The Sage Just Falls Asleep: On Neither Trying Not To Try Nor Not Trying To Try

In The Tao is Silent, Raymond Smullyan once summarized Daoism thusly:

The Sage falls asleep not
Because he ought to
Nor even because he wants to
But because he is sleepy.

“Trying not to try” is only a paradox until it isn’t. The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi has it right. When we love something or enjoy something fully, there is no question of trying or of not trying. There is no question of passivity or of activity. There is just pure surrender to, and therefore energetic relationship with, whatever is happening.

Consequently, let’s not worry about trying or about not trying. Let’s just let whatever is happening happen. Nothing needs to be effortless during any contemplation or meditation. Likewise, nothing needs to be effortful. Think of bubbles rising to the surface of the water. The bubbles just arise and we are fascinated with them.

Daoism is simply one name we might give, if such is helpful, to the experience of just being energetically with whatever is happening. Without fight. Without struggle. Without resistance. Without agitation. And if fight, struggle, resistance, or agitation arise, then let us be with that! Being with struggle soon makes plain that one is precisely being with whatever is arising, here and now.

In the space of energetic being, there are just happenings. No problems and no doers.

Therefore, the sage falls asleep not even because he is sleepy. There is no because. There is no trying not to try nor is there not trying to try. The sage just falls asleep as sleep comes over him. That is all.

‘Everything Seemed Perfect…’

Everything seemed perfect. Or at least it was supposed to be. No, you know that it’s perfect, don’t you? Besides, other people tell you–at brunch, at dinner parties–that you have it really good.

There’s, as the gods and goddesses see it, only one tiny problem. One little thing that’s been overlooked or left out of the accounts. Not as revenue or expense but as something else entirety.

What’s that?

Oh, come on. You know. You know.

No, I don’t know.

OOOOK. What’s that little feeling in your gut? That little feeling that’s been there for years?

I don’t know. It’s nothing.

Well, then we have nothing to discuss. Get back to me when you’re being honest with yourself.

I am being honest with myself.

No, you’re telling yourself stories about how everything is perfect. But your own experience, which you keep turning away from, is telling you otherwise. Therefore, I don’t see how we can have an honest discussion until you’re willing to be honest with yourself.

But I am being honest with myself.

Insisting that you’re being honest with yourself without being honest with yourself is just a way of lying to yourself about yourself and now also to me. Surrender to the possibility of being honest with yourself, if you’re ready, and see what happens.

But I’m scared. What will I find?

Nobody knows. I don’t and neither do you.

But I don’t want my life to change.

There are no assurances that I, or anyone else, can provide you with. At some point, you must choose: is love of truth, regardless of consequences, my path, or is my path the love of people’s opinions, those that tell you that you’ve “got it good” and that “you’ve got everything”?

I don’t know. I just know that I want the feeling to go away and then everything will be as perfect as I believe it otherwise is.

If that’s what you believe, then you have your answer. If a doubt still remains, then stay with the doubt.


The path seemed to be wide open. Or straight, narrow, and pointy.

Now, you see, it is neither. Neither wide open nor straight, narrow, and pointy.

The path has ended and this is an impasse.

It took you a while to get to this point, this point where there is no point and no foreseeable pass. You’d like to pass on it or punt or piss on it but no such luck.

Wouldn’t it be nice to sedate and forget? Maybe for a moment. But guess what? You’re still at an impasse when the foggy mind clears!

Here, there is no solution. Here, all desire to get past is thwarted. Here, fear is mixed with a creeping feeling of desperation.

In other words, you are helpless. It’s impossible for you to do anything about it. It’s impossible for you, really, to do anything. There’s nothing I can do! Who screamed that?

It therefore feels impossible. Almost mean or lowdown.

There is almost nothing here for you, yet there is also everything. There is only surrender without guarantees.

Lying About Lying About Lying To Yourself

You can see why Stephen Wolinsky didn’t become a famous spiritual teacher. He’s kinda prickly. Demanding. Brass knuckles.


He tells the story in one of his talks about having led a workshop some years ago. Over lunch, a woman in charge of the organization asked him a political question.

He said, “I don’t play that game.”

“But it’s a good skill to have,” she replied.

“If you mean,” he retorted, “that I should pretend to be someone I’m not and that I should pretend to like people I don’t, then it’s a skill I’m not willing to cultivate.”


Elsewhere, Wolinsky suggests that we very often lie to ourselves. When he speaks of lying, he means it in a very broad way: we delude ourselves, we conceal things from ourselves, we deceive ourselves about ourselves and others, and so on. Basically, we don’t face the truth, which is actually straightforward in nature, nor do we often speak it.

Yet not only do we very often lie to ourselves. We also “lie about lying”: that is, we tell ourselves that we’re not lying to ourselves in order to cover up the first lie.

Consider another story he tells: many years ago, he was speaking to a woman who couldn’t understand why her boyfriend was very often late and a bit tipsy.

He asked, “What lie are you telling yourself about your boyfriend?” She (he said) got “all huffy.”

Ultimately, she said, “Well, he’s a bartender and I initially met him at a bar.”

In Wolinsky’s terms, she’s been lying to herself by saying, “My boyfriend is reliable and he cares about me.” Then she’s lying about lying when she generates consternation in herself, “Oh, I have no idea why he’s not here on time tonight. How odd that is. I am positively at a loss.” In other words, she’s covering up the self-delusion by adding more self-delusion, in the form of needless consternation, on top of it.


Why not? We can go one step further than Wolinsky. For we often begin by lying about lying about lying to ourselves, and we do so through speech. We open our mouths and begin, with others, by lying about lying about lying. “My boyfriend is very conscientious” suggests that I’m sharing a lie with you and this lie I’ve also told myself and the lie is intended to cover up a smaller lie. This dynamic, in brief, is the basis for many conversations, not the least those that occur in business situations but also, to be sure, in many social settings.


The truth is both easier to take and harder to swallow. It’s the easiest thing in the world because it’s the plainest and most straightforward: I do not know myself. That’s it! Start here! Yet also the hardest because this obviousness has been buried under layer upon layer of lying and therefore under layer upon layer of identity.

Who wants to peel back the onion? There may be lots of crying… even if, in the end, it is the way to liberation and lasting peace.

Agitations Precede Most Thoughts

It can be very hard to catch this but it is so: most thoughts arise from agitation beneath, and preceding, thoughts. That agitation or stirring could be called feeling.

Since most thoughts arise from agitation beneath, and preceding, thoughts, we are already in a quandary. For this thought goes off in hopes of resolving the matter at the level of thought. Essentially, this thought is a form of seeking; it seeks until it believes that it can rest with some resolution.

But, oh, no. In actuality, that from which the thought arose in the first place–what I am calling here an agitation–went unobserved. Of course, it may appear as if the matter was put to rest just because the agitation itself subsided. But it just so happens that the agitation subsided temporarily because all agitations subside temporarily. That is the very nature of anicca–or impermanence! In other words, our cognitive approaches to dissolving our dis-ease will not do, cannot do.

In time and so long as we seek at the level of thought alone, an agitation, which is a kind of contraction, shall return every time something–a perception, say, leading to a memory–reactivates it. And so dukkha, or our dis-ease, will continue on and on and on, appearing and disappearing and reappearing…

Therefore, we must, through meditations of different kinds, sharpen our powers of attention to the point at which the agitation can itself be observed. We may find the agitation as it makes its presence felt or we may notice a thought and then go back from the thought to the agitation. When we arrive at the agitation, we need to lovingly observe it, be with it, and merge with it.

What I’m describing here is rather like seeing a spring open up out of a scar and lend its energy to the river above. The trouble is that we get fascinated by the fresh spring water bubbling up–which, on this analogy, are the thoughts. Yet it would be wise for us to ask what is beneath the river. What is that from which the bubbles come? If we ask this question, then soon shall we go down and down and down into the spring as if we were scuba divers. There do we find the agitations and it is with them that we should lovingly be.