One of Chuang Tzu’s stories recounts the following:
‘Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch’u sent two high officials to interview him, saying that his Highness would be glad of Chuang Tzu’s assistance in the administration of his government. The latter quietly fished on, and without looking round, replied, “I have heard that in the State of Ch’u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead three thousand years, and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine. Now do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honoured, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?” The two officials answered that no doubt it would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud; whereupon Chuang Tzu cried out “Begone! I too elect to remain wagging my tail in the mud.”‘
‘Independence’ (translated by Herbert Giles)
This wonderful story from Chuang Tzu exemplifies the value of courage, authenticity and integrity. The world can offer us many alluring incentives which can make it difficult to stay true to our own path. When we are motivated by money, power, prestige or status we are allowing external factors to dictate the course of our life. While there me temporary rewards and satisfactions in this it is ultimately a path that will disappoint because what the soul yearns for will be left unfulfilled. Only the inner-directed life, that is, a life in which our choices are based on intrinsic motivations, can bring lasting satisfaction and meaning.
When we live authentically our actions are congruent with our beliefs, values and philosophy of life. There is a harmony and a peace that comes from this kind of integral living. But if how we live conflicts with who we are as a person there will be discord and unrest that can manifest in an infinite number of subtle and mysterious ways.
In a world that is trying to make us be something other than what we are and to conform to certain social norms and expectations, it takes great courage to do this. Chuang Tzu’s story is instructive and offers a moral example for how to make decisions. External validation that comes with societal ideas of ‘success’, might give us a temporary ‘hit’ of happiness but their effects wear off, and leave us ultimately dependant on these avenues and pining for more.
Conventional wisdom might tell us that the life of prime minister is worth more than that of a lowly tortoise, but the real measure or value of a life is the extent to which that organism has lived according to its own nature and fulfilled the task it as made to do. It is better to live one day of truth than a hundred years of falsity. It comes down in the end to a willingness to be guided by what you are, rather than attempting to fit into a mould or pattern laid out for you by society. The real tragedy in life is not the physical death of the body but spiritual death – to lose our connection with ourselves and so to be dead in the midst of life. In such a way to we become a ‘shell’.
In the modern world there are so many ways we can lose our life and become shell-like. Chuang Tzu offers an inspiring example of how we can resist the temptations and rewards of the alienated life and instead have the courage to remain true to what we are.