Living in the Moment

Graham introduces chapter 2 of The Book of Lieh-tzu, The Yellow Emperor, thusly:

This chapter is concerned with the Taoist principle of action. Faced with an obstacle, the unenlightened man begins to think about possible benefit and injury, and ponder alternative courses of action. But this thinking does him harm instead of good. A gambler plays better for tiles than for money, because he does not bother to think; a good swimmer learns to handle a boat quickly, because he does not care if it turns over; a drunken man falling from a cart escapes with his life because, being unconscious, he does not stiffen himself before collision. It is especially dangerous to be conscious of oneself. A woman aware that she is beautiful ceases to be beautiful; teachers aware of their own merit soon degenerate.

When I read this, I knew instantly that I would love this chapter because it states a truth I’ve long felt. It’s probably the most important thing I ever learned from sports. I played basketball for nearly thirty years precisely to attain this feeling on a regular basis. Few things feel better than being “in the zone,” that moment when your game is going well and all your shots are dropping, or, in my case, you’re collecting all the rebounds and the player you’re guarding has barely scored. Unfortunately, the moment could easily be dispelled by the sudden THOUGHT that if you don’t make THIS shot your team will lose the game. There’s nothing worse than allowing thoughts of failure or doubt to enter your mind at such moments.

This is precisely the feeling that I attain when I’m practicing Tai Chi by myself and it seems like I’ve manage to master the form, it’s a feeling I’d like to attain when practicing in class.

For me, the actual passage that best exemplifies Graham’s introductory paragraph is this one:

Yen Hui asked Confucius a question:

‘Once I crossed the deep lake of Shang-shen; the ferryman handled the boat like a god. I asked him whether one can be taught to handle a boat. “Yes,” he told me, “anyone who can swim may be taught it; a good swimmer picks it up quickly; as for a diver, he could handle a boat even if he had never seen one before.” I questioned him further, but that was all he had to say. May I ask what he meant?’

‘Hmm. I have been playing with you on the surface for a long time, but we have never penetrated to the substance; have you really found the Way? Anyone who can swim may be taught it, because he takes water lightly. A good swimmer picks it up quickly, because he forgets the water altogether. As for a diver, he could handle a boat without ever having seen one before, because to him the depths seem like dry land, and a boat turning over seems no worse than a cart slipping backwards. Though ten thousand ways of slipping and overturning spread out before him, they cannot enter the doors of his mind; he is relaxed wherever he goes. Gamble for tiles, and you play skilfully; for the clasp of your belt, and you lose confidence; for gold, and you get flustered. You have not lost your skill; but if you hold yourself back, you give weight to something outside you; and whoever does that is inwardly clumsy.’

As Graham points out, it really isn’t Confucius offering this advice, but, rather, Lieh Tzu, or another Taoist writer, since it seems unlikely that Lieh Tzu wrote all of The Book of Lieh-Tzu, putting words in his character’s mouth, and what better character to use than the most revered of all Chinese writers/philosophers?

Still, that last line, “You have not lost your skill; but if you hold yourself back, you give weight to something outside you; and whoever does that is inwardly clumsy” seems remarkably wise. Doubts, in the guise of thoughts, too often make us question what we know to be true, and almost invariably we end up regretting not following our heart. I aspire to reaching a state where I can actually live my life without doubt, and certainly without regret.

9 thoughts on “Living in the Moment

  1. This is really true. I always joked that my best bowling or pool playing (yes, those were my “sports”) happened after about one and a half beers. Not before (that’s when I’d be thinking too much about it) and not after two, because then the coordination goes! It makes sense to me. And of course it can be accomplished without alcohol as well.

  2. Once I have finished a drawing or a painting, I can enjoy looking at it because it feels as if I am looking at something that someone else did. I truly don’t know how I did it. I can’t duplicate it.

    I wish that I could see the rest of my life in that light, without regret and judgment, without so much self-consciousness.

    It is reassuring to think of the words, “You have not lost your skill.”

  3. When attempting to write papers in college, I often suffered writer’s block because — to my mind — the stakes were so high. I felt my reputation with my professors was on the line with each paper I submitted. Nowadays I just try to do my best, without much more than a very modest regard for what others think of my best — and writer’s block is a thing of the distant past.

  4. So glad you shared this. It feels like the missing clue or final piece needed to make a life-changing breakthrough. Happy New Year to you and yours.

  5. If it’s not a “goal,” I don’t know anyone who’s arrived there, either, Brian.

    Certainly not me.

    I’m already dreading a hectic weekend full of visiting and parties.

  6. Hello Loren – I very much like Graham’s observation about Lieh Tzu’s use of Confucius as character to talk about that delicate, ungraspable moment of non-effort, non-struggle. A moment that happens for me when a piece of writing moves suddenly into “the zone”, as you put it. In writing fiction, particularly the improvisational type of writing that I’ve managed to make time for, there is often a sudden shift out of the temporal and into an effortless open field, where characters suddenly raise their heads and tell their own tale. Writer as conduit. Ah, I loved Lieh Tzu back when. Thanks for a lovely post, it makes me want to go look in the big black box of ancient writings and post an old piece on the same subject.
    Have a happy new year!

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