Saturday, December 8, 2018
This chapter paints an accurate picture of the human experience.
If I have even a little knowledge
I will walk on the path of the great Tao
Straying from it is my only fear
This path is very smooth and easy
But people love to veer off on side roads
While the palace courts are splendid
The fields lie fallow
And the granaries are empty
People wear elegant clothes
And carry sharp weapons
Eating and drinking to excess
Hoarding their wealth and possessions
This extravagance is robbery
The opposite of the great path of Tao
I can’t help but notice the relevance of this chapter to today’s world. However, before we “veer off on a side road” talking about current politics or world crises, remember that this was written at least 2,500 years ago. This chapter has always been relevant because it speaks to the timeless human condition. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the fact of suffering. However, that is not the end of the story. As the saying goes, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”
All spiritual wisdom teachings offer a way to understand and engage with our human experience. (“Tao” actually means “way” or “path.”) All address this fact of suffering, and provide a framework for changing the way we relate to it, with the result that our suffering is eased if not eliminated.
A necessary component of this framework is an honest inquiry into the nature of our existence, and a recognition of our own participation in the reality that we perceive. Regardless of different concepts or vocabulary, the key is not so much the “answers” but our “willingness” to inquire honestly and listen.
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” ~Isaiah 30:21
Monday, December 3, 2018
Someone jokingly said to me recently, “You are my guru.” I laughed and responded, “No, I’m not anyone’s guru. Your breath is your guru.”
It’s true. And it’s that simple.
My shelves are filled with books on spirituality, mysticism, happiness, meditation, enlightenment, and more. I used to read them because I thought they held a secret, the secret, to all I ever wanted to know. I came to understand that I would never find what I sought in those books, or in the workshops or retreats that I attended.
I would find what I sought only when I quit looking for it, when I realized that it was never lost. It is here, ever present. As close as every breath I take. And my breath, if I listen to its wisdom, will teach me everything I need to know.
Breathing teaches me to live now, in this moment. We all understand that breathing keeps us alive. So do food and water. But unlike food and water, breathing keeps us alive in the present moment and only in the present moment. I can survive for a while on the food I ate this morning. But the breath I took five hours ago, or even five minutes ago, cannot keep me alive right now. The breath that keeps me alive is the one I’m taking as I write this sentence. Another breath keeps me alive as I write this one.
Breathing teaches me about the oneness of all life. All things that live, breathe in some form or fashion. Everything that is alive right now is breathing. Not only that, but our breath gives life to plants as they use the carbon dioxide we exhale, just like they in turn exhale the oxygen we require. So not only is all life one, but all life is interdependent.
Breathing teaches me about impermanence. I breathed in when I was born, and I will breathe out when I die. We manifest into form, and we return to the formless. Each individual breath is a reminder. I cannot hold my breath to stop the cycle. Breathing keeps me alive only when I release one breath to allow another.
Breathing teaches me about my body. Breathing keeps me alive, and breathing in certain ways keeps my body healthier, mentally and physically. Breath is connected to many health and wellness practices. It is the original biofeedback technique. As we weakened over time our connection to our bodies and became more lost in our thinking minds, we changed the way we breathe. Relearning our natural breathing patterns restores the mind/body balance.
I love all my books, and I enjoy the workshops I attend. Now I see them as welcome reminders of what my breath was teaching me all along. I only needed to listen.
What lessons does your breath teach you?
Thursday, November 29, 2018
"When every breath
Becomes a prayer
When every step
Becomes a meditation
When every word
Becomes a song of love
When every heartbeat
Then..." he paused
"Then what?" they urged
He smiled and bowed
Monday, November 26, 2018
I have on occasion had folks tell me, in the nicest way possible, that my writing and speaking about the Tao Te Ching are sometimes – hmm, how do they put it – dense, obscure, inaccessible.
I want them to be wrong, but of course I must admit that they are right. How can words describe the indescribable? More words, different words, cannot explain what the thinking mind cannot label or categorize. The very first line of the Tao Te Ching says “The Tao that can be understood is not the eternal Tao.”
So how do we talk about this mystery, what a Christian monk writing in the 14th century described as “the cloud of unknowing”? Even the author of the Tao Te Ching expressed this dilemma in Chapter 70.
My words are very easy to understand
And very easy to practice
Still, no one in the world
Can understand or practice them
(That passage always makes me smile.)
So why try? Because when we glimpse the beauty of that dark mystery, when for a moment we pierce the veil of the infinite, when the miracle of a single breath astounds us, the strings of our soul are set to humming, and we seek to share this music in harmony with each other in a cosmic jam session.
Yes, I admit that the efforts to share oftentimes obscure as much as they reveal. That is perhaps the nature of the endeavor. We complicate with our words what is simple, so very simple. Here is a conversation I had with one of my teachers last year.
Me: Does it really have to be so complicated?
Me: Can we talk more about this?
Him: No need to. The answer is no.
Yet here I am, still talking about it! Imperfect as it is, there is delight in the trying, even though we recognize that our attempts to capture what will remain ever elusive and free, will fail.
As Adyashanti says, our goal is to “fail well.”
It's all good.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
This chapter reflects the motion of Tao as the origin of all things, manifesting into form and then returning to the source. The image of the divine mother figures prominently, giving us the sense that Tao gives birth to, rather than creates, “all under heaven.” The bond between Tao and the universe is compared to the bond between mother and child.
All under heaven has a source
This source is the mother of all things
To know the mother is to know the child
To know the child is to abide in the love of the mother
Thus becoming one with the eternal source of all things
And therefore beyond all danger
I’ve taken a little liberty with the characters in my translation, but I think it reflects the essential message of this passage. We connect to the divine (by whatever name we use – God, nature, universal energy) through our connection to each other. Indeed, through our connection to all under heaven.
A Course in Miracles teaches that any separation we create between ourselves and whatever we identify as “other than self” effectively separates us from our holy source. In other words, we cannot be connected to God if we are separated from others in any way, for example, through anger, judgment, fear, exclusion. All of creation reflects the holy source, and is one with it, like a rainbow manifesting the color spectrum of undifferentiated light. When we separate ourselves into “us” and “them,” it’s like saying that blue is the color of light but red isn’t.
This next passage contrasts our tendency to jump in and direct things with the inherent perfection of nature’s flow, which takes care of itself when we surrender our own agendas.
Close the mouth
Shut the door
Life is untroubled
Open the mouth
Meddle in affairs
Life is lost
The Tao Te Ching has a clear preference for careful words and non-interference with the natural flow of universal energy. There is a natural, effortless, perpetual unfolding of the world. When we interfere, no matter how well intentioned, we disrupt that natural flow. Imbalance results, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Then we are caught up in an endless struggle to repair, to fix, to restore.
We see this on a global scale, and also in our individual lives. Think about a time when you tried to make something better, and only made it worse. Of course, there are times when our efforts do lead to desired results, as when we clean up environmental damage, or make amends to heal a relationship. But we can always go back to the moment when we first set ourselves on a path out of sync with nature’s inherent wisdom. We can’t go back, but life pretty much guarantees that we will have another opportunity to make a choice!
The final passage brings us back to the concept of returning to our natural state of balance moment by moment.
Seeing the small is called enlightenment
Abiding in tenderness is called strength
Using the light
We restore our inner vision without exposure to misfortune
This is our eternal practice
This is the point, isn’t it? That every moment, every holy instant, offers us a choice – to be fully present or to be lost in distraction. We think that enlightenment is some goal to achieve in the future, and that once achieved we can sit back and bask in eternal serenity. But it isn’t like that. We practice, in every moment. Without judgment, because in the time it takes to judge ourselves, several more opportunities have passed. So we practice again.
Our practice becomes integrated into our daily lives. We don’t practice only when we are on our meditation cushion, or in church, or in martial arts class. We practice with every breath, every heartbeat. Our practice IS our life. So beautiful.
There is no such thing as enlightenment. There are only enlightened moments. ~Adyashanti
Friday, November 16, 2018
Friday, November 9, 2018
Someone asked recently whether we would grow spiritually without struggle. Good question. The Tao Te Ching describes a life in harmony with Tao as effortless, without conflict or strife. In martial arts, we train with the slogan “Don’t insist. Don’t resist.” We know that trying to force something or someone might work sometimes but there will always be someone stronger. We learn other ways of dealing with force that do not involve struggle.
So what is the role of struggle in our spiritual lives? If my true nature is one with the universe, where is the need for struggle? Struggle occurs when we are somehow in conflict with the natural flow of energy. It indicates a place where we are blocking our true nature. Perhaps it is not the struggle that promotes growth as much as the relinquishment of struggle. In that sense, struggle is not how we grow; it’s where we grow.
I like the phrase “the razor’s edge of practice.” This is where I am poised on a challenge, something that has the potential to get me hooked, something that triggers an urge to grasp or reject or control. The razor’s edge is where I have a choice about which side I’m going to step into – the side of conflict or the side of harmony.
Where that edge is, is different for different people. And different for the same person at different times. We might find ourselves on the razor’s edge infrequently, or every day! No matter. It is always an opportunity to make a choice to struggle or to release.
Lately, it has been on the daily end of the spectrum for me. I’d like to tell you that I always choose to release, especially with so many opportunities for practice (!), but that would be fibbing. When I step into struggle, however, I feel it throughout my body. I tense up, my breathing moves up into my chest, and I am caught in my thinking mind, like the hamster wheel I described in the last post.
No need to judge myself. Just belly breathe. Release the struggle and allow the natural flow of energy. Tolerate the discomfort and uncertainty with trust. Pour compassion over the fear. In this moment...and this one...