Not over-sharpening your blade (the three ‘uns’)

Dear Integral Meditators,

The article below explores the image of the sharpened blade, and its relevance to the practice of integrated mindfulness.

In the spirit of the blade of the mind,


Not over-sharpening your blade (the three ‘uns’)

‘Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.’ – Tao Te Ching chapter 9

The fear of being left out and left behind
It seems like there is a lot of pressure upon us these days not to ‘get left behind’ or ‘loose our edge’. In terms of work, in terms of parenting, in terms of our body, health and fitness, looks, education and being educated, pretty much everything. It’s all too easy to find ourself unconsciously running after goals in our life simply because of this fear, without even asking ourselves if it is really serving us to keep running in this way. The problem is that if we keep running in this way, we are going to wear ourselves down and, ironically start to lose our ‘edge’. This is like the ‘over-sharpened blade’ referred to in the quote above from the Tao Te Ching; if we over sharpen a knife, the edge becomes too thin and weak, and so it becomes easier to blunt when we use it. Ideally we sharpen a knife to a point of balance, so that it is sharp, but is also retains appropriate thickness and strength; this is the balance that we are trying to keep in our life.

The need for being blunt to keep our edge
In terms of our own mental, physical, spiritual and emotional edge, if we ‘over-sharpen’ ourselves by not periodically resting, regenerating and slowing the pace enough we (and our mindful intelligence) will become weak due to over use. So what we need to do is create times when we are deliberately resting and allowing ourselves to become ‘blunt’, still and let go of our fear of being left behind. By resting in this way we ‘renew our edge’ and can pursue the goals that are most meaningful to us to the highest degree that we are capable.

Practical points for mindfulness practice; the three ‘uns’

The part of us that fears getting left behind is generally

  • A control freak, wanting to be certain about everything and guaranteed of success
  • Wants to know it all and be an expert, you mustn’t not know, or worse still be seento look like you don’t know
  • It wants to be able to predict the future, take the variables out of the game, to ensure we won’t be left behind!

Consequently, we can practice mindfulness of, and learn to rest in what I call the ‘three uns’ in order to temporarily stop ‘sharpening our blade’ and regenerate our edge. The three uns are uncertainty, unknowing, unpredictability

  • By accepting what you can and can’t control you can rest in the experience of uncertainty, and make a friend of it.
  • By recognizing the current limits of your knowledge, and resting in your sense of unknowing you can overcome your fear of being left behind in terms of knowledge.
  • By temporarily stopping trying to predict the future and opening to the inherent unpredictability of life we can enjoy and find energy from places and spaces where what will happen next is unknown

By cultivating and being mindful of the three ‘uns’ as well as the image of the unsharpened blade, we can release our fear of being left behind, find a space of ease and relaxation where most people would be neurotic and, counter-intuitively, we can keep the blade of our mindful intelligence sustainably both strong and sharp in the long term!

The full verse 9 of the Tao te ching (Steven Mitchell translation)

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

© Toby Ouvry 2016, you are welcome to use or share this article, but please cite Toby as the source and include reference to his website

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