Optimally Empty

是以陶鈞文思,貴在虛靜,疏瀹五藏,澡雪精神。

‘Thus, to use the potter’s wheel of literary thought — treasure empty stillness, cleanse the five viscera and wash clean the vital spirits.’ — Liu Xie, Wenxin Diaolong

A few days ago, slightly overwhelmed with the amount of paperwork I have to get through here, I took refuge in my new favourite coffee house, San Kafei 叁咖啡 or 3Coffee, which is just outside of the campus. There are many things to commend San Kafei as a coffee shop. There is a coffee-shop cat, which seems remarkably tolerant of the indulgent mauling of the staff. There is half-way decent coffee. There are comfy chairs. There is lovely low light, ideal for reflective brooding. There are books absolutely everywhere. And there is a dog — a golden labrador — in a cravat. And very fine it looks too.

I found a seat in the corner, suitable for brooding, and ordered and iced coffee. Then I took out my book and started reading. The book was Liu Xie’s Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍, or ‘Literary Mind and Carving of Dragons’, in Vincent Shih’s old-but-good translation. The Wenxin Diaolong is a book that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Written around the turn of the sixth century, it is a terrific resource for thinking about the art, the nature and the craft of writing. And because I’m quite preoccupied of late by the question of what it is that I’m up to as a writer — or what any of us are up to — Liu Xie seemed like a good companion to have by my side.

It was when I came to the passage above — ‘…to use the potter’s wheel of literary thought — treasure empty stillness…’ — that I found myself glazing over. My eyes lifted from the page, I put the book down, and I slowly settled into something not unlike empty stillness myself. I sat there for about an hour, occasionally pulling out my notebook and jotting down a few words, but most of the time simply sitting and waiting, sensing thoughts beginning to stir.

On the surface, Liu’s account of ‘empty stillness’ appears a bit weird. It seems really quite strange to talk about cleansing the five viscera — heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys. And yet, when I got up to leave the coffee shop, I noticed there was something distinctly physical, something bodily, about this experience of settling into reflection. Experientially — phenomenologically — it was indeed a kind of cleansing, a kind of clearing out, not just mentally, but also physically.

Empty stillness, or 虛靜 xūjīng is a concept that has an interesting, and very long, heritage. It appears, amongst other places, in the Outer Chapters of the Zhuangzi, where it is closely related to the notion of wu wei 無為 — non-activity. The following passage comes from the Zhuangzi:

‘These things — empty stillness, tranquility, silence, and wu wei — are the levelling of heaven and earth, the attaining of the way and of its potency’

夫虛靜恬淡,寂漠無為者,天地之平而道德之至
.

My translation is perhaps a bit clunky; but the point is clear: empty stillness and non-activity are related. But what is this mysterious non-activity? In his terrific book, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies, Steve Coutinho talks of wu wei as ‘optimally minimised activity.’ I’m going to come back to this notion of optimal minimising in a number of later blog posts, as I find it fascinating. But for the time being, let me just quote what Coutinho says,

‘The semantic function of ‘wu’ is to optimally minimise the clarity and determinacy of the concept it modifies. This is not unrestricted lessening, but presupposes a specific kind of function: a minimal amount necessary to cooperate symbiotically with our environments’ (p. 58).

It is through optimally minimising activity, and through cultivating empty stillness, that you attain to the way, and to its potency. Or, in the language I was using in my previous blog post, you attain to viability. This is an interesting thought. Over the past few years, I haven’t really experienced this empty stillness, or not enough of it. This has been in part due to my work in the university. Universities are not necessarily places hospitable to the optimal minimisation of very much. They are allergic to empty stillness. Instead, they often seem to propagate a frenzied culture of maximising absolutely everything. They maximise measurable outcomes to the detriment of deeper forms of reflection. They maximise contact time, to the detriment of solitude. They maximise engagement, to the detriment of creative disengagement. They maximise profit, to the detriment of other measures of value.

Of course, Liu Xie could be wrong. Empty stillness may have nothing at all to do with attaining to any way — be this writing or anything else. It may be just an excuse for bourgeois behaviour. After all, there is something decidedly foppish about hanging around in the company of dogs wearing cravats. But as a writer, I find something persuasive in these notion of empty stillness and of optimal minimisation. And as somebody who tries to teach writing and thinking, it makes think that perhaps we owe it to our students not just to fill their heads with endless stuff, or to fill their time with endless activities, but to open up spaces for this optimal minimising, to leave room for this empty stillness.

I’ll say more about all of this in later posts. But for now, my head is quite full enough. And besides, it’s past lunch-time. So I’m going to follow the recommendations of that other great Daoist text — the Dao De Jing: I’m going to empty my head, and fill my belly.

Comments 6

  1. My mind suffers from a lack of stillness. One of the best cures for me is walking. Something in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other helps me to get into a mental state where story ideas feel free to make themselves known.

    A couple of weeks ago I had the curious experience of going so deeply into that space as I walked that – on pulling out of it – I found I had no idea where I was.

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      Walking is good! As long as you don’t get so distracted (or as long as your mind is not so empty) that, like Thales, you fall into a well.

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  2. Great post, Will. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that, regardless of the social milieu in which this kind of speculation originally flourished, there’s nothing inherently bourgeois about the creative pursuit of stillness, even idleness. (Many of the best still-hunters and fishermen I know are thoroughly working-class.) And for that matter, in our society, people on the right as well as the left fetishize work and ambition.

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      Yes, I think you are right. Barbara Smuts tells those nice stories about baboons enjoying empty stillness, or something like it, so this is clearly a much more deeply-rooted mental/bodily kind of thing, rather than a simply sociological phenomenon. And work/ambition seems fetishised pretty much everywhere and by everyone. (One exception in the UK may be, although I am not sure, the extreme upper classes, who even if they don’t fetishise their own work, probably fetishise that of other people..)

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