breathes in’s heels

From Chuang Tzu the sentence, ‘the True Man breathes in his heels’, has for a long time – and I mean many years – lain in my mind, occasionally rising to the surface, fish-like, to take a moment of air; and again just recently…

Chuang Tzu is full of these unexplained insights: twinkles in the overall master-work. Meanings are partially felt, only.

Those quick to claim certainty might exclaim: “Here! Here is proof of the well-spring of Taoist alchemy – the esoterica of heel-breathing, the mystic path to longevity. Let the teaching be freely expounded (or charged for!), its secret methods explained…”

Maybe so, but for we remaining wayfarers, time and faith (see my previous ‘thought’) may offer a more down to earth approach.

Firstly: ‘the True Man ChenJen.’ Who is this?
Jen is Human, and carries no gender. The (very very early) Chinese ideogram Chen points towards the transformational: something mutable yet veritable, turned (re-turned) to its Original Self. This is in the Taoist tradition – indeed of its very essence; also, perhaps, close in sense to the Realised Man, the Luohan, of Chinese Buddhism – though this must have come later, historically. It is not quite the Perfect Man of societal Confucianism, whose human-heartedness and compassion comes veined with patriarchal authority.

Secondly: the ‘breathes in (with or from) his heels.’ Means what?
It would be my observation that Chaung Tzu is highly unlikely to be pointing to esoteric breathing practices; he was not in the least a fan of the bizarre, rather he lauded the perfectly ordinary, or – to be precise – the perfected ordinary. And in the immediately previous sentence he says of the True Man that, ‘he sleeps without dreaming, he wakes without care, he eats sparingly, and his breath comes from deep inside.’* In other words he follows the ways of nature.
There is nothing over-contrived in Tao, nor, for that matter, in Chuang Tzu.
(though he delights in light-hearted hyperbole, as Alan Watts points out).

To my mind (and from my practice) the meaning is altogether plainer.
Our heels/feet on the ground give us solidity, marks out our place on the Earth, the something and all that is under us*. And of our breathing? Quite simply, without it, without feeling it, we know we cannot be living: breath, breathing, together with Mind, is the governing sense.

Chuang Tzu is taking a short cut here. Separate heels from breath and you separate body from life: breath of voice dies in the throat; breath of thought fails in the intellect. Whether True Man or not, in Grace or not, in that moment you are led out, and, in the poetry of Tao, returned to the Source…

In writing the above I have looked into translations of Chuang Tzu by Gia Fu Feng, James Legge, and Burton Watson: it is the latter’s choice of words that I have amended to use here.
*In the wider work of Chuang Tzu, which may or may not have been written by him, a bucketful of icy cold water is thrown over those who seek to prolong their lives by strange breathings and stretchings… In other words Chi Kung/Tao-yin is thoroughly diss-ed!
*or the, ‘Heaven is right where you’re standing and that is the place to train’, of Ueshiba’s Art of Peace

©September 2013