Friday, February 24, 2017

Thanking Our Enemies

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

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 19

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  , which depicts raw or undyed silk. The character for simple is   , 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

Secret Language

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

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 18

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

Sitting Forgetting

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    combines the character for person   with the character for earth   . Put together, the character for sit shows two people sitting on the earth  .

The character for forget  places the character for heart    under the character  , meaning to flee or to lose. Because of the over/under placement, I think of forgetting as something lifting away from the heart  .

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 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

Bringing Peace

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...