Every New Year I fight with myself and lose. The oncoming year seems to emerge wrapped in all the same thwartings and dissatisfactions as the previous years: the same aspirations, the same attempts to start, the same cessations, the same failures, the same tedious doomed cycles – and within a few days, I find myself stuck in the same place again, unable to step out of the magic circle that imprisons me. Of course it is like this every day, but every New Year merely accentuates the failure and makes new resolutions seem futile. Every year too I have the thought, You’ve wanted to do this for decades but never done it, so surely this is proof that you were never meant to do it and should just let it go? But I cannot, and this generates a different variant of the same thing: The failure must be organically and necessarily related to the falseness of the aspiration, the cycle exists because the aspiration as you see it is actually already impossible for you to reach, so why don’t you just change the aspiration to something that you can attain? I am aware that there is something I am not seeing. My failures even to make a good beginning must be caused by blindness of some kind: I am not looking at the matter clearly, and it is my miring in a particular perspective that prevents me from moving: a miring that is evidently decades old, has turned to iron, and is well-rusted. Zhuangzi offers us a couple of parables rolled into one: Hui Shi told Zhuangzi, saying, ‘The king of Wei sent me some seeds of a large calabash, which I sowed. The fruit, when fully grown, could contain five piculs (of anything). I used it to contain water, but it was so heavy that I could not lift it by myself. I cut it in two to make the parts into drinking vessels; but the dried shells were too wide and unstable and would not hold (the liquor); nothing but large useless things! Because of their uselessness I knocked them to pieces.’ Zhuangzi replied, ‘You were indeed stupid, my master, in the use of what was large. There was a man of Song who was skilful at making a salve which kept the hands from getting chapped; and (his family) for generations had made the bleaching of cocoon-silk their business. A stranger heard of it, and proposed to buy the art of the preparation for a hundred ounces of silver. The kindred all came together, and considered the proposal. “We have,” said they, “been bleaching cocoon-silk for generations, and have only gained a little money. Now in one morning we can sell to this man our art for a hundred ounces;– let him have it.” The stranger accordingly got it and went away with it to give counsel to the king of Wû, who was then engaged in hostilities with Yue. The king gave him the command of his fleet, and in the winter he had an engagement with that of Yue, on which he inflicted a great defeat, and was invested with a portion of territory taken from Yue. The keeping the hands from getting chapped was the same in both cases; but in the one case it led to the investiture (of the possessor of the salve), and in the other it had only enabled its owners to continue their bleaching. The difference of result was owing to the different use made of the art. Now you, Sir, had calabashes large enough to hold five piculs;– why did you not think of making large bottle-gourds of them, by means of which you could have floated over rivers and lakes, instead of giving yourself the sorrow of finding that they were useless for holding anything. Your mind, my master, would seem to have been closed against all intelligence!’ There’s a way to read this superficially: You are so stuck in your narrow-minded habitual conceptions of the functions of things that you cannot imagine that there is an infinity of possible alternative functions to any given thing. Nothing is reducible to its place in a living system; everything is adaptable, flexible, infinitely useful, and therefore anything can take on new life in new situations. This reading is all about usefulness, effectiveness, and the pragmatic intelligence that can turn things to unexpected good use in different times and places – an intelligence, indeed, not shackled by habit or custom, that can see something new. In modern entrepreneurial self-help books we sometimes come across the puzzle of the nine dots. Here are nine dots arranged in a square: Can you connect the dots with four straight lines but without lifting your pencil from the paper? Try it.
The provocation has to suggest that this is a square and that the lines must somehow follow the form of a square. But this is impossible. Only when you have no thought of “square” might an answer present itself – for instance,
Think outside the square! they say. Simply find a point of view from which the right solution can suddenly appear, unhindered by prejudice. Hui Shi and the Bleachers of Song were stuck in their version of the square; they simply could not SEE a different possibility. They must have been kicking themselves when one suddenly presented itself. This reading has a delightful practical simplicity to it; just change your point of view! Just drop your rigidity and let go of your old self. But we know it is not that easy. I can give you a seemingly endless list of my own mistakes, especially in romantic relationships and failed friendships, when from the beginning I was pitifully unable to see the possibilities clearly, or from the middle I could not see any alternative to what the thing had become – and so I just drifted on helplessly along some cramped, interminable tunnel that had its own idea of where I had to end up: If only we could simply recognize our own assumptions and find a new perspective that can give us different ones. Then our prison walls would just melt away and we would be free as we never were before. Zhuangzi must know that even with the nine-dot puzzle most human beings do not simply find the other perspective: we work at it, try things out, think, and maybe eventually we hit upon it – after first exhausting square thinking. Perhaps this is how it has to be in life’s stickier mires too: we have to work at it, exhaust the possibilities, mentally nag and poke at the problem, and only then know definitively from failure that this way just won’t work. After all, we are blind to things because we have practiced and solidified our blindness; blindness doesn’t exist simply as a thing, it is compounded of actions. To diminish our blindness we have to practice, reflect, understand, and then what we may achieve is the dissolving and breaking up of the barriers to our vision. Zhuangzi before this conversation with Hui Shi had spent many years looking at things like a Zhuangzi would; and the stranger of Wu was already in search for something very specific. Does this story help me at all in my attempts to step out if the perilous bog I find myself in at New Year? The trick perhaps is to learn how to step out of my own skin and see my situation from the point of view of a stranger – not an objective point of view, but one from which my interpretation of things does not make automatic and compelling sense but from which a better sense may be arrived at. Once we begin this game, though, a new satisfaction arises in the playfulness with which we start to dwell in our own actualities, constantly aware of alternative ways of seeing and doing. This lifts us out of the practical into the contemplative: It may end up being more effective because it is less rigid and therefore more responsive to life’s demands, but ultimately it is more interesting than the practical could be because each moment then carries within itself innumerable possibilities which, when intuited, make experience of the moment a more three-dimensional affair. The story preceding the dialogue with Hui Shi goes like this: A man of Sung, who dealt in the ceremonial caps, went with them to Yue, the people of which cut off their hair and tattooed their bodies, so that they had no use for them. Yao ruled the people of the kingdom, and maintained a perfect government within the four seas. Having gone to see the four (Perfect) Ones on the distant hill of Ku-shih, when (he returned to his capital) on the south of the Fan water, he forgot his empire in a daze. After all of this there may be something much more fulfilling than usefulness and the solution of problems; indeed, usefulness cannot be an end in itself but always serves some other master. The man who not only mastered his own life but gave order to the lives of everyone else discovered something so wonderful that effectiveness as an ideal became nothing to him. These last two parables, like the one about the Bleachers of Song, are about revelations that come from travel. Does the secret lie in wandering far from oneself, far from the accustomed cycles, and then returning to them with mind and heart full of other ways, such that it is the very unsettling that makes it both impossible and uninteresting to crawl back into the ancient, obstinate order, of which the only payback is that it is a kind of order, the kind that shields us from the dangers of the new?