Echoes of Emptiness (虚之響)-Happiness



by © Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu)

In a sense we can consider the goal of meditation to be achieving happiness.  But this view is self-limiting in that it relegates meditation to being a cure for a lack of happiness, while meditation is really much bigger than this.

Zhuangzi describes happiness as “the absence of searching for happiness”.  Seen in this light, if we approach meditation in order to achieve happiness, we’re moving in the wrong direction.

Laozi mentions happiness only once in the entire Dao De Jing, doubling the character for emphasis, associating it with the masses, distinguishing their way from the qi-quality of the sage:

The masses are happy, happy, as if enjoying the sacrificial ox
Or climbing the terrace in spring
I alone waver without a trace
Turbid, turbid, like a baby that has not yet learned to laugh
Tired, tired, as if nowhere to return
The masses all have excess
I alone have lost everything, I have the heart of a fool
(Ch. 20)

Laozi is clearly distinguishing the sage – or the adept, which is us when we practice properly – from the masses.  He is suggesting we not look for the same thing others are looking for – namely happiness, celebration, and having more than we need.

Instead of happiness, Laozi suggests that we embody another quality: 足 (“zú”).  Zu is a compound character made of 2 parts – “mouth” and “stop”.  It means having had enough, knowing when to stop, or recognizing fulfillment.

Knowing when you have enough is wealth
(Ch 33)

Knowing when you have enough, you avoid disgrace
Knowing when to stop, you avoid harm
(Ch 44)

There is no greater disaster than not knowing when you have enough
There is no greater fault than desire for gain
If you know enough as enough
You will always have enough!
(Ch 46)

Applying these lines to the practice of meditation, if we are seeking some grandiose experience beyond what we already have, or some kind of happy paradise, this is nothing other than loading ourselves down with desire for gain and excess, and we thus lose the virtue of Dao.

So how do we cultivate the virtue of Dao?  Not by chasing after it.  We are advised instead to know enough as enough and not to seek more.  Looking for happiness and enlightenment can itself be a form of greed, which is an obstacle to our practice.  So Laozi says to drop our aspirations:

The sage governs by emptying the heart-mind and filling the belly
Weakening the ambition and strengthening the bones
(Ch 3)

To preserve Dao, do not desire abundance
(Ch 15)

Abandon sagehood and renounce knowledge
Reduce selfishness, lesson desires
(Ch 19)

Without desires, there is tranquility
And all under Heaven settles of itself
(Ch 37)

The references to dropping desires and aspirations of elevated states go on and on.  So how do we practice like this?  Laozi suggests not tainting our meditation practice with desire and aspiration.  If we are seeking to fulfill spiritual desires, or if we are seeking happiness, this not Laozi’s practice.

When we practice in this way, there is a change which happens within us.  It is very significant and profound and totally changes our relationship to meditation practice.  When we sit, we can just sit.  I hesitate to call this happiness, but lack of happiness is certainly no problem whatsoever.



Obscured by clouds
Longing for the sun
Such a limited Dao!

Sun and cloud
Light and dark
Stillness and agitation

This is the unlimited Dao
Of unchanging illumination


I sink lower and lower
Hidden in the shadows
Turned in upon myself

The masses all hop along with joy
Without root, they exhaust their spirit

They may know my name
But they do not know me

In the darkness of midnight
The moon is full, round, and bright


In light, darkness
In darkness, light

Flock to light
Light fades

Settle into darkness
Light emerges


The sun sets
The world disappears
Crickets chant immortal hymns
The empty valley is filled with moonlight


The Chapters cited herein are my own translations of the Dao De Jing (Wang Bi).


Jacob Newell (Daoshi Gu Shen Yu) is an ordained Daoist priest and founder of Old Oak School of Dao.  He practices and teaches Taijiquan and Daoist cultivation in Sonoma County, California.  His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website,
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About Gu Shen Yu

Jacob Newell (Gu Shen Yu Daoshi) teaches Ruyu-style Taijiquan in Sonoma County, California through Old Oak Taiji School. His instruction emphasizes Laozi's approach to meditation and qi-cultivation: wuwei-ziran. Jacob has been practicing Taijiquan and related arts since the early 1990's and is an ordained Daoist priest. His book of poetry, These Daoist Bones, is available from his website,
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