Heraclitus (b. 544 BCE) observed: “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it will be neither the same river nor the same man.” Zhuangzi would certainly agree. Everything seems to be in flux. Nothing is fixed. The most obvious thing about reality is that it is continually transforming. This is hua. I like to call it the Great Happening.
Traces are our attempt to stop this flow, if only momentarily. “This is the Nile.” There you have it—a fixed identity that has persisted for millions of years no matter that its water is ever new and its path ever-changing. “I am me”—there is someone here who persists through time. Sure, I will have an end (presumably), but at least until that eventuality arises I have a fixed identity. But this is just a trace, a convenient way to stop the flow and make sense of the world. And it works. If we forget that it is merely a convenience and not the truth of things, however, psychological and social dissonance arises.
If I am someone, why am I forever trying to be someone—and always coming up short? This question is at the heart of Zhuangzi’s project. When he critiques the folly of those who try to be someone through political power, self-possession, or spiritual attainment he is describing us all. Because like everything else we are forever transforming, we depend on various ruses—traces—by which to make us feel concrete and fixed. Ultimately, we are denying both the insurmountable lack at the heart of our self-awareness and the inevitability of our own death.
But what if, Zhuangzi asks, we depended on nothing—no self-esteem, no project, no achievement, no public acknowledgement—what would that be like? Might it not allow for free and easy psychological wandering through life where neither success nor failure, praise or blame, life or death could touch the heart of our joi de vivre? When there’s nothing to be gained there’s nothing that can be lost. Thus, “fearlessness is the proof of sagacity”.
“Thus I say,” concludes Zhuangzi, “the sage has no-fixed identity . . . no merit . . . no name.” In other words, the hypothetical sage is able to see herself as a transforming happening within the Great Happening, which in effect makes her the Great Happening itself. “I and the ten thousand things are one.” At least this is how it feels.
Who am I? Whatever answer I might give will be a bundle of traces, fixed and static ideas that are not me at all. It might very well be that such a bundle of ideas is necessary, but knowing them as such opens a path to wandering in and beyond them.