Fasting the Mind
Live Like a Daoist
Yan Hui said, “What is the fasting of the mind?”
Confucius said, “You have so single-mindedly focused your will that you have been constantly hearkening to it, not with your ears but with your mind, and not only with your mind but even with your vital energy. Instead let your hearkening stay positioned at the ears, your mind going no further than meshing there like a tally. The vital energy is then a vacuity, a waiting for the presence of whatever thing may come. The Course alone is the gathering of this vacuity. This vacuity is the fasting of the mind.”
Yan Hui said, “When I am not yet able to make something happen in the actual world, I regard myself as this person named Hui. But just where something is actually made to happen there, this Hui has not yet begun to exist. Can that be what you mean by vacuity?”
Confucius said, “Exactly. I tell you truly, this way you can go roam around in his cage without feeling the pull of reputation, the pull of all the names.” (ZZ 4 / 37)
Daoist “non-action” (wu wei) is not about not acting, but about being open and receptive to whatever the world brings you and reacting to that. This is what the text elsewhere calls “Walking Two Roads”:
Thus the Sage uses various rights and wrongs to harmonize with others, and yet remains at rest in the middle of Heaven the Potter’s Wheel. This is called Walking Two Roads. (ZZ 2 / 16)
The idea is to avoid preconceptions. Our minds are full of preconceptions — categories, affirmations, and denials – that shape how we experience and respond to the world. These implicit value judgments are connected up with the very words we use and our assumptions about social reputation. If instead we can limit our minds to registering what is out there (i.e., just being like a “tally”), then our “vital energy” might be able to respond more freely.
Today your task is (deceptively?) simple: keep track of notable instances when your reactions are shaped by preconceptions. During a later day in the week you’ll try to live the day without any preconceptions at all — to actually “fast the mind” — but for today you’ll prepare for that by focusing on the steady diet of preconceptions on which your mind relies.