Verse 20 refines the insights of Verse 8. This earlier song-poem stated that guiding ch’i results in vitality, which leads to thoughts and then knowledge. But too much knowledge harms our vitality (shêng). The current verse enunciates the rationale behind the harmful effects of thinking upon vitality.
1 Deep thinking generates knowledge.
2 Idleness and careless thinking generate worry.
3 Cruelty and arrogance generate resentment.
4 Worry and grief generate illness.
5 When illness reaches a distressing degree, you die.
While deep thinking leads to knowledge, idleness and careless thoughts lead to worry, which generates illness, and ultimately death. We take this to mean that active concentration results in deeper understanding. Conversely, too much undirected time (idleness) combined with wandering attention (careless thinking) leads to worry with its negative consequences.
These lines describe a common experience. When we are actively engaged in a project, our attention is focused upon solving the attendant problems. During down time, our mind tends to wander sometimes to pleasant situations, but frequently to worrying about the future or regretting the past. Either way these thought-evoked emotions are accompanied by a biochemical feedback that disturbs our state of mind – our inner tranquility.
Worry is the first disadvantage of thinking too much. The subsequent lines enunciate some additional problems that are due to uncontrolled cognition.
6 When you think about something and don't let go of it,
7 Internally you will be distressed, externally you will be weak.
Holding onto, i.e. obsessing over, our thoughts causes internal distress and external weakness.
In the prior lines, idle and careless thoughts tend to wander to worry. In these lines, obsessive thinking is the problem.
We can’t stop thinking about some emotionally charged event that captures our attention. No matter what we do, our thoughts continually revert to any variety of emotional topics. These might include: obtaining the object of our desire, rehearsing the future, rehashing the past or avoiding a potentially painful situation.
As with worry, these cognitive loops evoke a biochemical feedback that results in internal distress/anxiety. These seemingly endless loops also drain our mental energy, which results in external weakness.
8 Do not plan things out in advance
9 Or vitality (shêng) will cede its dwelling (shé).
These lines suggest that obsessively planning for the future results in vitality (shêng) ceding its dwelling (shé). Recall from previous verses that the Tao, jing, ch’i and shên also reside in this same dwelling (shé) when the conditions are right, i.e. mental tranquility. Conversely, these beneficent energies leave when there is emotional turbulence. In this case, fixating on the future disturbs the peace. Again the problem is runaway thoughts. Worry, anxiety and now the loss of vitality result from thinking that is unrestrained and undirected.
10 In eating, it is best not to fill up;
11 In thinking, it is best to not overdo.
12 Limit these to the appropriate degree
13 And you will naturally reach it [vitality].
The final lines link thinking and eating. Better not to eat too much or overdo thinking. Over-thinking and overeating are both bad. Limiting our thoughts and our food intake results in vitality (shêng) naturally arising. Employing the metaphor from line 9, vitality returns to the internal dwelling (shé) that it ceded due to excessive thoughts.
The necessity of controlling our thoughts is an overriding theme of this verse. Careless, obsessive and overdone thinking all have negative consequences, primary of which is the erosion of vitality. Instead of allowing our thoughts to carelessly wander into worry and obsession, the Nei-yeh recommends limiting our thinking.
The limiting process is presumably accomplished by employing te and yi, the complementary mental muscles, to both restrain our thoughts from negative directions, e.g. cravings, and direct them in positive directions, e.g. tranquility, balance and alignment. Rather than being victimized by our thoughts, the Nei-yeh suggests that we can and should intentionally exert some control.
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