By the secret opening, the hidden space


My Dad offered me correction only once in my life that I remember. “You gotta learn how to bend,” he said. He was a master of that, gracefully flowing with life, whatever the circumstances in which he found himself.

I’ve been a different kettle of fish. I’ve had a way of being that is extremely stubborn. Sometimes, it shows up as determination or perseverance, other times, as rigidity and inflexibility. Whenever I create trouble for myself and others it’s always there at the bottom of it. While I may produce results with the more benign strain, they’re pretty limited and not anything new.

Never let it be said I let down my cohort born in the Year of the Ox!

This week I’ve had a breakthrough in this way of being. Suddenly, I’ve seen possibilities for acting I’ve never seen before, things to say, responses to offer that have never occurred to me before. In two particular situations where normally I’d wade in quite clumsily or else avoid the matter altogether (both wading in and avoiding wading in being two sides of the one coin), I discovered a third way, a way of responding that involved stepping around the leg trap rather than avoiding or evading it.

I discovered a way of responding that was skilful, adroit, full of ease. A secret opening, a hidden space, revealed itself.

I’m thrilled, and the following story from ancient China about another ox creates it beautifully.


Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

“But now I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in.
I clean the blade
And put it away.”

Prince Wen Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!”

~ Chuang Tzu (369-286BC)

IMG_2999 *

Images: Henry F. Stone and his Durham Ox (1887), Thomas Flintoff (English-Australia, 1811-1891), Art Gallery of Ballarat



10 thoughts on “By the secret opening, the hidden space

  1. Wow! The Tao of Butchery! I love this. And I know exactly what you mean when you talk about that stubborn streak creating trouble.

    I went to an education session on arthritis today. After all the talk about exercise and keeping mobile, there was also the word “acceptance”.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Cheers, Teri. My dad had many lovely words. He was also a butcher who left school at the age of 12 to help feed his 11 siblings. He used to teach me how to hold his boning knife and sharpen it with the steel. I never came close to the elegance and speed with which he sharpened it. Sometimes, I still practice to think of him.


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