After exposing the folly of pursuing the esteem of others, Zhuangzi considers the alternative of self-esteem. We are told that even the proto-Daoist Song Xing would laugh at someone who attempts to be someone through social-esteem. There’s lots of laughing going on here. The tiny dove laughs at the flight of the vast bird Peng—derisively. Song Xing laughs at the one who, like the dove, sees himself in comparison to others. One ancient commentator points out that Zhuangzi says “even Song Xing” because, though he had some insight into the folly of self-reifying at that level, he had yet to learn to laugh at himself for his need for even self-esteem. Ostensibly, Zhuangzi’s sage has realized the freedom to do just that.
Song Xing, we are told (by Zhuangzi and the author of the 33rd chapter of the Zhuangzi), clearly recognized the difference between the inner and the outer. He understood focus on the latter, dependence on the esteem of others, as conducive of mediated and inauthentic living. Instead, he suggested we nurture the inner, our self-esteem. Song proclaimed that “to be insulted is not a disgrace”—it need not bother us. What a wonderful concept! What a powerful invitation to explore the root causes for our typical responses to insult. Why does it upset us? Shouldn’t we be so independently self-esteeming that the opinions of others have no affect? This is about as far as self-help psychology can take us and is likely a helpful, remedial project, though Zhuangzi suggests we can take it yet further.
Ziporyn sees Zhuangzi as offering this as “a salutary first step”. It is a significant insight and worthy of consideration and practice. For this, I would suggest, is the kind of “practice” that Zhuangzi suggests—the hard work of understanding ourselves. Meditation might have a role to play, but it can easily simply feed the same egoic motivations that Zhuangzi suggests we uncover and illuminate so as to transcend them—laugh at them.
Know thyself. Let yourself be illuminated by the “obvious”. Yet, when the Emperor of China asked the first patriarch of Chan (Zen), Bodhidharma, who the hell did he think he was, he replied, I don’t know. Now that’s knowing oneself. Upon what exactly can we pin our esteem?