Listening and the Fasting of the Mind

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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