CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY IX

“To tend to your heart-mind so that sadness and joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to rest content in it as Circumstance, this is the height of potency” (Zhuangzi, 4; Watson, p 60).


What we are talking about here is the work of self-cultivation. There’s “heart-mind tending” to do. “Potency” here translates de. Having a heart-mind that is unswayed by circumstances is “the height of de”. De is the existential realization of Dao. Dao is an attitude; de is having that attitude. Being “in the Dao” is de.


The goal and proof of this realization is to “rest content” in whatever transpires. However wonderful this might be, its most telling aspect is its everyday practicality. This is not about becoming a buddha. It is not about enlightenment, achieving immortality, or uniting with “the Great Dao”. It’s about enjoying one’s life. The full realization of Dao, the de of Dao, is “resting content”. Let’s go out on a limb and call it: happiness.


What could be controversial about calling de happiness? Apart from its not promising some form of cosmic salvation or wowing spiritual charisma, it is often considered bad form to value happiness. What a mere common human aspiration! Mentioning it implies seeking it, and seeking it implies not having it, and it cannot be had by seeking—so abandon it. Just be an enlightened sage and have done with it. What does something so mundane as enjoying life have to do with supreme enlightenment, in any case?


And does not this passage itself tell us that resting content is not allowing “sadness and joy” to disturb our peace? Yes; happiness is not allowing happiness (or the need for or lack of happiness) to disturb our peace. What is missing in the critique above (besides a this-worldliness) is an appreciation of walking two roads at once. Paradox. Nothing in life is not paradoxical.


There is a hope that is a kind of non-hope, a hope that is an open-ended hopefulness that hopes for no particular circumstance. There is a sadness that is a kind of non-sadness, a sadness that does not overwhelm us; a sadness enjoyed as sadness. There is a happiness that requires no happiness; a happiness that equally embraces happiness and sadness. This is a happiness that depends on nothing—not even happiness.


Resting content in every circumstance, including the circumstance of our emotional responses to them, is happiness. Since this is not in fact our natural inclination, all these circumstances (including the circumstance of our inability to do so) are an opportunity to “tend to our heart-mind”. It’s not about arriving, but about resting content in never arriving; life is process.

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