By Richard Seymour.
In Taoism, there is much emphasis placed on stillness. I believe this is a mistake. True, stillness is an important state; but it is not an end in itself: it is a beginning.
Stillness, in Taoist thought, has a counterpoint: movement. The Earlier Heaven sequence of trigrams represents Tao in static opposition. The Later Heaven sequence of trigrams represents Tao in motion. However, one does not follow the other in a linear fashion. We describe it in such a way so as to start to understand what is really going on. In reality, however, stillness forms a constant hub about which the spokes of change turn. They exist together. Within one can be found the other.
Movement is something we do easily. Our minds are in a constant state of flux with random thoughts, ideas, voices and feelings bubbling up and disturbing the surface. It is very difficult sometimes for us to tell them apart; to know which thought to trust or idea to go with.
The Ta Chuan says of the superior person that he 'sets his person at rest before he moves; he composes his mind before he speaks; he makes his relations firm before he asks for something . . . But if a man is brusque in his movements, others will not cooperate. If he is agitated in his words they awaken no echo in others. If he asks for something without having first established relations, it will not be given to him . . . He does not keep his heart constantly steady. Misfortune'.
Here, stilling one's self is the preliminary to movement. It is the solid base from which our words and actions may safely spring.
I grow my own food and find the practice to be an excellent analogy for Taoism and no less so in this matter. When I first started out, I would plant seeds directly into the ground. The soil, however, already had unwanted seeds in it, and after a couple of weeks, I didn't know which were my vegetables and which were weeds. I couldn't risk pulling up the wrong ones, but leaving weeds in the ground prevents vegetables from growing properly.
So next time I bought a seed tray and filled it with potting compost that I knew was clear of seeds. That meant that I could plant my vegetable seeds and be absolutely confident that what grew was suppose to be there. As soon as the seedlings grew big enough I transplanted them into the ground and was able to keep the weeds at bay.
The seed tray with potting compost can be seen as a still mind; but you do not stop there. What you have is a fertile plain out of which thoughts, ideas, words and actions may flourish.
Another example in nature is the stork. It doesn't splash about in the water looking for fish as it would scare them away. It remains completely still until a fish comes near. It then chooses the perfect moment to spring into action. Stillness alone would not have caught the fish.
And so it is with us. We, as humans, are continuously processing our environment. Our minds are always active. If we try to screw a lid down on all of that we are denying our natures. More than that, we are denying the truth of Tao, which is that it is in constant flux. Nothing ever remains the same.
If we can, however, rid our minds of its weeds; if we can ever get to a state where everything we do, say and think springs out of stillness and not chaos, then we can be sure of ourselves. Instead of breathlessly firing an arrow in all directions, we can learn to hold our breath and shoot straight.
I am sure we have all been in a situation where several people are trying to argue over each other. At some point you shout for everyone to be quiet; and when all are silent you suggest everyone present speak one at a time.
Well, stillness is a little like that.
Lao Tzu said that movement overcomes cold and stillness overcomes heat. That is very true of our minds. If your mind is a pot of water then there are times when you need to light a fire beneath it to get it to boil. There will also be times when, as it begins to boil over, you need to quench the fire and allow the water to settle.
Taoism recognises the dynamic nature of the universe, of the world we live in and of ourselves. The idea that we must always be one thing or another is the antithesis of Taoism. Knowing when we need to embrace one thing over another is an art. To be so pliant as to always be perfect is one aim of the Taoist. Be neither this nor that.
Through meditation, diet, exercise and a myriad of other practices, many of them Taoist in origin, you can return to that solid base of stillness, free of the chaos of confusion; to that virgin, fertile soil of the mind. There is no need to deny your essential nature; just give it a better place to grow.