CIRCUMSTANCE AND OPPORTUNITY XII

Zhuangzi uses Song Xing’s appeal for non-dependence on external circumstances as a hinge that turns to his suggested non-dependence on internal circumstances. Not only do the opinions and behaviors of others toward us not matter, but neither do our own self-opinions. Song’s contrast is between a self-esteem that depends on what others think of us, and a self-esteem that is founded on our own self-assessment. Zhuangzi would have us abandon even that. No-self is having a self that requires no reifying projects at all; a self that does not need to be a self even as it enjoys being one. Consideration of what it means to fear the loss of nothing doesn’t take long to arrive here: the loss of the fear of losing oneself. This, I believe, is Zhuangzi’s no-self.


This is very much about self-image. How do I view myself? But viewing myself is not being myself; it is a mediating separation from myself; it is a relationship of dependence. No-self is unmediated self; spontaneous self; and that’s a whole lot of self. It’s free-self.


Whether we are proud of ourselves (I have a great ass; My team’s number one; I’m really smart; I drive a Beemer; I’m a success; I’m a very spiritual person) or dis- ourselves, it amounts to the same thing—we have a dependent self, a self in need of props. And this, Zhuangzi suggests, is what chains us to fear and renders us incapable of happily and playfully skipping through life.


Yeah, well, that’s all well and good, but it’s not how we actually are. How we actually are is our present unavoidable circumstance whether we could theoretically be otherwise or not. But then this circumstance, like any other, is an opportunity to do a bit of self-cultivation. And this can be fun. It can occasion an enjoyable buzz. Transcendence feels good. And we can even transcend our inability to transcend—not eradicate it, but transcend it. Without pride and shame there would be nothing to transcend.


“Every enslavement is also an ennobling” (2:41; Ziporyn).

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