Friday, September 23, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 6

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te ChingClick here for more details on this series.]

If Chapter 5 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Tao Te Ching, then Chapter 6 is one of the most enigmatic. And one of the shortest. Just 26 characters, it has spawned pages of commentary. Like the blind men and the elephant, everyone sees different facets of meaning. When we can release the need to have a single, “right” meaning, when we can let the meanings swirl in mystery, then we enter the true meaning beyond words, the mystery beyond understanding. And it is beautiful.

Valley spirit never dies

The valley is the image of the female – open, receptive, fertile. The spirit energy of yin. Like the image we saw in Chapter 4 of the empty vessel that is never exhausted but always dynamic with potential, the valley sustains with unending abundance.

This is called mysterious female

The character for mysterious  carries a sense of translucence, allowing light to pass through without revealing form. It also can mean dark, unknown, profound. The character for female literally means a female horse, or mare, and can also mean womb.

So these two characters can literally mean dark mare. Metaphorically, they carry forward the idea from the first line of the fertile valley, a place of gestation, the mysterious source of life.

Jonathan Star compares this valley spirit/mysterious female to Shakti, the divine feminine creative power in Hinduism, who manifests as the infinite forms in the universe. Or the ten thousand things of the Tao.

The gate of the mysterious female
Is called the origin of heaven and earth

The gate could refer to the opening of the womb, but many think it refers to the nose and mouth as the gates through which the breath passes. The Bible says that God breathed the breath of life into man, making him a “living creature.” In that sense, the breath is the origin of creation, and continues throughout our lives to connect us to where we came from.

Using the Shakti reference again, Muktananda describes her as vibrating eternally, “Brahman in the form of sound,” giving birth to everything in the universe. This vibration is like God speaking to create the world.

Endlessly manifesting

The character for endlessly is repeated 绵 绵 , doubling the sense of the eternal aspect of creative movement. We talked in Chapter 4 about how a Chinese character is made up in part by a root or radical. The radical of this character is the left part , which means silk. The image here is of a delicate silk thread being spun and drawn out.

Used without effort 

In tai chi, there is a posture called reeling silk.

The concept of moving chi throughout the body is often described as drawing the chi smoothly and consistently, like drawing a silk thread. If you jerk it or force it, the thread will break. This is also consistent with the principle of wu wei, or non-action.

So what can we learn from the poetic imagery of this chapter? I think of this chapter not so much as practical advice, but more as creating a sense of wonder, accepting life’s invitation to join in the marvel of creation.

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. ~Albert Einstein

Monday, September 19, 2016

Growing Asparagus

Ken Kesey, renowned author and 1960s counterculture icon, led, in his later years, a quiet life in rural Oregon. When asked by an interviewer during this time what he was doing to make the world a better place, he looked out from his front porch over the fields and said, “This year I’m growing asparagus.”

This morning, someone expressed to me a feeling that I’m sure we can all relate to at least sometimes–a general sense of anxiety and despair over the world situation. If you live in the U.S. you might be feeling this closer to home in the current political climate. What can we do, he asked, to make things better?

Indeed. Just asking the question invites an overwhelming wave of helpless frustration. It is an unanswerable question.

Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” And therein lies the problem, so to speak. In our current election year, we are trying to solve through politics issues that are inherent in our political process. It won’t work. Nor will we solve through politics issues that are inherently not political.

Am I suggesting that we throw up our hands and go sulk in the corner, or start packing for Canada? Not at all. In fact, I’m not suggesting that we “do” anything in particular. I’m suggesting that we look at things differently. That we look without judgment, without seeking a solution, but rather to seek understanding, not of the world, but of ourselves.

Take me, for example. Like some, I’ve been a little distracted, okay pretty much focused, okay a lot obsessed with the evolving dynamic in this election season. And, as I watch, I see an increasing polarity of us/them separation. And as I watch more deeply, I begin to question how that might be seeping into my own life.

Where have I recently dismissed someone’s opinion, while bemoaning the lack of respect in political debate? Where have I allowed anxious thoughts to spin unchallenged in my mind, while shaking my head at the fear-stoking in speeches? Where have I tried to win, while being disgusted with the whatever-it-takes-to-win campaign strategies? Where have I walked past someone in need, while demonizing policies that seem heartless? Where have I failed to be a good steward of my resources, while I rail at the lack of commitment to environmental and financial reform? Where have I denied someone’s experience, while protesting the insensitivity of political characterizations?


So what am I doing to make the world a better place? This year, I’m growing self-awareness.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Water's Hymn

Stilling at creek's edge
Leaves fall one by one
Into water's hymn


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

Heaven and earth are impartial 
They treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs
The sage is impartial
She treats all people as straw dogs 

The opening of this chapter is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Tao Te Ching. To some it seems harsh, but there is another way of looking at this passage that reveals the beauty hidden within.

Let’s start with the concept of impartiality. The characters used here are variously translated as ruthless, or heartless, or without kindness. These interpretations carry a connotation of cruelty or moral judgment that is not present in the text. Instead, the impartiality here is the same lack of favoritism reflected in the Bible.

He makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. ~Matthew 5:45

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likewise speaks of the generosity of the flower that blooms for all passersby without judgment or preference.

This is not an impartiality of cold, uncaring detachment, but rather the impartiality of an engaged open heart, welcoming all without reservation.

Straw dogs were objects used in sacred rituals, and afterwards discarded. Their value was not in their form, which was unimportant, but in their function, which was holy. All things living on this earth will die, and our form will disappear, but our essence, by whatever name you want to call it, continues unchanged in eternal oneness.

The sense I get from this chapter is of equanimity, remaining balanced in the center of life’s vicissitudes, showing kindness and compassion to all, recognizing the sacredness of, well, everything.

And summarized best at the end of the chapter:

Many words lead to exhaustion
Better to abide in the center 

Oh what would our lives be like if we followed this advice?! My son James, who has autism, has an uncanny way of getting to the heart of things. When he was young, he would hold up his hand when I went on too long with an explanation, and say in a robot voice, “Talking is over.” And he was always right.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Time Stops

Time stops
At the speed of light
In light
There is no time
A moment
Is forever

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

This short chapter, one of my favorites, and one of the most enigmatic, attempts to describe the indescribable Tao by using three images.

Tao is empty, yet in use is inexhaustible

The first is an image of emptiness, like a hollow bowl or an empty vessel. The emptiness of the Tao is not a barrenness, but is dynamic with potential. This image also has a connotation of a welling up, as an inexhaustible spring bubbling up from the ground.

Unfathomable, as the source of ten thousand things

The second is an image of bottomless depth, like an abyss. The phrase “ten thousand things” represents manifested creation. The Tao is often described as the origin of the manifested universe, and also the place to which the ten thousand things return. An endless cycle of creation into being and return to non-being. Think of the cycle of water, manifesting as rain, creating the ten thousand forms of water on the earth, then returning as water vapor to the heavens.

Pure stillness, enduring forever

The third is an image of profound tranquility. Not in a stagnant way, but in the sense of a deep, clear pool with a mirror surface reflecting the heavens, yet teeming with life in the hidden darkness. I described the practice of martial arts in my last post as movement within stillness, and stillness within movement. In an eternal dance of beauty and mystery.

The secret treasure of this chapter is found in the Chinese characters used for these three images. Chinese characters are broken down into parts. Each character is based on a radical, what we might think of as a root, which provides meaning. The other part of the character might enhance the meaning or might simply suggest a pronunciation.

So here is what I think is the coolest thing about this chapter. The three characters used for these images of the Tao all have water radicals, even though their meanings in English aren’t specifically water related.


See the little lines on the left side of the character? Those are the water radical. The right side of the character 中 means center or middle.


There is the water radical again on the left. The right side of this character is a bit more complicated. The three vertical lines taken by themselves 川 mean river. If you take the outer vertical lines away, the middle part 米 means rice, which, in Chinese, symbolizes sustenance and fertility.


Again, the water radical on the left. The right side 甚 means extremely.

While the Tao is very connected to nature in all its forms, the element most closely associated with the essence of Tao is water. Think for a moment of water’s qualities. What is its nature? How does it behave?

It doesn’t struggle. It flows around obstacles. It can’t be grasped. It yields to force (think of your hand pushing through water), yet nothing is stronger (think of the Grand Canyon). It follows the laws of gravity, not exerting energy, but simply flowing downhill. It joins together (think of drops of water touching and merging). It changes form – liquid, solid, vapor – yet never loses its basic structure. You might think of other qualities.

So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate the nature of water, and thus the wisdom of Tao, into our own lives?

Here is a recent example from my own life. I crossed cyber paths not long ago with someone I never knew well, and had not had any contact with for many years, but was pleased to reconnect with. A brief email exchange followed – the hey, how have you been, synopsis of decades, friendly but superficial sort of communication one might expect.

I was taken aback, then, when I received a lengthy email attributing motives and beliefs to me that I did not recognize as my own, and to which she reacted very forcefully.

I was tempted to push back with a sort of WTF reaction, because my feelings were hurt, and anger often emerges to protect such vulnerability. But I paused. I allowed the force of her message to move through me as I flowed around it and moved on. I responded with an acknowledgment of her feelings, and I sincerely wished her well.

Thinking that would be the end of it, I was surprised by the next message. She apologized for the misunderstanding on her part and the accompanying defensiveness. She said I “practiced what I preached.” Equanimity was restored.

Wow, I thought. I don’t know what I’m preaching, but life gives us countless opportunities to practice, doesn’t it?

Be water, my friend. ~Bruce Lee

Friday, August 26, 2016

Life Lessons from a Ninja Granny

When people find out I practice martial arts, a typical comment is, “Oh, I better not mess with you!” My standard response is, “That’s right. If you stand really still and do exactly what I tell you to do, I can defend myself against you.”

Truth is, if I’m ever attacked, I will most likely rely on the ever popular self defense technique of running and screaming.

So why, then, do I spend hours every week in an outfit that looks like my pajamas, practicing kung fu, tai chi, bagua, and sword? Because I love it. I’m not trying to be the next MMA cage fighting champion. (Do they have an category for gray haired seniors?) For me, martial art is exactly that, an art. And while the practical context is combat, the life context is enlightenment.

For me, the practice of martial arts is the process of releasing the ego, of being aware of and responsive to the present moment, of developing and deepening beginner’s mind. The last one is easy, because the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn, until you reach a point where you understand that, like Jon Snow, you know nothing. (Couldn’t resist the Game of Thrones reference.)

It is meditation in motion. Movement within stillness; stillness within movement. Whether practicing with partners or alone, there is a harmony of external and internal energy, a surrender to the natural flow of vital essence that moves through nature and through ourselves. We are one with something...beautiful.

The best part about the practice of martial arts is how, at least for me, it integrates body, mind, and spirit. Not just in class but throughout my life. The principles of structure, alignment, harmony, effortlessness, stillness, and fluidity, influence how I see and respond to circumstances and other people. There is no need to get my ego knickers in a knot, no need to fight or force, no need for anger or retribution.

I have to smile when people think that I must be some bad ass, weapon wielding, Bruce Lee wannabe. (Well, okay, I do wield weapons and I love Bruce Lee.) But oddly, practicing martial arts has made me a more peaceful person. More than learning how to win a fight, I’ve learned how to avoid one.

So should you race out to the nearest martial arts school and sign up? Sure, if you want to. But you don’t have to practice martial arts to learn what I’ve learned. This wisdom is available to all of us, from within us. The practice of martial arts is simply one of paying attention, being present, staying open, finding balance, listening, responding effortlessly, resting in contentment, and having fun.

The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. ~Sun Tzu, The Art of War