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Zhuang Zi and the Fully
Ⓒ 2013 Patrick Edwin Moran
This book is written to propose a goal and to map out a general path
toward that goal, the 至人 zhì rén, the "fully realized human being."
Very consequential events now regularly occur on a compressed time
scale, so it is even more important than in centuries past to have
leaders at all levels of society who can react correctly to crises and
who also can comprehend long-term strategic changes. The book contains
the Chinese text and a translation of the eight most important chapters
of the Zhuang Zi with notes for the reader of Chinese, and sections of
synthesis and analysis for the general reader and the student of
A person who is not hindered by any unnecessary impediments can serve
well in many capacities, from the level of an isolated woodsman
surviving in a wilderness to the leader of the entire world whose
decisions might have an impact on every living and future human being.
The Daoists and their spiritual descendants endeavor to nurture the
development of these human resources.
Zhuang Zhou lived at a time that well earned the title "era of
contending states." Thus he was well acquainted with many of the spurs
to contention and combat that afflict us today.
Lao Zi, Zhuang Zhou, and other philosophical Daoists diagnose human
conflicts and other personal and social ills by first attending to
human conceptual systems, believing that systematic errors in thinking
can explain why humans so often fail despite the real prospect of
success. People who are confused or deluded by faulty
conceptualizations can neither perceive accurately what is
occurring in their world nor act in ways that are not dysfunctional or
The Daoists base themselves on the paradoxical view that there are no
discrete entities in human experience that the creative powers of the
human mind have not themselves constituted for dealing with that human
experience. The Universe is understood to be a continuum, and all
perceived discrete entities are understood to be pragmatically
acceptable social constructs. The Daoists advise us not to become
attached to these conceptual schemes but to be prepared to abandon them
and replace them with more fitting constructs when the need becomes
According to the Daoists, all so-called discrete entities are created
by a process of fabrication performed by human minds. They are, in
effect, features on a map of reality, and it inevitably lays a trap
when humans confuse them with the territory itself. Humans may take
deliberate advantage of others by encouraging an enemy to fashion a
false picture of reality, such as when Allied forces created the false
impression that vast forces were being assembled in one part of Great
Britain just before D-Day.
The Daoists carry forward this fundamental insight by arguing that it
can be very useful for humans to free themselves from concepts that have
proven to be inappropriate and to replace them with concepts that have
a closer fit to the realities of human experience, but that doing so
can be very difficult and costly for the individual.
Lao Zi's Dao De Jing argues that in order to make progress humans
must sometimes put aside old ways of constituting their world, abandon
old concepts and systems of concepts, and view the continuum of
experience without their interference. Einstein had to make this kind
of revolutionary change in thinking to conceive his Theory of
Relativity and Niels Bohr and his associates had to execute similar
feats of fundamental reconceptualization in order to create quantum
mechanics. It is clear from reading the works of Bohr and Heisenberg
that they found the process emotionally challenging and even
distressing at times.
The Dao De Jing makes it
clear that in order to put aside central
beliefs or conceptualizations it is necessary to take desires and
similar strong motivational sources of bias out of action. The truth of
this generalization from experience is nowhere clearer than in the case
of stubborn causes of human conflict and misery such as racial hatred.
Deep relaxation or meditation is the most powerful tool used to release
humans from old and inappropriate conceptualizations and beliefs.
The Zhuang Zi approaches
the problems inherent in the human
thinking process by using a more concrete form of explication than does
the Dao De Jing, one that
includes a discussion of how concepts are
formed, how each human comes to regard himself or herself as a discrete
individual, and why the attachment of values to the discrete entities
already so constituted can be a profound source of trouble. For those
in the west, those who start from a belief in fundamental particles,
there would be no need to explain the presence of individuals. Their
problem is to explain how everything is somehow "united" in the One.
For the Daoists, the One is there to begin with and it is necessary to
explain how it can be divided into atoms or other seemingly discrete
Zhuang Zhou indicates that when conditions are appropriate humans can
grow and develop into beings who are shaped interactively by direct
connections to the environment rather than being dysfunctionally
controlled by indoctrination and rigid notions of how the Universe and
human beings ought to behave. In this way humans are directly shaped by
interactions with the environment, not by intermediary systems of
By means of a poetic image in the first chapter of his book, Zhuang
Zhou suggests that humans need appropriate nurture to transcend the
limitations generally imposed upon people by the social forces in their
environment and by the traces of their own unschooled reactions to
contingencies in their early life. The restoration of human autonomy
and spontaneity is a major theme of Zhuang Zi, and it is carried
forward in Zen Buddhism.
Much of what Zhuang Zi has to say is conveyed by his fascinating
teaching stories, and many of them have to do with the problems of
living in the era of contending states. These stories are presented in
a lapidary style. At first two stories found in sequence may seem to
have nothing to do with each other, but upon reflection they and the
other stories that form their context may be seen to form a meaningful
mosaic. Commentaries on some passages have been provided in order to
support the reader's assimilation of these lessons.
The second chapter of the Zhuang Zi gives
an explicit account of
meditative trance with the explanation that the meditator has put aside
his self. This account is consonant with materials adumbrated in the
Dao De Jing. It is possible
that the Daoists maintained a fair degree
of mystery about their meditation techniques due to exigencies of their
social position in a time of great social and political unrest.
Specific techniques of meditation are not discussed in either the Dao
De Jing or the Zhuang Zi,
but the introduction of Buddhism into
China led to a fruitful period of cross-pollination with Daoism and the
development of Chan Buddhism, later to become Zen Buddhism in Japan.
Zen Buddhism has been very fruitful in producing meditative techniques,
and the value of those techniques for the survival of swordsmen meant
that there were many connections formed between monks and fighters.
These interactions were themselves productive of better ways to nurture
and temper human beings.
As early as the Zhuang Zi, it is clearly demonstrated that the
mental or spiritual aspect of human development is important to human
survival in all kinds of crisis situations. The quality of response
exhibited in crisis situations can be severely degraded by the failure
of the individuals involved to detach promptly from mistaken
perceptions or analyses of problems. The Daoists advise that human
perceptions of reality should be fluid so that the mental image guiding
behavior is like the scene viewed in a clear mirror, not like the image
present in even a most-recently-developed Polaroid photograph.
Discipline and tempering through experience are both necessary to
enable humans to keep their minds properly reflective and rapidly
Study of the mind from the standpoint of the Daoists and the Zen
Buddhists, as well as researchers of the present, suggest that when
humans are in combat or in emergency action situations their discursive
thought process must be put in abeyance in the interest of timely
responses, and that the result of actions based on well-practiced
routines that have been consolidated at an unconscious level will quite
naturally depend on the quality of the training that went into the
formation of those unconscious tools. In a combat situation, all
internal dialog must be put aside in order to reduce reaction time, and
in that case the quality of response will depend strongly on previously
internalized skills of observation, tactical problem solving, and
An entire lifetime of preparation may go into a seemingly minor action
that is over before anyone else can notice it. For the lack of one
individual with such preparation Gerald Ford might well have been
assassinated. For the lack of such an individual Archduke Franz
Ferdinand was killed and more than nine million lives were lost in the
Individuals who want to do the best for themselves, for their
community, and for the world can discipline themselves to move more
effectively toward these goals. Exactly how to achieve the best
progress may be dependent on the innate characteristics or prior
history of each individual. Each individual is perforce the primary
guide for his or her own progress. However, the Zhuang Zi and related
texts can reveal important guideposts to be sought along the way.
Sometimes the results of nurture and tempering can erupt from the
unconscious in novel and even surprising ways. Knowing something of
what others have experienced may be reassuring to those who reveal to
themselves unexpected potentials, abilities, or novel responses.
Besides all of that, the Zhuang Zi is a book full of fascinating
stories and good humored comments on human life that never acts to
discourage people from trying to become better.
"Warfare is a way that uses deception." — Master Sun's Art of War, p. 8.
(A good modern discussion on deception can be read here.)
Before one can defend against an attack, one must see it coming or
perceive it in some other way. Sniper fire and other attacks delivered
from remote distances can be defeated by counterfire, shields, and
avoidance, but the difficulties in protecting oneself or a
security client are obvious. Attempts by nearby sources of small arms
fire are more easily noticed, but the time scale can be anything from
minutes to split seconds. Guns can be lethal from any distance at which
they might be observed. Knives wielders, on the other hand, typically
need to be within reach of a potential victim. (Thrown knives are a
possible exception.) Empty-handed attacks can also be ambushes. Combat
that does not begin with a sneak attack can involve deception at any
Potential victims can improve their prospects by learning the most
effective techniques available to guard against close-range weapons.
However, the margin for effectiveness of these techniques is, in
general, very small.
The second variable that potential victims can improve is their ability
to detect and correctly perceive subtle changes in their environment.
Distraction, misdirection of attention, appeal to emotional biases,
presentation of sense data to simulate something that is not there,
blurring the outlines of objects so as to make figures more difficult
to isolate from their ground, and other factors can be used to evade
timely detection of the beginning of an attack.
Awareness can be dulled by competition from affective contaminations,
strong feelings that have become attached to earlier events in a
person's life and get reactivated by similar situations that are
perceived as occurring or likely to be occuring again in the present.
These emotions can be so strong that they blind a person to things that
should be perfectly obvious to them.
Obstruction of the observation and identification process can
significantly hinder a defensive response. "Sword sticking" is one way
to refer to the tendency to continue to pay attention to something like
a relatively minor wound while one's opponent is making a more deadly thrust that
is thus not properly noted. Another kind of obstruction occurs when the
mind of a person under attack identifies something as one technique and
fails to update that perception in time to adapt to the fact that the
technique has been changed midway.
Becoming mindful of one's environment, not distracted by the clamor of
fear or anger, is something that one can learn. It is also
possible to learn how to keep one's attention fluid so that it can go
in a timely way to wherever it is required. The third kind of
obstruction is more difficult to defeat. A clear understanding of
Zhuang Zi's way of explaining conceptualization and
misconceptualization can be helpful in keeping the mind clear of the
third kind of obstruction. This third kind of obstruction is the
misconceptualization and/or misidentification of things in one's
environment. The more emotion-laden these conceptualizations are, the
more difficult it will be to put them aside and see what is really
The mechanical side of protection against knife attacks is fairly well
understood. Many of the techniques practiced in ordinary martial arts
classes are unsuitable for defense in real situations. Real defenses
depend on a realistic understanding and application of the ways that assassins operate in the real world.
Sneak attacks or abushes by knife are extremely dangerous. See one presentation here
for substantiation of this claim. This author is very pessimistic about
the chances of anyone faced with a knife assault. There are pictures of
very serious knife wounds in the above-linked account.
is a police officer's critique of possible defenses against a knife.
Defensive weapons such as telescopic steel batons are evaluated. Also
considered is the difficulty of inflicting enough pain to subdue a
person using certain drugs. The author makes the important point that
anyone who defends against a knife must succeed many times but the
knife wielder only needs to connect once.
is a realistic account of a knife attack. A cyclist, trained in martial
arts, was knocked off his bicycle and fought off two attackers.
However, he was knifed in his hand and otherwise injured.
Good comments are to be found here.
This site analyzes the difference between dojo sparring and real
fights. The author describes several kinds of inputs and motivations
that are important in real fights and rarely appear in dojo training.
Violent video, Knife Attack Myths 1 and Knife Attack Myths 2
People who are sensitive to pictures of people getting killed should
avoid viewing these videos. These two videos are linked on this forum page, where several opinions and observations are presented.
In a 2012 Ph. D. dissertation entitled “It was fight or flight...and
flight was not an option”: An Existential Phenomenological
Investigation of Military Service Members’ Experience of Hand-to-Hand Combat. "
(full text available here),
submitted to the University of Tennessee, Peter Richard Jensen has
reported much useful information relevant to the studies discussed on
this website. The responses of several individuals point to several
general observations of interest:
"Carl stated the fear was 'overwhelming where...my thoughts shut down just for a split second...kind of took my breath.'" p. 65
• Commentary: Thinking back to some
real-world knife assault videos I've viewed recently, the "split
second" shut-down could be enough delay to cost a person his/her life.
• The difference between a strong and
fast brown belt and a high-dan black belt is that the latter has no
gap, no split-second period wherein all action is stalled.
"While [Nate's] overall evaluation of the themes was very supportive, he had
particular concern for the everyday combat operations theme, which he
rated a five, arguing that the surprise sub-theme arises from a
mentality within US service members that embraces deliberate planning
before engaging an enemy combatant, but that military operations in
urban areas does not permit such planning before close fighting
occurs.' This participant in the study would like to have had
something in his training that would have prepared him for close
combat, but it was not there. "It was fight or flight...and flight was
not an option," p. 44.
• Commentary: So this subject would have been happy to receive training
intended to eliminate or at least minimize the split-second freeze
mentioned in the previous quotation.
"Ken was only one of two participants to experience a hand-to-hand
combat encounter in slow motion. In that incident he initiated a
surprise attack against the opponents and remembered feeling very
confident about his hand-to-hand combat skills. Ken described the
experience as 'just like everything was slow motion. All my movements
were just precise and slow motion...its like putting your VCR on slow
motion...and it got precise.' Paul understood the event transpired very
quickly, perhaps faster than he could think, but he also expressed a
similar sense of slow motion stating, 'I know I didn’t have time to
think...it just happened...but when I think about the events, and I see
it in my mind’s eye, it seems very slow, almost where I could dissect
it and do it in a different way than I did. But I know in reality there
was no chance.' p. 68
• Commentary: The feeling of time
slowing down has recently been studied in the laboratory. The
experience seems actually to reflect the amount of memory allocated to
an experience rather than availability of extra time to make decisions
in the actual event. In remembering the event, individuals feel that it
occurred slowly due to the large number of "data points" encompassed in
a relatively short time. That being said, this "time dilation" is one
of the signal phenomena experienced in the state that Michael Jordan
calls "being in the Zone." Being in the Zone is apparently the same
state that Zhuang Zi refers to as "sitting in forgetfulness" or "having
lost one's self." (See Jordan's For the Love of the Game, p. 98f and p. 148.)
"At the most extreme levels, fear could temporarily inhibit
participants’ ability to cognitively process important environmental
information." p. 81
• Commentary: There seems to be some ambivalence toward fear among the direct and indirect participants in this study. The Zhuang Zi has
relevant teaching stories such as the one about a great archer who
could not effectively shoot arrows when he was put in a perilous
situation in the mountains. The Zen-influenced swordsmen in Japan
recognized the utility of being able to put fear and concerns about
survival out of their minds during fights.
"The autonomous nature of fighting skills participants perceived during
hand-to-hand combat is consistent with the sense of being on “automatic
pilot” (p. 51) reported by law enforcement officers during deadly force
encounters with firearms (Artwhol & Christensen, 1997). This
finding is also consistent with research examining perceptual
distortions during life-threatening situations. For example, 64% of the
participants in one study described their movements as automatic or not
within their control when in situations of imminent, extreme danger
(Noyes & Kletti, 1976). Some authors (Grossman & Siddle, 1999;
Molloy & Grossman, 2007) have argued that automatic skills are
necessary for hand-to-hand combat because the extreme increases in
arousal accompanying such an event severely limit a person’s cognitive
abilities. For the present participants, automated fighting skills were
instead perceived to be a significant advantage when encountering an
opponent at close range within a brief time span." p. 83f
• Commentary: I think it is generally
accepted that in real fights finesse tends to disappear rapidly under
the impact of desperate emotions and physical exertions. As far as I
know, the evidence for this conclusion is anecdotal, but well attested.
It is not argued, in the sources I have seen, that fighting success
under these conditions can depend on highly programmed behavior,
complicated techniques, or fine adjustments. To the contrary, many
authorities recommend that those wishing to prepare for all
eventualities should concentrate on techniques that are simple and
involve gross body movements. Their reasoning is that fear, anger, and
general stress will interfere with higher levels of mental functioning,
leaving the "reptile mind
" the only part of the brain still
• My own understanding indicates a less simplistic analysis may be
appropriate. First, consider that some individuals may panic at the
first sign of trouble. Why? Both fear responses and anger responses may
occur when an individual does not know how to meet a challenge of some
kind. People who know how to check out electrical connections under the
hood do not kick the car. People who know how to catch a King Cobra
with their bare hands do not dissolve into hysteria when one invades
their compound. So it is clear that training will reduce fear and
anger. Second, consider the effect of a rapidly moving attacker. If
Attacker is slower than Defender, then Defender can simply move away
from Attacker each time Attacker makes a move. To attack one needs to
mobilize a great deal of energy to deliver a kick, punch, or other
strike. To defend one needs only move smoothly out of the way with
little expenditure of energy. Before long Attacker will become
exhausted. If Attacker and Defender are closely matched, then each will
be able to evade attacks and counterattacks without losing mental
composure. However, when Attacker is intrinsically faster than
Defender, the mental terrain for Defender is not good. If the speed
differential is great enough, then Attacker may be launching a second
strike before Defender has finished mentally processing and dealing
with the first strike. Defender very quickly loses all initiative and,
following that, loses composure. Defender experiences only a flurry of
attacks and creating an opening for a counterattack becomes purely a
matter of chance. Confusion will be compounded by anger, fear, and/or
• The best chance for survival when subjected to a sucker punch or
other sneak attack lies in perceiving the intent to attack before the
strike is actually launched. Defender may then launch a counterattack
the instant Attacker has committed to an action, and Defender will have
an advantage in time because (ideally) his counterattack will prevent
the attack from succeeding at the same time that it homes in on one of
Attacker's vulnerable points. A trained fighter will use that first
success as a doorway to delivery of a sequence of attacks of his/her
own with the intention of controlling the Attacker decisively, or of
delivering sufficient injury to Attacker to neutralize him/her for the
duration. Under these circumstances, Defender will not be overwhelmed
by the pace of events, and also will not be motivated by the situation
to feel fear or anger. All of these advantages can be sought by
training. However, it is always possible that Attacker will be superior
in natural talents and/or training. Furthermore, possession of a knife
increases the length of Attacker's reach considerably. The best chance
of survival is not very good. Avoidance of people with knives by
running away or not getting close in the first place is obviously to be
• When Attacker can gain the initiative, Defender may not be able to
process information in a timely way. Defender may be overwhelmed by the
pace of events and also by getting hit multiple times. When things get
to this point, those who say that all finer control goes away may be
entirely correct. The experience of being in a real fight with no way
out but through is presented (in what appears to me to be a
semi-autobiographical novel) by Gus Lee in China Boy
chapter 30. Lee emphasizes the need to maintain the will to fight even
when one is getting beaten up, and to maintain attention to the basics
of boxing in order to regain initiative and finish a fight. (Wikipedia
entry for Lee
. His own account of his life, in a talk
given before a school audience.) This account does not jibe with the
idea that all finer motor control is lost under such intense conditions.
• Both maintaining and regaining mindfulness in a rapidly evolving
fight seem to be important. There are methods for training this kind of
competence. They are most clearly described in materials on Japanese
swordsmen in, e.g., D.T. Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture
"However, two participants reported a contrary perception,
describing their experiences as events that transpired in slow motion.
Such reports of perceptual slowing have not been found in previous
hand-to-hand combat literature, but have been reported in prior studies
with law enforcement officers who encounter situations in which deadly
force and firearms are involved (Arthwol & Christensen, 1997;
Klinger & Brunson, 2009). The exact mechanisms underlying such
altered perceptions during hand-to-hand military combat would appear to
warrant further investigation." p. 86
• Commentary: Recent studies using
brain imaging and other techniques have led to a better understanding
of this phenomenon. It may have something to do with the brain
allocating much more processing time to ongoing events in a crisis
situation. The experiences reported above are clear indications that
the mind is not being overwhelmed by the intensity of the combat in
situations of this kind.
"However, given the open environment in which most hand-to-hand
combat occurs, practice sessions should eventually include exposure to
a wide variety of unpredictable environmental conditions in order to
encourage the development of service members’ adaptation skills (Schmidt
& Wrisberg, 2008)." p. 90
• "Open environment" in this context means that there are no rules or other restraints on an attacker's actions.
There are many martial arts accounts of teachers who periodically
launched sneak attacks on their students, and of students who tried to
turn the table on their teachers — without great success.
"Fitts’ Law (1954) posits an inverse relationship between speed and
accuracy of movement production when both components are
necessary. Put simply, increases in speed produce decreases in
accuracy. Given the speed and accuracy demands of hand-to-hand combat,
instructors may need to impress on service members the importance of
achieving an optimal speed-accuracy trade-off when developing their
fighting skills. That is, for movements with minimal accuracy demands
(e.g., striking a large target) speed need not be sacrificed. However,
as accuracy becomes more important for success, service members may
need to adjust the speed of their movements in order to gain control of
the situation rather than bringing it to a swift conclusion." p. 91
• Commentary: This passage is puzzling
to me because I am not sure what the author means by "speed." On the
surface he appears to be saying that when trying to hit a small target,
e.g., the nose of an attacker, the fist should move more slowly than
when trying to hit the solar plexus. Trained karateka can hit small
targets with their fastest and most focused punches. So I think the
author may mean that when an intricate series of motions needs to be
accomplished then speed may need to be sacrificed. The qin-na and
aikido technique called ganseki-nage in Japanese is a fairly intricate
series of operations. In one version of this technique that I have seen
both in qin-na and aikido classes, success depends on an initial atemi
that is used to impact the nerve cluster adjacent to the armpit on one
side; doing so disorients the attacker momentarily, and then a series
of movements are made on the opposite side that depend for their
success on the attacker's perceived need to move forward to reverse the
push he just received from the first strike. One cannot afford to be
contemplative in this situation. On the other hand, the sequence of
motions cannot be hurried, even under ordinary gym or dojo conditions.
I think the correct adjustment of speed must always be to avoid the
technique's being rushed. It must fit the tempo of each of the attacker's movements. Long practice will help ensure that when an
attacker is capable of quite rapid execution of his/her own moves, the
defender's moves can be executed with equal rapidity without losing
"The results of the present study suggest that arousal regulation
(Weinberg & Gould, 2011; Williams, 2010) could be a valuable skill
for service members exposed to such encounters." p. 92
• Commentary: "Arousal regulation"
means gaining control of anger, fear, and other motivating forces that
may lead to turbulent action, action that is not under sufficient
control to be effective.
• Commentary: One thing this study seems to miss is how the student's
relationship to his task should be structured. Students are likely to
believe that they are doing close-combat exercises to develop physical
strength, agility, stamina, etc., and not imagine that they should be
monitoring their own progress toward maintaining an awareness that is
not flawed or distorted by fear, by the need to move rapidly, etc.
Issues that need to be covered include:
• Hand-to-hand combat
• Sudden attacks
• Unexpected techniques
• Sucker punches
• Crisis situations and reactions to crises
• Freezing in sudden threat situations
• Loss of composure during crisis situations
• Panic, hysteria, etc. when imperiled
• Menacing as lead-up to attack
• Psychology and physiology of sudden physical assault
Study of the Zhuang Zi indicates that meditation is important for
nurturing and tempering mental abilities to increase resilience and
excellence of response in crisis situations. See several recent studies regarding meditation here.
Other relevant books by Patrick Edwin Moran
Master Sun's Art of War
The Way and its Power, Lao Zi's Dao
Three Smaller Wisdom Texts
This page has served
Recent studies in meditation that relate to combat issues.
Bridging the hemispheres in meditation:
Thicker callosal regions and
enhanced fractional anisotropy (FA) in long-term practitioners.
Eileen Ludersa, Owen R. Phillipsa, Kristi
Clarka, Florian Kurthb,
Arthur W. Togaa, Katherine L. Narra
Meditation Practices for Health: State of
University of Alberta Evidence-based
Practice Center, Edmonton,
Mental Training Enhances Attentional
Stability: Neural and Behavioral
Antoine Lutz1, Heleen A. Slagter1,3, Nancy
B. Rawlings2, Andrew D.
Francis1, Lawrence L. Greischar1, and Richard J. Davidson1
Does Mindfulness lead to neuroplasticity?
Effects of Meditation Training On
Aditi A. Joshi
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?
Proposing Mechanisms of Action
From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective
Britta K. Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar, Tim Gard,
Zev Schuman-Olivier, David
R. Vago, and Ulrich Ott
Intensive Meditation Training Improves
Perceptual Discrimination and
Katherine A. MacLean, et al.
Meditation Increases the Depth of
Information Processing and Improves
the Allocation of Attention in Space
SaravanLeeuwen, WolfSinger, and LuciaMelloni
Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training: A
Case Study of a High-Stress
Predeployment Military Cohort
Elizabeth A. Stanley, John M. Schaldach,
Anastasia Kiyonaga, Amishi P.
New Horizons in the Neuroscience of
edited by Elaine K. Perry, Daniel
Collerton, Fiona E.N. LeBeau, Heather