Let It Go, Ride the Wind

The ancient Taoist text Zhuangzi describes Lieh Tzu as the sage who rode the wind with an admirable indifference to external things, and thus, in his lightness he was free from all desires to pursue the things that supposedly make us happy.

Lieh Yokuo, also known as Lieh Tzu or Master Lie, is attributed as the author of the eponymous ancient Taoist text. Even though there’s a debate among scholars whether or not Lieh Tzu truly existed as a person, the text is considered the third most important scripture in Taoism, after the Tao Te Ching and the Zhuangzi.

The Lieh Tzu contains many stories with philosophical themes like the nature of reality, the purpose of life, and the workings of the mind. One theme that runs like a thread through this ancient scripture is the tendency of human beings to stand in their own way and thereby sabotaging a spontaneous, effortless mode of living.

Dominated by a mind burning with desire, anxiously trying to control the uncontrollable, we’ve become unwilling and unable to let the universe run its natural course, as we have exchanged spontaneity for fear. And the more we fight the universe, the more painful our lives become, as things inevitably change in directions we don’t like.

But how can we re-embark the natural flow of life? What if we dare to let go of our attachments and desires, our fears and inhibitions, and become as light as a feather, like Lieh Tzu? This video explores the Taoist philosophy of Lieh Tzu on how to let go and ride the wind.

Lieh Tzu: the Sage Who Rode the Wind

The second book of the Lieh Tzu tells how this Taoist sage let go of the weight of the world and became so light that he was able to ride the wind and float with the clouds. This happened after a period of disciplining his body and mind, during which he let go of conceptions of right and wrong.

After years of practice, Lieh Tzu experienced that the barrier between himself and the outside world had disappeared, as well as the heaviness of his bones and flesh.

Without knowing it, I was being carried by the wind. Drifting here and there, I did not know whether I rode on the wind or the wind rode on me.”

Lieh Tzu, Lieh Tzu, 2.13 (translation by Eva Wong)

Now, riding the wind isn’t to be taken literally. It’s a metaphor for a ‘mental state’ that we could experience according to the Taoist sages, in which we move lightly through life as if we’re floating. We ride the wind when external circumstances don’t weigh us down because we don’t resist them but live in harmony with them. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu also pointed to this state in their unique ways.

Chuang Tzu tells us to let our minds wander in the pure and simple, to be one with the infinite, and let all things take their course. Lao Tzu describes it as becoming “one with the dust” and that those who do, cannot be benefitted nor harmed, approached nor alienated, made noble nor suffer disgrace. Imagine how light life would be if nothing in the universe could harm us.

The Yellow Emperor

We can find a beautiful description of this state of ‘riding the wind’ in the second book of the Lieh Tzu, which tells us about the legendary Yellow Emperor who suffered ill health and restlessness after ruling the country for many years. For years he had pushed himself anxiously, governing the country to the greatest detail. But when he decided to take a break, and retired from his duties, he indulged in the greatest pleasures to satisfy the senses. But these modes of life left him exhausted and jaded (8). The Yellow Emperor stated:

I pampered myself too much, and then pushed myself too hard. No wonder I lost my health and my inner peace.

The Yellow Emperor, Lieh Tzu, 2.12 (translation by Eva Wong)

So, he decided to distance himself from his imperial duties and stay away from the sensual pleasures that he had previously indulged in. He retreated to his private quarters to engage in what the Taoists call ‘the fasting of the heart.’ This refers to the art of freeing oneself from earthly desires, so the body synchronizes with the natural course of things.

And thus, for three months, the Yellow Emperor abstained from intervention in government and subdued the senses, but it seemed that he wanted results too quickly. Mind you that it took Lieh Tzu many, many years before he was able to ride the wind, so was it realistic to expect results so fast?

The Yellow Emperor had worn himself out after a relatively short time of isolation. Exhausted, he fell asleep during the day and dreamed about a journey to a faraway kingdom. This kingdom had no ruler; it simply went on by itself. Its people didn’t have cravings and desires outside of their instincts and weren’t attached to life nor averse to death.

They were without preference and prejudice. Hence, love and hate didn’t occur, and things like attraction, repulsion, wanting, disliking, gain and loss were all alien to these people who seemed to be consistently unaffected by external circumstances, and it was as if they moved about like gods. I quote:

Water had no power to drown them, nor fire to burn; cuts and blows caused them neither injury nor pain, scratching or tickling could not make them itch. They bestrode the air as though treading on solid earth; they were cradled in space as though resting in a bed.

The Yellow Emperor, Lieh Tzu, Book II, p. 35 (translation by Lionel Giles)

After his dream, the Yellow Emperor felt enlightened. He told his ministers that he now comprehended “the Way’, but also understood that the Way cannot be perceived by the senses nor explained by words.

He realized that one cannot become enlightened by conscious thinking and effort, but that it’s something that happens spontaneously. In his case: in a dream, which occurred after he stopped trying. Great orderliness followed in the empire, and when the Yellow Emperor passed away, the people mourned his death for two-hundred years.

How to Ride the Wind

The question is of course: how can one become as light as a Taoist sage and ride the wind? The second book of Lieh Tzu gives us several hints on how to pull this off. However, there’s a paradoxical nature to it.

On one end, there’s a certain practice involved to let go of earthly desires, as well as the numerous categories and ideas created by the mind. On the other end, enlightenment seems to happen suddenly. In the case of Lieh Tzu, it took years, but the Yellow Emperor was enlightened after just a couple of months. In both cases, the change occurred when, during their practice, they reached a state of non-practice.

So, this sudden, spontaneous moment when one’s body ceases to be heavy, and one begins to float along with the wind like the seeds of a dandelion, is aligned with the Taoist idea of ‘doing without doing’ or ‘non-action.’

It’s only when we stop striving, stop making effort, quit going somewhere, stop fighting against what is, that we get where we want to be: in the flow state, in which we float along with nature’s current entirely, instead of resisting it. This, according to Lao Tzu, is how one achieves mastery of the world.

One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day.
One who seeks the Tao unlearns something new every day.
Less and less remains until you arrive at non-action.
When you arrive at non-action, nothing will be left undone.
Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course.
You can not master the world by changing the natural way.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 48

Lieh Tzu explained to his disciple, a man named Yin-sheng, what he went through before he became as light as a feather. He mentioned that after he let go of the notions of right and wrong, there was no barrier between himself and the outside world. So it seems that he stopped experiencing the separateness that was previously created by the mind. And that it’s that sense of separateness that causes us to feel heavy and suffer. 

One day, Lieh Tzu asked the Toaist sage Wen Tzu why an enlightened person cannot be drowned by water nor burned by fire. Wen Tzu explained that even though we separate things based on their external features, everything is fundamentally the same, as everything comes from the same origin.

So, when we cease to see ourselves separated from water, it won’t drown us. And when we cease to see ourselves separated from fire, it won’t burn us. Hence, the man who danced in the fire said: “What are rocks, what are flames? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Like the story about riding the wind, these examples can be used as metaphors for how we can free ourselves from being affected by the world around us. Again, these shouldn’t be taken too literally, and deeper meaning can be found if we read the whole second book, which tells us about the many miracles that people are capable of when they are in the flow state, and also (which is perhaps even more important) how people tend to lose these abilities.

A farmer named Shang jumped from the highest cliffs without breaking a bone, obtained jewels from the deepest rivers, and rescued bundles of silk out of a burning building. He did all of this, in pure spontaneity, without hesitation or fear and desire of profit or a good reputation among his kinsmen. Only when he started thinking about the risks, he discovered what it’s like to be afraid, and began to doubt his capabilities. Hence, he decided to never do these things again.

So, when farmer Shang jumped into the arena of life without reluctance, he wasn’t held back by doubt because he had nothing to gain or lose. He embarked on the natural flow of life and just did what he did. But from the very moment that his mind took over, he was standing in his own way.

Anxious about the terrible fate he could meet at the end of the river stream, he started holding on to rocks and branches. And thus, his body became a heavy burden, as opposed to the weightlessness he experienced when he still flowed along with the stream.

Or as philosopher Alan Watts stated when reflecting on Lieh Tzu: 

What is this, then; weightlessness? It means, partly, that you’re not moving around in constant opposition to yourself. Most people move in constant opposition to themselves because they are afraid that, if they don’t oppose themselves all the time, something awful will happen.

Alan Watts

Lieh Tzu shows us that only when we transcend the duality of life – things like gain and loss, attraction and repulsion, wonderful and awful – we can become truly indifferent, and start acting for no other reason than the action itself. Because what’s to fear when the outcome is irrelevant?

When we achieve this state, we don’t swim in the water but the water swims us and we aren’t burned by fire but we become the burning itself. And before we know it, on a stormy day, we may suddenly start riding the wind.

Thank you for watching.