Monday, June 4, 2012

Carried Along

Scott Bradley

I occasionally help a friend with a job repairing a piece of heavy equipment. He often seems to subscribe to the brute-force school of reparation; if something doesn't immediately give, a sledge-hammer is quickly brought into play. Suggestions, even when accepted, are not always appreciated. If this seems judgmental, it might be moderated by an admission that I see myself in him. In any event, as I watch him fail in harmony in the hard, dirty job of tractor repair, I see myself, and learn. But the chief lesson is to learn to apply the principles of harmony in this present situation — letting him work as he wishes and helping as I can.

Zhuangzi suggests a harmonious way to deal with just this kind of situation: "Beauty is something that comes from taking your time....Let yourself be carried along by things so that the mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish that which is central within you." (4:16; Ziporyn)

Like so many of Zhuangzi's suggestions, this one is so full of insight it is hard to know where to begin. At first glimpse, the idea of being carried along by things seems more a problem than a solution; when things upset our harmony, this might be described as being carried along by things. They anger us. But this is a radically other sense than that which Zhuangzi intends; to be carried along by things is to let them be what they are, which is to say, to not allow them to disturb us. In this way the mind is not attached to them by way of conflict, but rather, is enabled through them to be free of them.

For the mind to wander freely in this and every situation is for it to be dependent on nothing for its peace. Because it does not need to change the unavoidable, it can simply enjoy the moment. What is "central within" us, is just this, this capacity for freedom and enjoyment. Achievement, control, doing — these stand in the way of our freedom, and, ironically, they stand in the way of themselves. "Beauty is something that comes from taking your time." All we could wish in terms of achievement, control and doing happens when we let them happen, not when we force them to happen.

To be carried along by things so the mind can wander freely is to be fully engaged in them — how else could we work together with them to bring about a beautiful end? One is reminded of Watt's contrast of the idea of Christian piety as represented by Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God) and Zen — it is not thinking about God while peeling potatoes, but simply peeling potatoes. It is not about thinking one thing while doing another, but fully engaging in the work at hand. And this is possible because the mind is freely wandering; free of the need to make things behave other than they are able, free of the need to make things happen now, we can follow along with them to their completion.

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

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