Friday, June 14, 2013

How to Nourish Life IV: Life Requires Nourishing

Scott Bradley

King Hui observes his cook butchering an ox and is amazed at such skill. But the cook says that his butchery "advances beyond mere skill" because it is an expression of Dao. After the cook explains what this means, the king exclaims, "Wonderful! Having heard the cook's words I have learned how to nourish life!" (Zhuangzi, 3:6; Ziporyn) From this we understand what we are intended to learn from the story.

The first lesson, however, is only implied: Life requires nourishing. At first glance, this might seem self-evident; are we not forever trying to 'improve' our lives? Yet, few of us take this activity as a skill set in and of itself. We mostly just muddle along. Philosophical Daoism, I would suggest, is first and foremost an attempt to articulate an understanding of how we might most effectively nourish our lives. It is a very practical philosophy with little interest in the metaphysical considerations which typify religious pursuit, namely redemption, immortality and union with an imagined Meta-Cosmic Other.

That life requires nourishing itself implies much. It acknowledges an existential gap wherein things do not just happen but must be made to happen. Some control needs to be exercised over our lives. This seems the exact opposite of what Daoism teaches. It is. And it isn't. When Zhuangzi recommends that we "hand it all over to the inevitable", for example, we are being told to do something, but that something is to allow things to naturally unfold. Thus, we are exhorted to do not-doing. Someone somewhere must have once said, Paradox is the refuge of the lazy-minded. It no doubt can be, but it is also unavoidable in a reality that refuses to be delineated by reason. We are thus required to be actively involved in the process of learning spontaneous living.

We are also exhorted to "not add anything to the process of life". Thus, however we nourish life, it needs to be in harmony with the nature of life itself. In this instance, Zhuangzi is speaking to the propensity of the "understanding consciousness" to 'tell' life what it should or should not be. It 'should' have a purpose. It 'should' be understandable. It 'should' be expressed in a certain prescribed way. Not surprisingly, it is stepping beyond this that the cook cites as the beginning of his movement into dao-ful living: "My understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow." The first thing we need to do to realize non-doing is to get out of the way so that life can do itself.

I like to say that we do not have a life, but rather that life has us. Yet if life requires that we nourish it, then both are true. It is a requirement of human existence that we engage ourselves in the cultivation of the life we are. Philosophical Daoism suggests that the most helpful and effective way to do this is to allow that life to express itself in and through us.

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

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