I have offered my personal failing of desiring to be a sage as a point of entry into the necessary self-inquiry that Zhuangzi’s philosophy challenges us to practice. That philosophy begins and ends in our self-experience. It’s about the transformation of our world-view, our interface with our personal experience in the world, and nothing else. It is not a belief system, but a self-aware existential response to the life-experience as it arises. It makes no appeal to extra-mundane metaphysical “realities”.

I have said I’d rather be a rock star than an adored guru. The implication is that to aspire to either manifests more or less the same motivation. Understanding how they are the same is vital to understanding the Zhuangzian project of realizing non-dependence and the freedom to play and wander. The essence of non-dependence is the loss of the need to “be someone”. When he says, Just be empty, this is what he means. Being who we are is, ironically, being no one. We are, of course, “someone”; we are a someone who is also a no one. Our core experience, Zhuangzi suggests, is a sense of emptiness. We are not a thing, a concrete, static entity, but a happening, an expression of a ceaseless, open-ended transformation.

This disturbs us. We want to be someone fixed. We want to be gods, concrete and immortal. For this reason, we engage in all manner of self-reifying fantasies and projects in an attempt to fill the unfillable core emptiness that is our essential experience.

This desire to be a rock star (or an adored guru) is motivated by a desire to be esteemed by others in the extreme, though it is of the same genus as every similar motivation. It is, as we have said, the coarsest of such motivations and one easily identified and condemned. But condemnation is not abandonment, and for that, there’s nothing so effective as laughter. Laughter, however, neither condemns nor abandons; it simply joyously transcends and leaves things to transform as they will.

Self-laughter is an active self-awareness that is already free of that of which it is aware. While self-inquiry is a project of self-cultivation, self-laughter is the freedom that simultaneously obviates any requirement for change. It is the realization of complete unconditional self-affirmation in each moment and in every condition. It is the caged bird that sings—even as it works on the bars.

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