Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The theme of this chapter is returning to our natural state. Tao is the undifferentiated source of the manifested universe. Tao manifests in the universe as Te. Remember that Te is loosely translated as virtue but does not mean virtue in the sense of morality, but rather in the sense of an inner harmony or integrity. Te is not separate from Tao, but rather is the natural expression or revelation of Tao in the world. Te ultimately returns to its source in Tao.
When our own lives manifest the integrity of Te, we return to our natural state of harmony with Tao. One aspect of the integrity of Te is the reconciliation of duality. The chapter gives us three examples.
Reconciling male and female
Become the watercourse for the world
Te will remain
Returning to infancy
An infant represents the primal unity of male and female, a pure channel through which Te flows uninterrupted. Jesus spoke of the innocence of children and their close link to the divine.
Reconciling black and white
Become the model for the world
Te will not fail
Returning to limitlessness
The characters for limitlessness are 无极 , pronounced wuji. If you practice taiji or other martial arts, you are probably familiar with wuji stance, which is basically a relaxed standing posture. The limitlessness of wuji is described as emptiness and is represented by this symbol.
This wuji symbol represents the vast emptiness and limitless potential of Tao. When Tao manifests into form it becomes a duality of black and white, or light and dark, or yin and yang, represented by the taiji symbol.
So within these two symbols we can see the limitless source of Tao manifesting into the perfect harmony of Te. When the two aspects of Te swirl together, they return to the undifferentiated source of Tao.
Reconciling honor and disgrace
Become the valley of the world
Te is then complete
Returning to an uncarved block
The image of the valley is used several times in the Tao Te Ching. A valley is low, fertile, open. It lies humbly beneath the rolling hills or majestic mountains that surround it. Yet it is the source of all nourishment that sustains life. It is a place of refuge and home to the water that seeks the low path.
The image of an uncut block of wood is also used several times in the Tao Te Ching, conveying a sense not only of simplicity but also of unlimited potential. The uncut block of wood can become many things. In the process of carving, however, the emerging form begins to eliminate possibilities. As the completed shape becomes defined, it takes on an identity, separate from all other things it might have been. The uncut block of wood represents the beginner’s mind of zen. And here, it represents the unlimited potential of Tao, the source from which the universe manifests and to which it returns.
The images and poetry of this chapter are so beautiful. If we can take these images as our guides, they will reveal to us the rhythm of the universe, the rhythm of manifesting and returning. Within that rhythm, we can find the balance of duality, the still point around which duality circles in its endless dance.
Is there an image here that especially resonates for you?
May I walk in the path of the low valley. ~2 Nephi 4:32
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Fail. Fail again. Fail better. ~Samuel Beckett, as quoted by Pema Chodron in the title of her book
I’m very experienced with failing. Most of us are, in one context or another. We don’t like to experience failure. We don’t even like to think about it. So we deny it, reframe it, avoid it, hide it, anything to not face it and feel the pain.
The pain of not facing failure becomes shame. We beat ourselves up with I should haves, I shouldn’t haves, if onlys. We tell ourselves stories with different outcomes. We pretend. And in the process, we lose who we really are. Then we can’t truly connect with others. We are alone. And afraid.
But this is what I’ve found. The more I denied my failures, the more I judged them and rejected them, the more I repeated them. Have you ever tried to unwrap something sealed with that cellophane that sticks to your fingers? You try to throw it away, but it’s still there. You fling your hand towards the trash and think you are rid of it only to see that it jumped to another finger and it’s still there.
Like the clinging cellophane, some failures are annoying. But others live deep in the dungeons of our soul. The failures that haunt me the most are the ones where I let someone down, or let myself down, when I wasn’t the best person I could be. This is especially true where my children are concerned. Is there a parent out there who doesn’t cringe at the memory of some way that they failed their children? There are still things that I have a hard time admitting.
Years ago, when I would bemoan something I had done, something I felt embarrassed about, something that I wish I had done better or at least differently, my therapist would say, “Welcome to the human race.” I never liked her at those moments, and being part of the human race was not at all comforting or appealing.
But over time, I began to accept or to at least acknowledge some of the ways I have failed. I could sometimes soothe the shame with compassion. I even admitted a few of my shortcomings to others. Lo and behold, instead of shock and rejection, I discovered I was in good company.
I’m a little more gentle with myself these days. They say charity begins at home. When I can find compassion for myself, it’s easier to find it for others. Once, when I was frustrated with my son’s autistic behavior, someone said, “Perhaps he’s doing the best he can.” She was right. He was. And in my struggle, perhaps I was doing the best I could.
Perhaps we all are. We will have successes and failures. And the failures will sometimes hurt. We might not be able to avoid failure. But with some compassion, forgiveness, and patience, we can fail better. Life will undoubtedly offer us many opportunities to practice!
Invest in loss. ~martial arts practice mantra attributed to Cheng Man-Ching
Monday, July 10, 2017
There must be a better way. You’ve heard this and probably said it yourself in many different contexts. This thought is the genesis and the impetus for discoveries, inventions, and growth, for individuals and for communities and nations.
It usually occurs to us when we are at the nadir of our efforts, energy, ideas. We are at an impasse, frustrated and flummoxed. We remember the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, thinking we will get a different result, and we recognize ourselves.
So we stop, momentarily empty.
That pause is what opens the door of the room that we have trapped ourselves in. That emptiness is what allows light to flood into the darkness that has imprisoned us. And into that light, the thought steps across the threshold: There must be a better way.
And in that moment, in our fatigue and despair, the spark of hope is ignited, and we are willing, if only for that moment, to consider that that thought might be true. If we can find the courage to hold onto that thought, we might tentatively step out of that room and look around us at the expanse of beautiful possibilities stretching before us, beautiful but unknown.
We might look back over our shoulder at the room we have just left. It is familiar and perhaps less scary than stepping forward into a place we do not know. Most of us will retreat back into our patterns several times, many times, countless times, before we are ready, really ready to seek that better way, before the fear of the unknown is less scary than the pain of going back.
And then, my friend, miracles happen. My own life is proof of that.
It all starts with that thought: There must be a better way.
Oh, there is. There is.
As we encounter those patterns that keep us trapped, in our own lives and in our communities and nations, when we are at our wits’ end, fresh out of ideas, realizing that what we keep trying is not working and never will...
take a deep breath,
and tell yourself there is a better way.
Then get ready for miracles.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Friday, June 30, 2017
Good walking leaves no tracks
Good speech is without fault
Good counting needs no markers
The first line reminds me of the 70s TV show Kung Fu. In the opening sequence, the young Shaolin novice (“Grasshopper”) trains for years to walk across delicate rice paper without tearing it. It also reminds me of the concept of no trace camping, which means leaving your campsite in pristine condition as though you had not been there.
The character for “good” appears in this chapter eleven times. (You might recall that it was also repeated in Chapter 8, nine times there.) Some people think that the focus here is on skill, skill attainable through diligent practice. Indeed, Grasshopper tears up a lot of rice paper before finally being able to walk across it leaving it intact.
I’m all for practice. I just spent two hours this morning in tai chi and sword classes, practicing the same moves over and over. “Aggaaaiiiin,” my teacher is fond of saying, drawing the word out with a smile.
At some point, though, the movement transcends practice. The rules and structure fall away, along with the mover, and the movement flows effortlessly, perfectly, beautifully. In the very (very!) few times this has ever happened to me, I feel less like I am moving, and more like the movement is happening through me. I’m just along for the ride.
This is called entering the light
Entering the light comprises the characters xi 袭 ming 明 . Each of these two characters has multiple meanings, with the result that this line has many possible translations. Xi means enter, but also to penetrate, merge, follow. Ming is made up of sun 日 and moon 月 . It means light, wisdom, luminous, insight, enlightenment.
So pick a meaning that speaks to you. Or embrace all of them. I love the fluidity of these meanings, which, to me, represent the elusive nature of Tao itself.
The end of the chapter shifts to the relationship between teacher and student. If properly aligned, the harmonious interdependence and interplay of this relationship reflect the essence and mystery of Tao. We can appreciate this in our lives as we go through our day.
Try this. As you go through your day today, consider everything and everyone you meet to be your teacher. Pause whenever anything or anyone catches your attention and ask yourself what you can learn. Try not to judge; just have an open mind. And, as we would with any teacher, be respectful and give thanks for the lesson. If you like, share something you learned in the comments.
Bonus: Did you ever wonder how Grasshopper got his name in the Kung Fu TV series? In this scene, the new student encounters Master Po, who is blind. Master Po quickly teaches his novice not to assume that just because he has no eyes, he cannot see. Then he instructs his new student to close his eyes and listen.
Master Po: Can you hear the grasshopper at your feet?
Novice: Old man, how is it that you can hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you cannot?
If you want to see the scene, click here.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
This continues our series about the associations made in Chinese medicine and qigong between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include associations with emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds...and seasons. In this series, I’ve tried to highlight a few of the associations that you might enjoy contemplating.
Fall was the season of courage and gathering energy. Winter was the season of stillness and storing energy. Spring was the season of forgiveness and expanding energy. Now we arrive at summer, the season of joy and release.
Summer begins with the summer solstice. Just as winter begins with the return of the light as days gradually lengthen through the dark cold months, summer begins with the gradual fading of light as days gradually shorten through the hot sunny months. I’ve always loved that balance. Each solstice plants the seed of the next.
The organ associated with summer is the heart. While other organs might be doing critical work to keep our bodies alive, it is the heart that gets all the glory. I don’t recall many odes to livers and kidneys, and lungs rarely inspire poetic rhapsody. But hearts.... Hearts are the target of cupid’s arrows, the seat of wisdom, the source of endless description and metaphors.
Hearts break and heal. And pump. At my daughter’s first ultrasound, when she was barely pregnant, all I could see on the screen was a tiny blob. Within that blob was an even tinier fluttering. That, said the technician, is your baby’s heart.
The first visible movement of life. And all through our lives it is the one organ that we can hear and feel with a sensory awareness that leaves other organs in the shadows. When we hold someone close, we can sometimes feel each other’s hearts beating. Hearts never cease to fascinate and amaze.
Not surprisingly, the element associated with summer and the heart is fire. I ran across an ad recently for the “world’s most perfectly cut diamond” with the trademark name “hearts on fire.” Fire can be destructive, to be sure, but it is also beautiful. It gives warmth and light. It purifies. Like the heart, it spawns poetry and metaphor. And myth.
It captures our imagination and attention. We meditate with a candle. We sit around a campfire with friends, laughing when we realize that we are all staring into the fire as we sing and chat.
Fire also releases energy as it consumes its fuel. The energy associated with the heart is the energy of release. As kids are released from school, we release our daily routines and go on vacation. Fire releases its energy in an upward movement as heat rises. Our hearts feel lighter and more carefree in the summer.
As stated before, the emotional associations are often categorized as positive or negative, but don’t think of this as good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. With fire and the heart, we think of a warm heart as beneficial, but a hot heart or a cold heart is not so desirable. When I lived in Thailand, where the climate itself seemed to be on fire most of the time, having a cool heart rather than a hot heart was admired.
The negative and positive emotions associated with the heart are reflected in the nature of the fire element. The negative emotions are hastiness, cruelty, arrogance, hatred. The positive emotions are joy, creativity, enthusiasm, honor, and of course love. Since I spent so many years studying and writing about happiness, I especially appreciate the joy that softly glows in a heart with healthy, balanced energy.
We are not always happy in a tra la la kind of way. But a healthy heart center is open, embracing, accepting, loving. It connects us to others in relationship, to our world in gratitude, to the sacred in union.
The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. ~Joanna Macy
Bonus–If you want to get in the spirit of summer, watch this video! Make sure the sound is on. Guaranteed to make you smile.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
In this very moment
Is a doorway
Beyond that doorway
Is where we really are
And always have been
From there our spirit calls us to come home
Walk through the door
What you leave behind is only a dream
Do not fear to leave it
If you only knew what awaits you
You would leap laughing through the portal
And never look back