One of four soon-to-be friends said, “Who can see nothingness as his own head, life as his own spine, and death as his own ass? Who knows the single body formed by life and death, existence and non-existence? I will be his friend!” (Ziporyn; 6:40)

Own the whole ball of wax.

This imaginative exercise is simple enough. Indeed, there is really nothing that profound about Zhuangzi’s vision at all. It’s simply a chosen response to the raw human experience.

Addressing the bondage of “Confucius” to conventional thinking, “Laozi” asks, “Why don’t you simply let him see life and death as a single string, acceptable and unacceptable as a single thread, thus releasing him from his fetters?” (Ziporyn; 5:13)

The point is to take one’s mind beyond its insular focus on the immediate, purely human context, so as to realize its broader context. Zhuangzi calls this recontextualization “the vastest arrangement”. It can only remain the vastest, however, when it is entirely open-ended. Imagine “limitlessness”. Is it possible? It is, it seems, only if something new and different happens to the mind. And that’s the ultimate point of the exercise.

There is, however, also a more immediate and mundane benefit. Taking life and death as a single string, one body, our attitude toward both life and death can be approximatingly transformed. “The proof that one is holding fast to the origin can be seen in true fearlessness.” (Ziporyn; 5:10) It may be that we are unable to realize total release from the debilitating fear of death, but we can realize incremental freedom.

It is important to keep the ideal in mind, but never to the point of undermining the ultimate value of the real and immediate. We want to be able to walk these two roads at once.

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