Zhuangzi’s entire philosophy is essentially an imaginative exercise; after his critique of reason and his rejection of taking our minds as our teacher, he had very little choice but to go in this direction.

There is also that side of his philosophy that suggests we live in a manner altogether unmediated by thought. This is Daoist spontaneity. “Let your mind spring forth from its rootedness in the unthinking parts of yourself,” suggests one of his interpreters. (23; p 99) The most immediate question then is how do we manage this?

When Yan practiced “fasting of the heart/mind” he discovered that it is really a kind of inner emptiness that “moves” him. (4:10) The suggestion is that we also be aware that we are so moved—moved by our empty self, not by the self that thinks itself “full and real” and thus thinks it needs to mediate its living. Spontaneity is letting the happening happen.

Fasting of the heart/mind seems to be a form of meditation that Zhuangzi himself likely sometimes practiced. But what is lacking in his writing generally is a clear advocacy for this as the be all and end all of his suggested methodology. We know from those who do advocate this one method, both then and now, that they can hardly speak of anything else.

Much more frequently advocated in his writing is a kind of imaginative mediation. This is my interpretive take; he makes no such explicit statement. This is in keeping with the general ambiguity of his writing as a whole, and it is that ambiguity that makes possible imaginative exercises in the first place.

The use of one’s imagination is a use of one’s mind. We need not stop thinking, but only to stop thinking that thinking is living or that thinking can discover fixed and sure formulae by which to live. Taking one’s mind as one’s teacher refers to these.

Imaginative meditation is thus quite different than most forms of meditation where one attempts to stop thinking altogether. It is not a rejection of that method, but only a possibly complementary alternative. It is the use of one’s mind to transform the ultimately unavoidable use of one’s mind. A point of view is unavoidable, and the point of this exercise is to enable that point of view to be as beneficial as possible.


Imagine our every interpretation of ourselves and the apparent world as a kind of dreaming. This is quite different than saying it is a dream—how could we know that? But the very fact that we don’t know it suggests that whatever interpretative view we do decide on is equivalent to a dreaming. This is Zhuangzi’s point of view. (2:41-3)

So, here we are in an epistemological state of dreaming. What are we to do? First, we have to acknowledge that such is the case. But we typically do not recognize that this is a dreaming at all—we take our point of view as correct and true—things are actually as we see them. We interpret the dream within the dream, and that’s the end of it.

Is this a problem? What problems ultimately endure? Within Zhuangzi’s dream, all things are equalized, all ends up well, and therefore, even the present problems are informed of wellness. This has its present psychological and sociological advantages. And this is the only real justification for deciding on this dream.

The alternative dream, namely that problems have enduring, eternal consequences, creates its own problems. This view, it seems to me, is nonsensical unless we also believe that we, as fixed identities, also eternally endure. We need to endure so as to take our problems with us. And if we do this, then our present problems, our moral failings, are of momentous importance.

I know of no major religion that does not posit a hell, at least in the popular imagination. There needs to be an eternal repository for the unresolved problems and moral failings of our present.  Only this can give right and wrong the immovable foundation that they require. There needs to be consequences.

I will leave it to the reader to consider the negative psychological and sociological impacts of such a dream.

Thus imaginative meditation is really not so different than our everyday dreaming. It’s just that we make conscious choices about what to dream. We choose those interpretations of the unknowable that bring us the outcomes most conducive to our individual and collective flourishing.

All that is required is that we give up Truth.


It may well be that Zhuangzi made use of the meditative techniques of his peers; surely, he must have at least dabbled in them? Graham has him previously being a disciple of Huizi (a Logician) and before that of Yang Chu (the so-called hedonist—self first!), so perhaps he was a bit of a dabbler. Aren’t we all?

Taken as a whole, however, I think the Inner Chapters settle on a less conventional technique for self-cultivation: imaginative meditation.

I take complete non-dependence as an essential attribute of Zhuangzi’s “wandering”; and yet he only introduces it as a hypothetical: “But suppose you depended on nothing . . . ?” (1:8; paraphrased) Why should this surprise us given that this dependence or non-dependence is entirely a matter of psychological orientation? We’re not talking about Reality here.

The idea of imagination being a gateway to a transformation in consciousness doesn’t sit well with the truth-seeking mind. But Zhuangzi has reconciled himself with his inability to find the Truth. (An advantage of having extensively dabbled?) How then could he represent transformation as somehow a consequence of truth-finding?

At first blush, Buddhism might have no problem with imaginative meditation; it can easily be taken as an upaya, a skillful means, to the discovery of Truth. Conventional truth, which is to say not-the-real truth, is the only way by which to arrive at the real Truth. Like a raft, when it’s gotten you to the other side of the river, you let it go.

But this is not Zhuangzi’s position. He imagines no such ultimate Truth. He remains in the world of “Drift and Doubt”. He depends on no Truth. He wanders on this side of the river.

Having said that, he does imagine truth . . . lots of them, whichever one works. The difference is that he is aware that it is and must remain only an imaginative exercise. It too is a skillful means, albeit one without any idealist pretense.


Given the extent of my own mess, it is not surprising that I fully embrace discombobulated de. Or should I say my take on discombobulated de? It’s curious how my interpretation of Zhuangzi so closely conforms to my own needs. Or is it that Zhuangzi’s ambiguity invites a “build your own” kind of philosophizing?

This is probably the case, but there is an obvious bias for the misfit in Zhuangzi. And this is not coincidental; it bespeaks the overall flavor of his thinking which consistently goes against the grain of conventional values. In the passage quoted in the previous post we are told that the sage is “dim and dense”. Is she really, or is she only seen as such?

Nor is this unique to Zhuangzi; it is a prominent theme within philosophical Daoism generally. Laozi pseudo-laments his own apparent misfittedness: “The masses have more than enough while I alone appear needy. I have the mind of a fool—so slow. Normal people are brilliant while I am dim. Normal people understand while I am dim-witted.” (Laozi 20)

This is not simply obstinacy. In a world completely enthralled of yang and yang-ing, the advocate for yin can only seem out of step with the general march toward self-reification. This so permeates our (“modern”) cultures that we hardly notice it anymore.

Own this and be a sexy somebody. Be seen as beautiful in this way. Be like “the world’s most interesting man”. Be rich and famous. Can’t do that? Identify with those who are and let them live for you.

Today’s “sages” hardly fit the popular perception of the sages that Daoism presents. Today’s spiritual somebodies are seen as wise, charismatic, and powerful. Yang wins again. Beware the sages known to be.

But surely the true sage is not as she is perceived. She really is wise, charismatic and powerful, isn’t she? Discombobulated de is only how she appears to the yang-ers. Perhaps this is all Zhuangzi had in mind—but I think otherwise. I think she is a mess, just like me. She just uses that mess to launch into the freedom of being who she is.


Speaking of the hypothetical sage, Zhuangzi has someone “recklessly” tell us: “While the mass of men are beleaguered and harried, the sage is dim and dense, standing shoulder to shoulder with the sun and moon, scooping up time and space and smooching them all together, leaving them all to their own slippery mush so that every enslavement is also an ennobling.” (2:41)

Unpacking all this would require a full presentation of Zhuangzian philosophy. But this is not unusual; in the end, every facet of this philosophy implies all the rest. There seems to be a central idea, but in exploring it we discover that it is explained by other ideas that can likewise claim to be central. It’s omnicentric—everything explains everything else.

But we have to start somewhere, and in the context of this present series, I will focus on the final phrase: “Every enslavement is also an ennobling.” This, in part, explains the value of discombobulated de.

Largely inspired by our addiction to right and wrong, our default motivation when confronted by something deemed unacceptable is to eradicate it. For Zhuangzi, however, it is only through the embrace of something so deemed that we are able to transcend it in soaring freedom. This too is the usefulness of the useless. Take away the problem and we lose the solution. Eradicate the resistance of the monsoonal wind and, like the mighty bird Peng, we could not take the highest flight of existence possible.

For Zhuangzi, it is not the transformation of the ceaselessly arising vicissitudes of life that is of first importance, but the transformation of our relationship to them. And this, not entirely surprisingly, often transforms the vicissitudes themselves.

Discombobulated de, I would suggest, is making skillful use of the mess that we are. The tidying up of that mess is secondary and consequential to this.

The sage takes the nature of the cosmos as her point of departure. She takes it as a “slippery mush”—not only is her own existence a messy business, but so too is that of the cosmos. It is ceaselessly transforming in a chaotic happening of formation and destruction. It is a Great Mess.

How are we any different?

The sage says “Yes, thank you” to the cosmic mess, and consequentially does the same with respect to the individual messes that she and we are. Our “every enslavement” is the means by which we can soar in the freedom of pan-affirmation.


“Only an insect can be an insect, and it is only by being an insect that it can succeed in being the Heavenly.” (23; p 102) Being the “Heavenly” is being what we are. This is de. Discombobulated de is being the mess that we most likely are.

Being what we are sounds tautological—how could we do otherwise? Getting that sense in which we cannot be otherwise, for all its connotations of determinism, can paradoxically be quite liberating. But there is also that sense in which we can psychologically be other than we are.

(This tends toward the metaphysical, so let’s first establish that it is only an imaginative exercise.)

“I am perfect by virtue of my being perfectly who I am.” This mantra simply expresses an all-affirming appreciation of the Great Happening. Every happening, including my happening, is that Happening, and that Happening is completely and unconditionally affirmed. All is well in the Great Mess.

From this perspective, there is nothing to do, nothing to attain, no conditions to meet—you are perfect in being whatever mess you presently are. Rejoice and be glad. Enjoy. For me, fully realizing no need for “enlightenment” would be enlightenment. Thankfulness arises.

But there is also the non-tautological side of being what we are—the psychological side in which we are in conflict with our actuality. We wish to be other than what we are. We are not being what we are. (I take “what we are” as our actual behavioral existence, not some phantom “true nature”. “There is only this one moon; there is no second moon.”) Although this psychological dissonance is also entirely affirmable, since it issues in self-discontent, we do well to address it. (Or am I only projecting? No matter; this is unavoidably about me, however much I speak of “us”.)

We are considering three aspects of de here. There is ontological de—we cannot “stray from Dao” in that whatever we are and do is an expression of Dao. When we embrace and affirm our failure to appreciate this, that is live this, this is (discombobulated) de. And when we actually realize this first de in ourselves, this too is de.

The last two of these are conditional de—they can be realized or not. However, they both rest in an appreciation of their ultimate unconditionally.

We still want to know if this makes us “better”, of course. God forbid that we should shirk our responsibility to be “good”. But though Daoist de is not about being good, goodness follows nonetheless. The sage cares nothing for “good”, which is precisely the cause of her being so.


Zhuangzi’s discombobulated de, like the physical deformities of Shu the Discombobulated, is counter-intuitively beneficial. It stands outside conventional ideas of beauty, worthiness and usefulness. In the world of yang—self-assertiveness and mediated (conditional) self-esteem—it is despised. (“The highest good is like water which benefits all the things of the world without contending with them. It dwells in the places that most men despise [low places; the swamp].” (Laozi 8))

If Shu’s deformities actually helped him to live out his allotted years, how much more so might a deformed de? asks Zhuangzi. This apparently useless de is in fact most useful. As with Zhuangzi’s useless trees, being of no discernible practical value, the possessor of this de is left alone to flourish.

Confucius, an arch Zhuangzian foil, was a conspicuous and inveterate  yang-er; he wanted to transform the world through the teaching and the application of moral principle, and there was no better place to do it than among the politically powerful. This got him into more than one fix in which his life was in danger. Even in the Analects (18:5) there is unanswered criticism of his political ambition, and Zhuangzi himself parodies this incident (4:20).

Confucius is held up as a paragon of virtue (de), and rightly so—especially if we are enamored of the pursuit of conventional “goodness”.  And Zhuangzi? He is the eccentric uncle—an interesting character to be sure, but not really relevant to the practicalities of life. His de is discombobulated.


There was a man, “Shu the Discombobulated”, whose body was a total mess. And yet he was consequentially able to not only provide for himself, but many others as well. He took in sewing and washing. He also played at divination—something about his extreme physical abnormalities gave him “an aura of mystical power” (de?). The labor-impressing government and drafting military passed him over as useless, and the former even provided him with welfare assistance—all the more to share.

“A discombobulated physical form was sufficient to allow him to nourish his body, so that he was able to live out his natural life span. And how much more can be accomplished with discombobulated de!” (4:19)

Whatever did Zhuangzi mean by discombobulated de? Whatever he meant, for the discombobulated, it speaks of freedom.

What is de? De is theoretically the expression of metaphysical Dao. In this sense, all things are de. One cannot “stray from Dao”. But it is only psychological Dao that concerns us here, and its expression is the de that is conditional. It can be realized or not.

One would think then that there could only be one kind of realized de. Yet Zhuangzi seems to contrast discombobulated de with other possible forms. It is an idea, after all, and on that level, he is contrasting it with other ideas of what is de, especially that of the Confucians.

For Confucians, she who possesses de is as close to perfection as one can possibly be. She is a fully realized human being. She practices shu (the projection of her self-caring onto the world as a whole—a form of cosmo-centrism) and its practical societal expression, chung. She is a really, really “good” person. De is a moral attribute.

Zhuangzi rejects this model. It is not the outcome he questions, however, but the motivational imposition that is thought to secure it. Trying to improve, or rather, being required to improve, is counter-productive. This is wu-wei (non-doing) in contrast to the active pursuit of the Confucian virtues (de) of Benevolence and Righteousness.

Discombobulated de, I would suggest, must therefore be, first and foremost, consciously being the de that we presently are; assuming we are discombobulated. I certainly am.


Cosmo-centrism as a paradigm shift is already in play within the environmental movement. “Deep ecology” takes it as its point of departure. Other environmental philosophies make similar reiterations of the same. How they arrived there, I am not sure; but it is encouraging that they have.

What philosophical Daoism might have to contribute to the movement are a philosophical framework for such a view and the basis for that leading to a mystical and transformative leap. In the end, mere intellectual assent, though helpful, may not be enough. What is ultimately needed is a transformation of human consciousness. And this begins with us—you and me.

This frankly leads me to pessimism. Humanity is a self- and world-abusive mess, and its inertial trajectory seems unstoppable. It is helpful to remember then that the planet does not require saving at all. It will do quite well without us however we leave it, thank you very much. It has survived a lot worse than us.

Nor do we ultimately require saving, for that matter. Our collective extinction is as assured as our individual deaths in any case. Nothing ultimately requires saving, because nothing can be saved. But then, by the same token, nothing can be lost. This, too, is open-ended cosmo-centrism, “the vastest arrangement” in which all things are secured beyond the sense of individual identity.

Informed by this, we can get on with the work of caring with a hope that is also not-hope, a hope that requires no particular outcome, because all outcomes are ultimately affirmable. All is well in the Great Mess.