Monday, April 24, 2017
Surrender becomes perfection
If the first line of this chapter is the only one you read, it is enough. If it’s the only line you read in the entire Tao Te Ching, it is enough.
Three words...so simple. But within them is the path to awakening, the key to liberation, the secret of the vast power of the universe that manifests through all of us when we release our resistance. As Adyashanti says, “Surrender is the name of the spiritual game.”
What does it mean to surrender? In one sense, it means to not meet force with force. In Star Trek Next Generation, there was a weapon that vaporized all who sought to defeat the person holding it. Captain Picard figured out that the weapon was powered by the aggressive thoughts of the attackers. As the attackers became more aggressive, the power of the weapon increased proportionately. When faced with the person holding the weapon, he instructed his people to erase all thoughts of anger and aggression from their minds. When they did so, the weapon was useless, and the holder easily defeated.
It also means to cease struggling. Buddhism teaches us that our suffering comes from our struggle against reality, from wanting things to be other than what they are. Think of all the bad guys in the Tarzan movies (yes, I’m that old!) who flailed in the quicksand, hastening their demise. Yes, reality is sometimes painful, but our struggle against reality increases our suffering (described as the “suffering of suffering”), and depletes the energy we need to respond effectively and appropriately to whatever is happening.
This does not mean being a doormat and not responding to our world with courage and integrity. On the contrary, when we follow this principle, we find that we are stronger and better able to “do the right thing.”
Jesus understood this, as reflected in the Sermon on the Mount. The kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and the meek inherit the earth. These are not teachings of weakness and defeat; they are teachings of triumph and power. Not our personal, individual ego power, but the infinite power of the divine.
The chapter continues in this pattern of one quality “becoming” another, and describes the sage as embodying this principle of not using force, thus avoiding conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no failure.
Remember the story of the warrior brandishing his sword and threatening a monk seated serenely before him. “Why aren’t you afraid?” he roars. “Don’t you know I can run you through without blinking an eye?” “Don’t you know,” the monk quietly replies, “that I can be run through without blinking an eye?” Recognizing true power, the warrior dropped his sword and became the monk’s disciple.
At the end, the chapter circles back to the first line.
Surrender becomes perfection
Are these empty words?
Truly, perfection restores our true nature
When we are not pitting force against force, we allow the energy of creation to move through us. Like a river, it washes around and over everything in its path to return to its source. Indeed, these are not empty words, but a map leading us to our heart’s treasure. Home.
Related post: An earlier post focused on a slightly different translation of the first line. Click here to read Yield and Overcome.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
And the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. ~1 Nephi 17:41, The Book of Mormon
This verse came into my awareness several days ago, and hasn’t left. It seemed to rise up out of its surrounding context and put its hands on either side of my face and speak directly to me. “Pay attention!” it gently commands.
We look but we don’t see what is. We see our thoughts about what is, our beliefs about what is, our judgments about what is, our stories about what is. We create an image of what is. Then we like our image and want to keep it, or we don’t like it and want to change it. All the while, we’ve missed what actually is. We’ve created an illusion and called it real.
We are not really looking. We are looking away.
So what does it mean to look? The verse says it is simple and easy. We don’t have to acquire new skills or learn more information. On the contrary, looking, really looking, is a process of releasing, letting go of our beliefs and opinions and judgments long enough to see what is right in front of us in the present moment.
When something happens, there is a nanosecond of pure experience, a momentary delay before our brains begin the familiar process of labeling, categorizing, explaining, judging. In other words, before we start telling ourselves a story. We react to and interact with this story instead of engaging with what really happened. Our reality becomes a closed system as we create our own illusion and then relate to it in some way.
We can’t really stop our brains from telling stories. This is what brains do. But we can bring our awareness to the present moment and look, really look, before the gap closes and our story begins.
If it’s so simple and easy, why does it seem so hard? Why do so many “perish,” as the verse says? Because we are so attached to our stories. Our stories are familiar and habitual. They have become so real to us that we are unaware of our illusions that we have trapped ourselves in.
People catch monkeys by cutting a small hole in something stationary and putting food in it. The monkey will reach inside and take a handful of the food, but then it can’t get its hand out. Instead of letting the food go, the monkey will be trapped by its own attachment to the food and is easily captured. The monkey chooses the illusion of being trapped over freedom.
We might not be able to stop our brains from doing what they do, but we can be aware of it. Once the story begins we can observe it without becoming ensnared by it. We are free then to keep our attention on what is. We are free to look. What we see will blow our minds wide open.
Give it a try. Next time something catches your attention, try to pause for just a moment. Look at whatever is happening and then see when the story starts. And when it does start, just watch it, and watch your interaction with it. And perhaps, at some point, see what happens if you let it go.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Sunday, April 9, 2017
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. ~Marianne Williamson
Science has proved what mystics have known for millennia – we are all connected through a network of energy, physical as well as consciousness energy. The Avatamsaka Sutra describes this interconnectedness as the “jeweled net of Indra.” This net stretches to infinity in all directions. A jewel is placed at each intersection of threads, likewise infinite in number. In each facet of each jewel is reflected all the other jewels in the net. And within each reflection is reflected all the other jewels and all the other reflections, thus creating a dynamic phenomenon of infinite reflection.
Through this connection we are not only reflecting, but creating, eternally creating in concert the “ten thousand things,” a term used in the Tao Te Ching to describe what we perceive as the universe we live in. We know from particle physics that observation affects the observed. When we focus on something we affect it. It changes in response to our attention. We, in turn, respond to the dynamic interaction our attention has created. In responding to and interacting with our world, we create the very reality we experience. Furthermore, we affect the reality that others experience by reflecting our experience through the “net.” It all becomes part of the jeweled net of our universe. (“Internet” takes on a whole new meaning!)
Just pause and consider this for a moment. Everything that we do or say or think reverberates through all creation. Yes, even thoughts. A Course in Miracles teaches that there are no idle thoughts. Our very thoughts create the universe that we perceive.
Powerful beyond measure indeed! As John F. Kennedy said, quoting the Bible, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Our ability to respond to our world through our deeds, words, and thoughts, gives us the power to affect our world, and everyone and everything in it. This response-ability gives us the choice to use this power for good or for harm.
Everything that we do or say or think, according to A Course in Miracles, is one of only two things – an expression of love or a call for love. When we are in harmony with the sacred (Tao, Holy Spirit, universal energy), the beauty of love moves through us and manifests in all creation. It’s not so much that we express love as that love is expressed through us.
When we are not in harmony, we suffer from the illusion of separation. Our spirits seek to restore unity, calling for love. This call can manifest as deeds, words, or thoughts we might label as harmful, such as anger, judgment, violence. Underneath, all these are rooted in fear, the mistaken fear of separation and the desperate yearning to restore unity.
We might label these manifestations as harmful, but here is the true power of our response-ability. They are only as harmful as our own responses allow. If we respond to anger, judgment, or violence with more of the same, the illusion of separation ripples through the jeweled net as the call for love goes unanswered. But if we recognize these manifestations of fear as what they really are, calls for love, we can respond with expressions of love, thus dispelling the illusion of separation and reflecting unity throughout the jeweled net. All creation then vibrates in perfect harmony with God.
As you go through your day, consider the power you hold. Remember that everything that you do or say or think is either an expression of love or a call for love. Recognize the calls for love you see around you, and choose how you will respond – with a further call for love, or a healing expression of love.
And don’t forget that expressions of love can be directed to ourselves as well, especially when we recognize the call for love in our own spirits.
Blessings to you this day, my friend.
Note: Thanks to Judi Jason for inspiring this post by sharing with me the concept of response-ability and her thoughts on the topic. Love you, Juju!
Friday, March 24, 2017
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things
~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ~John 1:1
This chapter is the counterpart to both Chapter 14, which described the unknowable nature of Tao, and Chapter 10, which described the concept of Te and how it manifests in our lives. Te has been loosely translated as primal virtue, but not in the moralistic sense. More like inner harmony, or integrity.
Here, in this chapter, we see the connection between Tao and Te, how Te emerges from Tao like the stars emerging from the star nursery in the photo above. This chapter is, an a sense, a creation story.
The nature of vast Te flows only from Tao
Tao’s manifesting is elusive and intangible
Elusive and intangible
Within is image
Intangible and elusive
Within is form
Hidden and obscure
Within is essence
Its essence is real
Within is truth
Its name is everlasting
The origin of all creation
In the Bible, God created by “naming.” When he said, “Let there be light,” there was light. And so on. Naming is a creative and powerful process. Many cultures have naming rituals for their children. We have seen that the Tao cannot be named. It is beyond concepts, and thus beyond language. But here, we are told that the name of Te is everlasting. It is the name of creation, the ten thousand things. It is not so much the things themselves, although it is that too, but it is the existence of the things, their very being. The being that emerges from nonbeing.
Like the stars that appear from a cloud of primordial star “stuff,” Te emerges from the brimming emptiness of Tao. And while we can’t know unlimited Tao with our limited minds, we can recognize the manifestation of Tao through the harmony and integrity of Te. Indeed, we are that manifestation.
Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye, but the dance lives on. ~Michael Jackson
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. ~Lewis B. Smedes
Fall was the season of courage and gathering energy. Winter was the season of stillness and storing energy. Now we arrive at spring. The light has been quietly returning since the beginning of winter, and now it surpasses the darkness as birds sing the day awake. Sap rises. Buds that have waited patiently through the cold months open timidly or boldly burst forth. Everyone comes out of hibernation. Kids are playing outside as neighbors greet each other. The stores of winter are almost depleted and now it’s time to plant. There is a sense of newness, of promise. We feel alive.
It’s funny in a way that our calendar new year begins just as winter settles in. The new year motivates us to begin new projects, set new goals. But winter’s energy is stillness and quiet, not action and accomplishment. Spring is much better suited for these undertakings. The Chinese medicine and qigong associations predictably express this energy of expansion and growth, but the association of forgiveness might not be so obvious. Let’s look at the various associations to see what they have to teach us this season.
The organ associated with spring is the liver. The liver is a busy organ, with detox, regulation, and production functions. The detox function purifies the blood and prevents stagnation and is perfect for spring, like perpetual spring cleaning! This function operates in our physical system, cleaning the blood, and also in our energetic system, cleaning our qi, or vital essence.
One of the points on the liver meridian is called the “great surge.” The Chinese character for surge is 冲 . The short lines on the left side of the character stand for water. The rectangle with the vertical line through it means center. So this character suggests the center of water, like a spring bubbling up. We saw this same character used in chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching to describe the inexhaustible nature of Tao.
This particular acupressure point on the liver meridian is located on the top of our feet, in the “valley” between the bones leading to our big toe and the one next to it.
Massaging this point on either foot is a great pick me up, helping to remove energy blockages so that the qi can move freely through the body. I’m told it can also help with headaches and allergies!
The element associated with the liver is wood. This is not surprising as trees blossom and produce new leaves in the spring. There is also an expansion quality of energy in this season, represented by the rings added around tree trunks every year. Indeed, this quality of growth and expansion is seen in all plant life. Whether it’s dandelions growing through cracks in the sidewalk, or fern fronds unfurling, or vine tendrils curling around porch railings, we see this great surge of life that will not be denied.
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 this season is anger. We sometimes feel anger when our plans are thwarted in some way, when our efforts to move in a chosen direction are blocked. When this happens we look for someone or something to blame, and when we find a target, our anger is reinforced.
The positive emotion to counter anger is forgiveness. This might not make sense at first, but think about what unforgiveness feels like. We often feel stuck in our righteous indignation. When we can’t “let it go,” we begin to stagnate in our inability or unwillingness to move on. When I used to lead discussion groups on this topic, a common stumbling block was the belief that forgiveness had to be warranted in some way. But this is based on the mistaken view that forgiveness is for the benefit of the forgiven, when in reality, forgiveness liberates the forgiver. [The topic of forgiveness is vast, and certainly deserves more than I can include in this post, but here is a link to something else I wrote on this topic that might be helpful.]
The healing sound associated with the liver is “shhhh.” What a perfect sound to soothe the beast of anger and allow the angel of forgiveness to release us from whatever blocks the sunshine of our souls.
So this season is a perfect time to clean out the debris, plant a new crop of beauty, and watch it grow.
Spring is nature's way of saying "Let's party!" ~Robin Williams
Sunday, March 19, 2017
I'll give you a poem
Said the stranger passing by
A gift so rare
Not of the senses
But of the soul
Like the sunshine
Dappling the morning trees
Sparkling on the dancing waters of your life
It needs no words
But whispers delight and blessing
It is mine but not mine
As it was ever yours
Sunday, March 12, 2017
I have a twin
Her name is Death
When I breathed my first breath
She was born
Ever at my side
My dearest sister
She loves me with fierce wisdom
Where I fear she is fearless
Guiding me with sure unflinching steps
She is my last breath
O happy reunion
As we race home hand in hand
Her name is Death
When I breathed my first breath
She was born
Ever at my side
My dearest sister
She loves me with fierce wisdom
Where I fear she is fearless
Guiding me with sure unflinching steps
She is my last breath
O happy reunion
As we race home hand in hand
Sunday, March 5, 2017
The chapter begins with a line that ended up being a joke on me!
Abandon learning no worries
This reflects an ongoing theme throughout the Tao Te Ching, favoring the natural flow of Tao over conscious, or acquired, knowledge. As we’ve seen in recent chapters, this contrasts with the high value placed on learning in the Confucian system of social harmony.
There is much scholarly debate about the placement of this line. The four characters follow a pattern from the last chapter, so some scholars place this line at the end of Chapter 19. But placing it there ruins the symmetry and rhyming of the last lines of that chapter. Others place it here at the beginning of Chapter 20, but it is out of sync with the lines that follow.
So where is the joke? After spending a lot of time studying commentary and analytically comparing the alternative placements, I was feeling flummoxed and frustrated by the lack of a clear answer. Then I sat back and laughed.
Abandon learning no worries
Now I am not worrying. The wisdom of the line has been clearly and effectively demonstrated through my own futile attempts to analyze its precise placement. The line, like Tao itself, can float where it will.
This is an especially meaningful concept for me (and obviously one I need to be reminded of). I always loved school, and loved the study of law as well as my career as a lawyer and a teacher of law. I have, for much of my life, lived in my head, where I was very much at home. I valued cerebral competence and enjoyed cerebral pursuits, and dismissed anything that smacked of feelings or intuition.
Over time, however, I recognized the limitations of such an approach to life. I lived long enough to see that when I disregarded my intuition in favor of a rational path, the result was never satisfactory. I came to understand that intellect has its place, but outside of that place, intellect is not very helpful, and in many cases is detrimental. As I began to seek out and rely on my intuition (inner guidance, divine guidance, Tao, Holy Spirit, whatever you want to call it), my life became infinitely happier, easier, more...um...beautiful, for lack of a better word.
So when I caught myself reverting to intellectual analysis to solve the “problem” of where this line goes, I had a good laugh.
Now that I’ve spent all this time inviting you to share the joke, what about the rest of the chapter? Through several comparisons, the follower of Tao is contrasted to other people in general. While people are going about their busy lives, the follower of Tao is compared to the precognitive purity of a newborn baby.
Some of the words used to describe the follower of Tao sound negative – dim, fool, confused, weak. However, taken in context they represent the undifferentiated formlessness of origin, or, in the words of the anonymous 14th century Christian mystic, the “cloud of unknowing.” When we enter this cloud, we leave all knowing behind. To go back to the first line, we abandon learning. And here is where we meet God.
Or, as the last line of the chapter says, we are nourished by the Great Mother.
When we remember this, as the first line promises, we have no worries. Like the lilies of the field and the birds in the sky, we are created and sustained by an energy we call by many names, but is beyond names and understanding. It is not ours to know, but to have faith. And when we can allow that flower of faith to bloom, then we rest in the perfection of being.
Friday, February 24, 2017
Our enemies are our greatest teachers. ~The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet to avoid being imprisoned or killed by the invading Chinese. For decades, he has lived in exile. If anyone has a right to be unforgiving or hateful towards enemies, he does. And yet he doesn’t exercise that right. Instead, he offers compassion. He knows, as Buddha said, that hatred does not end hatred. Only love ends hatred.
In my martial arts school, we avoid adversarial language. For example, we spar with a “partner” instead of an “opponent.” We don’t compete for points. There is no winner or loser. Sometimes, when one partner uses a particularly effective technique, the other person might say “thank you.” Why? Because the technique revealed a weakness or vulnerability that allowed the attack to be successful. We learn from these “failures.” As one of our training slogans says, we “invest in loss.”
I used to spar with a guy named Billy. Billy had a great side kick that got through my defenses every time. Even when I knew he was going to use it, I still couldn’t get out of the way or deflect it. So when I sparred with him, I always asked him to use that technique so that I could learn. I didn’t shy away from it or get upset with him for using it. I thanked him for it. And when one day I managed to defend myself against it, we were both very happy.
In a sense, Billy was my sparring “enemy” but really he was my teacher.
The world today seems so full of enemies. What could I learn if I took one individual or group that falls in that category, and instead applied the label of teacher instead of enemy? What would I see in myself that needs work?
I had a supervisor once who was, in a word, mean. He seemed to go out of his way to keep the people he supervised on edge, wary. He delighted in bringing attention to mistakes (sometimes real, sometimes not) in a way calculated to embarrass the person. His own mistakes were always blamed on someone else. A request or suggestion to him was often met with a knee jerk denial, but if the suggestion was a good idea, he would then promote it as his own. You get the picture.
I dreaded going to work, and tried to avoid him as much as possible. Over time, however, I realized that he was not going to change, and so it was up to me to find a way to succeed in this environment. I gradually learned to adapt in a way that kept me out of direct confrontations. For example, if I needed his okay on something, I would go in his office and propose the opposite. He would predictably shoot that down and demand the option I supported. I would praise his insight and march off with the approval I needed to proceed with what I had originally wanted.
Rather than fighting him, I learned from him, and in the process became much better at my job, which involved a lot of negotiating. While we never were buddies, I had a successful working relationship with him, and his tactics no longer bothered me. Years later, after moving on to other jobs, I could look back and appreciate how much I had learned from him. He was indeed one of my greatest teachers.
Is there someone in your life you consider an enemy? It might be a family member, a neighbor, a coworker, a person who voted for (fill in the blank), a person who belongs to a group you oppose. Try for just a moment to think of that person as a teacher. What can you learn about yourself from this person? And if you can’t bring yourself to feel gratitude towards this person for what you can learn, can you soften enough to feel compassion, both for the person and for yourself?
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
This chapter continues the distinction in the last chapter between a conscious effort to be virtuous, and living in harmony with Tao which allows virtue to naturally manifest.
Abandon sainthood, renounce wisdom
People will benefit a hundred fold
In my young adulthood, I visited a zen center in the beautiful wine country outside San Francisco. The monk who led this group seemed to make a point of being “unsaintly.” He would walk around in his black robes with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, but I never saw him actually smoke or drink. I got the idea that he wanted to avoid being perceived as some kind of holy guru. Irreverent and funny, he was unfailingly kind and gracious. The twinkle in his eye suggested a deep love of, well, everything.
The monk’s followers, on the other hand, floated around with beatific smiles and, at least what seemed to me as, superficial humility, while not so subtly trying to outdo each other in enlightened behavior. They let me know in various ways that I was not in their league. Ah, we are so human, aren’t we?
Abandon benevolence, renounce morality
People will return to harmonious relations
As with the last chapter, we might look at some of these things we are supposed to abandon or renounce and wonder what would happen if we did. They seem to be the bedrock of civilized society. If we toss them aside, what is to keep us from devolving into chaos and violence? On the other hand, how well has adherence to a legally-imposed moral code worked for humanity so far? Just sayin....
Abandon shrewdness, renounce profit
People will be free from robbers
This harkens back to Chapter 3 (not collecting treasures prevents robbery). I think it’s interesting that in the Quran, interest is not allowed on loans. I have a friend who is a devoted Muslim and works for the Saudi government trying to bring banking regulation into compliance with this principle. Not sure how that would work, but in its simplest form, I think the principle here is not to take advantage of others, and not to grasp so greedily for things that we care about more than we care about the things that really matter, which, by the way, are things that cannot be grasped, greedily or otherwise.
Therefore heed these teachings:
Recognize the pure, embrace the simple
Reduce the ego, temper desires
These last two lines can be understood two different ways. It could be four separate encouragements:
1. Recognize the pure
2. Embrace the simple
3. Reduce the ego
4. Temper desires
The alternative is to read them as cause and effect. In others words, the result of recognizing the pure and embracing the simple IS the reduction of ego and the lessening of desires. Personally, I prefer this latter interpretation. Ego and desire naturally fade as we become less distracted by the artifice of our consumer/marketing-driven world.
Just as an interesting (to me!) aside, the character for pure is 素 , which depicts raw or undyed silk. The character for simple is 朴 , representing an uncarved block of wood. (As we saw in Chapter 15, this image of the uncarved block of wood is a popular one in the Tao Te Ching, suggesting not only simplicity but also unlimited potential.)
So what to make of this chapter? My commentary has been somewhat disjointed as the different lines reminded me of different things, so thank you for indulging my wandering mind. Overall, though, I think the focus here is on releasing our attachments, whether to beliefs, judgments, or desires. Grasping leads to stagnation; releasing allows natural flow. Consider the things we are asked in this chapter to abandon or renounce. If we can become aware of these things in our own life, then we can begin to see the effects of holding onto them. And to the extent we are able to loosen that grasp, even the tiniest bit, we can begin to experience and to manifest the beauty that is our true nature.
[A] truth is a truth until you try to organize it, and then it becomes a lie. Why? Because the purposes of the organization begin to take precedence over that which it first attempted to keep in order. ~Wayne Dyer
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
The creek speaks a secret language
So quiet you might miss it
Beneath the rushing water song
A voice burbles near the bank
Kneel down in the sponge wet moss
Lean close and listen
Cotton soft marimba bells
Whisper messages of mystery
Don't try to understand
This is the language of the soul
And only there is it received
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
This modest little (four lines) chapter does nothing less than represent the entire debate between Confucianism and Taoism, two major philosophical traditions originating in ancient China. (Confucius and Lao Zi, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, were contemporaries, both living in China around 500 BCE.)
When great Tao is lost, there is kindness and morality
Intelligence and knowledge emerge, and there is great artifice
Family relations are not harmonious, and there is filial piety and parental devotion
The nation is in disorder and discord, and there are loyal ministers
If you look at the second part of each line, you might wonder what the problem is. What’s wrong with kindness, filial piety, and loyal ministers? (I’ll come back to artifice in a minute.) The answer is that nothing is wrong with these virtues. The issue, I think, is one of direction. Does Tao lead to these virtues, or do these virtues lead to Tao?
With apologies to scholars and philosophers for my gross oversimplification, Confucius believed that the conscious cultivation of identified virtues led to personal, social, and governmental harmony. Lao Zi, on the other hand, believed that when we live in harmony with Tao, these qualities naturally manifest without conscious effort. The “Te” of the Tao Te Ching means virtue, but in a much broader, organic sense than the moralistic, judgmental connotation we often attach to this word.
So back to our question about whether Tao leads to virtue or whether virtue leads to Tao -- does the “direction” matter?
This is where artifice comes in. The character used here 伪 carries connotations of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood. But the character itself breaks down into person 人 and action 为 , suggesting something that a person does or makes. And indeed, one of the meanings of this character is man-made. Man-made has a more neutral connotation, and even a positive one. Indeed, we are often very proud of what we can manufacture and produce. In this sense, the character might be thought of as indicating something originating from the ego, or self.
If we think about it this way, the question becomes whether we can find Tao (God, the Sacred, whatever name you like), through the ego’s efforts. The Bible offers some insight.
Paul taught that when one surrenders oneself (ego) to the Holy Spirit, one naturally manifests the “fruit of the spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – just like fruit on a tree grows because of its intrinsic nature. I think this is similar to Lao Zi’s view that the highest virtue is not consciously cultivated in accordance with some moral code, but rather naturally flows through us when we are in harmony with Tao. In this sense, we are “not acting” ourselves. This represents the theme in the Tao Te Ching of wu wei, or non-action.
In contrast, some of you might be familiar with the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, a bunch of people got together and decided to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. Great idea, but, as you can guess, they were unsuccessful.
Going back to the Chinese characters, the Tower of Babel is more like the sense of “artifice” conveyed by the character 伪 in this chapter. Remember that this character combines person 人 with action 为 to convey the sense of something man-made. The fruit of the spirit is more like the theme of wu wei, or non-action, which permeates the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei is two characters, 无 meaning without, and 为 meaning action. Notice that the “action” part 为 Is the same in both concepts. One is the person acting; the other is non-action.
The point of this chapter is, I believe, that while kindness, morality, filial piety and parental devotion, and loyal ministers are all good things, they are, in the words of one author writing about this chapter, “second best.” They are like the artificial light we use and value when the sun goes down. It is man-made and useful when we have lost the natural light, but cannot duplicate or replace the sun itself.
The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished. ~Deng Ming-Dao
[Note: In response to a reader's comment that the posts are hard to read with the white print on the red background, I'm trying a larger font. I welcome feedback!]
Saturday, February 4, 2017
The benefits of meditation are by now widely known and accepted. However, many of us still don’t have a regular meditation practice. The reasons vary – I don’t know how, I don’t have time, I can’t sit still, my mind is too chaotic, it’s too hard, I tried but it didn’t work, and so on.
But underneath all these reasons, I wonder if perhaps there is just a little bit of anxiety. Maybe we think we have to be good at it, and we are afraid to fail. Maybe we are afraid we’ll be successful and something unexpected or even scary will happen. Maybe we think something grand is supposed to happen, and if it doesn’t we’ll be disappointed.
I meditate for the simple reason that my life is better when I do. Not necessarily better each time, but overall. For the most part I meditate every day, but there are days that get skipped, and I don’t freak out about that.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying a meditation practice called in Chinese zuo wang. Zuo means sit. Wang means forget. So the practice is literally sit forget. At my age, this is so easy to do since I forget most things anyway!
The character for sit 坐 combines the character for person 人 with the character for earth 土 . Put together, the character for sit shows two people sitting on the earth 坐.
The character for forget 忘 places the character for heart 心 under the character 亡 , meaning to flee or to lose. Because of the over/under placement, I think of forgetting as something lifting away from the heart 忘.
When you put the characters zuo wang together 坐 忘 , I get the sense of releasing thoughts that just fly away as the heart stays rooted to the earth. Sitting. Forgetting.
As thoughts arise during meditation, and they will, I remind myself to “forget” them, to let them float away like a balloon as my heart/mind sinks gently into the “earth” of my spirit/center. If a thought persists, I silently whisper zuo wang, and the thought detaches and goes on its way. I know the thought will come back later if I need it, and probably even if I don’t.
The benefits of brief times devoted to meditation permeate my life. The line between more “formal” meditation and daily life begins to blur. A Buddhist teacher, when asked about the timing and frequency of his meditation practice, replied, “I am never not meditating.” It reminds me of the encouragement in the Bible to “pray without ceasing.” It doesn’t mean that you should be sitting on your meditation cushion, or kneeling with your head bowed all the time. That's not very practical. It means moving through your day with awareness and reverence. And that, my friends, is very practical.
In Greek mythology, the giant Antaeus was the son of Gaia, or Mother Earth. He was a famed wrestler who could not be beaten as long as he had contact with the earth, his mother. Even Hercules could not defeat him, until, realizing the source of the giant’s strength, Hercules held him aloft and vanquished him.
In chaotic or challenging times, any habitual practice that helps us stay connected to our root, our equilibrium, our inner strength, seems like a good thing. So if you don’t already have such a practice, maybe give it a try. If you have any questions or need some support, let me know in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please share your own practice and suggestions.
Here are some of my favorite meditation quotations:
Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively. ~Sharon Salzberg
To earn the trust of your meditation, you have to visit it every day. It’s like having a puppy. ~Chelsea Richer
Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. ~Deepak Chopra
Meditation is offering your genuine presence to yourself in every moment. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
One conscious breath in and out is a meditation. ~Eckhart Tolle
Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated? ~David M. Bader
And my very favorite:
If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent. ~Pema Chodron
[Note: The photo above accompanies a news piece about a school that substituted meditation for detention, and then started teaching all students to meditate, with amazing results!]
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Fighting will never bring peace
Ceasing to fight will never bring peace
Only ceasing to fear will bring peace
We will cease to fear
when we realize there is nothing to fear
We will realize there is nothing to fear
when we remember who we are
We will remember who we are
when we release everything we are not
We will release everything we are not
when we understand that everything we are not is...
Sunday, January 29, 2017
What is given at the outset is a hierarchy. This hierarchy is viewed in various translations as applying to government, sages/teachers, Tao, a time in history, or a more amorphous “greatness” or “highest.”
In its simplest form, the hierarchy is:
little known (or unknown)
When distilled to this essence, what I notice is that the levels below the top one all involve some kind of judgment or evaluation. Praise, fear, and scorn are all based on an evaluation that something is good or bad.
But the top level of being little known or unknown is neutral. At the level of government, we might see this in the context of a society that operates in harmony with Tao, in which case, government has little to do and operates in the background without forcing or imposing its power on the people. [This is not a political commentary on our current state of affairs, and as said, assumes the overall harmony of an enlightened society.]
The best teacher, for another example, is one who empowers and inspires the students to learn rather than dominating them.
The rest of the hierarchy shows an obvious degeneration. Yes, praise is better than scorn, but as we saw in Chapter 13, honor and disgrace both speak to the ego and disturb equanimity.
This de-emphasis of the ego is seen again at the end of the chapter.
Work is completed. Things are in order.
The people say “All is well.”
Notice the use of passive voice, that is, the absence of an actor. “Work is completed.” There is no ego credit for who did it. This is a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching. In the roughly 5,000 characters of this text, the character for “I” or “we” is used only about 40 times, and even then not to take credit for some accomplishment.
Try this as an experiment. Describe your day, or just a single event, without using self-reference. Don’t worry about smoothness; there will likely be some awkward sentences. This is not a literary effort, but rather an exploration of how your see yourself in the story of your life.
I found this very challenging! My tendency to make myself the subject of my life reveals to me those places where I try to direct or control. But when I am able to get myself out of the story, I can begin to see the natural rhythm of my life, and of life in general.
There is not a “right” way to do this. Just try it and have fun. For example:
Laundry is done. Grandchild helps fold towels. There is teaching and playing. Laughter fills the room. Towels are put away. Hearts are full of love.
For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. ~Larry Eisenberg
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Chapter 14 focused on the mystery of Tao. Chapter 15 described how one lives in harmony with Tao. This chapter celebrates the revelation of Tao through the manifestation of the “ten thousand things,” representing all creation.
Attaining complete emptiness
Abiding in perfect tranquility
Watch the ten thousand things
Arise and return
All things flourish
Then return to the root
This passage reminds me of sitting at the creek by my cabin. There is this one spot where I can sit comfortably on a flat rock and just ... watch. I watch the creek laughing by, birds bobbing on the bank for the insects flickering in and out of shadows. Under the giant trees, tiny moss forests bloom with even tinier red flowers.
One time a salmon paused right in front of me, resting for a moment on its upstream pilgrimage. Ah, the perfect example of flourishing and returning. The salmon’s birthplace sends it forth in youth to travel far, then calls it home. The salmon heeds the summons, swimming with unwavering intent to fulfill its destiny, returning to its origin to end one cycle of life and begin the next.
Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent. Everything that lives will die. But life itself does not die. Each day succumbs to night, and returns in the morning to dispel the darkness.
Returning to the root is stillness
Stillness is destiny
Destiny is eternal
Knowing the eternal is enlightenment
The character for enlightenment 明 combines the sun 日 and the moon 月 . Light is without form or color. Only when it is separated into individual parts of the spectrum can we see color. I have a prism hanging in my window. When the morning sun streams in, the prism throws rainbows all over the walls and curtains. As the sun moves on, the rainbows disappear, leaving the sun’s radiance to fill the room without differentiation. Again, manifesting and returning.
So how do we know the eternal? We have a perfect reminder built right in. Breathing! I dance the eternal dance with every breath. Breathing in is the first thing I did when I was born...manifesting. When I die, my last exhale will complete the cycle...returning. And with each breath during all my years, I embody the natural harmony that is my existence. Not holding on or forcing, not denying or rejecting. My breath happens naturally if I allow it.
As does everything.
Life is Tao breathing. Manifesting as the ten thousand things and returning to Tao. The dance of being and non-being. Abide in perfect tranquility...and watch.
Be still and know that I am God. ~Psalm 46:10
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. ~Rumi
I began a recent post with Pogo’s quote “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” The post was about a person who canceled a holiday party rather than invite people who voted for the presidential candidate he voted against. I noted the irony of discriminating against people because they voted for someone who discriminates. I ended the post by saying that the person who canceled the party was welcome at my table, along with those who voted for the other guy.
A friend later observed that my post was “morally smug in its own way, which is how I believe you characterized” the guy who canceled the party.
What?! Me?! You mean that while I’m pointing out the irony of someone judging others for voting for someone who judges others, I myself am judging? That while I am calling out someone for smugly excluding others, I am smugly including everyone? Is that any different?
A Course in Miracles says that we teach what we want to learn. True that, my friend, true that. In my frustration and sadness over the rancor that is splitting up friends and neighbors and families, I tried to pluck the speck from my brother’s eye, while overlooking the log in my own.
Furthermore, my friend asked, would I really welcome everyone to my table? Really? Well, okay, I wouldn’t literally sit down with a serial killer. So how is that different, my friend persisted, from not sitting down with people who don’t agree with my political views? In both cases, there is a choice being made to exclude someone.
I don’t have a good answer to that, except that in the physical world, good boundaries are healthy, and in extreme cases even necessary for survival. But in the realm of spirit, boundaries have a different impact. They block us from sacred union, which is what our spirits yearn for. If we can keep our heart doors open, then perhaps our understanding and compassion can lead to expanded connection, rather than alienation, in our physical world.
The best example I can think of is the Amish community who refused to hate the man who came into one of their schools and shot ten young girls, killing five of them. One author said that, had the killer not died on the scene, the community would have supported whatever consequences the law imposed, and then visited him in prison. Their example lit up the news around the world, and the story became not just one of soul crushing tragedy, but one of soul lifting beauty.
So my challenge is keep my heart open, to welcome, yes truly welcome, everyone to my heart table, if not to my literal table. Of course it’s not easy. And sometimes I fail. But that is where our practice is–at the edge of our comfort zone. The razor’s edge, as it has been aptly described.
Thanks to the friend who held up a mirror, to help me see where my own work lies.
Namaste–The divine in me greets the divine in you. I honor that place in you where, if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.
Friday, January 13, 2017
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
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
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
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