The Heart of Insignificance

by Mr Eng Yu Fan



“Woman Sitting while showing Heart Sign Hands” by Hassan Ouajbir from Pexels.



*The Chinese name of Perception: A Double Bill is《幻·悟》. The two Chinese characters comprise radicals 幺 (yāo, meaning smallest, most insignificant) and 忄(or 心; xīn, meaning heart) respectively, hence the inspiration behind this musing.


The Chinese character for Enlightenment, 悟 (), comprises two components: the Heart Radical (忄, xīn) and the character 吾 (; meaning I, my, mine). While the etymology of the character remains up for debate, the character has insired Ming Dynasty author Lü Kun to suggest that “Enlightenment starts from One’s Heart; Looking into One’s Heart is true Enlightenment.” (“悟者吾心也, 能见吾心便是真悟。” - 吕坤《呻吟语》) 

Many might argue that Enlightenment begins in one’s mind - readers of Kant in particular may be familiar with his notions of Enlightenment, which includes independence of thought and the courage to use one’s understanding. Yet, the heart of our journey towards Enlightenment, perhaps, lies at the heart. 

“总包万虑谓之心。” - 《礼记·大学疏》

The heart is regarded across different cultures as the centre of the soul. In the Book of Rites, the heart is believed to be the essence of all thoughts and the seat of all emotions. In the Chinese language, there are many types of hearts; a happy person is said to have “Opened their Heart” (开心 kāixīn) while a sad one is said to have “Injured their Heart” (伤心shāngxīn). Those who are worried “Carry their Hearts” (担心 dānxīn), and we reassure them to “Put Down” and “Broaden their Hearts” (放心 fàngxīn、宽心 kuānxīn). Men are often cherished for passionate loyalty embodied in the “Red Heart” (丹心 dānxīn), while Women are complimented for purity and elegance with a “Heart like an Orchid” (蕙质兰心huìzhì lánxīn). Beyond this myriad of Hearts, the heart most associated with self-discovery is perhaps the “Initial Heart” (初心 chūxīn).

“所以表不忘初心,而必果本愿也。” – 白居易《画弥勒上生帧记》

“Forget not your Initial Heart (your original intentions),
and your aspirations are bound to be achieved.”
- Bai Juyi, Reflections on Maitreya Bodhisattva in Tusita

“不忘初心” (búwàng chūxīn) is often used by the Chinese as a wish and an encouragement - and sometimes a warning - to those embarking on a metaphysical journey. When literally translated, this means: “do not forget your Initial Heart”; the Initial Heart is regarded as the purest and the most innocent, embodying one’s most original intentions and motives.

Many set out to achieve something in their life; few reach their goals, and fewer do so unchanged from their true selves. After all, the road of life is one filled with temptations; desires such as wealth, ego, pride, greed, or lust can easily cloud our view, and it may not always be easy to identify the right path. The Initial Heart then serves as life’s compass, navigating us towards our desired goals of Enlightenment. Yet, how do we protect this fragile compass from the many tumbles and distractions we are bound to have in life?

Perhaps the Initial Heart, we should also embrace the Heart of Insignificance (幺心 yāoxīn) – the recognition and acceptance of our own insignificance. We are often valued for independence and for being significance. Growing up, our increasing ability to face the challenges of the world alone is touted in schools and in the workplace; and if we get an award for it, all the better. As such, trying not to be significant maybe somewhat counterintuitive for most of us. However, in our continual race to become a greater version of ourselves, we might have forgotten to question how much our desire for significance have shaped the way we think and behave, deviating from what our Initial Heart may have truly desired. Embracing our own insignificance could perhaps help us open up possibilities beyond what we can currently perceive; that we are worth more than trying to justify or earn our existence in this world, and that we can be freed to do what our Initial Heart desires.

“高山仰止,景行行止;虽不可至,然心向往之。”- 司马迁《史记

In The Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian writes about the awe-inspiring virtues of Confucius akin to the tallest of mountains and the widest of paths. He suggests that, by recognising how small we are, we can then set our hearts towards becoming great. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we may be but a speck in the Universe; or in the words of the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes,

It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.”

As we embark on our own journey towards our different enlightenments, let us hold tight to our Initial Heart, while also embracing our Heart of Insignificance.



NAF programme title:
Perception - NUS Chinese Dance