Overcomplification Series (4 of 5): When the going gets tough, a Taoist moves slower

Chuang-tzu, the classic Taoist tome, expresses the Mastery of Nurturing Life by telling the story of a butcher. The king watches as a particularly skilled butcher is carving up an animal carcass. He is incredibly impressed by his technique and asks how the butcher can be so good. The butcher replies:

The Way (Tao) is more advanced then any technique. When I first began to cut up oxen, all I saw was an ox. Even after three years I had still not seen a whole ox. Now I meet it with spirit rather than look at it with my eyes. When sensory knowledge stops, then the spirit is ready to act. Going by the natural pattern, I separate the joints, following the main apertures, according to the nature of its formation. I have never cut into a mass of gristle, much less a large bone. A good butcher changes cleavers every year because of damage, a mediocre butcher changes cleavers every month because of breakage. I have had this cleaver for nineteen years now, yet its blade is as though it had newly come from the whetstone.

It is a gruesome way to illustrate the Mastery of Nurturing Life (especially for the vegetarians in the crowd), but the core of the lesson is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined Flow. Flow is “a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Across disciplines this is the moment where the practitioner is completely immersed in their performance, often to the exclusion of everything else happening around them.

Peak athletes in the zone, that’s Flow;

actor’s embodying their characters, Flow, too;

musicians connecting with the song they perform, Flow.

The question Chuang-tzu’s butcher brings us back to: how do we tap into Flow when we are overwhelmed, run down or distracted?

The answer, move slower.

Whenever I come to a knot, I see the difficulty to doing it. I am careful to remain alert, with my gaze steady. Moving slowly, I exert a very slight force, and the knot has come apart, like the earth crumbling into the ground.

The king said, ‘Excellent! Having heard the words of a butcher, I have found the way to nurture life.’

In Part 5, we will talk about goals, flow & f**k’n up.  The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net. The Chuang-tzu quotes come from the Thomas Cleary translation of classic Taoist works.


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