, or even hurting the feelings of others. If, on the other hand, we constantly demur and defer and allow ourselves to simply go along with things, we risk allowing this to confuse and distract us, thus compromising the progress of our mental peace and insight. It is in order to provide some solidarity in the matter, and hopefully some inspiration for overcoming it, that I write to you today.

The passage I have selected comes from…OK, I’ll just come out and say it. It’s from probably my single favourite book — the Zhuangzi — whose eponymous author is the major figure of that stream of Chinese thought labelled as “Taoist” — the Yin to Confucianism’s Yang. 

Despite that, the dialogue takes place between Confucius and his favoured disciple Yen Hui — ostensibly the great rivals of Taoist thought. On this point, I present a passage from the fourth section of the superb introduction to my preferred translation, by the great Sinologist A.C. Graham: 

“Very curiously, while the Hui Shih of the Inner Chapters and elsewhere in the book talks like the logician he is, Confucius is a moralist only in his behaviour; his thoughts are Chuang-tzu’s own. (…) But why Chuang-tzu chooses to present Confucius as sympathising in theory with his own philosophy is a puzzling question. It was common enough for thinkers of competing schools to put their own opinions into the mouths of the same legendary ancient sages, but to do this to the fully historical and comparatively recent founder of a rival school, whose doctrines are publicly known, is quite a different matter. Nobody else does it, apart from later Taoists writing new stories about Confucius. Psychological speculation is hardly in order here, but it is almost as though Confucius were a father-figure whose blessing the rebellious son likes to imagine would have been granted in the end.” (pp. 17-18) 

I like that idea very much. But then there is also another possible consideration: the fact that putting one’s own words in the mouth of a relatively recent founder a rival school, whose doctrines are publicly known… is fucking hilarious.

Something to bear in mind, perhaps.

One last note before we get to the passage — on the character 心, which literally means “heart”, and is translated as such in this passage. For the Ancient Chinese, the heart was the organ of thought and knowledge as much as it was the organ of feelings and emotions. This is in keeping with the amusing characteristic of this stream of world thought: that of subverting many of the conceptual dichotomies which run largely unquestioned through Western intellectual history (mind – body; reason – passion; thoughts – emotions…). However, in contrast to the sometimes strained backtracking of contemporary attempts to reconcile this division, Ancient Chinese texts do so from a position of such naturalness and innocence — it just seems as if they never considered making these artificial distinctions in the first place. I mention this because it might otherwise cause some confusion. 

I now present the passage, followed by A.C. Graham’s note on the text, and then by some light-hearted exposition of my own.

Chuang-tzu — The Inner Chapters 

(trans. A.C. Graham)

pp. 66-69

Chapter 4 – Worldly business among men

This chapter has two sets of episodes. The first considers the devious and intractable problems of the Taoist in office: to what extent can he live the enlightened life and hope to bring his ruler [or anyone else…] nearer to the Way? The second proclaims the advantages of being useless, unemployable, so that the government leaves you alone.


Yen Hui called on Confucius and asked leave to travel.

“Where are you off to?”

“I am going to Wey.”

“What will you do there?”

“I hear that the lord of Wey is young in years and wilful in deeds. He is careless of the cost to his state and blind to his own faults; he is so careless of the cost in men’s lives that the dead fill the state to its borders as though it had been ravaged with fire and slaughter. No, the people have nowhere to turn.
I have heard you say, sir: ‘Never mind the well ruled states, go to the misruled states; at a doctor’s gate it is mostly the sick that call.’ 
I wish to think out what to do in the light of what you have taught me, in the hope that the state may be restored to health.”

“Hmm. I am afraid that you are simply going to your execution.

One doesn’t want the Way to turn into a lot of odds and ends.

If it does it becomes multiple,
when it’s multiple it gets you muddled,
when you’re muddled you worry,
and once you worry, there’s no hope for you.

The utmost man of old established in other people only what he had first established in himself. Until it is firmly established in yourself, what time have you to spare for the doings of tyrants?

Besides, do you after all understand that the thing in which the Power in us is dissipated is the very thing by which knowledge is brought forth? 

The Power is dissipated by making a name,
knowledge comes forth from competition.

To ‘make a name’ is to clash with others,
‘knowledge’ is a tool in competition.

Both of them are sinister tools, of no use in perfecting conduct.

Then again, to be ample in Power and solid in sincerity but lack insight into others’ temperaments, not to enter into competition for reputation but lack insight into others’ hearts, yet insist in the presence of the tyrant on preaching about Goodwill and Duty and the lines laid down for us… this amounts to taking advantage of someone’s ugliness to make yourself look handsome. The name for it is ‘making a pest of oneself’. Make a pest of yourself, and others will certainly make pests of themselves in return. I rather fancy someone is going to be a pest to you.

Another thing: if you do think he favours clever people and dislikes fools, will it do you any good to try to be especially clever? Better not get into an argument. A king or duke is sure to pit his wits against one’s own with the whole weight of his authority behind him.

Your eye he’ll dazzle,
Your look he’ll cow,
Your mouth he’ll manage,
Your gesture he’ll shape,
Your heart he’ll form.

You will find yourself using fire to quell fire, water to quell water — the name for it is ‘going from bad to worse’.
Being submissive at the start, that is how you will always be.
I am afraid that he will lose faith in your fulsome words, and so you’ll be sure to die at the tyrant’s hands.

One more point: Formerly, Kuan Lung-feng was executed by Chieh and Prince Pi-kan by Chow. Both were men meticulous in their personal conduct who as ministers offended emperors by sympathising with their subjects. Consequently their lords found their meticulousness a reason to get rid of them. These were men who desired a good name. And formerly Yao attacked Tsung, Chih and Hsü-ao, Yü attacked Yu-hu — the countries were reduced to empty wastes and hungry ghosts, the rulers were executed. There was no end to their calls to arms, no respite in their aspiration to great deeds. 

All these men were seekers of the name or the deed, and don’t tell me you haven’t heard of them! 
A good name, a great deed, tempt even the sage, and do you think you’re any better?
However, I am sure you have something in mind. Let me hear about it.”

“Would it do,” said Hui, “to be punctilious and impartial, diligent and single-minded?”

“Oh, that’s no good at all! To sustain the Yang at its height without reverting to the Yin puts one under great stress, the tension shows in one’s face. It is something which ordinary people prefer not to defy, so they suppress what the other man is stirring up in them in order to calm their own hearts. Even what are named ‘powers which progress from day to day’ will not grow to the full in him, let alone the supreme Power! He will stay obstinately as he is and refuse to reform, outwardly agreeing with you but inwardly insensible, and what’s the good of that?”

“In that case,” said Hui, “inwardly I shall be straight but outwardly I shall bend. I shall mature my own judgement yet conform to my betters.

In being ‘inwardly straight’, I shall be of Heaven’s party. One who is of Heaven’s party knows that in the eyes of Heaven he is just as much a son as the Son of Heaven [the emperor] is, and is he the only one who, when speaking on his own account, has an urge which carries him away and other people applaud, or which carries him away and other people disapprove? Such a one is excused by others as childlike. It is this that I mean by ‘being of Heaven’s party’.
In ‘outwardly bending’, I shall be of man’s party. Lifting up the tablet in his hands and kneeling and bowing from the waist are the etiquette of a minister; everyone else does it, why should I presume to be an exception? If you do what others do, the others for their part will find no fault in you. It is this that I mean by ‘being of man’s party’.
In ‘maturing my own judgement yet conforming to my betters’, I shall be of the party of the men of old. The words, although in substance instructions or criticisms, belong to the men of old — I can’t be held responsible for them. Such a person can be as straight as he likes without getting into trouble. It is this that I mean by ‘being of the party of the men of old’.
How will that do?”

“Oh no, that’s no good at all! Too much organising. If you stick to the forms and don’t get too familiar, even if you’re stupid you will escape blame. But that’s all that can be said for it. How would you succeed in making a new man of him? It’s still taking the heart as one’s authority.”

“I have nothing more to propose,” said Hui. “I venture to ask the secret of it.”

“Fast, and I will tell you,” said Confucius. “Doing something thought out in the heart — isn’t that too easy? Whoever does things too easily is unfit for the lucid light of Heaven.”

“I am of a poor family — I have not drunk wine or eaten a seasoned dish for months. Would that count as fasting?”

“That kind of fasting one does before a sacrifice — it is not the fasting of the heart.”

“I venture to inquire about the fasting of the heart.”

“Unify your attention.
Rather than listen with the ear, listen with the heart. 
Rather than listen with the heart, listen with the energies.
Listening stops at the ear, the heart at what tallies with the thought.
As for ‘energy’, it is the tenuous which waits to be roused by other things. 
Only the Way accumulates the tenuous.
The attenuating is the fasting of the heart.”

“When Hui has never yet succeeded in being the agent, a deed derives from Hui.
When he does succeed in being its agent, there has never begun to be a Hui….would that be what you call attenuating?”

“Perfect! I shall tell you. You are capable of entering and roaming free inside his cage, but do not be excited that you are making a name for yourself. When the words penetrate, sing your native note; when they fail to penetrate, desist. When there are no doors for you, no outlets, and treating all abodes as one you find your lodgings in whichever is the inevitable, you will be nearly there.

To leave off making footprints is easy — never to walk on the ground is hard.
What has man for agent is easily falsified — what has Heaven for agent is hard to falsify.
You have heard of using wings to fly. You have not yet heard of flying by being wingless.
You have heard of using the wits to know. You have not yet heard of using ignorance to know.

Look up to the easer of our toils.
In the empty room the brightness grows.
The blessed, the auspicious, stills the stilled.
The about-to-be does not stay still.

This I call ‘going at a gallop while you sit’. If the channels inward through eyes and ears are cleared, and you expel knowledge from the heart, the ghostly and daemonic [divine, not ‘demonic’] will come to dwell in you, not to mention all that is human! 
This is to transform with the myriad things. 
Here Sun and Yü found the knot where all threads join.
Here Fu-hsi and Chi Ch’ü finished their journey — not to speak of lesser men!”

NOTE – For Yen Hui [the favourite disciple of Confucius] to go to the King full of good intentions and well thought out plans will do harm in stead of good. He must first train the motions in himself which can spontaneously move another in the direction of the Way. He must trust to the qi (translated ‘energies’) — the breath and other energising fluids which alternate between activity as the Yang and passivity as the Yin (as in breathing out and in), training them with the meditative technique including controlled breathing which is mentioned elsewhere (pp. 48, 84, 97).

When the purified energies have become perfectly tenuous, the heart will be emptied of conceptual knowledge, the channels of the senses will be cleared, and he will simply perceive and respond. Then the self dissolves, energies strange to him and higher than his own (the ‘daemonic’) enter from outside, the agent of his actions is no longer the man but Heaven working through him… yet paradoxically (and it is in hitting on this paradox that Hui convinces Confucius that he understands) in discovering a deeper self, he becomes for the first time truly the agent. He no longer has deliberate goals, the ‘about-to-be’ at the centre of him belongs to the transforming processes of heaven and earth. Then he will have the instinct for when to speak and when to be silent, and will say the right thing as naturally as a bird sings.

‘To leave off making footprints–…”: it is easy to withdraw from the world as a hermit, hard to remain above the world while living in it.

Alright. I take it upon myself to rehash some of ideas laid out above, for fear that the unfamiliar language and conceptual background might act as an impediment, or simply that its extreme eloquence might lead you to underestimate both the profundity and practicality of its wisdom.

1. One doesn’t want the Way to turn into a lot of odds and ends. 

We are often told to specialize and focus on one thing. That a jack of all trades is a master of none. That the temptation of youth is to try and bite off more than we can chew; that our excitable attention is always looking for greener pastures and that eventually we will find ourselves returning to the simple, home truths with our tail between our legs.

That is all as may be, but such advice rather misses the essential point. 

The point is not external — about how much you do or do not do. The point is internal — it’s about how collected and self-possessed you are. So long as you are collected and self-possessed, the number of avenues you explore is of no consequence.

It is not a question of the nature of things. It is a question of the nature of our minds. The point is that you don’t want to be confused. That doesn’t help. One needs a steadiness underlying our far-flung roaming. Once that steadiness is in place, then considerations of specializing and focusing on one perspective can be jettisoned. The only problem of adding more balls to our juggling is that we are not able to keep them all in the air at the same time, and the whole performance will fall to the ground. So long as one is able to keep them all aloft, then there you go; other than that, there is nothing worse about having 10 balls in the air than 3. The criterion is one of our mental balance — not of how much we are doing. That is why it may be good to slow down. Because we are worried and confused. If you are not worried and not confused, then no problem; go check out new things, add complexities to your thought, etc.

2. The utmost man of old established in other people only what he had first established in himself.

Ahhh. Failure to follow this is the classic error. 

If I were you, I would put away any thought of trying not to make this mistake. I would guess that is impossible. Instead, the best I think one could hope for is to try to understand this point well enough that, when you inevitably fail to implement it, you are able to recognize it quickly. Having recognized what it was about the previous encounter that left you with such discomfort, you will be naturally disinclined to do it again.

When you touch a hot piece of metal, you burn your hand and are disinclined to touch hot metal again — reflexively, automatically, without any conscious thought. But that only works if your mind has registered that it was the hot metal which caused the burn. In social scenarios, the causal link is not so obvious. So that’s why I’m emphasizing this here. The failure to implement this point is what is causing you so much misery.

Basically, you get the right idea, and then you see people doing the wrong-headed thing, and so you try to tell them. And then you get into an argument. And then you get confused — was I wrong? Am I a dick? What’s going on? And then you worry. And then you’re lost.

Chill. It’s just how these things work. Let’s say you’ve been trained to follow the letter “A” with “B”. You will do that as an automatism. But then you discover that that leads to troubles, and that following “A” with “C” is better. From now on, each time you see A, you’ll think C. But then you’ll see other people doing A –> B. And your mind will go “error…error…cannot compute!” And in an effort to keep your brain from frying, you’ll try to resolve the dissonance. In other words, you’ll open your mouth and tell the person to do A –> C. You’re doing it so you can maintain the melody playing in your mind. You’re doing it to remove dissonance. It makes sense. It’s just that, if we let ourselves follow that natural instinct, we’ll get ourselves in trouble.

OK. So. Why? 

Here’s what I really want to add. 

It’s because what you’re attempting to communicate can only be demonstrated, not described. It’s like telling someone “fold origami!”. It doesn’t work that way. They have to learn with their hands. So, to teach someone how to fold a paper crane, you have to do it in front of them.  And then they have to actively watch you do it. Only then can you add on words, to elucidate certain points, or call their attention to something. 

That’s what I think we don’t realize, when we fall on our faces trying to correct people. It only works if we can demonstrate it in action. 

So, like, let’s say someone is trying to complete an annoying but necessary task, and is getting worked up and doing it worse as a result. If you are just starting to work on getting better at this yourself, you’ll be tempted to tell them to calm down — and because this idea is very fresh in your mind, you’ll be very likely to want to blurt out: “Just calm down!”

But that’s not how it works. You have to show them, consistently, how much more efficient it is to carry out an annoying task calmly and deliberately. And then, when they see it in action and wonder how to do it themselves, you can use words to give pointers. But if you yourself display any signs of agitation, then you are absolutely incapable of getting the point across. 

It’s like an adult trying to tell a child to get into the water — that they will feel warm in it soon. If they’re outside of the water, it won’t work. If they’re inside of the water, and then say it, it may work. If they’re just lolling about happily in the water, and the child is getting bored and jealous and wants to come in but is scared to, and asks the adult for help, then it will almost certainly work.


Because monkey see, monkey do. 

We fundamentally learn by imitation. The abstract communication of language can only help that process along; it cannot replace it. Especially for things like this — a way of life. That’s more art than science; more akin to a dance than to arithmetic. Imagine how hard it would be to try and tell someone how to add some salsa to their Salsa dancing, without yourself bopping your hips along to the rhythm.

So you have to firmly establish something in yourself, and be able to display it consistently, before your words can have any effect at all. 

Thus, it’s not that you’re an annoying, preachy know-it-all who should get over themselves and stop giving others advice. It’s more that you haven’t registered well enough that our primary learning process is emulation. Once you register that, you will spontaneously avoid situations to try and teach without being able to demonstrate.

3. The Power being dissipated by making a name 

I’ll only touch briefly on the notion of the Power being dissipated by the process of knowledge-formation. This is, basically, the essential Taoist intuition. What we want is to be able to take fullest account of the situation before us, and respond fluidly to it, not just act out mindless automatisms. And basically, trying to form specific, articulable knowledge claims collapses the complex “wave function” of the situation before us into a neat lie. This imprisons the situation into a conceptual strait-jacket, and then we respond to that constricted representation of the situation. And that lies at the root of most of our mistakes. And we do this automatically, constantly, nigh-on-irresistibly. So it’s a question of steadily unlearning that compulsive habit of our mind to try and oversimplify things in order to better be able to control them, and thus fail to understand them, and thus undermine our ability to act in the way that is actually most appropriate. But we’ll develop this another time, when my life is stable enough that I can think about writing something serious.

The main point I want to make is about chasing status.

Again — it is not that chasing status is bad. It is just that it has certain consequences on our mental life.

Let me make an analogy based on the sport of cycling. Road cycling (especially the Grand Tours) involves traversing different kinds of terrain — including, notably, mountains, where the the participants will have to ascend steep inclines. Now. What makes a good climber is a high Power Output to Body Mass ratio. You want to be able to produce a lot of power and also be very light. Because every extra gram of mass you’re carrying up a steep mountain is pulling you back downwards, necessitating more power from you. This is much less the case on flat terrain, where body mass has less effect. There, you can afford to increase power output while also getting bulkier. Whereas, if you want to specialize in climbing, you have to try to increase your power output without putting on any more weight.

OK. So. In this scenario, chasing status (fame; social standing; prestigious jobs) is like lifting weights. It gives you advantages: it increases your power output. That means you’ll be able to pedal harder / influence the world more. But it also has another characteristic. It increases your load. In our analogy, it increases your body weight. Figuratively speaking, what it does is add mental stress. Every time you act to accrue power that comes from others, you feel awkward. That you’re putting on a performance; that you’re not being genuine; that you’re selling out; that you’re dancing to a tune that’s dissonant to your core sense of beauty. This actively impedes the accruing of power that comes from yourself. You can’t develop your authenticity if you’re carrying these accreted layers of slight shame and self-loathing. You have to first shed that weight before you can continue to develop your more genuine self.

And if you’re “lifting weights” daily — if you’re engaged in an activity which means that, every single day, you are doing things that don’t feel fully genuine and harmonious with your core values — then you will not be able to shed that weight fast enough. It will pile up until it causes you to either get depressed or give up on your core values.

Now. Of course, at the end of the day, we can’t be too precious about these things. In the end, the passage does conclude that it is possible to enter these cages and roam free. It’s just that, in order to get to that point, we have to obtain a very solid understanding of what exactly the difficulty is. 

4. Lacking insight into others’ temperaments; “making a pest of oneself”

The first part of the point is fairly obvious. A good teacher doesn’t just know the subject matter; they are able to feel out their student well enough to know how to communicate it to them. This essay I’m writing may be very good, but it’s useless to try and recite it to someone who doesn’t speak English. We have to identify the conceptual language and emotional state of our interlocutor and adapt ourselves to it before being able to get anything across.

It’s the second one I want to hone in on a bit. 

It’s not as simple as “always do the right thing”. If you’re around a group of people who are doing the ‘wrong’ thing, and who you know are not currently capable of correcting their ways and learning by emulation… then it’s not only useless to stick around them, displaying the right behaviour… it’s actually counter-productive and even contemptible. It’s low-key bullying. Like the older kid who plays football with the younger kids, runs through the whole lot of them and scores solo goals because of his vastly superior strength. It is not a good look.

I’m 31 years old. Imagine if I were to hang around with undergraduates in a pub while they have trite political debates, and then sweep in at the end and put them all in their place with my vast resources of experience and force of personality. If you were to see me doing that, you would rightly think me pathetic.

I have a brother who is ten years younger than me. By and large, I have held back from the temptation to actively instruct him in anything; 9 times out of 10, it is I who listen humbly, try to learn from him, and adjust my behaviour to match his. But this is one occasion in which I really got on my high horse and came down hard on him.

We were with my hedonist friends, who were doing their usual thing. Eventually, my brother loses patience and goes: “None of these things will actually make you happy; you’re only doing all this out of rampant insecurity; etc.”

I stared daggers at him in the moment, tried to make a joke of it and smooth things over. When an opportune moment came around and we were alone, I read him the riot act.

“You are taking advantage of someone’s ugliness to make yourself look handsome. You do not do that in my presence. I know all these people much better than you; but even without that, I am ten years your elder. If someone is going to provide moral instruction in this scenario, it is I. If for some reason I am not doing that, then you are not to do so either. I’m pulling rank on this one: know your place. Sit there, watch me, and learn.” etc. etc. 

Obviously, I feel bashful to recall it, but the story is nonetheless revealing. It shows how important I felt it is to keep my brother from acting this way. 

Let’s say the spiritual path is ten steps long. For every person having walked 8 or 9 steps, there are a thousand who have walked 2 and stalled there. Before, they bullied others to make themselves look good with their money or status or muscles or cleverness or what have you. Now that they have walked 2 steps, they have transferred their ego to be all puffed up about the importance of the spiritual path. So they hang around where there are people who haven’t started yet, or are are just dipping their toes into the first step, and then show off their mastery of step 2 to make themselves feel more important.

This serves as a huge impediment. Because they are saying the “right” thing, but they so clearly give off the vibes of not-very-admirable people. And so the right thing becomes associated with contemptible people in the minds of the young; as a result, they actively resist doing it. And when they come to someone like me, I have to try and disentangle that association, which is a pain in the ass. Even worse, the young person will eventually realize by themselves that they have to do the ‘right’ thing anyway, and then they feel extremely ashamed that they had doubted and disliked this person. “They were right all along; I was such a brat to doubt them; I’m so immature and egotistical…” No. No. Bullshit. Don’t feel ashamed about having disliked that person. That person was a douchebag. Fuck them.

If anyone learns something from me, or reads a book of mine or something, and then acts that way, it will reflect badly on me, sully my good name, and thus prick my ego exactly where it hurts the most. So for reasons both altruistic and entirely selfish, this is the one thing I will be most tyrannical and micro-managey about to anyone I influence.

…I have perhaps gotten carried away by my rhetoric here. I don’t mean to make any of you self-conscious about doing this yourselves. I don’t think that’s much of a danger. Please don’t feel ashamed if you catch yourself doing this to some degree. I say it more to assuage your worry at disliking so many of the advocates of the various forms of self-improvement, rather than out of concern that you will end up like them. 

5. A king or duke is sure to pit his wits against one’s own with the whole weight of his authority behind him.

This is somewhat similar to point 1, in that I’m trying to offer an explanation as to why previous discussions might have been unpleasant, and thus assuage your confusion and the other negative emotions which follow.

Imagine the following scenario. You are given the opportunity to debate someone you disagree with. However, the debate will take place under certain conditions. For every minute you get to speak, your opponent gets to speak for five. When you speak, your opponent is allowed to make interruptions for points of information, asking you to clarify and justify yourself; when your opponent speaks, no points of information will be accepted. The crowd will be selected by your opponent. You will not be able to bring water or any other drink to the lectern; your opponent will. The debate will take place tomorrow, on the other side of the world — without giving you time to prepare or recover from jetlag. 

Moral of the story? Don’t accept this debate. Think of it like Sun Tzu: never accept a battle under unfavourable conditions unless every avenue of retreat has been sealed off and you have no opportunity to stall.

And basically, trying to convince someone in a position of authority about something they don’t want to hear, on their turf, is exactly like this. The imbalance of power, and the advantages they have, are usually not as self-evident as the example I gave. But they are there. 

I’ll give a more down-to-earth example to illustrate this: trying to have a discussion with my father.

  • l believe, on some level, that he is due a degree of deference and respect, simply by dint of being my father. As a result, I will try my best to properly listen to his points, and will try to stop myself from interrupting him. He does not feel I am due the same degree of deference and respect; he will not display the same attentiveness to what I’m saying, and will not desist from interrupting me.
  • I am very attached to him, and it therefore causes me pain to see him humiliated — even if the person humiliating him is me. Therefore, I will be prevented (by my own feelings) from saying anything that will make him look too foolish. This will make me tentative; while I hesitate, I will be easy to steamroll. He does not seem to feel the same way about seeing me humiliated.
  • The weight of these previous factors will infuriate me, which makes it more likely I will lose my temper. If I lose my temper, any chance of convincing him is lost. Not only will I fail to convince him, I will regret my words later (or, indeed, immediately). That too is an imbalance; insofar as he regrets his words after an argument, he does not show it.
  • He has a heart condition. Therefore, I will be prevented from saying anything that might get him angry and increase his heart rate. He, of course, can say whatever he likes without any consideration of the consequences.

Final reckoning? Never get into a debate with my father. If he does something which I absolutely cannot accept under any circumstances, then I resign my post — I sever our relationship, and rescind my right to any material support or inheritance from him. So long as I am not willing to do that, then I bear it in silence, and take personal responsibility for trying to repair or mitigate the damage as best I can — through my own actions, rather than asking him to change his. 

Long story short? Learn to recognize when you’re on an uneven playing field — when the person you are interacting with has the advantages of authority. When that is the case, caution is the better part of valour. Don’t butt your head against the wall; it won’t make any difference to the wall, and you’ll just end up giving yourself brain damage.

6. However, I am sure you have something in mind. Let me hear about it.

I find this line so funny. It reminds me so much of myself. 

“Hey David. I wanted to ask you about X.”

“Oh! X! I’ve thought a lot about that. You see……. [10 minutes later] …..and that’s why badgers don’t often turn up at a disco, which has the following bearing on X. Mm. Yes. Anyway. What exactly was it you wanted to ask about X?”

This makes me feel a bit less bashful about this tendency of mine. 

7. To sustain the Yang at its height without reverting to the Yin puts one under great stress; the tension shows in one’s face.

By George. This one is so important. 

I’ll tell you guys a story. 

When I was a kid, I would undermine the activity my group of peers would be playing at. If we were watching a Disney film, say, I would parrot some point my father had made about why Disney films are predictable and shallow. I would be told, in no uncertain terms, that I was extremely annoying, and subsequently ignored.

Later, in grade school, there was a certain pattern I’d fall into. The people with the highest grades in the class would be the girls. They were diligent, and would take very neat notes, with different colour highlighters and everything. In order to assert my still-nascent identity, I would define myself against them — they would study, I wouldn’t study. I wouldn’t even do the reading. They would be perfectly well-behaved, and goodie-two-shoes; I would be irreverent. I was too busy reading actual literature to bother with these kitsch, middlebrow books anyway. If you actually took this stuff seriously, that meant you were stupid. Etc. etc.

Other than some awkward moments with my 9th grade English teacher, I don’t have any actual memories of being especially obnoxious in this way. But let’s just lie to ourselves and pretend that’s how it went, so we can set the pattern for what’s coming later.

In my masters degree in International Relations at Oxford, there were a group of three girls that often hung out together. One was enlisted in the US army, the other was currently working for the State Department, and the third would join the Defense Department within a year of graduating. They would often hang out with this group of male Rhodes scholars who weren’t in my course, and whom I found supremely stuck up and repellent. In our seminars, I took on the role of a needling court jester. I would, largely out of discomfort and self-disgust, intellectually subvert the nature of the enterprise in any way I could. I would — explicitly and implicitly — point out that the discipline of IR was a complete intellectual sham, and that this programme existed solely for the burgeoning elite to pad out their CVs on their way to jobs in finance, consultancy, or more direct forms of imperialism. The relationship between me and this group of girls was, as you might imagine, rather tense, seeing as I so obviously held in contempt the things they had built their entire lives around.

OK. So when I was 25, I worked at Google for a year. Other than me, the team was all-female. I really respected my boss, who was an extremely competent individual, and I was very affectionate with the veteran administrator who handled all the little practicalities for us. One of my direct colleagues, I had a perfectly acceptable relationship with. But my other two co-workers immediately set off my spidey-senses. They fell squarely into the mould I have described above: straight-laced girls who find me extremely annoying. By this point, I had long since become deeply ashamed of all my previous immature behaviour — and when I noticed that I was in a similar situation at present, I immediately resolved to do everything within my power to resist falling into the same tense, conflictual patterns as before.

And so, I forced myself to be as rigorously polite and chummy as possible.

“Good morning, honoured co-workers! What a great pleasure it is to see you all again! I am overjoyed to be back here with you at Google, an institution deserving of great respect! Truly, working at such a place gives meaning and value to life. Oh, what is that — you require me to do something? I shall exert my utmost effort on it! I shall treat it as seriously as I would the education of my own child! For I could have no objections whatsoever to where we are, or what we are doing, or why. I find this all totally legitimate, and wouldn’t want to even hint that I might possibly feel otherwise!”

You doubtless know where this is going.

The situation remained relatively stable until we had to spend three straight days in each other’s company, on a visit to the Google offices in Madrid and Rome. About halfway through, the effort to maintain this fake cordiality just became too much, and we exploded at each other for the pettiest possible thing. And once that had happened, our cover was quite blown, and the façade of cordiality — which before had been extremely painful to maintain — now became positively excruciating. We of course ignored each other as much as possible. But when we had to interact, I had no other set-up to fall back on, and so I was forced to grit my teeth and keep at it. It was actually so bad that the memory is more amusing to me than mortifying. You know, things pass a certain threshold and then lose some of their horror. They just hated me so very much, and so very obviously, that it felt more like an episode of one of those cringe-comedies like The Office than real life.

Anyway. I digress.

Long story short: never adopt an attitude towards something in your daily life that requires a strenuous and active effort to maintain. If it’s just a short-term or one-time thing, you can maybe pull it off successfully. But if it’s something you’ll have to do for a significant part of every day… don’t even think about it.

I beg you to take it from the horse’s mouth.

Just really, really don’t.

8. Too much organising. Still taking the heart/mind as one’s authority.

So at this point, Hui lands on what seems to be the right answer. He says he won’t follow any one particular approach; he’ll fluidly adapt himself to the situation. If things are like this, he’ll respond like so. If they’re like that, he’ll respond like a-different-kind-of-so. And each of his responses to the scenarios makes sense, and contains wisdom.

What on Earth could be the problem now? Surely Confucius can have no objections here. What more could he possibly want?

It was here that I was stuck for most of my life.

See, what Hui is doing now is similar to the following situation.

I’ve never boxed in my life. Haven’t set foot in a boxing gym; haven’t done one round of sparring. I have watched a fair amount of the sport, and in order to better appreciate it (and just because my mind simply works this way), I learned something about two or three of its intricacies.

So imagine I were to tell you that I was going into a boxing match. And I said — don’t worry, I’m not just going to go in there swinging. I’ll adapt myself properly to the situation. If I’m facing a short, stocky opponent, I’ll stick and move, keep him at the end of my jab, circle away from his power hand, and try to win on points. If I’m facing someone equally tall and lanky, he’ll have had more practice at that last strategy than I have, but he also won’t be as practised at in-fighting, so I’ll get in close and concentrate on short punches to the ribs and belly. If I’m facing someone impetuous, I’ll try to tie up at every available opportunity. If I’m facing someone who holds back, I’ll taunt them and dance around a bit to try and lure them out. etc.

What would your response be?

“You’re going to get yourself knocked out.”

“But why? What was wrong in anything I said up there?”

Nothing. The problem is that all this is just stored in this very small corner of my mind. None of it is in my muscle memory. I will get into the ring, start thinking through the situation and figuring out what scenario I’m in and how I should therefore respond, and before I’ve gotten halfway through, I’ll get punched in the face. Then I’ll pull back and try to do it again, but this time, with my head ringing — so I’ll do it much slower. And so I’ll get punched in the face again, while only a quarter of the way through. And then I’ll say “forget it!”, and just give in to my instincts, and swing for the fences, expose myself, and get knocked out. 

This is the situation we find ourselves in when we read advice about how to pick up girls or make friends or network or whatever. Yes, yes, of course, what we should do is relax, be spontaneous, make a few jokes, listen to them with interest; if they’re looking tired, we leave them alone; if they’re excited about something, we follow up with pertinent questions; if… etc. etc. etc. 

Yeah. No. Fine. It’s not that any of that is wrong. It’s that you misunderstand how the mind works. You can’t rely on thinking these things through in the moment. It has to be in your muscle memory. You have to rely on instinct. Especially when interacting with others, the key thing to focus on isn’t which external behaviours to adopt; it’s how at peace you are on the inside. And if you have this complex sequence of steps prepared in your head… remember point 1. You’ll get confused. And then you’ll start to worry. And as soon as you start to worry, you’re lost. No matter how theoretically appropriate the behaviour you’ve decided to engage in is, you’ll do it badly, and come across as creepy, needy, weird — whatever.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Or, as Mike Tyson had it: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” 

Of course, social interactions are not a boxing match; still less are they a pitched battle. But they are somewhat similar, in that they cause stress. And when we’re stressed, we can’t rely on something merely thought out in the abstract. We can only rely on our spontaneous response; and our spontaneous response will only come out well when it comes from a place of inner comfort. 

And so, what is the answer? The search for that place of inner peace. And then, having found it, establishing it firmly in one’s life. And then developing it, so that it grows and grows until it underlies all our actions — even those at the outer limit of stressfulness (which, in our daily lives, will probably be social interactions with prospective romantic partners, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, clients, etc.).

Which brings me to point 9.

9. The Fasting of the Heart

Ok. So. This is one of the most famous passages in the Zhuangzi. It is one of the two seminal descriptions of formal Taoist meditation in the book. It is also quite obscure, and I find myself not entirely satisfied with Graham’s translation.

I have taken the liberty of transcribing the Chinese, translating it character-by-character, if you are interested.

I will now provide a loose paraphrasing of what I reckon the passage is getting at.

Make your will as one. Consolidate your attention. Get to the point where your awareness is not constantly being pulled in different directions.

Now, draw your attention inwards.

(1) Start with the external objects of sense impression (e.g. a bird singing; a car driving by).
(2) Then focus on the way you perceive these objects; notice the process of mental construction it entails, and start to break it down.
Learn to separate the chirping sound you’re hearing with the idea of a bird; notice the pure rumbling noise, then notice your reflexive estimates of how fast this car is going and in which direction and whether it’s stopping in front of your house. Notice too your emotional reaction to it, and the way it pulls your attention out of yourself.
(3) Then, finally, pay attention to the internal objects of sense impression — your breath, and the living sensations of your flesh.

As you keep going along this path inwards, and once you have finally taken good account of the internal sensations which you usually look straight past, then the mind will eventually empty itself of even that.

Up until now, you were preoccupied by the constant flow of sense objects. Now, you notice that, once you slow down that flow, the mind does not necessarily have to allow its spotlight to be pulled around by these sense objects. It can lie quiescent, and wait for sense objects to appear in its unmoving field of focus.

At some points, so long as nothing big changes in your external environment, and once you’ve gotten used to all the usual fluctuations of internal sensation, then no sense objects will appear at all. 

Reaching this quiescent state is like giving your mind a deep clean. It allows you to loosen the grip of habitual, compulsive patterns of thinking and acting — the kneejerk judgements of good or bad — the accreted mass of past associations (“I saw this thing when my stomach hurt, so the next time I see the thing, I’ll be suspicious and suspect it of being a tummy-achey thing!”).

This emptying removes the grime from your compass, so that it can naturally point the Way.

However you may interpret the specifics, I feel that the general thrust is fairly clear. 

Sit down.

Shut up.

Chill the fuck out. 

For a certain period of time, stop feeding your mind with various things.

When your tummy is feeling irritated and you don’t know why, you minimize the intake of food and drink until it recovers.

Just so, fast your mind by ceasing the process of external activity, and then minimizing the intake of perception.

Basically, just take a break every once in a while. The deeper and quieter the break, the more chilled out you’ll be.

So, to go back to our previous point. How does this work to make you better at interacting with a tyrant / hottie / colleague, etc.?

Well. Let’s put forward a scale of agitation.

At 100, you have a panic attack.

At 0, you have the same level of agitation as a corpse (or to use Zhuangzi’s metaphors: dry ash or withered wood). 

Let’s say your baseline level of agitation is 50. When you enter a stressful situation (interacting with a tyrant), it shoots up by 50%. So, you end up at 75. 

What you were capable of doing at 50, you are no longer capable of doing at 75. And so you fail. 

So how do you improve? 

One thing you can do is lower the baseline level of agitation. 

So you just sit there and do absolutely nothing. At first, agitation increases, cus it’s like being locked in a prison cell. But eventually, since you are doing nothing, and there can be no possible bad external repercussions, you calm down. Even if you just sit there and freak out internally, there won’t be any consequences. Realizing there are no consequences, you eventually relax. And maybe you spend ten minutes at an agitation level of 45. 

When you open your eyes again, you go back to normal… but now, your baseline for the rest of the day is very slightly lower — 49.7, perhaps.

Of course, it will still fluctuate a lot. But over time, as you spend consistent periods in a very still state, the baseline drops and drops. Once your baseline hits 30, even a 50% increase in a stressful situation will leave you at a lower state of agitation than your previous baseline.

It’s exactly the opposite of, for example, spending an hour every day having a completely absurd shouting match with a psychotic person who keeps changing their point and making incoherent arguments. After each encounter, you might feel very good for a few hours — out of relief that you’re out of it for now. But over time, it will increase your baseline agitation. 

I will end on this point: how much I love the context in which Zhuangzi discusses meditation. 

So, the simplistic traditional view of the matter is that there are two kinds of people: the worldly and the unworldly. The worldly pursue the usual worldly goals — fame, sensual pleasure, riches, etc. The unworldly pursue loftier, spiritual goals. And meditation is a practice for the latter to pursue their higher goals.

And part of us is uncomfortable with this, because we recognize that the traditional view functions on a quasi-caste system, where the priestly/monastic caste gets to pursue these lofty goals and utilize these powerful methods, and in exchange for providing ideological cover for coercive secular institutions and functioning as asylums for the mentally unstable, they are left in relative peace, while the rest of society works as near-serfs to survive and keep society ticking along. Surely the spiritual path should be open to everyone, not just a select slice of society (often the wealthy), we feel.

And then the 20th Century innovation is to say, no. Meditation can be used by the worldly to pursue worldly goals. If you want to pick up chicks or get a promotion or maintain a successful marriage and an ideal social life, then meditation will help you do that better. It will make you a more efficient consumerist drone.

And we are uncomfortable with that too. Because… I mean… ugh.

And I think Zhuangzi lays it out so clearly. 

What meditation is for is to follow the course of life Spinoza laid out.

It’s for those who want to pursue lofty spiritual goals while still taking part in society. It’s for those who do not want to “leave off making footprints”, but rather, to “never walk on the ground at all”.

In other words, meditation isn’t there to get you ahead in life. It’s there to help you hold on to a sliver of sanity. It’s there so you don’t completely lose your fucking mind in this massive shitshow you have to live through. 

It is, in other words, the Taoist’s last resort. 

Because, again. Bring to mind the context here. Hui is planning to go and join the court of a notorious tyrant and attempt to reform him, and is asking Confucius for advice on how to manage this. The unspoken alternative (well, I say unspoken; about half of the rest of the book is devoted entirely to spelling it out)… in any case, the obvious alternative is: for fuck’s sake, mate. DON’T JOIN THE COURT OF A NOTORIOUS TYRANT AND ATTEMPT TO REFORM HIM. That sounds SUPER stressful.

You know what would be nicer? Pack up your shit, move to the beach, and go surfing all day. Hang out with whomever’s there, don’t get in anyone’s hair, make enough money to pay the water bills and treat yourself to the occasional ice cream… and when the big landlord in the sky sends the bailiffs to evict you from your body, pack up your shit again, shake their hands, and move there.

Cus, again — really. Say you were to just avoid unnecessary stress. Stop going on Tinder dates, and just masturbate patiently until you bump into someone cute who wants to stick around. Stop trying to climb the career ladder. Stop trying to impress the Joneses. 

What the hell would you need meditation for?!!

You can just sit there with your eyes open and look at the ocean, or the sunset, or the clouds, or whatever the heck you like. Twiddle your thumbs. Go fishing. That’s what Zhuangzi did. And even here, he was mostly addressing an audience at a certain stage in life; people who have already gone out, done stuff, raised kids, and were wondering where to go from there. And his basic advice is: just retire!

At that point, formal, seated meditation is just a cheaper and more sustainable — albeit more annoying — way to do drugs. 

And, to be crystal clear, I’m not knocking that. Drugs are cool.

But, c’mon. No need to get all histrionic about it. I know that throwing shade at the Buddha is a bad habit of mine, but I reckon the way he did things really played into our neuroses and psychoses. If you leave the home life, avoid the majority of social interactions, never hurt anyone, and just drop into the local village every morning to beg for a bowl of food… then I don’t really see what exactly you think meditation is fundamentally going to add to the picture. It’s true you need some kind of hobby, or else you’ll get mega-depressed. But let’s not pretend pottery or carving bowls wouldn’t work just as well. 

But say you don’t want to give all that up. And really, like Spinoza, I don’t think that the grass it that much greener on the other side. 

Then, fine. Stay in worldly life. Entangle yourself in volatile relationships. Try to be a moderating force on the biggest assholes out there. Sure. Go. Do it.

But if you do that, you’ll have play along to the tune of social institutions.

And if you want to do that and still pursue your own spiritual goals, then you’re going to have to sit through some fairly serious brain surgery. You will need to develop some pretty preternatural powers of calm — to turn yourself into a mutant — just in order not to kill yourself (or get yourself killed).

In other words — at that point, yeah, try meditating. 

OK. That’s enough words, I reckon. I’m gonna go lounge around in the garden. And maybe (…heehee…) meditate. 

Yours sincerely,
David Leon