The Art of Staring into Space

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I spent much of my schooling staring out of the window. This was not because there was anything interesting happening outside; instead it was because of a certain detachment from the world around me, a tendency to daydream. In fact, I wasn’t really staring out of the window. I was looking at some indeterminate point in the middle distance (I discovered early on that you need a window, and a sense of far distance, if you are to find the optimum point in the middle distance at which to stare). At the time, this was considered a serious moral flaw, of course. There were more pressing demands upon me, after all. But looking back, I think that there was considerable value (and still is) to be found in staring into space (see, for example, this article).

So I thought I’d share the following, from the Chinese thinker Liu Xie (劉勰), and his wonderful book The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (Wenxin Diaolong 文心雕龍). The Wenxin Diaolong was written around the beginning of the sixth century, and is a fascinating text, mixing Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist perspectives to explore the question of what it might mean to imagine, to think and to write. Anyway, this comes from the famous shensi (神思), or “spirit-thinking” chapter, and it’s a passage — more or less — about the virtues of staring into space.


文之思也,其神遠矣。故寂然凝慮,思接千載;悄焉動容,視通萬里。吟詠之間,吐納珠玉之聲;眉睫之前,卷舒風云之色;其思理之致乎! 故思理為妙,神與物游。

神居胸臆,而志氣統其關鍵;物沿 耳目,而辭令管其樞機。樞機方通,則物無隱貌;關鍵將塞,則神有遁心。


In literary thought the spirit is far away. Thus silently staring and contemplating, your thoughts reach across one thousand years. Quietly, your expression deeply moved, you can see across ten thousand miles. Amid the recitation of verses, you can hear the spitting out of pearls and jade; before your eyebrows and eyelashes, the wind rolls and the clouds unfurl. This is the delicate operation of thought! Thus the operation of thought is subtle, and the spirit journeys alongside things.

The spirit resides in the chest and the heart: the keys to this spirit are your intentions and your vital breath. Things become present to your ears and eyes, and use of language is the hinge around which they turn. When this hinge is correctly aligned, then things will appear without concealment; but when the keys become obstructed, then spirit has already fled one’s heart and mind.


Image: Nhá Chica by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior. Wikimedia commons.

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