This is a ‘learning from other traditions’ post. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writes about Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist sage and story teller.
“Chuang Tzu is not merely a professional recluse. The ‘man of Tao’ does not make the mistake of giving up self-conscious virtuousness in order to immerse himself in an even more self-conscious contemplative self-recollection. One cannot call Chuang Tzu a Contemplative in the sense of one who adopts a programme of spiritual self-purification to attain to certain definite interior experiences, or even merely to ‘cultivate the interior life.’ Chuang Tzu would condemn this just as roundly as the ‘cultivation’ of anything else on an artificial basis. All deliberate, systematic, and reflexive ‘self-cultivation’, whether active or contemplative, personalistic or politically committed, cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensable contact with Tao, the hidden ‘Mother’ of all life and truth. One of the things that causes the young disciple of Keng Shan Chu (in a Chuang Tzu story) to be so utterly frustrated is precisely that he shuts himself up in a cell and tries to cultivate qualities which he thinks desirable and get rid of others he dislikes. … The true tranquillity is Ying ning, tranquillity in the action of non-action, in other words, a tranquillity which transcends the division between activity and contemplation by entering into union with the nameless and invisible Tao.”
For me, there is a fine line between making a real commitment to contemplative practice and allowing it to become an idolatry. I find that it does ask me to be intentional, to devote time and effort, to be willing to learn the skills. So I have some sympathy for the immature student gleefully lampooned in the story. Yet I resonate with the larger point and look forward to shedding a residual anxiety and striving, a slightly distressed earnestness, in what I do. To release wonder more fully, to be immersed in exploration, and to experience connection with a Mystery that cannot, in the last resort, be named or possessed. I’m not sure whether this is what either Thomas Merton or Chuang Tzu were getting at, but it’s what I take from this reading.
Merton, Thomas (1965 &2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.