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Zhuang Zi and the Fully Realized Human

Ⓒ 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 zh rn, 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 martial arts.
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 counterproductive.

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 evident.

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 particles.

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 human-created conceptualizations.

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 updated.

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 action.

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 ensuing war.

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 point.

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 present.
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.

Here  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.

Here 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 functioning.

• 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 fatigue.

• 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 preferred.

• 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 proper sequence.

"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 De Jing

Three Smaller Wisdom Texts

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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 the Research
University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence
Antoine Lutz1, Heleen A. Slagter1,3, Nancy B. Rawlings2, Andrew D. Francis1, Lawrence L. Greischar1, and Richard J. Davidson1

Does Mindfulness lead to neuroplasticity?
Micah Allen

Effects of Meditation Training On Attentional Networks
Aditi A. Joshi

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective
Britta K. Hlzel, Sara W. Lazar, Tim Gard, Zev Schuman-Olivier, David R. Vago, and Ulrich Ott

Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention
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. Jha

New Horizons in the Neuroscience of Consciousness
edited by Elaine K. Perry, Daniel Collerton, Fiona E.N. LeBeau, Heather Ashton