A Pan of Water


A clear-sighted psychologist, Xunzi may have been the first writer to pick out the tendency to mental fixation (蔽, ) a crucial factor in political life, and one that cannot be ignored if leadership is ever to become an art or science. Since most of us are confused and driven by obsessions we are barely conscious of, in the form of desires, aversions, fears, and anxieties, we accept as normal the consequent roiling agitation produced by our obsessions and are surprised when a calmer person points out our inner turbulence to us; and even if we were capable of noticing our own subliminal agitations, it would be difficult for many to see beyond the tumult to a state of obsessionless lucidity, which we can barely imagine. Like any good Confucian, Xunzi uses something familiar to describe something very unusual:

The mind may be compared to a pan of water. If you place the pan on a level and do not jar it, then the heavy sediment will settle to the bottom and the clear water will collect on top, so that you can see your beard and eyebrows in it and examine the lines of your face. But if a faint wind passes over the top of the water, the heavy sediment will be stirred up from the bottom and the clear water will become mingled with it, so that you can no longer get a clear reflection of even a large object. The mind is the same way. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. But if you allow petty external objects to pull it about, so that its proper form becomes altered and its inner balance is upset, then it will not be capable of making even gross distinctions.  (Tr. Hsün Tzu, Watson, 131-2)

Mind — if by “mind” we mean the conscious ratiocinative and deliberative faculty –is a mistranslation of 心 (xīn), which literally means heart. But heart is also a mistranslation, because for the last four hundred years in the West it has been taken to express the merely emotional faculties, which are often at war with the merely ratiocinative. Modern translators will sometimes fall back on the phrase heart-mind, because thoughts and feelings emerge from the same center. We might say that all emotions stem from thoughts on some level, but it is not true to say that first we have a thought that then produces the emotion. Instead, all thought has some affective coloring, and in our experience thoughts and emotions emerge simultaneously or intertwined — and it always feels as if they emerge from the center of our beings, deep inside our bosoms, and not from beneath our skullcaps. 

   Thus by heart-mind the Chinese thinker fuses together all of our mental and emotional faculties. If we are terrified of death, it affects our whole being — our thoughts, our desires, our actions. If we find someone beautiful and are moved by desire, our entire spirit and body are stirred towards one end. When we are moved by opposing things — for example, desire for sex and love of virtue — our entire life, psychological as well as physical, is tormented by the opposition. Some people might say that when we are possessed by a desire or an error, our whole self is distorted by the possession, and it is really impossible for us to recognize it, since the mind has also been corrupted. However, Xunzi is both a pessimist about human nature and an optimist about human possibilities: he insists that it is possible for us to see and correct ourselves. Through reason and cultivated skills in self-reflection, we can notice when we are confused, and can actually step outside our own fixations and watch them in action. If we couldn’t, we wouldn’t even notice that there is such a thing as fixation.

   To Xunzi, a well educated person is able to discern and evaluate accurately the people and situations in front of him at any given moment. This is not possible for a human being whose heart-mind is confused. Xunzi does not mean just intellectually confused, for a person might have intellectual clarity but be deeply confused in his heart — for example, the man who has carefully studied Thucydides and all the great theorists of war but whose every impulse is dominated by insecurity about his own manhood as well as fear of death. Such a man has a turbid heart-mind and will not judge clearly in the moment. If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts. For most of us this will obviously need work, as well as good teachers and friends. 

   The use of the image of still water as opposed to muddied water to express states of soul has become something of a cliché in later Asian teachings, but Xunzi was the originator. I have heard other teachers talk about a “muddy pond,” but Xunzi in his literary brilliance settles upon a pan of water: so homely, so ordinary, that it passes beneath our notice — just like the agitation of our heart-mind.

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Xunzi on Intellectual Fixations


Many people are intellectually like fertilized eggs: one sperm manages to get in, and the egg seals off to all the others. Idealogues and fundamentalists tend to be like this, usually after reading one book at a susceptible phase in their lives; if they could be persuaded to read other books they might become less closed, but by then it is often too late. Xunzi includes this closed-mindedness in his notion of 蔽 (bì), “blinding obsession.” In his famous essay on “Dispelling 蔽,” he gives us a useful survey of some of the narrow idealogues of his period, incidentally reminding us just how fertile and varied ancient Chinese philosophy must have been before the culture was straitjacketed into a mere handful of views:

Among the itinerant philosophers of former times there were men who were obsessed; the followers of pernicious doctrines are an example. Mozi was obsessed by utilitarian considerations and did not understand the beauties of form. Songzi was obsessed by the need to lessen desires, for he did not understand how they could be satisfied. Shenzi was obsessed with the concept of law and did not understand the part to be played by worthy men. Shen Buhai was obsessed by the power of circumstance and did not understand the role of human intelligence. Huizi was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them. Zhuangzi was obsessed by thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did not understand the importance of man. He who thinks only of utilitarian concerns will take the Way to be wholly a matter of material profit. He who thinks only of desires will take the Way to be wholly a matter of physical satisfaction. He who thinks only of law will take the Way to be wholly a matter of policy. He who thinks only of circumstance will take the Way to be wholly a matter of expedience. He who thinks only of words will take the Way to be wholly a matter of logic. He who thinks only of Heaven will take the Way to be wholly a matter of harmonizing with natural forces. These various doctrines comprehend only one small corner of the Way, but the true Way must embody constant principles [patterns] and be capable of embracing all changes. A single corner of it will not suffice. These men with their limited understanding saw only one corner of the Way and, failing to understand that it was only a corner, they considered it sufficient and proceeded to expound it in engaging terms. Such men bring chaos to themselves and delusion to others; if they are in a superior position, they inflict their obsessions upon their inferiors; and if an inferior position, they inflict them upon their superiors. Such are the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind.  (Tr. Watson, 125-6)
Chinese thinkers do not often assert “You are wrong, I am right.” Instead, the tendency is to point out that the opponent is partially right but does not see the whole picture. This tendency is grounded on two insights about human thinking. 1) In matters of opinion or interpretation, people are very seldom simply right or wrong, and in any argument between two people the more fruitful and interesting approach is to wonder in what way each side might be right or wrong; only thus is there hope of attaining any kind of reconciliation, or of moving beyond head-butting towards new insights. 2) All intelligent people have some genuine insights, but the professional philosopher will want to take his own insights and have them make sense about the whole of everything. This may be why in the great systematic thinkers like Kant and Hegel there are insights of shattering profundity but also many passages of opaque scaffolding that strain to connect the real insights.

    In traditional Hindu philosophy, each “school” builds an entire philosophy of life on a narrow set of thoughts — one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods — and ends up with a detailed structure of argumentation in which all the other schools are proven wrong. The value of such extreme rationalizations for us is that we get to see all the arguments for a given position lucidly exposed, but the seeker in need of emotional reassurance and stability will want to latch onto one view to the exclusion of all else so that no doubts or disturbances can ever arise again. The Buddha, weary of all the squabbling, would consistently point out the dangers of attachment to merely “speculative” views that shed no light on the true causes of unhappiness. G.K. Chesterton describes arguing with an intellectual idealogue or fanatic — one who has meticulously thought through all the ins and outs of his position, and in his mind has worked out all the objections and counter-objections — as a bit like arguing with a madman:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

   This fixation, a chronic closing of the mind, is what Xunzi means by 蔽 (bì) here. It is more than just “having a theory,” although in each of us “having a theory” can subtly shade into being gruffly dismissive of other theories. We see this every day when proponents of different sides of a given issue cannot listen to one another without anger or derision. To Xunzi, a statesman and anybody else in a position of leadership cannot afford to be rigidly narrow like this, just because the whole — of which they have charge — is composed of people with different views in tension with one another. Even in a single family, when siblings fight about something serious, a parent cannot simply side with one child but must somehow bring each of them to understand where the others are coming from; partiality makes the greater harmony impossible. Moreover, as Xunzi notes, things change: a theory might work well today but not tomorrow,  in one situation but not in another. A wise person needs to be accurate in his understanding of different situations and supple in his response. It is not that one must have no theories about things, but that in responding to a complex, dynamic whole, experience shows us every day that no single theory will be the key to everything.

Blinding Obsession (蔽)


Only a rich thinker will inspire schools based on opposing interpretations of the same book. It is not surprising that the two greatest early Confucians should pick out and develop two different strands of the Master’s thought into markedly different political philosophies.  Mencius, who insisted on the fundamental goodness of human nature, made Ren or Humane Goodness the essential core of our work as human beings. Xunzi, on the other hand, was less optimistic, and viewed human nature as innately selfish and destructive; consequently, he amplified on Confucius’ notion of Li, Propriety, as the principle that trains an antisocial species to become capable of social life. Confucius himself notoriously avoided making any assertions about human nature. Both Mencius and Xunzi lived through violent times, so the difference between their views cannot be simply attributed to different life experience. In the following weeks I’ll be writing on Xunzi, the less well known of the two. 

   With Xunzi we find ourselves far from the cryptic aphoristic style of the old Masters; instead, we get extended passages in which an insight is unfolded or an argument sharpened. Observe the elegant lucidity of a refined pessimist as he describes 蔽 () , “blinding obsession,” which is the special blight of statesmanship :

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles. . . . Nowadays the feudal lords follow different theories of government and the philosophers of the hundred schools teach different doctrines. Inevitably some teach what is right and some, what is wrong; some rulers govern well and others bring about disorder. Even the ruler of a chaotic state or the follower of a pernicious doctrine will undoubtedly in all sincerity seek what is proper and try to better his condition. But he is jealous and mistaken in his understanding of the Way and hence allows other men to lead him astray. He clings to his familiar ways and is loath to hear them spoken ill of; he judges everything on the basis of his old prejudices; and when he encounters some different theory, he is loath to hear it praised. Thus he moves farther and farther away from a condition of order, and yet never ceases to believe that he is doing right. Is this not what it means to be obsessed by a small corner of truth and to fail in the search for proper ways? If one fails to use his mind, then black and white may be right before his eyes and he will not see them; thunder or drums may be sounding in his ear and he will not hear them. How much more so with a man whose mind is obsessed! (Hsün Tzu, tr. Burton Watson, p,121)

We easily find prominent examples of this kind of obsession in our own political life: not only fanatics and idealogues, but also people of more moderate ideals who nonetheless can become violently fixated. Xunzi is shrewd in pointing out that such a person might be perfectly “sincere,” and that there is usually a gradual progression towards disaster as the initial fixation is reinforced and augmented. For a statesman 蔽 may well be the most perilous flaw because, in a position that demands a grasp of complex wholes and the subtle tensions between parts pulling in different directions, obsessiveness narrows the view and in doing so loses the whole. Obviously this is also true for leadership on a smaller scale, such as managing a business or heading a family. 

   In one-on-one interactions too we have experienced 蔽: at the painful end of a doomed relationship or friendship, we often realize that the signs of future disintegration were available to us in the first five mnutes of the acquaintance. Through attraction or other kinds of enchantment, we overrode our better sense and invested our energies in a version of the encounter heavily edited to suit our desires. We could have noticed; indeed, our friends will gently observe that something is “off” but not press the point for fear of alienating us.  If we had been capable of intelligently assimilating all the details of the encounter instead of just the ones we want, we would not have gone hurtling down the dark alley of intensifying obsession. The same tendency towards 蔽 can be recognized when we fortify an aversion to people who have hurt or displeased us. Stepping back and attempting to see things whole can have a healthy dampening effect on an incipient fixation.

   Does Xunzi see 蔽 as inevitable to all but a born sage, and thus needing only the constant presence of correctives, such as prudent advisors and friends? Indeed, is it possible to educate us out of 蔽 completely? If not, then is it sufficient for us to become more aware and intelligent about 蔽? Perhaps we begin gaining such intelligence by sitting down and systematically studying the beginnings, middles, and ends of our own fixations — understanding the “near at hand” in order to understand the same phenomenon in other people.