Friday, January 13, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 15

Followers of Tao are as elusive and mysterious as Tao itself. Mystics, living in the liminal space between being and non-being, movement and stillness, yang and yin, manifesting and returning. In this chapter, we are told that they cannot be known or understood, yet the author tries to give us a description of their demeanor.

Careful, as crossing a winter stream
Alert, as aware of surroundings
Courteous, as a guest
Yielding, as melting ice
Simple, as an uncut block of wood
Empty, as a valley

How could we embrace these qualities as we go through our day? What if I paused to consider before speaking or acting? What if I chose courtesy over criticism? What if I kept an open mind before rushing to judgment? What other ways can we embody these qualities?

The image of an uncut block of wood is used to convey 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.

How can we live in beginner’s mind? As we mature, we make choices that set us on a certain path. We might have a career, settle down with a partner, raise children. Or not. As we age, we realize that certain choices are no longer open to us. So what does it mean to have beginner’s mind in the midst of life’s commitments and limitations?

To me, the focus of beginner’s mind is internal rather than external. After all, the term is beginner’s “mind,” not beginner’s “life.” What characterizes a beginner’s mind? It is open, curious, eager, courageous, engaged, willing. It is what Jesus meant when he said that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

How would beginner’s mind change the way I live my life today? How would it change yours?

Murky water through quieting becomes clear
Stillness through movement brings life

I have described the practice of martial arts as meditation in motion, stillness within movement, movement within stillness. This is Tao, manifesting as the ten thousand things, then returning to the beginning. It’s like the rise and fall of breathing, the natural rhythm of the universe.

When we are able to enter this rhythm, our individual identity begins to soften. Because we do not grasp for ego separation, we become one with all creation. In nature, there is no separation. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything belongs in interconnected harmony.

What if we went through our lives today looking for connection rather than separation? How would our thoughts, words, and actions be different?

In describing the characteristics of a follower of Tao in the context of the natural rhythm of the universe, we are offered some insight into how our daily lives can be transformed, lifted up, ...beautiful.

For today, newly bright  ~title of the painting by Cecilia Lin in the photo above

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Listen Listen

In the forest still and true
One can hear a snowflake fall
Or resting among meadow flowers
The whisper soft of fairy wings
Turn within and one can hear
The rhythm of the heartsong drum
Go deeper down and listen listen
Can you hear it?
God is humming all creation

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 14

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine

This quotation, to me, best represents the analysis-defying beauty of Chapter 14. The Sanskrit expression “neti, neti,” meaning “not this, not this,” says even more simply that truth can’t be organized, labeled, described, or sensed. Indeed, the Chinese negating character  不 , meaning no or not, appears nine times in this chapter.

The unfathomable mystery of Tao is revealed in this chapter not only by the language used, but also by the fluid lack of structure. There is no separation of distinct thoughts. Lines of characters can be grouped in different combinations to give different meanings, as evidenced in various translations.

It is, as one commentator noted, the language of the mystics. Despite eluding understanding, or rather because of it, we are invited by the rhythm and swirling symmetry of the Chinese poetry to let go of solid ground and enter the mists of the infinite.

You can look at your own translation, if you have one, or look online for several to compare, but here are some key lines (out of order in places):

Look! It cannot be seen; it is invisible
Listen! It cannot be heard; it is soundless
Grasp! It cannot be held; it is intangible

Above it is not bright
Below it is not dark
In front you cannot see its face
Behind you cannot see its back

Returning to non-being, it is the form of the formless
Indefinable and beyond imagination

Knowing the ancient origin
Is the essence of Tao

Lovely. But what does this mean to us in our daily lives? In one sense, nothing. The nature of mystery is that it doesn’t take form in some concrete, practical way. No, it calls us to transcend the practical. To enter, as the 14th century anonymous mystic called it, the cloud of unknowing. From there, our lives become less about in”form”ation, and more about in”spir(it)”ation. And that, my friends, means everything.

For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~2 Corinthians 4:18

Monday, January 2, 2017

Everyone Who Is Like You Is Already Here

We have seen the enemy, and he is us. ~Pogo

[Note: This is as close as I hope I will ever come to something that sounds like political commentary. But it isn’t intended as such. The context might be political, but the message is, I hope, universal.]

I was deeply saddened to see on Facebook someone crowing about canceling a holiday party because he would not welcome into his home people who voted for the presidential candidate he voted against. He bragged about this as a moral stand against the discrimination that the candidate, in his view, represents. Does anyone see the irony of discriminating against people who voted for someone who discriminates?

I once attended a church service during which a new pastor applicant gave an “audition” sermon. Afterwards, the members of the congregation were invited to ask him questions. This church, like so many, was aging itself out of existence. A concerned, gray-haired senior asked him what he would do to “grow” the church. This was his answer:

“That depends on what you are willing to risk. Everyone who is like you is already here.”

Let that soak in for a moment. What does this mean to you?

Since this is a story from a Christian church, we need look no further than Jesus for guidance.

Who was welcome at his table?


What was he willing to risk?


A Course in Miracles teaches that we cannot be separated from anyone else and be connected to God (divine, sacred, universal energy–pick your word). In other words, our union with the divine is directly related to our union with each other. Even simpler, our union with the divine IS our union with each other.

Think about that. Anything, anything at all – judgment, fear, anger, hatred, dismissal – anything that separates us from anyone else separates us from what our spirit most deeply yearns for. The embrace of the sacred. Separation from one is separation from all. Without exception.

Yes, but.... Doesn’t matter.

But they.... Doesn’t matter.

I can’t accept.... Doesn’t matter.

It’s just so.... Doesn’t matter.

Tara Brach wrote, “The world is divided into people who think they are right....”

Get it? Takes a second. So how do we “undivide” the world? By undividing our own hearts.

Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” The value of this promise is not dependent on who said it, nor on how it has or has not been modeled in the political arena. The value is in each one of us resolving to manifest what we want to experience on this earth: inclusion, friendship, honor, compassion, respect, love, kindness, integrity, generosity, peace, courage, joy.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good to those who hate us. Like the sun that rises on the evil and the good, and the rain that falls on the just and the unjust, we are called to shine our light in the darkness without reservation.

It’s easy to love those who love us back, those who are, in the words of the pastor, already here. But what are we willing to risk to gain our heart’s true desire? To manifest our soul’s true destiny? Can we open our heart door to “them,” whoever “they” are to us? I’m willing to try.

So to that person who canceled his holiday party to avoid mingling with people he sees as morally beneath him, you are always welcome at my table. Along with people who voted for the other guy.

Blessed are the peacemakers. ~Matthew 5:9

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Snow Falls Silent

Snow falls silent in the night
Blanketing the past
All tracks erased
In quiet purity
All fresh now new
Awaken to unlimited possibility
Step gentle true
My friend

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Season of Stillness

Winter is when the earth is pregnant. ~Dave

Fall was the season of courage, a time of gathering and preparing. Now winter draws us into the dark mystery of life. Outward activity slows as we burrow into our cozy nests and settle down for our “long winter’s nap.”

Winter is the season of stillness, allowing us to sink deep inside ourselves, to listen...and wait. The Chinese medicine and qigong associations with this season reflect this quiet energy.


Kidneys are associated with winter. Physically, kidneys are a filtering system, purifying the blood by removing waste. Energetically, kidneys are the powerhouse of the body, storing qi like a reservoir. (One of the points on the kidney meridian is called the “spirit storehouse.”) When our kidney energy is depleted, our health is weakened. Even our bones derive their integrity from the kidneys.

In martial arts, kidneys take their place front and center as the source of strength and stamina. We learn how to drive our movements from the kidneys, and how to replenish their energy by “kidney breathing.” (See below for a description of kidney breathing.)


The element associated with kidneys is, not surprisingly, water. Water is the element most closely associated with Tao. As we saw before, many characters used in the Tao Te Ching to describe Tao have water radicals. Water is power. Not the power of force, but the power of its very being. Its depths hold mystery, the mystery of all life.

In the Pacific Northwest, the conjunction of winter with water (it rains a lot here in the winter!) invites us to enter into this period of inward reflection, to listen in the cold silence. Indeed, hearing is the sense associated with the kidneys and winter.

If you have done any qigong or taiji or acupressure, you might be aware of the central point of balance and energy located in the center of the sole of your foot just behind the ball. This point is the first point on the kidney meridian and is called the “bubbling well” or the “gushing spring.” Here we feel the energy of water welling up from the earth, entering our bodies through the kidney pathway, which opens in the middle of our feet. Pretty cool. For a quick picker upper, sit down, cross your ankle over your knee, and give that spot a little massage.


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. The negative emotion associated with the kidneys is fear. The positive one is stillness. These polarities are sometimes surprising. For example, in the fall, the corresponding emotions were sadness and courage. Here, we might think that courage would be the counterbalance to fear, but it isn’t. Stillness is.

But think about it. When we are afraid, what are we most compelled to do? Fight or flight, right? One way or another, we want to get relief from the fear. We want to move, to act.

One of my favorite stories is about the young warrior who had to battle Fear. When she respectfully bowed and asked Fear how to defeat him, he replied that his strategy was getting up in someone’s face to make them react. The way to defeat him was simple, he explained. “Just don’t do what I tell you to do.”

At this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty in the world, the kidneys offer us wise counsel. If our reaction to fear is to move, either in fight or flight, then how do we defeat fear? By remaining still, like deep water, drawing on the strength of our spirit storehouse, listening to the wisdom of winter.

In quietness and in trust shall be your strength. ~Isaiah 30:15

Note on kidney breathing: You might already be familiar with belly breathing, relaxing as you breathe deeply into your abdomen, allowing your belly to expand. Now take your hands and place them in the opposite position on your back, just over your kidneys. As you breathe in, draw your breath fully into the lower torso, so that not only your belly expands in front, but your back also expands, pushing against your hands over your kidneys. This energizes your kidneys, removing any stagnation or blocks. It also makes full use of your lung capacity. This deep, relaxed breathing pumps oxygen into all our organs, and tells our brains that we are safe and all is well. Thus, it is the perfect practice when feeling anxious or afraid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 13

Unlike many chapters which use just a few characters to generate lots of meaning, this chapter uses a lot of repetition to convey what I think is a very simple message: Equanimity = peace.

Equanimity requires a certain degree of detachment. This doesn’t mean not engaging with life. It doesn’t mean not caring about anything. It means, to me, not getting hooked by the stories others tell or that we tell ourselves. It means not struggling against the natural flow of impermanence that is reflected in the human condition.

What we detach from can be external or internal. Honor and disgrace come from what others think of us. As the chapter says, both can cause us to be fearful or unsettled, because they depend on what we can’t control. Even if we are being honored, the honor can be taken away. When we give others the power over our well being, we can never be at peace.

Fortune and misfortune come from our own judgment about our circumstances. Because we see ourselves as separate individuals, we tend to evaluate everything in relation to how we think it affects us.

Remember the zen story of the old farmer? A poor old farmer had one son and one horse. One day his horse ran away. A neighbor exclaimed over his misfortune since without the horse, he couldn’t farm his land. The farmer replied, “Who knows if it is good or bad?”

The next day the horse returned leading twenty wild horses. The neighbor congratulated him on his new wealth. “Who knows if it is good or bad?” shrugged the farmer. The next day his son broke a leg trying to tame one of the wild horses. The neighbor (who obviously was not taking care of his own farm!) bemoaned his ill luck. You know what the farmer said.

The next day the army swept through the village, taking all the young men away to fight...except the son with the broken leg.

You get the idea. When we are able to detach from our own self-centered judgments, as well as from what others think about us, we reach a state of unshakable equanimity. We recognize the illusion of opposites (as we saw in Chapter 2), and remain at peace as we engage with our lives.

As we transcend our individual selves, we experience our natural connection with, as the chapter says, everything under heaven. Individual events and circumstances are woven into the great and beautiful tapestry of all creation.

The old farmer’s refrain has helped me countless times to detach from a story or judgment. It’s wisdom allows me to engage fully with life without being at its mercy. I think this is what the Bible means when it tells us to “rejoice always and to be thankful in all circumstances.” It doesn’t say to be thankful “about” but to thankful “in.” No matter the situation, equanimity allows us to be at peace, to be grateful for life itself.