Friday, November 17, 2017
Thursday, November 9, 2017
You’ve probably figured out by now that I am a martial arts nerd. I love the art of combat. Considering that my favorite TV shows are Vikings and Game of Thrones, I suspect that in a former life, I was some sort of thug warrior...with a dragon.
Although not that skilled myself, I like hanging out with folks who are. One day, while engaged in lively conversation comparing various weapons, I asked one of my teachers what his favorite weapon was. Without hesitation he answered, “the one in my hand.”
What an excellent martial arts lesson. Think Jackie Chan picking up a mop or a shovel or a pool cue and kicking some you know what. We might not always have our nunchuku tucked in our back pocket, or our sword hanging from our belt when the bad guys attack.
But more than that, what a brilliant life lesson. Whatever situation we are faced with, it’s no use wasting time wishing that circumstances were different. It is what it is, right then in the present moment. It is up to us to use what we have.
If, for example, I want to be happy, what good does it do me to think about some ideal situation? I’ll be happy when I’m on vacation, when I get a job, when I retire, when I have kids, when my kids move out, when I have a certain amount of money, when I have even more money, and so forth.
Or I want to awaken, and I know that if I meditate a particular way, read a certain number of books, attend the right workshops, attach myself to the best teacher, and chant my mantra, then surely I will achieve enlightenment someday and live in bliss forevermore. No, I will spend my life chasing illusion.
My teacher’s answer reminds me that all I have in my hand is now, this moment. It’s my favorite.
One who knows enough is enough will always have enough. ~Tao Te Ching
Monday, November 6, 2017
Music and fine food
Cause passing guests to stop
This timeless little chapter could have been written today instead of 2500 years ago. It is a reminder that what is of true and lasting value is often overlooked in the hubbub of a world seeking ever more loud and glittering distraction. A cultural mantra of “more, more, more” leaves us feeling less and less content.
Always searching for greater sensory stimulation obscures the subtle and natural rhythm and beauty of Tao.
It is without taste
Look – it cannot be seen
Listen – it cannot be heard
It is found not out there, but in here, in the silence of our souls. Recently I looked with a fresh eye at the area around my meditation cushion. It was cluttered with inspiring things to read, prayer beads, wisdom cards, essential oils, and more. By the time I went through all my preparation to meditate, I was already done and ready to move on with my day.
So I put everything away. Just a cushion on the floor. Just sit. Simple.
And amazingly, I found that it was enough.
Use it; it will never be depleted
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
As I walked across a bridge over a small river, I noticed some wild ducks below. They were gathered in a shallow, quiet eddy in the curve of a faster current. I paused to watch.
Pretty soon I noticed a pattern. A few ducks would move to the top of the curve and enter the fast current. The rapids would rush them around to the bottom of the curve where they would exit the current, returning to the calm shallows. Meanwhile, some other ducks entered the rapids at the top, quacking and flapping as they were swept to the bottom of the curve.
They moved in this circle, making their way to the top of the curve, entering the rapids for the rush to the bottom, waiting their turn to ride again.
What were they doing? They didn’t appear to be looking for food. I think they were just having a good time. The scene reminded me of a children’s playground, with a line of kids climbing up the ladder, laughing down the slide, and returning to the ladder to climb up and repeat.
Ducks at play. Simple pleasures.
It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all. ~Laura Ingalls Wilder
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feeling
I’m happy again
~lyrics by Arthur Freed
The rain came. Lots of it. A steady downpour. Too much even for intrepid all weather walkers like myself and the dog, at least when we’re at the cabin (we are sort of wimpy city walkers). But this last weekend at the cabin, we stayed in as the rain kept the day dark and the forest drenched. By Saturday afternoon, we needed some outside time. So I put a chair under the tiny covered area in front of the door, wrapped up in a blanket with Rosie bundled on my lap and...sat.
We sat and listened to all the rain sounds–drops splish splashing on the deck, tip tapping in the trees, roaring in the swollen creek. The air was fragrant with wet pine, and chilly but we were hunkered warm in our soft shelter. The golden maple leaves danced brightly in the misty shadows.
It was all so achingly beautiful, so exquisitely transcendent, like a shower cleansing my soul of anything that was not pure, perfect light. I cried in sheer, surrendered joy. My heart rained tears in sweet harmony with nature’s song.
I was sitting in the rain
Just sitting in the rain
What a glorious feeling...
Here is the view from my chair.
Friday, October 20, 2017
Saturday, October 14, 2017
In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is acquired
In pursuit of Tao, every day something is released
~Tao Te Ching
We read or listen to the words of spiritual teachers. We takes notes. We study. We try to remember, hoping that the memory of words spoken or written in the past will somehow lead to awakening in the future.
And all the while we are ignoring the only possible time that awakening can happen – the present moment. And we are doing the opposite of what most teachers teach – to release. Instead we are trying our best to accumulate and retain information about a concept that we reach for as it dances just beyond our grasp.
It is never enough. We are never enough. If only I read one more book, listen to one more podcast, attend one more workshop, do more, try harder, be better....
I get that, as my shelves full of books attest. But just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle from reading or talking about it, you will never be able to think your way to awakening. Because it isn’t a thought.
It is simply our natural state. It is who we are. Its eternal flame is obscured by our effort, by our thoughts, by our stories. But it shines on without regard for our determined quest to find it. The comparison is sometimes made to a fish in the ocean looking for water. But it is even more basic than that. It is like the ocean itself looking for water, unaware of its own nature.
We think it grand, but it is quite ordinary. It is not an escape from reality. Escaping is what we are trying to do as we search for it. It is reality, and when we finally exhaust ourselves and stop looking for it, it is revealed. We are revealed.
And what can we do then but laugh and go on with our day, our ordinary, marvelous, amazing day.
Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water
After enlightenment, chop wood carry water
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
This is a beautiful little chapter about the relationship between Tao and the ten thousand things. (The “ten thousand things” is a poetic name for the manifested universe.) It begins with another water image for Tao. As we have already seen, water is the most often used metaphor for the nature of Tao.
Great Tao flows everywhere
The ten thousand things depend on it
It gives birth and rejects nothing
The character for “flows” 氾 has a water radical on the left (those three little lines). The right side of the character means to spring forth, so there is a sense here of water welling up and overflowing, giving life and nourishment to all existence. Despite its infinite creative manifestations...
Tao never acts as ruler
Ever without desire it seems very small
Yet all things return home to Tao
So it is very great
Because it claims no greatness
It completes its work without self awareness
And thus is truly great
Although this last part does not expressly use the characters 无为 for wu wei or non-action, the concept of wu wei is present here. When we allow things to manifest and move according to their nature, Tao’s creative energy is expressed through us. These last three lines, in fact, are sometimes translated as referring to a wise person instead of Tao.
Have you ever been amazed at something you easily accomplished and wondered, “How did that happen?” Perhaps it seemed like you were just along for the ride while marvels unfolded. To me, that is what this chapter describes. When we surrender our own agenda and our own need for recognition, the true power of the universe moves all around us and through us. And miracles happen.
I am realistic – I expect miracles. ~Wayne Dyer
Thursday, October 5, 2017
Sunday, October 1, 2017
[I'm reposting this article from last autumn. For those who have enjoyed the series on seasons, this will hopefully be a nice reminder.]
Autumn...the year's last, loveliest smile. ~William Cullen Bryant
I wrote recently about courage and also about surrender. These two concepts come together perfectly in the season of autumn, dancing with each other as the wind dances with falling leaves.
In Chinese medicine and qigong practice, there are certain associations made between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include associations with emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds...and seasons.
I thought you might enjoy knowing some of the associations of autumn. Let’s start with two of the things we most often think about when we think about this season. Harvest, a time of gathering the fruits of summer’s labor to store for winter. And leaves, turning color and falling from the trees. Now let’s see how these two aspects are reflected in the Chinese system of associations.
Autumn is associated with the lungs. The lungs are linked in the Chinese system with the large intestine. Together they create a balance of pure energy being drawn into the body through the breath and of waste being released. Autumn is a time of gathering the energy we need to sustain us through the winter, and also invites us to release whatever we no longer need. This could be a literal release, like finally cleaning out that junk drawer (!), or a figurative one, like releasing judgments or resentments. Like the trees dropping their leaves, we don’t need to force anything. We can just let them go.
The element associated with the lungs is metal. I was surprised by this, because I think of lungs as being very “air-y” and light, while metal is heavy and found deep in the earth. Then I thought about how we value metal. Think about gold, for example. For a long time, our economy was based on the gold standard, making gold not only a thing of beauty, but a measure of value essential to our financial health, just like the lungs bring in air, our most essential necessity for life.
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. For the lungs, the negative emotions are sadness and grief. The positive ones are surrender and courage.
Sadness and grief are a normal part of life. Sometimes people experience these emotions in the autumn, as the light fades, the rain comes (in the Pacific Northwest at least), and the lush green vibrancy of summer gets swept into piles of brown leaves in the street.
Sadness and grief are not “bad.” On the contrary, they can open our hearts and connect us to others by stripping away our facades. But they can become debilitating and unhealthy if they become stuck. This can happen when we try to deny or avoid emotions that feel painful or uncomfortable. This is the beauty of the positive (again think polarity and balance) emotions of surrender and courage. Courage allows us to surrender to the experience of our sadness or grief, and this allows it to move through us and be released, in its own time like the leaves falling.
There are other associations, but these, I think, are the ones that give us the most to think about. Any thoughts on these? What do you think about when you think about autumn? What associations do you have?
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
This short little chapter is easy to overlook, yet it contains deep teaching for living a happy and content life.
Knowing others is wisdom
Knowing the self is enlightenment
The characters for knowing 知 and wisdom 智 are similar, but the one for wisdom adds a “sun” component underneath. So wisdom is enlightened knowledge. But the character for enlightenment 明 takes it further by combining the sun 日 and moon 月 to create pure light beyond knowing and wisdom.
Conquering others requires force
Conquering the self requires inner strength
One of the things I love about martial arts, at least how it’s taught at my school, is that it is much more about developing inner awareness and energy than it is about overcoming someone else by physical force. There is always someone bigger and stronger, but if I develop my inner strength, then I can never be threatened or defeated.
One who stays centered endures
To die yet not perish is immortality
This last line is intriguing–yes? It reminds me of the Bible’s teaching that we must lose our life to gain eternal life. To me, this means that when we recognize that our individual ego self is impermanent and illusory, and let it go, we awaken into our true, eternal nature.
Overall, this chapter teaches that becoming self aware and taking responsibility for ourselves will lead to liberation from the limits of the transitory ego. The bad news is that we can no longer blame anyone for our lack of well being. The good news is that we have the power within ourselves to awaken into truth and joy. By being true to ourselves, we transcend ourselves – the wonderful paradox of awakening!
Walk into the fire
It will burn you to life
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Okay, this is going to seem silly at first, but consider giving it a try.
The idea for this post grew out of a game I was playing with my grandson. We were taking random objects and identifying qualities that were alike and different. Then the conversation moved to people. As we played, I started thinking we were onto something profound. Of course every grandparent thinks that everything they do with a grandchild is profound.
But it got me to thinking about situations and people that seem irreconcilably opposed. Naturally, I’m thinking of the current social and political climate in this country and in the world, but let’s not make this about politics. At least not overtly. Let’s start with something not so emotionally charged, and simplify it to consider what unites us instead of what divides us.
Just like the game with my grandson, start with a few random objects you see around you right now. For example, I’m looking at my computer, my phone, and some paper I’ve written notes on. While the computer and the phone are both more technologically advanced than paper (and they are both smarter than I am), all three have in common that I use them for communication.
Another example – I was in a diverse group of people recently and we were trying to find something we all had in common. It turned out that we all had a Memphis connection.
See how it works? No matter what or who is being grouped, we can always find something in common. And with people, this is the beginning of connection, relationship, understanding, dialogue. It doesn’t always mean we like the other person or agree with them, but finding common ground means that we are no longer completely divided.
Give it a try. Remember to start small, and work your way up to the tough ones. And have fun!
Thursday, September 21, 2017
Saturday, September 16, 2017
When hunters in Africa want to catch a monkey, they carve a small hole in something stationary, like a gourd secured with a rope. They put food in the hole, stand back, and wait. The monkey will reach into the hole and grab a handful, but with a fist full of food the monkey can’t get its hand back out. Even as the hunter approaches, the monkey will frantically pull and scream, but it won’t let go. It is caught.
All the monkey has to do is let go. If it releases what it grasps so tightly in its fist, it will be free.
I can relate. Sometimes I find myself trapped by my own attachment to a belief or judgment or desire or emotion. Perhaps I am holding onto resentment over something that happened years ago. Or I am judging a person or a situation in a way that isolates me or causes me fear. The word “conviction” is interesting. Conviction can mean that I have been declared guilty of a crime. It can also mean a firmly held belief. Do my beliefs in some way imprison me?
Whatever I am holding onto, is it of more value to me than my freedom? What am I willing to let go of to release myself from self-imposed bondage?
Consider what you might be grasping in your fist that keeps you trapped. What would it take to just open your hand and be free?
Freedom...is the act of releasing ourselves from the bondage of that which keeps us from living the life we were meant to live. ~Kelli Wilson
Monday, September 11, 2017
I recently wrote a post about the effect of naming on our direct experience of the present moment, and now I turn to the next chapter in the Tao Te Ching and guess what it’s about. Naming! Cosmic synchronicity. I promise I didn’t plan it this way.
Tao is forever without name
Though its natural state is small
Nothing under heaven can rule it
The character for “natural state” is 朴, used throughout the Tao Te Ching to describe the simple, pure, limitless potential of Tao. It literally means an uncarved block of wood. Once it is carved into something, that something has a name. The name identifies a specific form. It becomes this and not that. It becomes limited. That’s not a bad thing. After all, Michelangelo took uncarved blocks of marble and turned them into beauty.
The Bible creation story begins “Now the earth was formless and empty.... Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” Speaking a name brought into existence what was named. There is an inherent connection between naming and creation.
Tao is without name. It is forever limitless and unknowable, and therefore beyond our control. And yet....
If princes and kings could abide by it (or in it)
All creation would follow
The text can be interpreted as referring to actual leaders, or to ruling our inner self. If the ruler in either context is in harmony with the natural order, all else falls into place without the need of external enforcement.
As a lawyer, I find this fascinating. In our society, we hold high the “rule of law.” As a contracts lawyer, my job was to negotiate the private “rule of law” between the parties. In other words, I helped them “name” and agree to the rules that would govern their contractual relationship. In the United States, this process has evolved into ever more detailed and cumbersome agreements, as all of us can appreciate when we have to sign something too long to read and too complex to understand.
I shake my head in wonder at the prescience of the author of this ancient text who said over two thousand years ago:
To make order, names arise
Names lead to more names
Know when to stop
Thus avoid harm
We continue to solve perceived problems by more rules. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not an anarchist. I appreciate the need for rules and the good intentions of sincere rule makers. I certainly had a few rules in my own household that brought moments of order out of the chaos of so many kids. But I also tried to keep in mind that there was a tipping point beyond which too many rules were counterproductive. As always, there is a middle road of balance, and a sense of ease when we align ourselves with the natural order of the universe.
Tao’s manifestation under heaven
Is like a river flowing home to the sea
Naming creates existence which reflects the perfection of the nameless. The destiny of all creation is ultimately to return to the Source, as naturally as water effortlessly flows to join with itself.
So we might give some thought in our own lives to the rules we have set up for ourselves. Do they foster or block our journey home? Do they connect us to a sense of oneness or isolate us from the sea of common existence?
In the beginning was the Word. ~John 1:1
Friday, September 8, 2017
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
I was sitting by the creek last weekend watching the light play on the dancing water. When I looked downstream, there was a beautiful cluster of snow white flowers blooming on a tall stalk leaning out over the creek. As I got closer I could see that the cluster was made up of tiny star burst blossoms.
In that first moment of sight I experienced a sense of wonder and delight, a gift of exquisite loveliness right there, offering beauty to the trees, the water, the birds and insects...and me. I felt humbly blessed.
All that took place in the nanosecond gap before my thoughts kicked in. My first thought was “What is this flower?” What I meant was the flower’s name, its label. I didn’t know. Not knowing gave me a subtle feeling of unease as my mind searched for what it might be. I made a plan to take a photo and circulate it to see if someone could tell me. As I got caught up in my thoughts and plans, the initial experience of enchantment quietly faded. It was almost as if the flower no longer existed if I couldn’t discover its name.
When I realized what was happening I was amazed by the rapidity of my shift from a receptive state of gratitude to a restless state of thinking. It happened so fast I barely noticed it. But I did notice it, and felt the loss of that moment of pure enjoyment.
Names are not bad. They allow us to function in the world and communicate with each other. But names are a step removed from what is named. If we jump too quickly into our thoughts, we miss the direct experience of what is happening in the moment. We miss the miracle.
Let’s try to watch for that fleeting gap before we shift from experience to thought, and appreciate the gift that each moment generously bestows.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. ~Tao Te Ching
PS–If you know the name of this flower, don’t tell me!
Friday, September 1, 2017
Monday, August 28, 2017
Although disjointed and repetitive, lacking the grace and poetry of other chapters (some scholars think this chapter was corrupted somehow), we can nevertheless consider the basic message:
Weapons are tools of violence and fear
Wise people avoid them
Using them only when there is no other recourse
Never celebrating victory
Grieving for the fallen
As it says in The Art of War, the best battle is the one not fought. When I taught contract drafting in law school, my students would tell me that they wanted to draft a contract that would “win in court.” I always told them, “If your contract ends up in court, you have already lost. You are only in court when the purpose of the contract has failed. Even if you win in court, your original objective will not be achieved.”
Looking back at my personal life, I can’t think of one argument I’ve had with anyone that left me feeling good about fighting. Even if I got the desired outcome, I paid a price. I lost a friendship, perhaps, or hurt someone, or felt my energy drained. There was rarely pleasure in victory. In reviewing a dispute, I can often see something I could have done differently to still get the desired outcome or a reasonable compromise, and leave both sides feeling less battered by the process.
Having said all that, I confess that I do love martial arts weapons. I love the grace and skill involved, and yes, I also love the combat aspect, even though I have absolutely no desire to engage in actual combat. It seems contradictory, but I know that practicing martial arts over the years has taught me more about peace than about fighting.
So perhaps we can consider in our own lives what we really gain by fighting, and what we lose. And perhaps we can pause for a moment before engaging to see if there is a better way.
Don't fight a battle if you don't gain anything by winning. ~General Patton
Thursday, August 24, 2017
Like many who saw the solar eclipse in Portland, Oregon, I was surprised that it didn’t get darker. Not far to the south of us, people experienced the night darkness of the total eclipse. But in my location, it was like someone had turned the dimmer switch down just a little. Looking through my special glasses at the 99% eclipse, all I could see was a tiny sliver of sunlight around the dark moon. Yet that 1% of sunlight was still enough to light the earth and was still much too bright to look at without the protective glasses.
Even a little light is enough to dispel the darkness. Think about that.
And let your light shine.
It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness. ~Chinese proverb
Saturday, August 19, 2017
This continues and completes our series about the associations made in Chinese medicine and qigong between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include associations with emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds...and seasons. In this series, I’ve tried to highlight a few of the associations that you might enjoy contemplating.
Fall was the season of courage and gathering energy. Winter was the season of stillness and storing energy. Spring was the season of forgiveness and expanding energy. Summer was the season of joy and release.
And now...what? There is a fifth season? Yes, this is the season of late summer, the season of in between. The days are shortening yet still warm. The leaves are still green yet not as lush. Many are fitting in one more vacation while they are also in the process of gearing up for the new school year. It is a time of transition, as summer winds down and fall has not yet arrived.
In the West, at least in temperate climates, we think in terms of four seasons. The Chinese add this in between time as a fifth season, a season of balance.
The organ associated with late summer is the spleen and pancreas. Although separate anatomically, these are considered one organ system. The spleen serves multiple functions of filtering, recycling, and storing blood. The pancreas produces insulin to regulate the body’s glucose levels. All these functions are related to the energy of this season – balance. It is an energy of poise after the gathering of fall, the storing of winter, the expansion of spring, and the release of summer. Now there is a pause before the beginning the cycle again with the gathering harvest of autumn.
Just as the spleen/pancreas provides balance within our bodies, this in between season is a wonderful time to find balance in our lives. An instruction in meditation and in martial arts is “Not too tight, not too loose.” Balancing is a dynamic process, shifting moment to moment to maintain equilibrium.
The element associated with late summer is earth. We sometimes describe balance as being grounded, or we compliment someone by saying they have their feet on the ground. In Greek mythology, Antaeus was the son of Mother Earth. As long as he was in contact with the earth, his mother protected him and he could not be defeated in battle. (Hercules figured this out and killed him while holding him up in the air.) We think of the earth as nurturing, providing a bounty of beauty and blessings.
If we review the elements associated with the five seasons, we will see that they follow a creative cycle. Metal, associated with fall, “creates” water through condensation. Water in winter creates the wood of spring. Wood creates summer’s fire. And now the ashes after the fire return to nourish the earth. And earth, in turn, cradles metal. Each element in turn brings its gift to our lives and ushers in the next. So generous.
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 in between season is worry. I see that manifested all around me now for so many reasons, some national or global in scope, but also I hear worry in individual lives.
The positive emotions are fairness and compassion. I find it fascinating to contemplate the emotional pairings associated with the seasons. Some are easier to connect, like the anger and forgiveness of spring. But some are more subtle, like the sadness and courage of fall.
Fairness has an obvious relation to the balance energy of this season. But how does compassion balance worry? It seems to me that worry often involves judgment. Anticipated circumstances are good or bad, or we fret that we are somehow falling short. Compassion softens judgment. Compassion opens and connects. Compassion accepts. It finds the fairness and balance in the middle.
So, my friends, as we rest in this in between season, may we release all worry and find balance in our lives through compassion for ourselves and everyone.
If a problem has a solution, there is no need to worry. If a problem does not have a solution, there is no need to worry. ~the Dalai Lama
Thursday, August 17, 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...
Note: I posted this poem in February, but perhaps a reminder is timely.
Friday, August 11, 2017
Some have characterized the theme of this chapter as karma, or you reap what you sow. But I’m not sure this gives the whole picture. If I understand karma correctly, one can sow goodness instead of evil and thereby earn goodness in return. This chapter, however, seems to carry forward from the last chapter the idea that sowing anything from the ego self is an interference with the natural flow of the universe, and will lead to disharmony and misfortune. And perhaps this is a more fair characterization of karma than the one we often use.
We can see this in the context of well intentioned advances in science and technology that had unintended harmful consequences. Farming techniques, for example, that increase yield, providing more food for more people, have sometimes caused environmental damage. Medicines that seemed miraculous were later discovered to have dire side effects. We see it in our own lives as well. How many of us have tried to direct a particular outcome, believing it to be beneficial to someone we love, only to have our efforts backfire? (My hand is raised.)
The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.
The point, I think, is not that we shouldn’t do good things, but rather that we should align ourselves with Tao (the Holy Spirit, cosmic energy, whatever name you prefer) and allow good things to naturally happen. When our thoughts, words, and actions are naturally attuned to the appropriate course, we don’t do good, as much as good happens through us. Everything remains in natural harmony and balance.
The chapter opens with a military analogy.
One who rules in accordance with Tao
Does not use force to conquer the world
Force turns back upon itself
Briars grow where the army camps
Great wars bring years of misery
As with all the ruling or military references in the Tao Te Ching, we can take them literally (perhaps a timely application given current world affairs), or consider them in the context of our personal lives. As another example, I was practicing push hands with my tai chi teacher this morning. He wanted to show me something that he had recently learned, but in order to show me, he needed me to push or advance towards him. I didn’t know this, though, and I hung back, staying loose and nonaggressive.
What was funny about this is that I am usually more likely to push forward, but because that rarely ends well for me (!), I was consciously trying this morning to be more neutral. In so doing, I unwittingly kept him from using his new technique. In fact, at one point, he got a bit off balance himself. When he complimented me on uprooting him, I realized that I really had done nothing; he had uprooted himself (a very rare occurrence!).
Since it is almost always me in that position of being uprooted, it was interesting to view it from the other perspective. I could see so clearly how my own efforts to direct or control my push hands partner were invariably to my disadvantage. And, like all the lessons I learn in martial arts, I could see just as clearly how this applies in my everyday life.
So perhaps we can all watch for those times in our lives when we want to “rule by force,” with or without good intentions. What that happens, perhaps we might pause, take a deep breath, and consider that we might not know the best course. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to be guided by a deeper wisdom, and trust, really trust, in the basic goodness of the universe.
Lean not on your own understanding, but yield yourself to divine guidance, and your paths will be made straight. ~paraphrase of Proverbs 3:5-6
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Friday, August 4, 2017
Here is a recent text exchange with a martial arts buddy. He and I usually go to the same tai chi class on Friday mornings, and then stay after class to practice swords. This exchange took place on Wednesday.
Me: Since you are not going to be there on Friday, do you want to go to tai chi in the morning and then play with swords after? If so, I’ll come in the morning instead of Friday morning.
Him: I have time for the swords but not the tai chi. Meet after class? We’re talking Thursday, right?
Me: Right I meant Thursday. Why have I been thinking today is Wednesday all day? Yes Thursday.
Him: It is Wednesday right?
Me: Stop it! What the heck is today?
Him: Wait, I’m serious. Today is Wednesday right? Oh man I’m laughing too hard to text.
Me: Oh that’s right. It is Wednesday today....isn’t it?
Good grief. Can anyone relate? Our brains like to keep us humble. At least my brain does. My daughter says I have the memory of a gnat. She says it with humor and affection, but it is nonetheless true.
Some people are upset about the muddled thinking that sometimes besets their brains, but really, what is there to be upset about? My brain and I have been through many decades together, and for the most part it has served me well. If it needs a break now and then, or if it just has its own devilish sense of humor, then that’s okay.
We can still be friends. Like all friends, we make mistakes. We are less than perfect. Sometimes we do something embarrassing. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes not.
This incident with my brain in this text exchange was insignificant in the big scheme of life, but I realized that most things I think are a big deal aren’t really a big deal.
I think my brain was reminding me to lighten up, laugh at myself, and enjoy.
The first step towards true enlightenment is to lighten up on yourself. ~Bashar
Monday, July 31, 2017
Efforts to interfere with the natural rhythm of the universe
Will not succeed
I am a control addict in recovery, or at least making progress. I long ago realized that I can’t control anything outside myself – the weather, kittens, how other people drive, and so on. Not only did I discover that is it a relief to abandon futile efforts to control what I can’t control, but even better, I came to appreciate the innate beauty and rhythm and perfection of the world left pristine.
The world is a sacred vessel
That cannot be controlled
If you tamper with it you will destroy it
If you grasp it you will lose it
The parallels to our world environmental crises are obvious, but it applies just as well to our inner environment. The self help industry is about creating healthier, happier egos. And that’s fine. My own 10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place blog and book were part of that effort. And certainly a happy ego is better than a miserable one.
But that ego self is what blocks our awareness of our true nature as a sacred vessel of universal light and love. That doesn’t make the ego bad. It just recognizes the ego as limited and limiting. The ego doesn’t so much destroy our true nature as much as it prevents our experience of it, an ephemeral experience that cannot be held static, but must be allowed to flow from moment to moment.
In that sense, the last two lines above can also be interpreted as:
Your attempt to tamper will fail
Your attempt to grasp will miss
When we allow ourselves and our world to move freely, the natural movement of yin yang swirls in perfect balance.
So sometimes things are ahead, sometimes behind
Sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful
Sometimes strong, sometimes weak
Sometimes up, sometimes down
Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excess, and extravagance
The middle road is the way of no way, not directing, not controlling, not judging, not dominating. It is the way of allowing, flowing, being present, responding appropriately, being in harmony. It manifests as kindness, simplicity, humility, joy, compassion, gratitude, peace.
This closing quote says it all. And I can attest from personal experience that it is absolutely true. When I am not at peace, then I can be sure that I am trying to control something I can’t control, that I’m wanting reality to be something other than what it is. My efforts will fail, and in the process I will lose my awareness of the beauty and sacred perfection of, well, everything.
For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. ~Larry Eisenberg
Saturday, July 29, 2017
Monday, July 24, 2017
In 1954, an insignificant Buddha statue made of painted and decorated plaster was being moved in Bangkok from its modest shed to a new temple. Weighing over five tons, the statue was too heavy for the crane and it fell to the ground. A piece of plaster chipped off the base. When the workers examined the damage they saw something shiny underneath the plaster. That something shiny turned out to be gold. Removing all the plaster revealed an exquisite, solid gold Buddha.
Crafted centuries before, the statue was at some point hidden under the plaster, probably to protect it from invaders. Over the years, the true nature of the statue was forgotten, and the plaster statue was at various times housed in minor temples and even stored under a tin shed.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when they realized the existence of this priceless treasure, which was revealed by simply removing the false exterior. When I lived in Bangkok, I stood before this gleaming statue, marveling at its breathtaking beauty. I loved it even more, I think, because of its story.
Its story is our story. Hidden under our exterior ego selves is our true nature, our gleaming, pure, divine perfection. We search high and low, reading books, following teachers, worshiping at altars, trying ever more diligently, more frantically, to find that which we most desire. And all the while, it is right where it has always been, deep inside, waiting.
We have forgotten who we are. Like the people who believed for centuries that the plaster coating was the real statue, we have bought into the illusion that we are what we think ourselves to be, when in fact, we are more than our minds can possibly imagine or understand. But if we’re lucky, at some point life will drop us on the ground, and a little piece of our carefully constructed protective layer will chip off. If we dare to peek inside, we will see the glow of Truth. And it will be beautiful.
The kingdom of God is within you. ~Luke 17:21
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The theme of this chapter is returning to our natural state. Tao is the undifferentiated source of the manifested universe. Tao manifests in the universe as Te. Remember that Te is loosely translated as virtue but does not mean virtue in the sense of morality, but rather in the sense of an inner harmony or integrity. Te is not separate from Tao, but rather is the natural expression or revelation of Tao in the world. Te ultimately returns to its source in Tao.
When our own lives manifest the integrity of Te, we return to our natural state of harmony with Tao. One aspect of the integrity of Te is the reconciliation of duality. The chapter gives us three examples.
Reconciling male and female
Become the watercourse for the world
Te will remain
Returning to infancy
An infant represents the primal unity of male and female, a pure channel through which Te flows uninterrupted. Jesus spoke of the innocence of children and their close link to the divine.
Reconciling black and white
Become the model for the world
Te will not fail
Returning to limitlessness
The characters for limitlessness are 无极 , pronounced wuji. If you practice taiji or other martial arts, you are probably familiar with wuji stance, which is basically a relaxed standing posture. The limitlessness of wuji is described as emptiness and is represented by this symbol.
This wuji symbol represents the vast emptiness and limitless potential of Tao. When Tao manifests into form it becomes a duality of black and white, or light and dark, or yin and yang, represented by the taiji symbol.
So within these two symbols we can see the limitless source of Tao manifesting into the perfect harmony of Te. When the two aspects of Te swirl together, they return to the undifferentiated source of Tao.
Reconciling honor and disgrace
Become the valley of the world
Te is then complete
Returning to an uncarved block
The image of the valley is used several times in the Tao Te Ching. A valley is low, fertile, open. It lies humbly beneath the rolling hills or majestic mountains that surround it. Yet it is the source of all nourishment that sustains life. It is a place of refuge and home to the water that seeks the low path.
The image of an uncut block of wood is also used several times in the Tao Te Ching, conveying 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. And here, it represents the unlimited potential of Tao, the source from which the universe manifests and to which it returns.
The images and poetry of this chapter are so beautiful. If we can take these images as our guides, they will reveal to us the rhythm of the universe, the rhythm of manifesting and returning. Within that rhythm, we can find the balance of duality, the still point around which duality circles in its endless dance.
Is there an image here that especially resonates for you?
May I walk in the path of the low valley. ~2 Nephi 4:32
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Fail. Fail again. Fail better. ~Samuel Beckett, as quoted by Pema Chodron in the title of her book
I’m very experienced with failing. Most of us are, in one context or another. We don’t like to experience failure. We don’t even like to think about it. So we deny it, reframe it, avoid it, hide it, anything to not face it and feel the pain.
The pain of not facing failure becomes shame. We beat ourselves up with I should haves, I shouldn’t haves, if onlys. We tell ourselves stories with different outcomes. We pretend. And in the process, we lose who we really are. Then we can’t truly connect with others. We are alone. And afraid.
But this is what I’ve found. The more I denied my failures, the more I judged them and rejected them, the more I repeated them. Have you ever tried to unwrap something sealed with that cellophane that sticks to your fingers? You try to throw it away, but it’s still there. You fling your hand towards the trash and think you are rid of it only to see that it jumped to another finger and it’s still there.
Like the clinging cellophane, some failures are annoying. But others live deep in the dungeons of our soul. The failures that haunt me the most are the ones where I let someone down, or let myself down, when I wasn’t the best person I could be. This is especially true where my children are concerned. Is there a parent out there who doesn’t cringe at the memory of some way that they failed their children? There are still things that I have a hard time admitting.
Years ago, when I would bemoan something I had done, something I felt embarrassed about, something that I wish I had done better or at least differently, my therapist would say, “Welcome to the human race.” I never liked her at those moments, and being part of the human race was not at all comforting or appealing.
But over time, I began to accept or to at least acknowledge some of the ways I have failed. I could sometimes soothe the shame with compassion. I even admitted a few of my shortcomings to others. Lo and behold, instead of shock and rejection, I discovered I was in good company.
I’m a little more gentle with myself these days. They say charity begins at home. When I can find compassion for myself, it’s easier to find it for others. Once, when I was frustrated with my son’s autistic behavior, someone said, “Perhaps he’s doing the best he can.” She was right. He was. And in my struggle, perhaps I was doing the best I could.
Perhaps we all are. We will have successes and failures. And the failures will sometimes hurt. We might not be able to avoid failure. But with some compassion, forgiveness, and patience, we can fail better. Life will undoubtedly offer us many opportunities to practice!
Invest in loss. ~martial arts practice mantra attributed to Cheng Man-Ching
Monday, July 10, 2017
There must be a better way. You’ve heard this and probably said it yourself in many different contexts. This thought is the genesis and the impetus for discoveries, inventions, and growth, for individuals and for communities and nations.
It usually occurs to us when we are at the nadir of our efforts, energy, ideas. We are at an impasse, frustrated and flummoxed. We remember the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, thinking we will get a different result, and we recognize ourselves.
So we stop, momentarily empty.
That pause is what opens the door of the room that we have trapped ourselves in. That emptiness is what allows light to flood into the darkness that has imprisoned us. And into that light, the thought steps across the threshold: There must be a better way.
And in that moment, in our fatigue and despair, the spark of hope is ignited, and we are willing, if only for that moment, to consider that that thought might be true. If we can find the courage to hold onto that thought, we might tentatively step out of that room and look around us at the expanse of beautiful possibilities stretching before us, beautiful but unknown.
We might look back over our shoulder at the room we have just left. It is familiar and perhaps less scary than stepping forward into a place we do not know. Most of us will retreat back into our patterns several times, many times, countless times, before we are ready, really ready to seek that better way, before the fear of the unknown is less scary than the pain of going back.
And then, my friend, miracles happen. My own life is proof of that.
It all starts with that thought: There must be a better way.
Oh, there is. There is.
As we encounter those patterns that keep us trapped, in our own lives and in our communities and nations, when we are at our wits’ end, fresh out of ideas, realizing that what we keep trying is not working and never will...
take a deep breath,
and tell yourself there is a better way.
Then get ready for miracles.
Monday, July 3, 2017
Friday, June 30, 2017
Good walking leaves no tracks
Good speech is without fault
Good counting needs no markers
The first line reminds me of the 70s TV show Kung Fu. In the opening sequence, the young Shaolin novice (“Grasshopper”) trains for years to walk across delicate rice paper without tearing it. It also reminds me of the concept of no trace camping, which means leaving your campsite in pristine condition as though you had not been there.
The character for “good” appears in this chapter eleven times. (You might recall that it was also repeated in Chapter 8, nine times there.) Some people think that the focus here is on skill, skill attainable through diligent practice. Indeed, Grasshopper tears up a lot of rice paper before finally being able to walk across it leaving it intact.
I’m all for practice. I just spent two hours this morning in tai chi and sword classes, practicing the same moves over and over. “Aggaaaiiiin,” my teacher is fond of saying, drawing the word out with a smile.
At some point, though, the movement transcends practice. The rules and structure fall away, along with the mover, and the movement flows effortlessly, perfectly, beautifully. In the very (very!) few times this has ever happened to me, I feel less like I am moving, and more like the movement is happening through me. I’m just along for the ride.
This is called entering the light
Entering the light comprises the characters xi 袭 ming 明 . Each of these two characters has multiple meanings, with the result that this line has many possible translations. Xi means enter, but also to penetrate, merge, follow. Ming is made up of sun 日 and moon 月 . It means light, wisdom, luminous, insight, enlightenment.
So pick a meaning that speaks to you. Or embrace all of them. I love the fluidity of these meanings, which, to me, represent the elusive nature of Tao itself.
The end of the chapter shifts to the relationship between teacher and student. If properly aligned, the harmonious interdependence and interplay of this relationship reflect the essence and mystery of Tao. We can appreciate this in our lives as we go through our day.
Try this. As you go through your day today, consider everything and everyone you meet to be your teacher. Pause whenever anything or anyone catches your attention and ask yourself what you can learn. Try not to judge; just have an open mind. And, as we would with any teacher, be respectful and give thanks for the lesson. If you like, share something you learned in the comments.
Bonus: Did you ever wonder how Grasshopper got his name in the Kung Fu TV series? In this scene, the new student encounters Master Po, who is blind. Master Po quickly teaches his novice not to assume that just because he has no eyes, he cannot see. Then he instructs his new student to close his eyes and listen.
Master Po: Can you hear the grasshopper at your feet?
Novice: Old man, how is it that you can hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you cannot?
If you want to see the scene, click here.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
This continues our series about the associations made in Chinese medicine and qigong between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include associations with emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds...and seasons. In this series, I’ve tried to highlight a few of the associations that you might enjoy contemplating.
Fall was the season of courage and gathering energy. Winter was the season of stillness and storing energy. Spring was the season of forgiveness and expanding energy. Now we arrive at summer, the season of joy and release.
Summer begins with the summer solstice. Just as winter begins with the return of the light as days gradually lengthen through the dark cold months, summer begins with the gradual fading of light as days gradually shorten through the hot sunny months. I’ve always loved that balance. Each solstice plants the seed of the next.
The organ associated with summer is the heart. While other organs might be doing critical work to keep our bodies alive, it is the heart that gets all the glory. I don’t recall many odes to livers and kidneys, and lungs rarely inspire poetic rhapsody. But hearts.... Hearts are the target of cupid’s arrows, the seat of wisdom, the source of endless description and metaphors.
Hearts break and heal. And pump. At my daughter’s first ultrasound, when she was barely pregnant, all I could see on the screen was a tiny blob. Within that blob was an even tinier fluttering. That, said the technician, is your baby’s heart.
The first visible movement of life. And all through our lives it is the one organ that we can hear and feel with a sensory awareness that leaves other organs in the shadows. When we hold someone close, we can sometimes feel each other’s hearts beating. Hearts never cease to fascinate and amaze.
Not surprisingly, the element associated with summer and the heart is fire. I ran across an ad recently for the “world’s most perfectly cut diamond” with the trademark name “hearts on fire.” Fire can be destructive, to be sure, but it is also beautiful. It gives warmth and light. It purifies. Like the heart, it spawns poetry and metaphor. And myth.
It captures our imagination and attention. We meditate with a candle. We sit around a campfire with friends, laughing when we realize that we are all staring into the fire as we sing and chat.
Fire also releases energy as it consumes its fuel. The energy associated with the heart is the energy of release. As kids are released from school, we release our daily routines and go on vacation. Fire releases its energy in an upward movement as heat rises. Our hearts feel lighter and more carefree in the summer.
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. With fire and the heart, we think of a warm heart as beneficial, but a hot heart or a cold heart is not so desirable. When I lived in Thailand, where the climate itself seemed to be on fire most of the time, having a cool heart rather than a hot heart was admired.
The negative and positive emotions associated with the heart are reflected in the nature of the fire element. The negative emotions are hastiness, cruelty, arrogance, hatred. The positive emotions are joy, creativity, enthusiasm, honor, and of course love. Since I spent so many years studying and writing about happiness, I especially appreciate the joy that softly glows in a heart with healthy, balanced energy.
We are not always happy in a tra la la kind of way. But a healthy heart center is open, embracing, accepting, loving. It connects us to others in relationship, to our world in gratitude, to the sacred in union.
The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. ~Joanna Macy
Bonus–If you want to get in the spirit of summer, watch this video! Make sure the sound is on. Guaranteed to make you smile.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
In this very moment
Is a doorway
Beyond that doorway
Is where we really are
And always have been
From there our spirit calls us to come home
Walk through the door
What you leave behind is only a dream
Do not fear to leave it
If you only knew what awaits you
You would leap laughing through the portal
And never look back
Saturday, June 17, 2017
Heavy is the root of light
Tranquil is the master of restless
This opening couplet captures the essence of this chapter. The first line reflects a principle shared by martial arts as well as many wisdom teachings and even some mythology.
In Greek mythology, Anteaus was the son of Mother Earth. He grew up to be a great warrior. His secret was the strength that he got from his mother. As long as he was in contact with the earth, no one could harm him. (Hercules figured this out and defeated him by holding him up in the air.)
In martial arts we learn to “sink” our energy into our feet, or root. This helps us maintain balance and “uproot” our sparring partners. Qigong breathing exercises also teach us to breathe into our bellies. This belly breathing tells our brains that we are safe and promotes not only physical health, but also a sense of emotional well being.
This connection to the earth and to nature is emphasized throughout the Tao Te Ching. The earth represents not only our physical root, but also the yin energy of the female, the mother, the receptive. It is the source of our wisdom, our strength, our very existence.
This sense of groundedness is further reflected in the second line. When we are securely rooted in our true nature, we find an inner sea of tranquility. We might joke about inner peace, but this principle is basic to all sacred paths. The Bible teaches us to be still and know God. Meditation is the central practice of Buddhism. We find God in silence, when we listen beneath the noise of our daily lives.
Serenity quiets the restless energy that characterizes our human “busyness.” We often feel buffeted by the chaos of life and sometimes overwhelmed. A friend often describes her life as out of control. She responds by trying to exert control by force, but that just creates more restless “movement.” This is exhausting, as I well remember from my own attempts years ago to control things I could not control.
As this chapter teaches, restlessness is not mastered by force, but by tranquility. I’ve found in my own life, that when I begin to feel churned up (notice the directional reference “up,”away from our root), my best approach is to sit, to settle “down”– by the creek, on my meditation cushion, in the car, wherever – and breathe. When I focus on bringing my breath into my belly, my mind detaches from the hamster wheel of distressing thoughts looping through my brain. My body becomes loose and relaxed. The world seems different to me. The way becomes clear (or if it doesn’t, I can be patient until it does), and I can move forward with renewed energy, calm and confident.
Try it. Next time you sense a “disturbance in the force,” (couldn’t resist a Star Wars reference), take a few deep breaths, all the way into your belly. Feel your connection to the ground and imagine roots growing down into the earth. Feel the energy drawn in through your root, enlivening your body and calming your mind.
Whether you do this for a minute at a stoplight, or thirty minutes on your meditation cushion, you will experience the benefit. Like Anteaus, we are nourished and protected by our connection to our origin, to the life giving energy of creation, to the sacred wisdom and power of the universe.
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm. ~S. A. Jefferson-Wright
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Here is a conversation I had with someone yesterday:
Me: Does it really have to be so complicated?
Me: Can we talk more about this?
Him: No need to. The answer is no.
I started laughing. A day later I’m still laughing. I have started several emails to him with follow up questions. As quickly as I draft them, I delete them. Because whatever question I come up with, I realize that it is always the same question.
Does it really have to be so complicated?
And I will always get the same answer.
Monday, June 12, 2017
The ocean has one taste, the taste of salt
Truth has one taste, the taste of liberation
There is not your truth and my truth. There are not variations of truth or shades of truth. There is truth. Truth is truth. There is nothing else. And, as Jesus promised, it will set us free.
We cannot speak truth to power because truth is power. The only power. Everything else is illusion. It makes no sense to fight about truth because you would be fighting against nothing. Fighting gives form to what is unreal.
We cannot speak truth to power also because truth cannot be spoken. It cannot be thought. It cannot be known in the way we usually think of knowing. It cannot be taught or learned. It cannot be searched for or found.
How can you find something that is never lost? How can you search for what is all around you, that is you? As the saying goes, that’s like a fish in the ocean looking for water.
So relax. Take a belly breath. Breathe in truth. Breathe out truth. Taste liberation. It’s delicious.
Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
~A Course in Miracles
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
In the beginning was the Word
Before the beginning
there was no beginning
There was One
The Word vibrated in the silence
And there were two
Movement stirring, creating
Then sinking back to stillness
Being breathed into existence
and returning to nonexistence
The dance of life
Before the beginning
there was no beginning
There was One
The Word vibrated in the silence
And there were two
Movement stirring, creating
Then sinking back to stillness
Being breathed into existence
and returning to nonexistence
The dance of life