Making Use of the Middle

or
Goldilocks was a philosopher

 

There is a short phrase in the Taiji Classics that is easily glossed over. If we take the time to look at it a little more closely, it reveals surprising richness, depth and relevance to our practice of the internal arts and, beyond that, to the art of living. The phrase is: wú gùo bù jí 無過不及, which we will initially translate as:

Neither gùo nor bù jí.

A standard translation for gùo 過 is ‘excess’ and for bù jí 不及 is ‘insufficiency’. Translating these terms in this way is accurate, but it does not tell the whole story. Any traditionally educated Chinese reader will immediately recognise this phrase as a reference to a passage in the Confucian classic, much loved by the Daoists, the Zhongyong 中庸.

Zhongyong is often translated as The Doctrine of the Mean.1Following Legge’s 1861 translation. Later in 1885 he opted for The State of Equilibrium and Harmony, for the “Sacred Books of the East” series, but returned to Doctrine of the Mean for the second revised edition of “The Chinese Classics” series of 1893. Zhōng means ‘middle’, ‘centre’. The Chinese name for China is zhōngguó, ‘Middle Kingdom’. Yōng, means ‘ordinary’ as well as ‘use, employ’ and ‘constant’. A very direct translation would be ‘the middle of the ordinary’ or ‘the constant centre’. Both terms evoke the central place (zhōng) of balance in any situation, place or state. What is ‘ordinary’ (yōng) if not the absence of extremes, whatever the circumstance? It is also possible to read this title as ‘making use of centrality’. The phrase zhōngyōng first appears in the Analects where it seems to follow this last meaning: ‘Becoming virtuous by making use of centrality (zhōngyōng), that is attainment!’2Analects 6.29.

Our phrase from the Taiji Classics is actually a direct quotation of the explanation of the meaning of the phrase zhōngyōng by the Neo-Confucian scholar Zhuxi. He says:

Zhōng is the name of that which is not one sided, does not lean (bù piān bù yĭ), which neither gùo nor bù jí. Yōng is level and constant.3Zhong Yong Zhang Ju 1. The phrase bù piān bù yĭ also made its way into the Taiji Classics. Swaim translates it as: “No leaning, no inclining.” (in Fu Zhongwen: Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan). Oddly, the two phrases of this sentence do not appear together in the Taiji Classics.

Let’s look more closely at these terms before turning to the Zhongyong. Gùo 過 means ‘to pass by, to go beyond’, jí 及 means ‘to arrive at, to come to, to reach, to attain’. Bù jí 不及, then, means ‘not reach’. Our phrase from the Taiji Classics now reads,

Neither go beyond nor do not arrive.

The Zhongyong, can fill out its meaning for us:

The master said: ‘The Way (dào) is not traveled (xíng), I know why: those who are knowledgeable go beyond it (gùo); those who are foolish do not come up to it (bù jí). The Way is not made bright (míng), I know why: those who are worthy go beyond it (gùo), those who are unlike (the worthy) do not come up to it (bù jí ). No one does not eat or drink, but few are able to know flavour.’4Zhongyong 4.

The dominant metaphors of this passage are of travelling along xíng 行, and illuminating (making bright and clear) míng 明, the way dào 道. The word translated as ‘attainment’ in Analects 6.29 above, zhì 至 ‘arrive’, is the same word that Zhuangzi uses for one who has attained the Dao: literally, ‘one who has arrived’. Arriving somewhere necessarily involves neither going beyond it nor failing to get there. The language of ‘going beyond,’ ‘not coming up to,’ and ‘arriving in the middle’ is intimately bound up with the fundamental metaphor of Chinese philosophy and practice: that of the Way.

Those who acquire knowledge and the worthy are usually exemplars and paragons in the Confucian tradition, but in the Zhongyong Confucius warns that such people fail to attain the way because they go beyond it. Theirs is the mistake of overreaching, of excess. The foolish and those unlike the worthy (usually just translated as ‘the unworthy’) fall into the opposite error of not coming up to the Way. Theirs is the mistake of falling short, of deficiency.

If we are in any doubt about this reading of the Zhongyong, there is a passage in the Analects where Confucius makes it absolutely clear that gùo and bù jí equally miss the mark:

Zigong asked, ‘Who is more worthy, Zizhang or Zixia?’ The Master replied, ‘Zizhang gùo (goes beyond it), Zixia bù jí (does not come up to it).’ (Zigong asked,) ‘So then is Zizhang better?’ The Master replied, ‘Gùo (going beyond) is the same as bù jí (not coming up to).’5Analects 11.16.

The pursuit of the middle is equally important to the Confucian and Daoist traditions, though the focus of each is somewhat different. Confucians emphasise the Dao of man, which to them means the realm of human relationships. They employ the mean within the lĭ 禮, a term usually translated as ‘rites’, but which includes what we would recognise as etiquette. Greeting your friends and how one behaves in public are equally part of the Confucian rites.

Daoists, emphasising the dao of Heaven, make use of centrality on all levels of one’s being: the physical, energetic, emotional, the mental, and so on. Our passage in the Taiji Classics is primarily concerned with the application of not going too far and not falling short physically, energetically and martially. It is unlikely that it is being used in reference to the rites, despite the phrase having been borrowed from one of the greatest of the Confucian masters of the Song dynasty renaissance.

In the Daoist classics, one of the most important images of tending towards and attending to the middle is that of drawing a bow:

The dao of Heaven is like drawing a bow.
What is high it draws down, What is low it lifts,
What has too much it lessens, What does not have enough it adds to.
The dao of Heaven lessens what has too much
while adding to what does not have enough.
The dao of men is not so, it lessens what is not enough by offering more to what has too much.6Laozi 77.

Making use of the middle, then, is directly related to the art of knowing what is enough:

Calamity: there is none greater than not knowing what is enough
Error: there is none greater than desiring gain
Thus knowing enough of what is enough is always enough!7Laozi 46. For an application of this principle see, The Great is the Enemy of the Good.

Considering these passages from the heart Chinese philosophy, it becomes clear how true to tradition Master Bruce Frantzis is when he refers to making use of the middle as finding the ‘Goldilocks point’: neither too much nor too little, but just right. This is what he means by the 70% rule. In this regard Bruce often tells the story of the man from Sung, the classic version of which is found in the writings of Mencius:

Gongsun Chou asked Mencius, ‘May I ask in what you are most developed?’
Mencius answered, ‘I understand words, and I am good at cultivating my flood-like qi.’
Gongsun asked, ‘May I ask what you mean by ‘’flood-like qi”?’
Mencius answered, ‘That is difficult to explain. Qi can be developed to great levels of quantity and stability by correctly nourishing it and not damaging it, to the extent that it fills the space between Heaven and Earth. […] One must work at it, but not rigidly. Do not forget about it, but do not help it to grow either. Do not be like the man from Sung.
There was a man from Sung who was worried that his crops were not growing, so he pulled on them. Wearily, he returned home, and said to his family, ‘Today I am worn out; I have been helping the crops to grow!’ His sons rushed out to look, but the crops had already withered.
Those in the world who do not help their crops grow are few indeed. Those who abandon them, thinking it will not help, are those who do not even weed their crops. Those who help them grow are those who pull on their crops. Not only does this not help, but it actually harms them. Mencius 2A.2.

This is a beautiful illustration of finding the Goldilocks point in any endeavour: neither helping our crops grow, nor neglecting them; neither going beyond what is needed nor not coming up to it.

While Goldilocks may not set a very good example when it comes to breaking and entering, she is a great exemplar of the principle of avoiding the extremes of too much and too little.

Making use of the middle is the ultimate principle of balance that we can apply to any aspect of life: from exercising or working in the garden, to finding the balance between work and home. Within Tai Chi, neigong and qigong, finding and maintaining balance is practiced on progressively more subtle levels. The first concern is with physical balance, which is not just about standing on one leg but also includes balancing the left and right sides of the body, the top and bottom halves of the body and the blood, lymph and nerve flow throughout the body etc.. The next level is energetic balance, followed by emotional and mental balance and so on. At each level of refinement the principle is the same, only it is applied to more of who and what we are.

The seemingly innocuous phrase from the Taiji Classics with which we started, ‘neither go beyond nor do not arrive’ is truly one of the most important subjects in our practice of the internal arts and in life.

 

Text and translations ©Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2011 & 2017.

Notes   [ + ]

Nurturing Life

or Paying Attention to Why We Act

Why do we do what we do? This is rather a big question. If we get into specifics we’ll be here forever. However, one answer to the question is that generally we do what we do because it is necessary or because we think it is a good thing to do. Put another way, we do things because they make life better than if we did not do them. In the Daoist tradition, the subject of making life better, yangsheng 養生 or ‘nurturing life’, is considered to be rather important.

Fundamental to nurturing life is knowing what to be careful about:

Those who do not know what to be careful about have not yet begun to make the distinction between those things that lead to death and those that lead to life, those things that lead to survival and those that lead to destruction, between what can and cannot be done. … This is called great delusion.1Lü Shi Chun Qiu 1.3.

Whether we move in the direction of life or in the direction of death is a matter of understanding what is of true value and what is of value only when put in the correct perspective. Warnings such as the passage above from the Lü Shi Chun Qiu, China’s earliest philosophic encyclopaedia written c. 250 BC, are also found in the Zhuangzi, one of the great classics of the Daoist tradition. The following anecdote concerning ‘making the body whole and nurturing life’ is found in both texts:

In today’s modern world people do too much with their bodies and throw away their lives, martyring themselves for things. Is this not sad? Whenever sages make a move, they are sure to consider why and how they are acting. If today someone were to use the Marquis of Sui’s pearl (a famous jewel) to shoot at a sparrow eight thousand feet away, they would be laughed at. Why? Because that which they used was important and that which they sought was unimportant. How much more precious is life than the Marquis’s pearl!2Lü Shi Chun Qiu 2.2; Zhuangzi 28. The word I translate throughout as ‘body’ also means ‘life’ and ‘self ’.

Another passage that is shared by these two texts is more specific about what to be careful about:

One who can honour life, though noble and wealthy, will not allow the pursuit of that which nourishes to injure the body; though poor and humble, will not allow the pursuit of that which profits to tie up the form. People of today, who hold high office and honoured rank, all think only of how serious it would be to lose them. Eyes fixed on profit, they recklessly destroy their bodies. How is this not delusion?3Lü Shi Chun Qiu 21.4; Zhuangzi 28.

Guarding against the pursuit of profit at the cost of our health and well being is a fairly straightforward and clear message. We see people chasing money and burning themselves out all the time. It’s the all too familiar competition to be the ‘richest man in the graveyard’. The Japanese have even coined a word for it: karoshi 過労死, which means ‘death from overwork’. The term is now international and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001; an ominous word for the beginning of the new millennium.

However, the idea of not allowing the pursuit of that-which-nourishes to injure us, needs a bit more reflection. ‘What is it that nourishes us?’ is a question with endless answers: food, exercise, work, shelter, music, art, things that we like; which is to say, anything that enriches our lives on all levels. How is it that going after such things can cause injury? The answer is: through lack of moderation. Even the best things, if taken in excess, can cause harm. Water, the most life-giving of substances, will kill you if you drink too much if it. This is one of the primary laws of yin and yang: if you take yang to its limit it will flip to yin and vice versa. For instance, if you do too much, it will exhaust you and you will find that you cannot do anything at all: yang has changed to yin. Extremes damage.

If we use up our bodies, our energy, our lives in chasing those things that nourish us, we achieve exactly the opposite of what we intend. This is because we have reversed the relationship: rather than using things to nourish life, we have spent our health, our lives, on acquiring things. These ‘things’ that damage our lives are not simply material possessions. It is the same with exercise. Take the present craze for extreme sports such as marathon running and Iron Man events. After a marathon a person’s immune system is suppressed for about a month and, more seriously, the heart is damaged. It is the same with everything from food and sex to study and meditation. Too much of anything comes down to one thing: the delusion of using a pearl to shoot a sparrow, of not knowing what to be careful about.

Yao yielded the rule of all under Heaven … to Zizhou Zhifu, who said, ‘To make me the Son of Heaven, that would be alright. However, just now I have a worrying illness, which I am trying to put in order. I do not yet have the leisure to put all under Heaven in order.’ All under Heaven is of the utmost importance, but he would not harm his life because of it. How much less for anything else! Only one who would not use all under Heaven can be entrusted with all under Heaven.4Lü Shi Chun Qiu 2.2; Zhuangzi 28. See also Laozi 13.

If we cannot be trusted to take care of our own bodies then we cannot be entrusted with anything else. Such a lack of care demonstrates that we have a distorted relationship, not just with our own bodies and selves, but with the whole world. One that is out of balance and extreme. This is what Laozi calls the ‘dao of man’, the opposite of the ‘dao of heaven’:

The dao of Heaven is like drawing a bow.
What is high it draws down,
What is low it lifts,
What has too much it lessens,
The dao of Heaven lessens what has too much
while adding to what does not have enough.

The dao of man is not so,
it lessens what is not enough
by offering more to what has too much.
5Laozi 77.

The ‘dao of man’ is a distortion that compromises one’s perceptions and interactions with everything. This is delusion indeed! The Lü Shi Chun Qiu, makes this point with particularly vivid and unambiguous metaphors:

The body is that for which things are done, all under Heaven is that by which things are done. Attend to that by which things are done and an understanding of the light and the weighty will be obtained. Now, if there were those who cut off their heads in order to change their hats, or that killed themselves to change clothes, everyone would certainly consider them confused. Why? Because hats are for adorning the head, clothes are for adorning the body. If you kill that which you want to decorate and make the decoration all important, then you do not know the reason for acting! These days those who go after profit are like this. They endanger their bodies and injure their lives, cut their own throats and chop off their own heads in order to chase profit. They also do not know why they act!6Lü Shi Chun Qiu 21.4.

A surprisingly common instance of not knowing why we are acting can be found in the internal arts. It is very easy for us to get stuck on making a posture or movement absolutely correct. All too often we push or force our movements and postures in the attempt to do them flawlessly. The result is that we injure ourselves or we simply rob our practices of all benefit and enjoyment, and we give up. This is the equivalent of cutting off one’s head to change hats. The whole point of our practices is to nurture and enhance our lives, not to do them perfectly for their own sake.

Doing neither too much nor too little is the path to making the body whole and nurturing life:

Wrong: there is none more abundant than excessive desires,
Cause for blame: there is none more grievous than desiring gain,
Calamity: there is none greater than not knowing what is enough,
Knowing enough of what is enough, this is constantly enough.7Laozi 46. This is the Guodian version (the oldest extant edition c. 300 BC), which, in my view, is the most complete and internally consistent, though it is not as regular as the received version. This passage builds its series of warnings in a way that the later versions do not. The first caution is against the all too common misdeed of having too many desires. The next is against the source of immense suffering: the error (jiu 咎 means both ‘fault’ and ‘blame’) of desiring gain. The final warning is against the disaster of not knowing what is enough. The last line of the passage offers the antidote to these closely related ills: know when enough is enough.

Text and translations ©Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2015&2017.

Notes   [ + ]

Articles & Interviews in PDF

Articles

For those who like properly formatted articles, here are all of the articles from the blog (and some that have not yet made it there) in PDF format.

Embodied Philosophy

Being Way Oriented

Do Not Let the Great be the Enemy of the Good

Making Use of the Middle

Nurturing Life

Rounding Off the Corners

Study not Studying

Taiji and the Procrustean Bed

Tailoring Change

Why So Slow 1

Why So Slow 2

Seasons

Autumn

Winter

Spring

Summer

Long Summer

Bibliographies

Laozi (Daodejing, Tao Te Ching)

Interview

with Master Bruce Frantzis on the Tai Chi Classics.
Reproduced from Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts, Vol. 35, Autumn 2010,
with kind permission from the editor.
Bruce Frantzis on the Tai Chi Classics

Chronic Pain

This article is written for teachers who are interested in this aspect of Tai Chi for health preservation and rehabilitation.

Teaching Tai Chi for Chronic Pain