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The Tao of Thinking

January 20, 2014
A view of the Wirral, from Albert Docks, Liverpool -- taken during one of my walks
A view of the Wirral, from Albert Docks, Liverpool — taken during one of my walks

Choosing the right way to think about an academic question can sometimes be as important as your level of intelligence or your knowledge.

It is better to sit alone in the mountains, qin resting on one’s lap, and let the breeze pluck the strings.

- Zhuangzi

When approaching a difficult academic task, it is sometimes tempting to assume that its completion requires a great deal of the strongest thinking.My experience – namely in writing essays on English Literature – suggests that the nature of each task demands a different style of thinking. I can only speak for myself, but I’m reasonably confident that most of what I find will be useful to others, too. A qin is a Chinese zither, usually referring, confusingly, to the guqin.

You will, dear reader, be aware that a given mental task requires only a certain amount of attention – some will allow you to listen to talk radio, some to music, while others demand your full and intense attention. In many cases, the mental faculties can be bored by lack of stimulus, making your productivity with something to occupy the excess brain function often greater than when you offer your all.

I’ve found that some questions look as though they will need my full attention, but are more soluble when I don’t press them. On many occasions when I was writing my most recent literature essays, I would reach a point in my argument in which I could not reason my way forward.

Here, I think that its useful to refer to the Tao, this being the Chinese concept of ‘the path’ and the originating state of the universe. By analogy only, of course.

Take actions before things occur.
Manage before things get out of order.
A huge tree grows from a tiny sprout;
A nine-story high terrace is built from heaps of earth.
A journey of thousand miles begins from the first step.
He who acts with desire shall fail.
He who tries to possess shall lose.
Therefore, the saint acts without effort and so he does not fail.

- Laozi; Tao Te Ching: Chapter 64

Laozi describes the Taoist concept of ‘non-doing’, the way in which inaction or pursuit without avarice can often be most successful. I often found this to be the case when learning a new skill, where simply trying harder with respect to a problem would often lead to more stress, when I should have relaxed and let the skill learn itself.

Many elements of the Confucian philosophy depend upon the Tao.

The Master said: When one rules by means of virtue it is like the North Star – it dwells in its place and the other stars pay reverence to it.

- Confucius; Analects: Book 2

The best kings do least, allowing their people to live and to organise the country for themselves. Sometimes I find it best to approach apparently insoluble questions within an essay with like this, as though the king is your will, and his country is the many semi-conscious and sub-conscious elements of the mind.

When you come to a point where a piece of reasoning seems to be insoluble, go for a walk. The constant footsteps and the changing scenery should occupy the restless mental faculties which can encumber thought; hold the problem in your mind but don’t press it, let the non-directed parts of your brain do the thinking. With surprising frequency I find that this method is what provided a compelling but previously illusive answer. This is to say nothing, of course, for the associated benefits of a change of scene, exercise and fresh air.

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From → Academia

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