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The Book of Lieh-Tzu

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.