Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Repairers of the Breach

You shall be like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called repairers of the breach. ~Isaiah 58:11-12

This verse has been calling to me. I’m so worn down by the vocabulary of judgment and division, no matter which side it comes from. See? There is another word of division – “side.”

A Course in Miracles teaches that when we see ourselves as separated from anyone, for whatever reason, by whatever means, we are separated from God (or the divine or whatever word is meaningful to you). There is no exception to this, and it is true at all levels – in our families, our communities, our nations.

If a breach appears, it doesn’t matter where it is, where it came from, or whose fault it is. We have one function, one role, one task. It couldn’t be more simple or more clear. We are to remember.

That remembering might assume different forms. It might be the child who gives her dinner to a homeless person. Or non-Muslim people vowing to register as Muslims (if a registry is ever created). Or high school students walking out of class to claim the innocence and hope and power of youth. Or a worship service welcoming people of all faiths. Or bystanders stepping up to support and protect a person being targeted. Or protesters and police hugging each other. Or neighbors talking and listening to each other over coffee or tea, regardless of who voted for whom.

Or the Jewish rabbi who responded to hateful threats from a Klan leader by offering to give him a ride to the grocery store. (This is a great story. Click here to read about it.) Too often our response is “But they...,” or “I can’t accept....” This rabbi understood that he didn’t have to get the Klan leader to see the light, nor did he have to agree with the hate, in order to offer compassion.

So what is it, exactly, that we are remembering? We are remembering, as Stephen Covey said, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing might go by different words, but we all know what it is. And while it might be expressed in infinite ways, it is never found out there, but always within.

May I remember today and all days to be a repairer of the breach.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12

I just read an article called The Case Against Reality. It’s about a professor of cognitive science who says that the world we perceive through our senses is nothing like reality.

Decades ago, in my know-it-all youth, I wrote in some philosophy paper, “We participate in creating the reality we perceive.” Most of us have figured that out to some degree by now. But according to this guy, it’s not so much that we participate in creating the reality we perceive, but that there is no reality to perceive. Mind-blowing.

And it is also pretty much what Lao Tzu said 2,500 years ago in Chapter 12. The focus of this chapter is how our senses and desires lead us astray, away from the natural energy flow of the universe, away from our innate wisdom.

It begins by observing the distraction of our sensory input.

The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen the ear
The five flavors dull the taste

Sensory experience blocks or overwhelms true seeing, true hearing, true tasting, in other words true understanding. True understanding is beyond senses, even beyond thought.

Desire, like sensory experience, can also distract us.

Chasing after things [described in terms of hunting] maddens the heart 
Rare [costly or hard to get] things hinder right action

These two lines are similar to these lines from Chapter 3:

Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace

Chapter 12 next brings in a character becoming familiar to us, the sage.

Thus the sage is guided by his belly and not by his eyes

This line again echoes Chapter 3:

Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly

As we saw then, the reference to the belly doesn’t mean the digestive system, but rather the belly or the dantian as the energy center of our being. Being guided by the belly rather than the eyes means to listen to our inner wisdom rather than our senses and desires.

And now the last line, which is only five characters but lends itself to many meanings.

      leave or let go of
     hold or choose

Various translations generally frame this line in terms of this and that–letting that go and choosing this. This could mean making choices about things in a detached way. It could also mean choosing inner guidance over sensory distraction.

But here is another way to look at this line. In classical Chinese, the last two characters when combined can mean ordinary or casually. So you could understand the last line to mean, instead of choosing, that the sage casually lets everything go, or allows things to come and go in their natural rhythm. This is the essence of nonattachment.

Isn’t that cool? One of the things I have so loved about contemplating the original Chinese of the Tao Te Ching is all the little treasures revealed in the mystery of this ancient poetry.

Anyway, we’re all thinking now, so what does this mean for us in the last month of 2016? We might look back over this year and consider what has caught our attention. What has distracted us? What desires or thoughts or emotions have captured our energy? When have we been guided by our “eyes” rather than our “bellies”?

This is easy to answer for me. I have been hooked by the endless news cycles and distracted by counting the number of times I have heard someone say “unprecedented.” Even as I recognized that I was becoming a bit (!) obsessed, it was hard to break away. It’s very challenging to hear, much less heed, inner guidance when willingly jumping into the maelstrom of sensory and emotional overload.

No judgment. Just observation. Our practice is on the razor’s edge, and this year has kept me on the razor’s edge a lot! I call myself home by remembering:

Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
~A Course in Miracles

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Magic of Gratitude

As I pulled up to a line of cars stopped at a red light this morning, I saw a driver waiting to exit a parking lot. Seeing the long line of cars behind me, I stopped short of the exit to give him room to pull out into traffic when the line moved forward. He caught my eye and waved his thanks. I appreciated the acknowledgment and continued thinking about the day ahead.

When the light changed, he smiled and waved again as he entered the street. I smiled and waved back. My thoughts did not immediately return to my plans for the day, but lingered for a moment in the warm glow of his gratitude.

As he moved forward in front of my car, his hand came out of the window with one more friendly wave. I returned the wave, now grinning, my spirit delighted with joy and well being.

And this time, instead of returning to my thoughts about the day, I marveled at the magic of gratitude. His simple gestures shifted my focus from the business of living to the blessings of life. For the rest of the way home, I felt uplifted and happy, looking at my fellow drivers and other people on the street with compassion and sending them wishes for a good day.

Wow. Such a magnificent return on such a small investment. How cool is that?!

In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.  ~David Steinal-Rast

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Gift from a Friend

    I have a friend who writes poetry. A few weeks ago, I got this unexpected gift from her. She said that the poem just "flew in" and she felt nudged to send it to me. She had no idea that that particular day, I was indeed lost in a story of my own making about someone near and dear to me. Reading this poem set me aright. 

    Today it occured to me to pass the gift along. So, with her permission, here is the poem that might set us all aright.

    Don’t Get Lost
    The story is bigger than this moment.
    Don’t get lost in the story.
    The question is deeper than the one you are asking....
    Don’t get lost skimming the surface.
    It will be easy in the days ahead to forget who you are,
    whose you are, where you have come from,
    and where you are meant to go.
    Don’t get lost.
    Walk towards all you hold to be true and sacred.
    You know what to do in times like this.
    Return to the root, to the core of your being.
    The story is bigger than the one you are holding.
    Let it go.
    Don’t get lost.

                                   © Esther Elizabeth

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11

I started to write a post about my martial arts class yesterday, and then realized the next chapter in our Tao Te Ching chapter series is Chapter 11, which is directly relevant to what I wanted to write about. Synchronicity–gotta love it!

Chapter 11 is a favorite one for many folks. It talks about the overlooked essential value of emptiness by giving examples of common things.

For example, when clay is shaped into a bowl, we admire the beauty of the form, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the bowl useful.

In my home, I have a lot of original tilework around the doors and windows in the kitchen and bathroom. It’s lovely, but it is the space inside the windows and doors that make them useful. One commentary I read said that in the part of ancient China where the Tao Te Ching originated, homes were often carved out of cliffsides. So rather than enclosing space to build a home, they literally created space to make a home. I love that.

The chapter concludes by observing that form is what we value, but emptiness is what we use.

While the examples given are of tangible things, the same principle holds true in other contexts. Two people can’t have a dialogue, for example, if one of them does all the talking, not allowing space for the other person to speak. If my mind is full of judgments and opinions, there is no space for new ideas, or for another person’s opinion. If my heart is full of fear and hatred, there is no room for compassion and forgiveness. If my spirit is clogged with beliefs, there is no space to listen for divine guidance.

Let me go back to my martial arts class to describe this another way. In class we worked with a partner to practice “push hands.” In this exercise, the partners face each other with their forearms gently touching. They move slowly, staying relaxed, trying to sense through touch where their partners might be off balance or unguarded, sensing an opening. The teacher kept telling us not to struggle to occupy the space already occupied by our partner, but rather to seek the empty space and move into it, thereby neutralizing our partner’s force.

When the teacher was instructing me, he pointed to my partner’s arm and said, “He is already here. Don’t go there. Go where he isn’t. Grow into that empty space like a tree.” By filling the empty space, my partner had nowhere to go. Hmm, hard to describe. You sorta had to be there.

Over and over in martial arts we are taught not to try to combat force through muscular strength, but to maneuver around force in such a way that the incoming force defeats itself. The emptiness is what “wins” although we don’t practice in terms of winning and losing, but rather in terms of having a “conversation” with our partners about directing energy. We practice every day to release the energy-blocking tension in our bodies, to create space for the energy to move freely through us. In the vocabulary of this chapter, the emptiness is what is useful.

So as you move through your day today, consider the usefulness of space, both external space around you, and internal space in your heart and mind.

The moment you are not, enlightenment is. With emptiness, the matter is settled. ~Osho

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 10

What a perfect chapter for these uncertain times–a guide for living perfectly in an imperfect world. In this chapter, the focus shifts from the mysterious, unknowable Tao to its manifestation in Te (also spelled De).

Te has been loosely translated as virtue, but not in the moralistic sense. More like inner radiance, or integrity. When one is in harmony with Tao, one manifests Te. I think of it like fruits of the Spirit described in the Bible–love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruits are not the Spirit. Nor are they something that one can force. They naturally flow from Spirit when one is aligned and open.

Likewise, Te is not separate from Tao, but rather is the natural expression or revelation of unimpeded Tao in the world. Te can take many forms, just like life can manifest in countless animals and plants, all appearing different yet sharing the universal energy that breathes life into them. Likewise all forms of Te make visible an inner power that radiates from Tao like the rays of the sun.

We can further understand Te by contemplating its Chinese character  . The top right component means straight or perfect. The bottom right component means heart. And the root or radical of the character is the part on the left, which means stepping forward. So one could think of these components as suggesting going forward with a perfect heart, or right-hearted action.

The chapter has two parts. The first part is a series of six questions guiding us and challenging us to discern and live by the principles of alignment with this universal energy. The second part is a brief conclusion, identifying these principles as the original and mysterious primal Virtue or Te.

The six questions follow a similar format of introducing a topic followed by a question.

Holding universal spirit and individual soul in unity, can you be without separation?
Gathering the breath gently, can you be like a newborn baby? [Think belly breathing!]
Purifying inner vision, can you see without imperfection or distraction?
Caring for people or governing, can you act without acting? [wu wei or non-action]
Opening and closing heaven’s gate [five senses], can you be female [yielding, nurturing, receptive]?
Understanding everything [enlightened], can you be without knowledge?

The conclusion ties this all to Te

Producing and nurturing without claiming or possessing
Acting without expectation or taking credit
Leading without dominating
This is deep, profound Te

I hope you share my sense that this is a timely chapter to contemplate. As I have sought to settle my spirit this week by returning to my posts about the Tao Te Ching, I was quite pleased and even amused, in that cosmic sort of way, by finding this reminder of the bigger picture and the deep wisdom of the universe. There has been a lot of questioning this week, from both sides of the political aisle, about what to do next. Seems to me that this chapter answers that.

Love, and do what you will. ~St. Augustine

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Falling off the Roof

Today seems like a good day for a story. This is the story of when I fell off the roof. Some of you already know this story, but I’d like to tell it again.

I have a cabin in the mountains, my little forest retreat, with no phone, TV, or internet. It nestles under huge evergreens, on top of a small but steep rise overlooking a creek. One time, years ago, I left my kids with a trusted friend, and went up to the cabin for an overnight respite.

For some reason, I decided that I needed to clean all the little branches and pine needles off the roof. I stood on an extension ladder and raked the debris to the ground. After moving the ladder all around the cabin, I was on the last section. The base of the ladder was on the deck. There was one branch stuck further up on the roof. I leaned forward over the top rungs of the ladder and reached as far as I could with the rake. And then I felt the ladder slip.

My first frantic instinct was to grab for something. But there was only the slanted roof, with no gutters. In the next instant, I knew I was going to fall. And that is when everything changed.

I will try my best to describe what happened, knowing that I can’t. There are no words. So I will try to fail well, using words to do what words can never do.

The moment I understood that I was going to fall, the world changed. I did not leave my body. Indeed, I was very aware of being in my body as it bounced off the falling ladder. I felt my back land on the edge of the deck, and experienced the disorienting tumble as I flipped off the deck and rolled head over heels through the brush down the hill.

But that is not the story. The story is what was going on as all this was happening. At that exact instant when I surrendered to the fall, all fear evaporated. Arms of angels embraced me in peace and light. No, I didn’t see them, and “angel” is not even the right word, but I felt unconditional love beyond anything you can imagine. Everything that I knew or thought I knew fell away.

Surprisingly, I did not sense that I was being protected from bodily harm. On the contrary, as I felt my body crash and tumble, I was quite sure something was going to break. The blow of my back on the edge of the deck might leave me paralyzed. I might even die. At the very least there was going to be a broken bone somewhere. And I was there by myself with no way to get help. All of this was floating through my mind, but totally without fear.

Because none of that mattered. It didn’t matter because I was being held in the absolute certainty that whatever happened was perfect. I understood, not with my mind but with my entire being, that everything is perfect. Always. No matter what. Just let that soak in for a minute. Everything is perfect. Always. No matter what.

The sublime peace and exquisite joy of that moment was...ah, I can’t even try to express it. All I can say is that I knew it was real. That it was the only thing that is real.

I would like to tell you that this moment of awakening or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it lasted forever. At the time, it did seem like forever because time was suspended while I was falling. But I returned to the “ordinary” world. After my body came to a stop, I lay there on the side of the hill, fearing to move in case some part of me didn’t move! I started with my toes and moved on up, reassured that everything was functioning. Scraped and bleeding, and not yet feeling the bruising and soreness of the days to come, I crawled back up the hill and sat on the deck trying to process what had just happened.

As my thinking mind started to rev back up, all the “what if” thoughts started to dance a frantic, fearful dance, playing out scenarios that never happened, yet seemed real in my imagination. But I stopped them with a quick rebuke. I had been given a priceless treasure and I was loath to toss it aside in favor of worthless mind trinkets.

So I sat there, looking at the ladder lying innocently on the deck, tracing with my eyes the track my body took from the roof to the bottom of the hill, and giving up any effort to make what had happened make “sense.” I breathed in the smell of evergreen and listened to the creek, humbly grateful for this glimpse of...what? Heaven, truth, reality? The word doesn’t matter.

I might not have become an enlightened being that day, but since then, especially in challenging times, I have drawn on the memory of what happened, reminding myself of what I learned that day. That things are not what they seem, that I understand very little, and know even less. And that no matter what happens, even if I can’t see it, everything is perfect. Always.

Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
    ~A Course in Miracles