Zhuangzi suggests three increasingly subtle expressions of our ceaseless project of trying to be someone. This project is a consequence of the core emptiness that pulls the rug out from under our desire to be substantive and eternal. Since this is an entirely futile exercise and one that creates a pall of disharmony with ourselves, others, and the cosmos, he recommends that we rather harmonize with our actual experience. Everything is ceaselessly transforming; identify with that, and we need no longer cling to something we fear we can lose. Or don’t; it’s just a life-strategy, a dao, not “the Dao”.
What typically motivates this project of realizing one’s inherent emptiness? Taking ourselves as someone, we seek to be no one as a means to being someone. The so-called “spiritual” project becomes just another expression of the self-reifying project. This, I think, is what Zhuangzi intends to convey when he offers Liezi’s spiritual accomplishments as his final example of dependence. Liezi could fly on the wind. That’s quite an accomplishment; but, Zhuangzi tells us, this is still an expression of dependence.
Some Daoist roots likely extend deep into shamanism, and Liezi (if he existed) might very well have been more shamanist than “Daoist”. Shamanism offers an excellent example of a self-reifying form of “spirituality”. I do not mean to imply that it is more so than other forms—there are no spiritual pursuits that do not also have their self-reifying expressions—, but rather that some of its overt peculiarities make it easily identifiable as such. (What do I know of shamanism? I have only opinions.) Shamanism is very much about “spiritual” power. Castaneda’s Don Juan is a shaman. We are invited to be amazed at how much spiritual power he has—he can astral-project. Wow. Ask an aspiring shamanist about her shaman guru and she will tell you of his powers. You too can have such powers. You too can be someone special. None of this is meant to disparage shamanism, but simply to illustrate how Zhuangzi saw his project as something altogether different.
But Zhuangzian pursuit of non-dependent wandering can just as easily be a self-reifying project. The real question is whether it could possibly be anything else. It might be helpful to fall back on the Zennist conundrum: you can’t become a buddha by trying to be a buddha, yet you are obliged to keep trying until you somehow need try no more. We stand on the bank of our essential mess, and look across the uncrossable river in the belief that we can vaguely discern the other shore. This has remedial benefit to be sure. But we also need to remember that process is the most authentic goal, and that process is of necessity a messy business. If we can embrace the non-logical infinite regress of wandering in our inability to wander, or to wander in our inability to do even that . . . then we can perhaps make approximal “progress” and wander in the doing. Wandering depends on nothing, not even successfully wandering.