Inward Training (Nei-yeh): Our audiobook

Translated variously as ‘inward training,’ ‘self-cultivation,’ and ‘inner development,’ the Nei-yeh is an early Daoist work consisting, according to the translation we have followed, of 26 interconnected verses. Set out in these subtle, beautiful poems is a program concerned with aligning one’s posture, breathing, and mind with the Way of things. Some Daoist scholars, therefore, have come to regard this ‘biospiritual’ text as an important complement to the social and political aspects of the Daodejing as well as to the mystical aspirations of The Inner Chapters.

In contrast with its competitors then and now, Inward Training makes no promises about longevity or eternal life. This is because its aim is not superstitious but more humbly, excellently human: it is to lead the best kind of life a human being can. Though the details of the program are obscure, the rough outline is fairly clear. The practitioner who is diligent and regular in his practice may discover that the substantial force that animates all things is now also animating his life and this more and more. Whatever flows through the cosmos also flows through him; whatever would otherwise tend to depart now remains with him; no longer ‘an obstruction,’ he is a vessel for receiving, his life an example of proper attuning to this higher, all-pervading force. To be sure, as she aligns her breath and calms her mind, the results will be revealed, at least in part, in her countenance, in her easy strength, in the kindness others show her. Moreover, because she has learned proper measure, she may also lead a longer life than those who would recklessly go contrary to the Way. Yet good health, good reputation, and longevity have never been her reasons for following the Way; rather, it is to accord herself with this reality for its own sake.

A word about our procedure. These readings were recorded over a two-week period in late April and early May of 2014. In keeping with Daoist philosophy’s requirement that one come to experiential awareness of its teachings, Aleksandra and I went about learning how to read this work as we learned what it was about: our exploration of diction was to be spiritual exercise in itself. In all of this, however, we make no claims to be Sages nor would we. As is evident, we are but learners nearer to the beginning of the course than to the end.

–Andrew Taggart and Aleksandra Lauro, Southern California, Spring 2014

*Drawing and cover design by Aleksandra Marcella Lauro


Non-being, being, and beings

One would like to acquaint oneself further with ‘the way things are.’ The chief reason is that if the one who lives best lives in accordance with nature, then it would be good, to begin with, to be able to say some things about what nature is. Next, one would have to investigate what it means to be ‘in accord with.’ The first question is metaphysical (and it will consist of two parts), the second is ethical. Throughout, one should pay mind that both are intimately connected in a non-alienated, good, and beautiful world.

Laozi furnishes us with a three-fold answer to ‘the way things are’ in Daodejing. He claims that

1.) being comes from non-being, and

2.) beings come from being.

‘Comes from’ or ‘comes out of’ needn’t be understood in temporal terms or in causal terms. A’s coming from B need not entail A’s necessarily coming after B or A’s arising because of B. Rather, ‘comes from’ also admits of a logical interpretation. For B to come into being, there must be A. Hence,

1.) non-being is logically necessary for there to be being at all, and

2.) being is logically necessary for there to be beings at all.

To clarify terminology, let us call non-being ‘infinity,’ being ‘totality,’ and ‘beings ‘finitude.’ Then our metaphysic consists of infinity, totality, and finitude, each of which flows out of the other. Thus,

1.) Infinity is absolute stillness or mystery.

2.) Totality flows out of infinity. (Or: infinity flows through totality.)

3.) The finite things flow out of totality. (Or: totality courses through the finite things.)

Next, after inquiring into these ‘different levels’ of reality, one would have to investigate the features of each level. Then, one would have to examine the meaning of ‘being in touch with’ or living ‘in accord with.’ Part of the last answer would be active, the other part would be contemplative, and the two–both being parts of ethical life–would need to be in harmony with each other and, again, with the way things are.

Philosophical horror: Making the world anew

Perceiving political disorder, religious strife, social unrest, or economic collapse, philosophers have not infrequently regarded themselves as saviors who could, from out of the resources of the mind itself, create the world anew. This, argues Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis, is what occurred to Descartes who, upon witnessing the Thirty Years’ War, believed that he could provide a new philosophical foundation upon which the modern world could stand firm. It is also the lure that ensnares Plato whose Republic could quite possibly have been written in response to the political debacle that led to the trial and death of Socrates.

Not refashioning the world, not an incendiary apologia for the philosophical life, but another, humbler path could have been taken and sometimes has. In Book VI of the Republic, Plato’s Socrates describes a moment when philosophers, few and rare, go into exile from the unjust city. Because they see the ‘madness of the majority,’ because philosophy is generally regarded by the majority as being useless, and in order to safeguard philosophy from corruption or dissipation,

they [go away and] lead a quiet life and do their own work. Thus, like someone who takes refuge under a little wall from a storm of dust or hail driven by the wind, the philosopher–seeing others filled with lawlessness–is satisfied if he can somehow lead his present life free from injustice and impious acts and depart from it with good hope, blameless and content.

This passage, however, reads too much like a case of sour grapes–here, philosophical resignation–and not enough like genuine humility. Daoism, though itself sometimes overly critical of political intervention and of Confucian righteousness, provides an account of quietism that sounds lovingly quieter. Fung Yu-Lan, in A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, writes that removing oneself from social conventions in order to live more quietly satisfies ‘the desires of a people living in an age of disorder and confusion.’ One’s powers are set so that they are in tune with the Dao.

At his peril, Plato passes over this moment. We know that Plato goes on to consider the philosopher’s engagement with the majority in the first instance by seeking to change its mind (this being a reform project) and in the second instance by wiping the slate clean so that the just city can be molded according to a Theoretical Model (this being the utopian project). The twentieth century philosopher Karl Popper, keying into such moments of utopian fervor, accused Plato of totalitarianism. Such, in any case, is the horror spelled in thinking that one can re-make the world and thereby save it…