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Listening and the Fasting of the Mind

Posted on 22 Dec | 2 comments
Photo by Alexxx1979
Photo by Alexxx1979

Having introduced you to the Tao Te Ching in my last post, I follow up with another chapter from this wonderful text which expounds upon ways of knowing and the importance of emptiness, patience, stillness and tranquility. 

 

Chapter 15

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

 

 

Zhuangzi was a group of sage writers who followed and are closely associated with Lao Tze, the group of sage writers who authored the Tao Te Ching.  Zhuangzhi wrote about emptiness, stillness and listening as the “Fasting of the Mind.”  In teaching us about the Fasting of the Mind which involves listening to the emptiness, Zhuangzi wrote:

 

“Listen not with your ears but with your mind.  Listen not with your mind but with your primal breath.  The ears are limited to listening, the mind is limited to tallying.  The primal breath, however, awaits things emptily.  It is only through the Way that one can gather emptiness, and emptiness is the fasting of the mind . . . Observe the void – the empty emits a pure light.  Good fortune lies in stopping when it is time to stop.  If you do not stop, this is called ‘galloping while sitting.’  Let your senses communicate within and rid yourself of the machinations of the mind.  Then even ghosts and spirits will take shelter with you, not to mention men.  This is how the myriad things are transformed.“ 

 

~ Zuangzi, Chapter 4,Section 1 (excerpts), Wandering On the Way, pg. 32-33, Victor Mair

 

 

This is one of the best descriptions of listening that I’ve come across.  It understands listening not as action but rather inaction.  It understands listening not as a technique but a meditation, a Way of Life.  How often have I and my students been “galloping while sitting?”  I conclude with leaving you with Zhuangzi’s writings about Action and Non-Action.  Such wonderful descriptive terms:  Galloping While Sitting, Fasting of the Mind.  Such beautiful metaphors:  Stillness as water, water as glass, glass as a perfect level, the mirror of heaven and earth!  The beautiful thing is once cultivated, this inner pond will never run dry!

 

 

Action and Non-Action

The non-action of the wise man is not inaction.

It is not studied.  It is not shaken by anything.

The sage is quiet because he is not moved,

Not because he wills to be quiet.

Still water is like glass.

You can look in it and see the bristles on your chin.

It is a perfect level;

A carpenter could use it.

If water is so clear, so level,

How much more the spirit of man?

The heart of the wise man is tranquil.

It is the mirror of heaven and earth

The glass of everything.

Emptiness, stillness, tranquility, tastelessness,

Silence, non-action:  this is the level of heaven and earth.

This is perfect Tao.  Wise men find here

Their resting place.

Resting, they are empty.

 

From emptiness comes the unconditioned.

From this, the conditioned, the individual things.

So from the sage’s emptiness, stillness arises:

From stillness, action.  From action, attainment.

From their stillness comes their non-action, which is also action

For stillness is joy.  Joy is free from care

Fruitful in long years.

Joy does all things without concern:

For emptiness, stillness, tranquility, tastelessness,

Silence, and non-action

Are the root of all things.

 

~ From The Way of Chuang Tzu, by Thomas Merton, page 80-81.

-- Mark Yang

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Comments and Discussions

This is lovely material,

This is lovely material, Mark. What would you say is the place of discriminating thought (in contrast to compulsive or habitual thinking) in this Way? Sometimes I see that traditions which emphasize emptiness (like the Central Asian Sufi lineage with which I am most familiar personally) can be misread as anti-intellectual (i.e., opposed to reflection). I see a response to this misunderstanding in lines like, "the non-action of the wise man is not inaction" which you've quoted in your post. Would you like to say more about that? Thanks for your post--the "fasting of the mind" is very familiar for me too--from the Semitic traditions that frame fasting in very similar terms.

Thanks for your comment Mark.

Thanks for your comment Mark. I’m glad to see someone else admiring the beauty of the imagery offered by Zhuangzi and Lao Tzu. The beauty is certainly enhanced when it’s shared.

In thinking about discriminating thought, I think of wisdom, the wisdom necessary in discernment. According to the Tao Te Ching, such wisdom comes from darkness, from suffering, from the confrontation with our own existence. It also comes from stillness and the contemplation that comes from going inward into the stillness. This like you said is in contrast to compulsive (galloping of the mind) or habitual (mindless) thinking.

My view and understanding of Zhuangzi’s critique of intellectuals is that he is critical about a non-holistic, unnatural way of knowing. I imagine Zhuangzi would be critical of our empirical ways of knowing now that is overly unbalanced towards the intellect. Zhuangzi and Lao Tzu both strongly advocated for what is natural and not to go against nature. Both of them would agree with the quote by Yeats, “some truths we embody and do not know.”
Finally, my reflections about action and inaction can be summed up in the paradox that less is more. To the untrained eye, the inactive, purposeful holding back of the therapist appears like its inaction. When in fact, such “inaction” is full of action. The silences are not empty but pregnant with deep introspection. In the words of Jackie Chan in the latest incarnation of the Karate Kid, “There is a big difference between being still and doing nothing.” Being still is full of action, whereas doing nothing is exactly that, nothing!

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