Saturday, May 12, 2012

Consciousness Big and Small

Scott Bradley


"A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration." (Zhuangzi, 1:6; Ziporyn)

Overturn a teacup of water into a depression and the water will not suffice to float the teacup, but a tiny mustard seed will float as if upon a vast ocean. If floating along is the value sought, which object is most completely fulfilled? Zhuangzi uses this image to show how unhelpful comparisons can be.

Peng, the huge bird which requires ninety thousand miles of air beneath its wings in order to fly, overflies the tiny quail which requires only a few feet of air to get from tree to bush. It may be that Peng in his vastness has a larger consciousness than the quail, but the quail in her smallness has equally the possibility of fullness and completion. Each thing is fulfilled within the range of its limits; and that fulfillment is of equal value to every other fulfillment, whether of something bigger or of something smaller.

A rock is fulfilled in rockness without any effort. So too the insect and the deer. Only the human faces fulfillment as a challenge, for only the human is capable of wishing it were other than it is, or things other than they are. Yet this discontent is, as often as not, expressed not as overt envy, but as scorn for what it is not. It is easier to dismiss the other than it is to affirm it.

Thus Zhuangzi's anthropomorphic quail laughs at Peng for his high flying. What a waste of time and effort! This is truly a "small consciousness". But the quail needn't be so bound. Its consciousness is "small" only because it fails to discover vastness within its own limits. It may be that the consciousness of Peng is "larger" in scope, but were it to look down and scorn the "smaller" consciousness of the contented quail, its consciousness would, in fact, be "smaller".

The true comparison between Peng and the quail has nothing to do with size and everything to do with what is done within the context of size. Both can be fulfilled within their limitations and the value of that fulfillment is equal. Thus, the fulfillment of any one thing is entirely independent of how it might be compared to another.

The "moral" of this particular facet of the story is thus: Your fulfillment is entirely within the context of your own special limitations; and its worth is beyond comparison.

We all have many limitations, intellectual, physical, and emotional. None of these stand in the way of our fulfillment. They are, in fact, the means to that fulfillment.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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