Friday, March 02, 2007

Flow and the Not-So-Skillful Zhuangzi?

If you've been reading much psychology recently, you've probably heard about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "Flow". Flow is characterized as a state of complete, undistracted immersion in skillful activity. Csikszentmihalyi (and often his subjects) regards such experiences as positive and fulfilling. Imagine the pianist completely immersed in a brilliant performance or a basketball player completely attuned to the events on the court, responding skillfully and spontaneously to every move. There's no denying that there's something cool about that!

(On the other hand, I'm not sure there's anything so intrinsically wonderful in being so immersed in driving or in your customary work -- two of the most common "flow" activities in ordinary life, according to Csikszentmihalyi -- that time flies by without your seeming to notice. The "flow" of data entry isn't maybe quite as romantic as the flow of the concert pianist.)

Standard interpretations of the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) -- most notably, that of A.C. Graham, but also of P.J. Ivanhoe and many others -- would make him the greatest early advocate of "flow": The life one should strive for, according to Graham's Zhuangzi, is one of spontaneous, skillful reactivity, like that of an artisan in the flow of his work.

The standard passage in support of this view is in Zhuangzi chapter 3, on the butcher cutting up an ox:

A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"

The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as though fresh from the grindstone.

"Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."

Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of butcher and learned how to care for life!" [Kjellberg trans., in Ivanhoe & Van Norden 2001/2005, p. 224-225]

Csikszentmihalyi cites this very passage in his 1990 book Flow. And how can one resist? Who'd have known butchery was so wonderful? (The butcher at the local Ralph's debones my trout: Whoosh! In a single fluid movement, all the bones are gone, a perfect skeleton in his hand. Now he's spiritually fulfilled!)

Setting aside the question of whether this is really spontaneous skillful activity, beyond words and conscious thought, or genuine flow -- maybe it is, but that might turn on nuances in interpreting the penultimate paragraph -- I have some doubts about the centrality this passage is often given in interpreting Zhuangzi's positive vision of life.

(1.) Although there are other passages celebrating skillful executing of mundane activities in the Zhuangzi, this is the only clear and substantial one in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of the book.

(2.) In the Inner Chapters, Zhuangzi criticizes what might seem to be flowing, skillful activity at least as much as his praises it:

Zhuangzi said, "Haven't you seen a weasel? It bends down then rises up. It springs east and west, not worrying about heights or depths -- and lands in a snare or dies in a net. Now the yak is so big he looks like clouds hanging from Heaven. He sure can be big, but he can't catch mice. You have a big tree an are upset that you can't use it. Why not plant it by a nothing-at-all village in a wide empty waste? You could do nothing, dilly-dallying by its side, or nap, ho-hum, beneath it. It won't fall to any axe's chop and nothing will harm it. Since it isn't any use, what bad can happen to it?" [Kjellberg trans., p. 213]

This sounds almost like the opposite of the message of the butcher: The weasel has the skill of catching mice, but because it becomes completely absorbed in that activity, it loses track of the big picture and dies. And, indeed, isn't this exactly the danger of undistracted skillful activity? -- that one becomes so absorbed in it, so purely reactive to just a narrow range of pre-defined goals set by that activity, that one risks losing sight of the big picture, or of things one should be distracted by (including lunch, one's home life, or even the fire alarm)? Indeed, the context of the weasel example is Huizi's not knowing what to do with a huge gourd that resists the ordinary uses of gourds but invites unconventional uses. What would the butcher do with a 40-foot ox? Could he see past his usual methods and think instead of riding its shoulders through the impassable swamp?

Note also:
The Way is lost in the glorification of right and wrong. The Way is lost in the completion of love. But are there such things as loss and completion? Or are there no such things as loss and completion? Loss and completion -- that's Master Bright Works playing his lute. No loss and no completion -- that's Master Bright Works not playing his lute. Bright Works playing his lute, Shi Kuang holding his baton, Huizi leaning on his desk: the knowledge of these three masters was almost perfect, and they passed their successes on to later years. What they liked they tried to set apart from other things. What they liked they tried to illuminate. But they only succeeded in illuminating the other things and so ended in the gloom of "hard and white" [that is, meaningless logical distinctions]. Their followers ended up tangled in the string of works and were incompete their whole lives. If this counts as completion, then we are all complete, too. If this doesn't count as completion, then none of us have ever been complete. So the torch of slippery doubt is what the sage steers by. Don't insist, but lodge in the usual: this is what I mean by throwing things open to the light. [Kjellberg trans., p. 218-219]

A difficult passage! But if anything is clear, it's that the Way is lost (if anything can be lost, if there is such a thing as loss) in the skillful activities of Master Bright Works on the lute, etc. There is no praise here of skillful activity as the secret of caring for life.

(Indeed maybe it's the commitment to caring about success and failure -- "right" and "wrong" -- that is the root of the problem. The Zhuangzi of Chapter 2 might not praise the butcher who takes pride in his accomplishment, and who presumably would be disappointed if he broke his knife and ruined the ox, or even became only an average butcher -- which most butchers must of course be.)

(3.) Zhuangzi (for example in the weasel passage) praises "doing nothing". Although the idea of doing nothing (wu wei) has received enormous attention in the secondary literature in classical Chinese philosophy and has come to seem to mean something very different from its surface meaning (something like spontaneous, skillful reactivity, in fact), I don't really see much of a textual basis for this in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. He seems simply to praise literally doing nothing (or very little), like the yak. To the extent Zhuangzi does, here and elsewhere, praise uselessness and doing nothing, that seems the opposite of praising skillful accomplishment.

So I think we must re-evaluate standard interpretations of Zhuangzi's view of skill. And, indeed, I think Zhuangzi contains the seeds of a critique of the idea of "flow" as a central aim of life.


Clark Goble said...

Just in passing this is a big deal in Heidegger's philosophy as well.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, for the tip, Clark. I'm afraid I've never really had the patience and trust necessary to make much sense of Heidegger. But I should take another crack at it. Maybe when Mark Wrathall arrives here at UCR next year (as it looks like he will), he will help inspire and guide me!

Clark Goble said...

Oh, did Mark accept? That's be a big loss for BYU, although I can certainly understand his leaving here. (I would)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Mark has accepted. Brian Leiter says so, so it must be true!

I had forgotten that you're in his neck of the woods. Sorry about that!

Justin Tiwald said...


Great entry! I agree with much of this and have just a few additional 

(1.) There are a couple noticeable differences between the skillfulness of people 
like Huizi and the lute player and skillfulness of people like the butcher, and 
I think the differences cut across other famous anecdotes in the Zhuangzi. First, Huizi 
and the lute player are engaged in professions of high social value. They aren't 
just some anonymous cook working in a lord's kitchen. They are admired and loved 
by all. Second, the kinds of work the butcher does is more of a constant, less 
dependent upon the fluctuations of social trends and economic circumstances.

This suggests that it's not just skillfulness that Zhuangzi advocates but the 
skillfulness of the sort that isn't socially overvalued or whose usefulness is 
too dependent on time and place. This fits well with the passage you quote from the "On the Equalization of the Things" chapter ("…don't insist, but lodge in 
the usual [yong]").

(2.) Here's one possible disanalogy between Flow and the kind of 
skillfulness that Zhuangzi admires: part of the phenomenology of Flow is a powerful feeling of one's own self-control or agency. This strikes me as contrary to the spirit of the Zhuangzi.

 Of course, Ivanhoe and Graham would probably agree with this. I assume Zhuangzi's value state is only comparable to Flow in certain respects.

(3.) As for the use of the word "spontaneous" to describe "non-
action" (wuwei), I agree that this can be misleading. And you're right to 
point out the butcher's somewhat neglected afterthought: he pauses, he steadies his gaze, he also seems to contemplate his next move. This no longer sounds much like spontaneity. Or if it is, it's more like the "spontaneity" of a chess player than that of a pianist, which seems to be stretching the concept beyond all plausibility.

The response has to be that non-action isn't just present-mindedness in the sense of not thinking at all about what comes next. It has make allowances for the fact that we can 
stop to contemplate our next move or consider the consequences of our actions.

This makes me think that we should more carefully distinguish between thinking 
about a future outcome and being invested in that outcome. I don't know how to 
characterize "being invested in an outcome" except to say that it involves some 
kind of emotional attitude, and that it would be such that failing to achieve the 
outcome would be cause for disappointment and regret.

I wonder if we couldn't make a similar move in response to the lesson you take away from the weasel story: that we can't lose sight of the bigger picture. Zhuangzi seems to make this point quite often, most famously in the Cicada-mantis episode in "The Mountain Trees" (ch. 21). There must be some analogous way in which you can remain aware of your surroundings and the big picture without being unduly concerned about them. But I'm not sure how best to characterize this. Any suggestions?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the long, thoughtful comment, Justin!

Your point (1) is interesting. I agree it is in the spirit of the Zhuangzi to reverse values in that way. One apparent counterexample is the weasel, who is only catching rats. But maybe that exception is sufficiently explained by the fact that the weasel is implicitly being compared to Huizi.

I'm not as sure about point (2). I think you're right that in *Graham's* interpretation of the Zhuangzi the feeling of spontaneity might conflict with the feeling of agency mentioned by Csikszentmihalyi. But I want to cast Graham's interpretation into doubt. Basing my thoughts on the Inner Chapters alone, I'm not sure whatever value remains in skillfulness is incompatible with feeling the agency of it.

On your (3): I agree there's an important difference that can potentially be drawn between merely considering outcomes and being invested in them -- maybe Zhuangzi is getting at this in his dialogue with Huizi at the end of Ch. 5? So in response to your last question, let me borrow ZZ's own words and say that maybe it's a matter of not letting likes and dislikes getting in to do one harm.

Let me also resist somewhat your continuing to speak of wuwei/non-action in terms of skillful action. Maybe it should just be read quite flatfootedly as not doing anything!

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Eric,

I like your use of the dialogue with Huizi!

As for your reading of "wuwei" as "doing nothing," let me just say that in some cases it really does imply "doing nothing." But that's just because wuwei's most basic sense is to be in accord with what's self-so (ziran). Thus the useless tree practices wuwei by literally doing nothing, since that what's self-so for it. But when other things do what comes to them naturally, this isn't always "doing nothing" in the literal sense. Off the top of my head, "the Way does nothing [wuwei] and yet there is nothing it does not do" (Laozi 37). (The more conventional translation, "the Way does nothing and leaves nothing undone," isn't true to the grammar.) We could read that as a straight-forward paradox, but I suspect neither you nor I want to do that. Alternatively, then, we could read the first clause not as "doing nothing" but more conventionally as "not striving to do anything." Add to this the fact that the early texts didn't distinguish between the characters "wei" ("do") and "wei" ("artificial or conscious action"), and we've got a pretty good case for the more conventional reading.

But all of this beside your basic point that we have some work yet to do before connecting wuwei to skill, which I agree with.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree that if you go outside the Inner Chapters for your reading of wu wei -- especially to the Daodejing -- then it's not plausible to interpret the phrase as meaning literally doing nothing. The phrase doesn't appear much in the Inner Chapters themselves, though. I wonder whether, where it does appear, it can be interpreted simply as "not doing anything" -- as in the yak passage.

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi again,

I did a quick search and only found two other occurrences of "wuwei."

The first one appears in Ch. 6, where the Way is decribed as wuwei (echoing Laozi 37). (Watson, Basic Writings, p. 77)

The second one appears in Ch. 7, where Confucius describes some flagrant violators of ritual principles as follows: "they wander free and easy in the service of wuwei. (Watson, p.83)

Not a knock-down argument for the conventional reading, but then again nothing ever is!

The dearth of references to wuwei is rather remarkable. By contrast, the phrase is ubiquitous in the commentaries on these seven chapters. The term obviously look on something of a life of its own after the Inner Chapters were written.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the tips. I had the impression that there were only three occurrences of "wu wei" in the Inner Chapters and had been looking for them (I don't have a searchable Chinese Zhuangzi). I found the one on Watson p. 83, but not the other.

It seems to me the p. 77 quote needn't be read in any rich way -- the way "does nothing, has no shape" is Graham's translation (Graham, p. 86). The p. 83 quote sounds more traditionally wuwei-ish as Watson translates it "in the service of inaction" but Graham gives it a pedestrian translation: "go rambling through the lore in which there's nothing to do."

What you say about "wu wei" taking on a life of its own after the Inner Chapters were written seems exactly right to me. I think it's salutary to see if we can do without it entirely, in fact, taking "wu wei" in those chapters not as a term of art but simply as a way of saying doing nothing.

Part of the issue here might turn on whether Zhuangzi was aware of a tradition of using "wu wei" more as a term of art, as one sees in the Daodejing -- and that depends in part on dating the Daodejing. I like to see Zhuangzi as *not* influenced by earlier "daoist" writings; but I'm not Sinologist enough to have an expert opinion on that.

Justin Tiwald said...

It seems to me that the p. 77 quote has the Way "doing" a great deal. We might have to agree to disagree about this, though I don't think it would count as much of a disagreement since I see both views as within the range of plausibility.

I also doubt that Zhuangzi was self-consciously following Laozi. There's no evidence that the two were even lumped together as "Daoists" until Sima Tan of the Han Dynasty, who was likely bunching philosophers together for the sake of imposing a little historical systematicity on the Hundred Schools period.

Of course, this hasn't stopped me from teaching them both as Daoists.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've never really known what to do with these more mystical and metaphysical passages in the Zhuangzi. I confess that's a weakness in my view!

In my teaching, by the way, I downplay the similarities between Laozi and Zhuangzi, and I teach the Zhuangzi first as the historically earlier text (following the order of Graham 1989).

Anonymous said...

Just a comment. Rather than 'spontaneous, skillful reactivity", I think of the state of the butcher as being one of total awareness of the possibilities in a state of relaxed preparedness. This eliminates the sense that a person is trapped in a state or is focused on a task to the exclusion of other sensory input.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's appealing, but I have a textual and a psychological concern. Textually: He does say he can't see the whole ox. What does that mean? Psychologically: When we're caught up in expert activity, isn't part of that just not responding to, not noticing, shutting oneself out to certain things -- irrelevancies or distractions, the noticing of which would interfere with the activity? That works great except when the "irrelevancy" turns out to be important!

Unknown said...

The message here is that ultimately the butcher sees the structure of emptiness permeating throughout the oxen, and has to merely manipulate and guide the fullness of his cleaver into these apertures and hollows of the ox. It is a story illuminating the nature of fullness vs. emptiness, the substantial vs. the insubstantial, the yang as opposed to the yin. As Master Sun stated: "To advance irresistibly, push through their gaps". It is not about flow.