There is nobody who can teach the way of no way. It cannot be learned either. Teaching and learning require someone. When there is no longer anybody, then the way of no way is evident and there is neither need for learning nor desire for teaching. ~Todd Jackson
It happened again. I was practicing push hands with another tai chi student before class a few days ago. (Push hands is sort of like tai chi sparring with a partner.) The teacher was watching us from across the room as he got ready for class. After a few minutes, he called to me, “You’re trying too hard.”
Sigh. Like I haven’t heard THAT before! Many times....
A few months ago I was practicing push hands with a different tai chi teacher. All my efforts were easily and immediately turned to my disadvantage. Seeking some advice, I said, “I’m trying to....”
The teacher interrupted. “That’s your problem. You’re trying.”
Bruce Lee famously gave this advice in an interview about his martial arts style. “Be water, my friend.” Water does not try. It doesn’t struggle. It doesn’t contend. It flows effortlessly in harmony with gravity and the contours of its environment. As the Tao Te Ching observes, nothing is softer, yet nothing is more powerful.
As in martial arts, so in life. I have recently been trying to have a conversation with someone who continues to avoid it. This conversation, in my own mind, would be very beneficial to the other person, offering some insight and advice about how to move forward through a challenging situation.
I have rehearsed what I want to say, I have offered opportunities to get together, I have encouraged the other person to hear me out. But. The. Other. Person. Doesn’t. Want. To.
I’m trying too hard. Again.
So I’m taking a deep breath and settling down. I will wait. The conversation will happen or it won’t. If it does, it will happen at the right time, and if I’m paying attention and willing to release control, I will know what to say. And it will be helpful or it won’t. I can’t control the outcome. I can only flow with the current and see where it takes me.
Is there a place in your life where you are trying too hard?
Several recent conversations have got me thinking about labels. Years ago, people started reading content labels on their food, discovering things in their food that they didn’t know were there. Over time, regulations required more disclosure on labels, and people became more knowledgeable about understanding the significance of various ingredients.
Anyway, I have been thinking of how we use labels in general. We use them to identify or categorize something, like mammals, or brand names. Labels are intrinsic to communication and information, and serve a useful purpose.
Labels can also affect our experience. In one recent conversation, a parent was describing a particular situation with his child as a problem and was feeling very worried and frustrated. I asked him why he thought the situation was a “problem.” He described an outcome that he considered “bad.” First, I pointed out that the outcome he described was one of many possible outcomes. And second, I asked him why the outcome he described would be bad. (Judgments are another way we attach labels.) When he was able to think beyond the judgment and the initial label of a problem, he was able to look at the situation with a more expansive view. He visibly calmed down and saw the situation in a more neutral way.
In another conversation, a friend was relating an encounter that left him very upset. My friend is white and the encounter was with a person of color. The person had objected to something my friend said. My friend tried to explain, making matters worse. The other person called my friend a racist. My friend denied it.
As I was listening, I could understand why the other person might have taken offense at my friend’s initial comment, which could have been understood several different ways. But any effort to have meaningful dialogue was quickly obliterated by the label of racist, which became the focus of the escalating argument.
I’m not taking sides here on whether the label was justified. Perhaps it was. That’s not the point. The point is that any opportunity for my friend to understand how his initial comment might have been insensitive was lost in the debate about the label. Correct or not, the label ended any genuine communication. And the continued defensiveness against the label hindered any honest reflection about hidden assumptions or biases my friend’s initial comment might reveal.
So labels can be useful, but they can also be obstacles, especially when unquestioned, as in the first conversation, or when used as an attack or defense, as in the second. These conversations have made me take a closer look at some of the labels I use, and how they affect my assessment of a situation, my emotional reactions, and my ability to have meaningful communication. I’m going to make more effort to “read” the labels I use and see what the hidden ingredients are!
Once you label me you negate me. ~Søren Kierkegaard
Sometimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on an event. Looking at the same event with fresh eyes. ~Steve Maraboli
My grandson has been having a little trouble acting up at school – talking in class, not listening to the teacher, not focusing on his work. Last week I was chatting with him about his behavior. He came up with his own plan for trying to do better. When I asked him how we could help him and support him, he thought for a moment and then replied, “Feed me and love me.” Out of the mouths of babes. Isn’t this what we all need for help and support? To be fed with patience, encouragement, friendship, honesty, mercy, listening, appreciation, attention. To be loved with compassion, acceptance, delight, non-judgment, and without conditions? I had sat down with my grandson to offer him guidance, but instead he taught me. I bowed to my seven year old wisdom teacher and thanked him for this lesson. . And a little child shall lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6
The character for intense has additional meanings of thick, solid, lavish. This contrasts with the description in the second part of the chapter, which is one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. The English translations cannot convey the rhythm, beauty, and poetry of the Chinese, but still there is a sense of wonder and intriguing mystery.
Those who sustain life well Go forth without fear of wild buffalo or tiger Enter battle without armor or weapons Wild buffalo have nowhere to thrust their horns Tigers have nowhere to sink their claws Weapons have nowhere their blades can pierce Why is this Because there is no death place
The character for “place” means a literal place or location.
What could this mean, to have no place for death to enter? When I contemplate this passage, I’m reminded of the story about the young woman who wants to study martial arts but is afraid of getting hurt. The teacher stands across the room from her and asks, “If I’m standing here and you are standing over there, can I hurt you?” No, she says. He moves a few steps closer and repeats the question. Still no. This goes on until he is standing right in front of her and asks her one more time, “If I’m standing here and you are standing there, can I hurt you?” “Yes!” she exclaims. The teacher looks at her and says, “Then don’t be there.”
Does it mean that we should avoid danger and cower in a locked safe room? I don’t think so. The person described in this passage is not afraid, but walks boldly through life’s challenges with courage and joy. There is a sense of freedom, not fear.
This seems quite different from the solid thickness of an intense attachment to life portrayed in the first section. Does this mean that if we figure out how to live free of attachment, we will never die? There are Chinese legends of immortals, but I’m pretty sure that none of us will avoid the death of our physical bodies. All that manifests into form will return to formlessness. Our death is assured the moment we are born. This is the nature of duality.
There is a Buddhist practice of contemplating death and our own mortality. Our acceptance of the cycle of life and death allows us to live in freedom, without futile resistance to reality. Death has no place to enter, not because we won’t ever die but because we live in harmony with the movement of creation.
Like the monk, who sat serenely as a warrior brandished his weapon. “Why aren’t you afraid? Don’t you know I can run you through without blinking an eye?” demanded the warrior. The monk smiled and replied, “And I can be run through without blinking an eye.”
The equinox has passed. Night is now longer than day. We are entering the gradual darkening until winter solstice calls the light to return.
Darkness gets such a bad rap. It’s scary, it hides secrets and shame, danger lurks in its shadows. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is gray and rainy much of the fall and winter. Darkness sometimes brings sadness and melancholy.
But I’ve been thinking about darkness in a different way. I have a new grandchild, born just a few weeks ago. She grew in darkness for months. The darkness was warm and soft and safe, shielding her from harm, nourishing her, preparing her.
Seeds are dropping to the ground, or getting buried by squirrels, where they will wait for spring in darkness under the earth.
We rest at night. Our bodies crave the regeneration of sleep and dreams in the dark.
Darkness is essential to life.
In the Tao Te Ching, darkness is the metaphor for mystery, the essence of the Way. It is the origin of all creation. The Bible tells us that in the beginning, “the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” From this darkness, God called forth the manifested universe.
The darkness is where we came from, like my grandchild from the womb. It calls us to love, to embrace mystery, to welcome its season. The fire of the heart burns most brightly in the darkness of night.
As we gather the harvest of our active months in the light, we prepare for the time of quiet, the time of unknowing. The darkness is the gate to mystery. And it stands open, inviting us in, welcoming us home.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait.... So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. ~T.S. Eliot