The Path: Spontaneity

October 9, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Oct. 9, 2016

“The Path: Spontaneity”
Based on The Path; What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us
About the Good Life by Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh
Psalm 65:9-13
Quotes from Zhuangzi (370-287 BCE)

In the Psalms, we find poetic words with deep truth. In our text for today, we see a typical psalm – giving thanks for the creation and its abundance. It is as if the Creator has provided all we could ever need or hope for. More than that, in the creation, we find wholeness and hope.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65:9-13 (NRSV)

I would guess that most of you know what I’m talking about when I mention yin and yang: Two halves that together complete wholeness. What I didn’t realize until this week was that yin and yang are also the starting point for change. When something is whole, by definition it is unchanging and complete. So when you split something into two halves – yin / yang, it upsets the equilibrium of wholeness. This starts both halves chasing after each other as they seek a new balance with each other.

The word Yin comes out to mean “shady side” and Yang “sunny side”. Yin Yang is the concept of duality forming a whole. We encounter examples of Yin and Yang every day.

When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created.
When people see things as good,
evil is created.
Being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low oppose each other.
Fore and aft follow each other.
Tao Te Ching [2]

We are continuing our conversation about what ancient Chinese wisdom can teach us about the good life. Today’s topic is spontaneity. Our Chinese philosopher is Zhuangzi. He taught that the constant and inevitable interplay of the energy of yin and yang balance each other. They constantly revolve to balance each other. In the winter, yin, the cold and dark element prevails. Then things change, and summer, the season of yang, of heat and light, arrives.

Everything in the world spontaneously follows the ebb and flow of the cosmos.
Fish swim. They use gills and tails to shift and move according to the currents.
Grass grows, and when it dies, it decomposes into other things.
Worms and bugs in the grass are eaten by birds, which in turn are eaten by larger animals, all die over time and decay, they transform into soil.
Birds fly and float about depending on the shifting winds and the world below them.

Everything in the world spontaneously – and without planning – follows the seasons and change. Everything except one: human beings. We are not spontaneously in sync with flux and transformation.
• We declare our opinions to be right and others wrong.
• We stay where we are stuck because we are fearful of change.
Zhuangzi noted that humans disrupt and block the interplay of yin and yang. The reason is that we use the gifts of our minds.

I need to pause for a moment and talk about how Zhuangzi understood spontaneity. We live in a culture that reveres spontaneity. We find predictability boring. We find too many rules stifling. We admire the free thinker, the one who “marches to the beat of a different drummer”, the lone entrepreneur who launches out and starts a successful company. We value increased happiness and personal fulfillment.

Zhuangzi, however, did not teach that spontaneity was doing whatever we want whenever we want. He wouldn’t have encouraged quitting a job and going on a trip around the world; or stopping an education to sow wild oats. He believed that true spontaneity requires us to alter how we think and act in the world, to open ourselves up to endless flux and transformation at the same time.

What we think of as natural spontaneity is an unbound expression of desires…
… hang gliding
… impulse buying
… new hobbies
We save our spontaneity for the weekends and leave the rest of our lives the same.

Zhuangzi endorsed the idea that true spontaneity – true freedom – opens us up to flux and transformation all the time. One of Zhuangzi’s most famous parables illustrates this point:

Cook Ding is a butcher. Cook Ding’s initial approach to work is to pick up his claver and hack away at the meat in front of him. At first, this is just tedious. But over time, the more the butcher does this, the more aware he becomes. He notices that instead of working against all the different muscles and tendons in a chunk of meat, he can find all sorts of flowing channels within each piece. Each is different, and yet they all have lines and joints and paths – places where it is naturally easier to cut. With familiarity and training, he can sense these universal patterns in any piece of meat. He cuts in perfect rhythm, as though he were dancing; and the meat falls apart effortlessly before his blade.

To do this, he can’t think too much or approach the task analytically, since each piece of meat is slightly different. When Cook Ding uses his spirit instead of his conscious mind, he senses the different fluctuations in the meat.

Like the butcher, we are urged to tap into our divine qualities – those that enable us to resonate with the world by being connected to it. One of the problems we have is that we assume that our perspectives are universal, and we close of our minds. We create rigid distinctions and overly stable categories and values.

You’ll note that Cook Ding did not achieve spontaneity by throwing down his knife, and dancing in the streets. He did not cut through slabs of meat on the weekdays and cut loose on the weekends. And he was not passive. He was able to cut the meet over and over until he could just flow with the process.
• A seasoned teacher knows when his classroom is spiraling out of control, and knows what he needs to do to regain a state of calm.
• A competent pianist can move her fingers in rhythm across various notes at the same time, stringing together notes that sound like beautiful melodies. But a spontaneous musician can play pieces from memory and improvise new ones. Through the ability to sense and respond to the world with great skill, she is expressing joyful freedom.
• Skillful drivers can maneuver a car through heavy traffic.
• A tennis plays can lob a tennis ball over the net creatively and with less effort than those just starting the sport.

If we take Zhuangzi’s teachings to heart, we can change our whole approach to life – not only those refined skills we have – but our way of being in the world itself. By breaking down the limited perspective we have that limits us, we gain true imagination and creativity. When we open ourselves to the larger world, to the muses, and to curiosity about all that exists, we open ourselves to spontaneous expression. This was the experience of Shakespeare, Picasso, Steve Jobs, and others we admire. They knew their craft. Yet, they were able to take the knowledge they had and bring creativity to it to make it better than before.

Spontaneity means freeing ourselves of a conscious mind that is restricted to rules and norms. We open ourselves to numerous surprise twists, puns, and poems that go beyond logic and understanding. Even death, when viewed from this spontaneous view, allows us to grieve; while seeing that our human form is a temporary moment among all the transformations that happen to us. When we die, we become more than we have been – part of the great cosmos.

True imagination and creativity don’t come from thinking outside the box or letting ourselves go wild, according to Zhuangzi. You don’t have to dance on the streets on the weekend and go back to work on Monday. Ordinary, drab lives can be changed – no matter our age or ability – by choosing to experience the entire world as an open and expansive place.

Zhuangzi cautioned that our habits limit what we can see, access, sense, and know. When we focus on things based on our habits, we lose spontaneity. So, this week, I encourage you to:
* take a different route to a place you go routinely
* pay attention to the magnificent flock of geese heading south
* stop and smell the delicious aroma coming from a kitchen
* park in a new spot and walk farther, noticing the cars and people and sounds around you
* alter your pattern of shopping for groceries
* even if you have a cold or a bad back, you can see it creatively – as a chance to cozy up in bed and read a new book.
* watch a new television show
* speak to someone you don’t normally converse with
* sit in a different pew or make new friends at coffee time

When we shift our perspective, we can experience life with newness, intensity, and greater spontaneity. Little things and even big things don’t have to disturb us, but can be viewed as a part of the excitement of life.