Sunday, December 30, 2018

Fire in the Belly


I began this year thinking of it as the year of the heart. Heart energy had exploded open in my soul. I was aflame for the Beloved.

It was exciting, but hard to sustain. Fire, after all, consumes.

In martial arts we use the wisdom of the Chinese five element practice, which associates elements with various organ systems. The heart element is, predictably, fire. Fire is a rising energy, which draws upward and away from the kidney element of water, which naturally follows gravity and sinks. This separation isolates our energy centers and can drain vitality or create instability.

On the other hand, when we can harness that wild fire heart energy and bring it into our belly, what happens? Well, what happens when you light a fire under a pot of water (the water energy of the kidneys)? The water boils, creating steam, or vital energy. Now the two energy centers are operating in harmony to create tremendous internal power instead of drawing away from each other.

So how does one shift the heart fire energy into the belly? Admittedly, it takes a bit of imagination and practice. Belly breathing is a good place to start. And there are many qigong and taoist practices for guidance.

But my point here is not so much about technique as it is about concept. I don’t know where the phrase “fire in the belly” originated. It can sometimes have a negative connotation of unbridled ambition. But it can also describe the intense passion of a transcendent calling, the burning clarity of an inner knowing, the radiant glow of an unquenchable internal energy.

Fire does consume. And in consuming, it transforms and purifies. Whatever is dense or solid is burned away, releasing energy as light and heat. It destroys in order to create.

That is how I have experienced this year. The euphoria of the year’s beginning gave way to pain at times, showing me where I needed to release. And when I thought I had released everything, the fire sparked anew and showed me more. Liberation is not always a pleasant process! Yet as the fire in my belly burned on, I surrendered to the flame.

And it was good.

Gratitude to the year ending, and welcome to the new year.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Solstice Moon


Solstice moon shines full
In the darkest night
Calling the light to return
As winter settles in

Friday, December 21, 2018

You Got Me.... Do You?



When I’m sparring with my martial arts teacher and somehow manage to get him in a hold, he will pause and look at me. “Oh, you got me.” And just as I’m feeling smug, he simply melts away like smoke. While I’m left holding nothing, he says with a twinkle, “Do you?”

This year has been like that. A series of revelations that whatever I think I know or understand, I don’t. I thought I understood a situation. I didn’t. I thought I was being helpful. I wasn’t. I thought I had a particular relationship with someone. I didn’t. I believed something to be true. It wasn’t.

It was like the universe taunting me, teaching me.

Oh, you got this.... Do you?

Each revelation allowed me to release something I held onto. Each one went deeper, layer beneath layer. Then the big one, the one I had held onto my whole life. Still working on releasing that one. Whew, I thought. It all led up to this. When I work through this, I will be done. That was the grand finale of releasing.

Was it?

Recent months brought yet another deeply held belief into question. Really? I have to release even that?

Even that.

Then what’s left? Oh.... I get it.

Do you?

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Go Dark



To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, 
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
     ~Wendell Berry

As we passed the equinox in September, I wrote about the season of darkness, about entering the mystery of darkness. As the days grew shorter, I did not mourn the light but instead embraced the darkness, accepting the invitation to dance in the unknowing.

At my cabin this weekend, I walked with the dog as the winter sun slanted through the trees. The cabin faces south along a creek, and across the creek a forested ridge rises. As we approach the darkest days, the sun barely clears the ridge in the morning and drops out of sight by mid-afternoon, leaving the cabin in shadow most of the day. Twinkly lights and a fire keep it cozy and cheery, but I step outside before bed to breathe in the cold darkness.

At home and at the cabin, I have been trying something new with my meditation practice. Since I awake early, my morning meditation is always before sunrise. I’ve been turning out all the lights to meditate in the darkness. And I’ve added a before bed meditation, again in darkness. I’ve been surprised by how much I like it. I’m much less fidgety, and my mind is calmer. It’s like I “go dark” inside, in harmony with the darkness outside.

In a few days, winter solstice will call back the light and the days will start to lengthen. But I will hold onto the darkness a while longer, embraced by the night, resting in deep stillness.

Darkness darkness, be my pillow
Take my head and let me rest
In the coolness of your shadow
In the silence of your dream
Darkness darkness, hide my yearning
For the things that cannot be
Keep my mind from constant turning 
Towards the things I cannot see
     ~60s song by The Youngbloods, lyrics by Jesse Collin Young

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Song of the Heart


Cranes dance
The song of the heart
Necks stretch and swoop
Wings open to love's embrace
Eyes aflame with passion
They dance with the Beloved

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 53


This chapter paints an accurate picture of the human experience.

If I have even a little knowledge
I will walk on the path of the great Tao
Straying from it is my only fear

This path is very smooth and easy
But people love to veer off on side roads

While the palace courts are splendid 
The fields lie fallow
And the granaries are empty

People wear elegant clothes
And carry sharp weapons
Eating and drinking to excess
Hoarding their wealth and possessions

This extravagance is robbery
The opposite of the great path of Tao

I can’t help but notice the relevance of this chapter to today’s world. However, before we “veer off on a side road” talking about current politics or world crises, remember that this was written at least 2,500 years ago. This chapter has always been relevant because it speaks to the timeless human condition. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is the fact of suffering. However, that is not the end of the story. As the saying goes, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”

All spiritual wisdom teachings offer a way to understand and engage with our human experience. (“Tao” actually means “way” or “path.”) All address this fact of suffering, and provide a framework for changing the way we relate to it, with the result that our suffering is eased if not eliminated.

A necessary component of this framework is an honest inquiry into the nature of our existence, and a recognition of our own participation in the reality that we perceive. Regardless of different concepts or vocabulary, the key is not so much the “answers” but our “willingness” to inquire honestly and listen.

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” ~Isaiah 30:21

Monday, December 3, 2018

Your Breath Is Your Guru


Someone jokingly said to me recently, “You are my guru.” I laughed and responded, “No, I’m not anyone’s guru. Your breath is your guru.”

It’s true. And it’s that simple.

My shelves are filled with books on spirituality, mysticism, happiness, meditation, enlightenment, and more. I used to read them because I thought they held a secret, the secret, to all I ever wanted to know. I came to understand that I would never find what I sought in those books, or in the workshops or retreats that I attended. 

I would find what I sought only when I quit looking for it, when I realized that it was never lost. It is here, ever present. As close as every breath I take. And my breath, if I listen to its wisdom, will teach me everything I need to know.

Breathing teaches me to live now, in this moment. We all understand that breathing keeps us alive. So do food and water. But unlike food and water, breathing keeps us alive in the present moment and only in the present moment. I can survive for a while on the food I ate this morning. But the breath I took five hours ago, or even five minutes ago, cannot keep me alive right now. The breath that keeps me alive is the one I’m taking as I write this sentence. Another breath keeps me alive as I write this one.

Breathing teaches me about the oneness of all life. All things that live, breathe in some form or fashion. Everything that is alive right now is breathing. Not only that, but our breath gives life to plants as they use the carbon dioxide we exhale, just like they in turn exhale the oxygen we require. So not only is all life one, but all life is interdependent.

Breathing teaches me about impermanence. I breathed in when I was born, and I will breathe out when I die. We manifest into form, and we return to the formless. Each individual breath is a reminder. I cannot hold my breath to stop the cycle. Breathing keeps me alive only when I release one breath to allow another.

Breathing teaches me about my body. Breathing keeps me alive, and breathing in certain ways keeps my body healthier, mentally and physically. Breath is connected to many health and wellness practices. It is the original biofeedback technique. As we weakened over time our connection to our bodies and became more lost in our thinking minds, we changed the way we breathe. Relearning our natural breathing patterns restores the mind/body balance.

I love all my books, and I enjoy the workshops I attend. Now I see them as welcome reminders of what my breath was teaching me all along. I only needed to listen.

What lessons does your breath teach you?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

When...


"When every breath
Becomes a prayer
When every step 
Becomes a meditation
When every word
Becomes a song of love
When every heartbeat
Pulses gratitude
Then..." he paused
"Then what?" they urged
He smiled and bowed

Monday, November 26, 2018

It’s Not Complicated


I have on occasion had folks tell me, in the nicest way possible, that my writing and speaking about the Tao Te Ching are sometimes – hmm, how do they put it – dense, obscure, inaccessible. 

Oh dear.

I want them to be wrong, but of course I must admit that they are right. How can words describe the indescribable? More words, different words, cannot explain what the thinking mind cannot label or categorize. The very first line of the Tao Te Ching says “The Tao that can be understood is not the eternal Tao.”

So how do we talk about this mystery, what a Christian monk writing in the 14th century described as “the cloud of unknowing”? Even the author of the Tao Te Ching expressed this dilemma in Chapter 70.

My words are very easy to understand
And very easy to practice
Still, no one in the world
Can understand or practice them

(That passage always makes me smile.)

So why try? Because when we glimpse the beauty of that dark mystery, when for a moment we pierce the veil of the infinite, when the miracle of a single breath astounds us, the strings of our soul are set to humming, and we seek to share this music in harmony with each other in a cosmic jam session.

Yes, I admit that the efforts to share oftentimes obscure as much as they reveal. That is perhaps the nature of the endeavor. We complicate with our words what is simple, so very simple. Here is a conversation I had with one of my teachers last year.

Me: Does it really have to be so complicated?
Him: No.
Me: Can we talk more about this?
Him: No need to. The answer is no.

Ha! 

Yet here I am, still talking about it! Imperfect as it is, there is delight in the trying, even though we recognize that our attempts to capture what will remain ever elusive and free, will fail.

As Adyashanti says, our goal is to “fail well.”

It's all good.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 52


This chapter reflects the motion of Tao as the origin of all things, manifesting into form and then returning to the source. The image of the divine mother figures prominently, giving us the sense that Tao gives birth to, rather than creates, “all under heaven.” The bond between Tao and the universe is compared to the bond between mother and child.

All under heaven has a source
This source is the mother of all things
To know the mother is to know the child
To know the child is to abide in the love of the mother
Thus becoming one with the eternal source of all things
And therefore beyond all danger

I’ve taken a little liberty with the characters in my translation, but I think it reflects the essential message of this passage. We connect to the divine (by whatever name we use – God, nature, universal energy) through our connection to each other. Indeed, through our connection to all under heaven.

A Course in Miracles teaches that any separation we create between ourselves and whatever we identify as “other than self” effectively separates us from our holy source. In other words, we cannot be connected to God if we are separated from others in any way, for example, through anger, judgment, fear, exclusion. All of creation reflects the holy source, and is one with it, like a rainbow manifesting the color spectrum of undifferentiated light. When we separate ourselves into “us” and “them,” it’s like saying that blue is the color of light but red isn’t.

This next passage contrasts our tendency to jump in and direct things with the inherent perfection of nature’s flow, which takes care of itself when we surrender our own agendas.

Close the mouth
Shut the door
Life is untroubled
Open the mouth
Meddle in affairs
Life is lost

The Tao Te Ching has a clear preference for careful words and non-interference with the natural flow of universal energy. There is a natural, effortless, perpetual unfolding of the world. When we interfere, no matter how well intentioned, we disrupt that natural flow. Imbalance results, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Then we are caught up in an endless struggle to repair, to fix, to restore.

We see this on a global scale, and also in our individual lives. Think about a time when you tried to make something better, and only made it worse. Of course, there are times when our efforts do lead to desired results, as when we clean up environmental damage, or make amends to heal a relationship. But we can always go back to the moment when we first set ourselves on a path out of sync with nature’s inherent wisdom. We can’t go back, but life pretty much guarantees that we will have another opportunity to make a choice!

The final passage brings us back to the concept of returning to our natural state of balance moment by moment.

Seeing the small is called enlightenment
Abiding in tenderness is called strength
Using the light 
We restore our inner vision without exposure to misfortune
This is our eternal practice

This is the point, isn’t it? That every moment, every holy instant, offers us a choice – to be fully present or to be lost in distraction. We think that enlightenment is some goal to achieve in the future, and that once achieved we can sit back and bask in eternal serenity. But it isn’t like that. We practice, in every moment. Without judgment, because in the time it takes to judge ourselves, several more opportunities have passed. So we practice again.

Our practice becomes integrated into our daily lives. We don’t practice only when we are on our meditation cushion, or in church, or in martial arts class. We practice with every breath, every heartbeat. Our practice IS our life. So beautiful.

There is no such thing as enlightenment. There are only enlightened moments. ~Adyashanti

Friday, November 16, 2018

Foggy Morning


Geese flying on a foggy morning
I hear them honking and look up in time
To see them disappear into the mist
One by one

Friday, November 9, 2018

Where We Grow




Someone asked recently whether we would grow spiritually without struggle. Good question. The Tao Te Ching describes a life in harmony with Tao as effortless, without conflict or strife. In martial arts, we train with the slogan “Don’t insist. Don’t resist.” We know that trying to force something or someone might work sometimes but there will always be someone stronger. We learn other ways of dealing with force that do not involve struggle.

So what is the role of struggle in our spiritual lives? If my true nature is one with the universe, where is the need for struggle? Struggle occurs when we are somehow in conflict with the natural flow of energy. It indicates a place where we are blocking our true nature. Perhaps it is not the struggle that promotes growth as much as the relinquishment of struggle. In that sense, struggle is not how we grow; it’s where we grow.

I like the phrase “the razor’s edge of practice.” This is where I am poised on a challenge, something that has the potential to get me hooked, something that triggers an urge to grasp or reject or control. The razor’s edge is where I have a choice about which side I’m going to step into – the side of conflict or the side of harmony.

Where that edge is, is different for different people. And different for the same person at different times. We might find ourselves on the razor’s edge infrequently, or every day! No matter. It is always an opportunity to make a choice to struggle or to release.

Lately, it has been on the daily end of the spectrum for me. I’d like to tell you that I always choose to release, especially with so many opportunities for practice (!), but that would be fibbing. When I step into struggle, however, I feel it throughout my body. I tense up, my breathing moves up into my chest, and I am caught in my thinking mind, like the hamster wheel I described in the last post.

No need to judge myself. Just belly breathe. Release the struggle and allow the natural flow of energy. Tolerate the discomfort and uncertainty with trust. Pour compassion over the fear. In this moment...and this one...


Monday, November 5, 2018

Asking for Miracles


I’ve been churned up lately about a personal situation. I find myself on the hamster wheel, running and running and getting nowhere. I run over things past – words that were said, decisions that were made, actions that were taken. I imagine different words, different decisions, different actions, and the different outcomes that would have resulted.

But those outcomes are just fantasies, because no one knows what would have happened. And even if those outcomes would have come to pass, the fact is that they didn’t, because those paths were not chosen. And all my running is just spinning stories. As A Course in Miracles teaches, “The only wholly true thought one can hold about the past is that it is not here.”

The wheel turns and I am still running, now into the future. I am imagining conversations I will have, choices I will make, outcomes I will direct to make things better. I feel anticipation and anxiety. What if, what if, what if. I am still spinning stories, now stories about the future, stories that are no more true than the stories about the past. Stories about outcomes that I desire but cannot ensure.

And why do I desire them? Because I have judged them good. But what makes me think I know what would be good? Many things I thought were bad at the time turned out to be good, and the reverse is also true. Good and bad are just more stories.

I begin to see that the outcomes I am trying to bring about, through trying to control what I cannot control, might not bring the relief I seek from the pain I feel about the past and the anxiety I feel about the future. So I run faster, trying to figure this all out. Until I start to tire. Until I start to realize that the pain and anxiety are not about what is real in this moment. They are about the running, the endless spinning on the wheel that goes nowhere. I am exhausted.

Finally, I ask for a miracle, not about changing the past or ensuring the future. I ask to stop the wheel and get off.

And the miracle about miracles is that once you ask for one, you will surely get it. Not because of some hocus pocus or law of attraction. You will get a miracle because it is our natural birthright, our true nature. We discover that all miracles are the same miracle – being fully alive in this holy instant, one with the vastness of all creation. Grateful.

I wake today with miracles correcting my perception of all things. ~A Course in Miracles

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Remembering


The spring of remembering
Burbles up through mossy ground
Trickling over creek rocks
Meandering past summer fields
Thundering through gorges
Sinking finally, gratefully into the sea
Ah yes! I remember now
It was me all along

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 51


This chapter is a dance between Tao and Te – Tao as the source of all things, and Te as the life force that sustains all things. Many chapters focus on one or the other, so it is enlightening to see here the interplay between the two fundamental concepts of the Tao Te Ching. It is a chapter that delights the ear in the original Chinese because you can hear the rhythm and cadence. It sounds like a dance!

Tao gives birth to all things
Te nurtures all things
Matter forms all things
Environment completes all things

This is a brief story of creation. Tao manifests as the universe through the creative agency of Te. What is undifferentiated and unlimited potential in the infinite emptiness of Tao springs forth and divides into what the Tao Te Ching calls the ten thousand things. It is like light shining through a prism and making rainbows on the wall.

I love prisms, by the way, and recently gave one to my grandson. We had so much fun finding sun coming through windows to create dancing rainbows on walls, floors, curtains, and our hands. But I digress....

Thus the ten thousand things revere Tao and honor Te 
Not because it is commanded of them
But because it is their true nature to do so

I love this passage because it reflects the divine relationship between the creative energy and the created. The Ten Commandments demand honor of father and mother, but here the honor is a natural inherent response, requiring no effort.

Likewise, it is Te’s nature to nourish and sustain all things as they move through the life cycle.

Thus Tao gives birth to all things
As Te nurtures them
Raises and nourishes them
Protects and matures them
Sustains and shelters them

This passage reminds me of Psalm 91:4. “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” So beautiful.

The last four lines are repeated in other chapters. This last section reminds me of Kahlil Gibran’s passage about children. 

Giving birth yet not possessing
Acting yet not claiming credit
Rearing yet not controlling
This is called profound Virtue (Te)

To me this chapter reflects the rhythm of breathing, the exchange between the inhale and the exhale. As we breathe, we dance our own creation, connecting ourselves as individuals to the universal energy that gives us all life.

So beautiful.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Morning Clouds


Wake up
You soft gray clouds
Sleeping nestled in the trees
Morning lights the mountain air
Stretch forth your misty arms
And rise to greet the warming sun

Monday, October 15, 2018

You’re Trying Too Hard


It happened again. I was practicing push hands with another tai chi student before class a few days ago. (Push hands is sort of like tai chi sparring with a partner.) The teacher was watching us from across the room as he got ready for class. After a few minutes, he called to me, “You’re trying too hard.”

Sigh. Like I haven’t heard THAT before! Many times....

A few months ago I was practicing push hands with a different tai chi teacher. All my efforts were easily and immediately turned to my disadvantage. Seeking some advice, I said, “I’m trying to....”

The teacher interrupted. “That’s your problem. You’re trying.”

Bruce Lee famously gave this advice in an interview about his martial arts style. “Be water, my friend.” Water does not try. It doesn’t struggle. It doesn’t contend. It flows effortlessly in harmony with gravity and the contours of its environment. As the Tao Te Ching observes, nothing is softer, yet nothing is more powerful.

As in martial arts, so in life. I have recently been trying to have a conversation with someone who continues to avoid it. This conversation, in my own mind, would be very beneficial to the other person, offering some insight and advice about how to move forward through a challenging situation.

I have rehearsed what I want to say, I have offered opportunities to get together, I have encouraged the other person to hear me out. But. The. Other. Person. Doesn’t. Want. To.

I’m trying too hard. Again.

I know.

So I’m taking a deep breath and settling down. I will wait. The conversation will happen or it won’t. If it does, it will happen at the right time, and if I’m paying attention and willing to release control, I will know what to say. And it will be helpful or it won’t. I can’t control the outcome. I can only flow with the current and see where it takes me.

Is there a place in your life where you are trying too hard?

Do or do not. There is no try. ~Yoda

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Reading Labels


Several recent conversations have got me thinking about labels. Years ago, people started reading content labels on their food, discovering things in their food that they didn’t know were there. Over time, regulations required more disclosure on labels, and people became more knowledgeable about understanding the significance of various ingredients.

Anyway, I have been thinking of how we use labels in general. We use them to identify or categorize something, like mammals, or brand names. Labels are intrinsic to communication and information, and serve a useful purpose.

Labels can also affect our experience. In one recent conversation, a parent was describing a particular situation with his child as a problem and was feeling very worried and frustrated. I asked him why he thought the situation was a “problem.” He described an outcome that he considered “bad.” First, I pointed out that the outcome he described was one of many possible outcomes. And second, I asked him why the outcome he described would be bad. (Judgments are another way we attach labels.) When he was able to think beyond the judgment and the initial label of a problem, he was able to look at the situation with a more expansive view. He visibly calmed down and saw the situation in a more neutral way.

In another conversation, a friend was relating an encounter that left him very upset. My friend is white and the encounter was with a person of color. The  person had objected to something my friend said. My friend tried to explain, making matters worse. The other person called my friend a racist. My friend denied it.

As I was listening, I could understand why the other person might have taken offense at my friend’s initial comment, which could have been understood several different ways. But any effort to have meaningful dialogue was quickly obliterated by the label of racist, which became the focus of the escalating argument.

I’m not taking sides here on whether the label was justified. Perhaps it was. That’s not the point. The point is that any opportunity for my friend to understand how his initial comment might have been insensitive was lost in the debate about the label. Correct or not, the label ended any genuine communication. And the continued defensiveness against the label hindered any honest reflection about hidden assumptions or biases my friend’s initial comment might reveal.

So labels can be useful, but they can also be obstacles, especially when unquestioned, as in the first conversation, or when used as an attack or defense, as in the second. These conversations have made me take a closer look at some of the labels I use, and how they affect my assessment of a situation, my emotional reactions, and my ability to have meaningful communication. I’m going to make more effort to “read” the labels I use and see what the hidden ingredients are!

Once you label me you negate me. ~Søren Kierkegaard

Sometimes letting go is simply changing the labels you place on an event. Looking at the same event with fresh eyes.  ~Steve Maraboli

Monday, October 8, 2018

Feed Me and Love Me


My grandson has been having a little trouble acting up at school – talking in class, not listening to the teacher, not focusing on his work. Last week I was chatting with him about his behavior. He came up with his own plan for trying to do better. When I asked him how we could help him and support him, he thought for a moment and then replied,

“Feed me and love me.” 

Out of the mouths of babes. Isn’t this what we all need for help and support? To be fed with patience, encouragement, friendship, honesty, mercy, listening, appreciation, attention. To be loved with compassion, acceptance, delight, non-judgment, and without conditions? 

I had sat down with my grandson to offer him guidance, but instead he taught me. I bowed to my seven year old wisdom teacher and thanked him for this lesson.
.
And a little child shall lead them.  ~Isaiah 11:6

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Fire of the Way



The fire of the Way
Burns in us
Red blood red
Hot
The eternal flame 
Sees everything
With love
Burning burning
All illusion

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 50


The chapter opens with an observation on dualism.

Going out into life, entering death

What causes this cycle of life and death?

Because attachment to life is intense

The character for intense has additional meanings of thick, solid, lavish. This contrasts with the description in the second part of the chapter, which is one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching. The English translations cannot convey the rhythm, beauty, and poetry of the Chinese, but still there is a sense of wonder and intriguing mystery.

Those who sustain life well
Go forth without fear of wild buffalo or tiger
Enter battle without armor or weapons
Wild buffalo have nowhere to thrust their horns
Tigers have nowhere to sink their claws
Weapons have nowhere their blades can pierce
Why is this
Because there is no death place

The character for “place” means a literal place or location.

What could this mean, to have no place for death to enter? When I contemplate this passage, I’m reminded of the story about the young woman who wants to study martial arts but is afraid of getting hurt. The teacher stands across the room from her and asks, “If I’m standing here and you are standing over there, can I hurt you?” No, she says. He moves a few steps closer and repeats the question. Still no. This goes on until he is standing right in front of her and asks her one more time, “If I’m standing here and you are standing there, can I hurt you?” “Yes!” she exclaims. The teacher looks at her and says, “Then don’t be there.”

Does it mean that we should avoid danger and cower in a locked safe room? I don’t think so. The person described in this passage is not afraid, but walks boldly through life’s challenges with courage and joy. There is a sense of freedom, not fear.

This seems quite different from the solid thickness of an intense attachment to life portrayed in the first section. Does this mean that if we figure out how to live free of attachment, we will never die? There are Chinese legends of immortals, but I’m pretty sure that none of us will avoid the death of our physical bodies. All that manifests into form will return to formlessness. Our death is assured the moment we are born. This is the nature of duality.

There is a Buddhist practice of contemplating death and our own mortality. Our acceptance of the cycle of life and death allows us to live in freedom, without futile resistance to reality. Death has no place to enter, not because we won’t ever die but because we live in harmony with the movement of creation.

Like the monk, who sat serenely as a warrior brandished his weapon. “Why aren’t you afraid? Don’t you know I can run you through without blinking an eye?” demanded the warrior. The monk smiled and replied, “And I can be run through without blinking an eye.”


Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Season of Darkness



The equinox has passed. Night is now longer than day. We are entering the gradual darkening until winter solstice calls the light to return.

Darkness gets such a bad rap. It’s scary, it hides secrets and shame, danger lurks in its shadows. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it is gray and rainy much of the fall and winter. Darkness sometimes brings sadness and melancholy.

But I’ve been thinking about darkness in a different way. I have a new grandchild, born just a few weeks ago. She grew in darkness for months. The darkness was warm and soft and safe, shielding her from harm, nourishing her, preparing her.

Seeds are dropping to the ground, or getting buried by squirrels, where they will wait for spring in darkness under the earth.

We rest at night. Our bodies crave the regeneration of sleep and dreams in the dark.

Darkness is essential to life.

In the Tao Te Ching, darkness is the metaphor for mystery, the essence of the Way. It is the origin of all creation. The Bible tells us that in the beginning, “the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” From this darkness, God called forth the manifested universe.

The darkness is where we came from, like my grandchild from the womb. It calls us to love, to embrace mystery, to welcome its season. The fire of the heart burns most brightly in the darkness of night.

As we gather the harvest of our active months in the light, we prepare for the time of quiet, the time of unknowing. The darkness is the gate to mystery. And it stands open, inviting us in, welcoming us home.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait.... So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. ~T.S. Eliot

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Respect




I bow to the tree
The tree bows to me
Sitting back to bark
We breathe, we two
Giving life to one another
Receiving life in turn
We breathe as lovers do
Becoming one

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 49


I am good to those who are good
I am good to those who are not good
I am trustworthy to those who are trustworthy
I am trustworthy to those who are not trustworthy

The heart of this little chapter says it all. The Bible observes that the sun shines on the good and the evil, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Flowers reveal their beauty to any and all who pass by, and even when no one is passing by.

If nature does not discriminate, then who are we to do so? Whether we act with kindness, compassion, integrity, does not depend on others. In a world that has become so entrenched in dualistic, judgmental perspective, what a radical notion!

Does this mean that we never have an opinion? Or that we never take action to serve or protect? No, of course not.

I’m thinking of the three people who intervened on public transit when a person started shouting abuse at two young women of color, one wearing a hajib. These defenders did not question the worthiness of the young women before coming to their aid. They saw a need for help and they stepped up, even at the cost of their lives.

The sage aligns with the harmony of creation
Breathing ocean-like energy into the heart

This is not a perspective of weakness or helplessness. This is a position of power, not personal ego power, but the power of the universe manifested through us when we are willing to allow it. It is always available to us. We need not develop it or be worthy of it. We only need to not block it.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. ~Marianne Williamson

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Where the Lotus Roots Grow


Go up, she said
Go up to the mountain top
I think not, he replied
Instead he dove deep
Down down deep
Into the messy muck
Down into the mud
Where the lotus roots grow

Monday, August 27, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 48



Increase is the way of learning
Decrease is the way of Tao

The opening lines of this chapter perfectly capture my current perspective. This year presented several opportunities for me to learn something that I was very drawn to – a new sword form, a new style of tai chi, advancing my study of Chinese language, playing the piano.

In each instance I was initially very motivated. I eagerly sought instruction and diligently practiced. But my energy soon flagged and I realized, with some frustration and disappointment, that my heart just wasn’t in it. I finally admitted to a friend that “I just don’t want to learn anything right now.”

A remarkable confession from a person who has always loved learning. I was the nerd who loved school, at least until my rebellious days of high school. I thrived in law school. As a professor I had the luxury of getting paid to learn and to share what excited me about my chosen subjects. As a martial artist I reveled in increased skill and knowledge.

So why couldn’t I summon the energy and excitement to pursue these opportunities? There may not be a single explanation, but on some deep level my spirit seeks to rest quietly. And while resting, to allow a shedding, a falling away.

My canary Henry is molting, as he does every late summer and early fall. He doesn’t have to do anything. He just sits there and allows his old feathers to release, covering the cage and the surrounding floor with downy softness and small quills. He quits singing during this period. He is less active. He rests and waits. Like me.

The rest of the chapter returns to a theme throughout the Tao Te Ching – that of wu wei, or non-action.

Decrease until non-action is reached
Not acting allows all to be done
Without interference everything is accomplished
With interference there is never enough 

The Tao Te Ching envisions a universe that is self regulating, with a rhythm and harmony that is inherent in existence. This is opposite from a perspective that suggests we can and should improve on nature. In our over-scheduled, never enough time, always behind world, it seems crazy to think that doing less will actually accomplish more. Perhaps we simply discover that less really needs to be accomplished in the first place. Either way, life seems more spacious, more delightful, more serene when we are not battling against it all the time.

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.  ~Larry Eisenberg

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Into the Dark


Babes in the womb
Seeds underground
Life begins in darkness
Do not fear it
Shine no light into the shadows
For there in the arms of night
Come mysteries to dance

Friday, August 17, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 47


There is a lot packed into this short chapter, which makes clear that we need not look anywhere outside ourselves for the answers we seek. In fact, we need not look at all.

Without going out the door, one knows everything under heaven
Without looking out the window, one sees heaven’s Tao
The further away one goes, the less one knows
Thus the sage knows without going anywhere
Recognizes without looking
Accomplishes without doing

We read of wise hermits living for decades in caves and cloistered mystics. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz learned that everything she wanted was in her own back yard back in Kansas. My Aunt Bernice never strayed far from home, yet understood more about life than most people with more education and worldly experience.

We can read this chapter in a literal sense and let our passports expire. However, I don’t think the caution here is against travel per se, but against looking outside of our own selves to find truth.

To go even further (pun intended), it is the very concept of seeking, whether out there or within, that frustrates our aspirations. Seeking suggests that there is something to find. But what if what we are seeking can’t be found because it was never lost? If I cover my eyes with my hands, I don’t need to find the light; I just need to remove what blocks my vision of the light that is all around me.

We embrace the idea that what we seek isn’t out there, but within, but we then continue the same search just in a different direction. Oh, it’s within me! Where is it? I search the inner terrain with the same determination as I searched the world over. It’s right here. I just need to meditate more (chant, pray, beat drums, walk labyrinths, do yoga, whatever). I know it’s close. But I can’t see it. Damn.

What happens if I quit searching? What happens if I just live fully present in this moment? And this one? We see heaven’s Tao. It looks just like life. And it’s marvelous.

Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is within you. ~Luke 17:21

Monday, August 13, 2018

Living Fiction


You are the author of your own life story. ~Unknown

Someone asked me if I write fiction. No, I replied, and thought to myself, I don’t write fiction. I live it.

We all do. We tell ourselves stories and then believe them. Our emotions are rooted in the narrative. We react and make choices, live and love, fear and hate, enter into relationships and leave them – all based on what we have told ourselves about what is happening.

We rewrite history many times over, to punish ourselves over what we regret, to reward ourselves for good deeds that grow more heroic in the retelling, to hide our shame.

And we believe. My sister and I used to joke that our mother could have passed a lie detector test on some of the whoppers she told. She was her own most gullible audience.

Our most cherished tale is of course the most fundamental one – about our own identity. “I am the one who ....” Think of the instructions that give us a list of answers and tell us to check all that apply. All those checked answers make up the image I have of myself. Several images perhaps: the one I present to the world, the one I wish to be, the one I fear I really am.

We were asked in a spiritual direction group to “tell our story” and to listen with an open heart to others tell theirs. Revealing and tender. But still ... stories. The deeper question is who are we when we drop all our stories.

Try it. Who am I? See every answer as the story it is. Go deeper still.

Who am I?

Until finally, you inevitably arrive and the only possible ultimate answer.

I don’t know.

And now we live truth.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

This Time


You are unknown
Yet familiar
I have known you before
I was your mother
     your brother
     your friend
     your lover
We lived and laughed
We cried ... and died
Now here we are again
Who are we this time

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Prescription: Compassion for Self


I went to see my naturopath yesterday. We talked as we usually do, she checked my pulses and my tongue, and made some suggestions for diet and supplements. She wrote down her instructions and handed me the page.

When I got home, I reviewed her list of instructions. The last item said:

4. Compassion for self

I laughed out loud. What kind of prescription was this? What sort of doctor does this, I asked myself.

Apparently a doctor who cares about her whole patient, who wants her patient to be whole, to feel whole. A doctor who knows that without compassion, all the supplements in the world will still leave her patient lacking. And unless the patient can open her heart to her own self, then all the doctor’s care will be for naught.

How many millions are spent every year on self improvement? We want to do better. We want to be better. What violence do we do to ourselves by judging ourselves as always falling short, never being good enough as we are?

I have listened to people in recent discussions speak of themselves with such self-criticism, such disappointment, such hatred. Condemning themselves to eternal inadequacy, they desperately search for some external answer to their distress, for someone to tell them what to do.

So here is the answer, right on the prescription paper – compassion for self. Just for one moment, take a deep breath, drop all the judgment, and give yourself a smile. Doctor's orders.

You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. ~Louise L. Hay

Monday, July 30, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 46


This chapter contrasts the effects of discontent and satisfaction. It begins with vivid imagery using horses.

When the world is in alignment with Tao
Horses work in the fields 
When the world is not in alignment with Tao
War horses are bred outside the city

Two very different roles for a horse to fill – one associated with peace and the abundance of harvest, the other associated with conflict and destruction. Literally life and death.

We think of this in terms of external peace and conflict, but we can also think of this in terms of whether we have peace or war inside of us. For whatever we have within is the energy we will offer to the world. As the saying goes, as within so without.

Many of us are looking outside ourselves at the world around us, which appears to be in such turmoil, and we want to contribute in some way to peace. But Adyashanti says that even if our words speak of peace, if there is internal struggle, what we transmit is conflict.

Internal struggle is always rooted in desire, wanting something or someone (including ourselves) to be different, wanting reality to be different. Reality might be pleasurable or painful, but our suffering comes from our unwillingness to acknowledge reality as it is. This is the basis of desire and discontent.

There is no greater fault than having desire
There is no greater misfortune than not knowing contentment
There is no greater curse than obtaining your desire
Thus those who know contentment are always satisfied

That third line reminds me of the saying to be careful what you wish for! When we get what we desire, it sometimes isn’t what we thought it would be. Or even if it is, it isn’t long before we want something else. We think that our dissatisfaction comes from not having what we want, but perhaps our dissatisfaction comes from wanting.

My favorite translation of the last line is “He who knows enough is enough will always have enough.” My artist sister made me a beautiful rendition of this version that I keep on my desk. (See photo at top of post.)

So which horse will I ride today?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Dancing in the Flames


Fire flames dance
Flame fingers beckon
Take my hand
And come with me
Dancing in the flames 
That burn us free

Friday, July 20, 2018

Awakening Through Book Titles


In a recent discussion with a friend about books we found insightful, I mentioned three by Adyashanti  – Falling into Grace, The End of Your World, and Emptiness Dancing. Then I realized that these three book titles are a perfect description of awakening.

Falling into Grace

When I was growing up, we used to go to a recreational area on the Tennessee River called Pickwick. There was a cove with a waterfall accessible only by boat. From the boat you could swim over to the base of the cliff to the side of the waterfall, where there was a knotted rope you could use to climb up to the top. It was not an easy climb over slippery rocks and mossy footholds.

Once at the top, you could look out over the boats floating below. From this ledge, the cliff seemed much taller than it did from water level. This was the “oh s- - t” moment when you would realize what you had done. There was only one way down and that was not climbing back down the way you had come up. The only way down was to jump.

So you stood at the top of the cliff wondering why you had wanted to do this in the first place. What looked so enticing from below now was terrifying. You worked so hard to get to this point and now all you had to do to get where you wanted was to step off solid ground. Gravity would do the rest.

This is where we sometimes find ourselves when all our practice and effort gets us to the point when there is nothing left to do except let go. And that becomes the hardest thing of all. We read books, meditate for hours, go to workshops, chant and beat drums. We call ourselves seekers and embrace the journey. But when life says, “You are here! You have arrived. Seek no more. Just let go,” we balk.

Because on some level, you know that if you just let go and fall into grace, it will be ...

The End of Your World

What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, we call a butterfly.

We are so afraid that if we let go, our world will not be the same, we will not be the same. We will not be in control. We will be in free fall. And that is the key word – free. Here is the secret: you were never in control. Once you step off the cliff in surrender, the fear is immediately gone and you know that everything is all right, no matter what. You realize that you haven’t lost anything but delusion and the fear that goes with it. And that changes everything.

Nothing is the same. You are not the same. It is extraordinary. And immensely ordinary. It is everything. And nothing. You feel exhilarated, and relieved. It is liberating, and you are ...

Emptiness Dancing

You plunge into the water and come up laughing and sputtering. You look around at the boats and the waterfall and the people. Can they tell that everything has changed, that you have changed? No one seems to notice that everything seems fresher, the colors brighter, the water cooler. You have released everything that you held onto, emptied yourself of all your fears and stories and limitations. Life is exquisite. Every moment is a gift, an invitation to dance the divine dance.

You climb back onto the boat. Your mother wraps you in a towel and slathers sun screen on your face over your protests. Dad opens the cooler and everyone reaches for sodas and fried chicken.

It is all so deliciously normal, in a way you have never noticed before.

Nearby there is a splash. A face pops up out of the water. Eyes full of wonder search until they meet yours. You smile.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Unknown

















Start with “I don’t know.” Why not just start with where you’ll end up anyway? ~Adyashanti

I was never a legit Trekkie but I did enjoy and was inspired by two of the series – Next Generation, and Voyager.

Each series had a crew member characterized by intellectual and logical prowess – Data, the android in Next Generation, and Tuvok, the Vulcan in Voyager. Occasionally they were confronted with a question they could not answer.

“What is the composition of the gasses in that nebula?”

“What is the origin of that ship speeding towards us on an intercept course?”

“What dimension did these aliens just emerge from?”

When unable to answer, Data or Tuvok would simply reply “unknown.”

Lately, when feeling that urge to understand what cannot be understood, to describe what cannot be described, to have certainty where none exists, I have interrupted my endless mind loops with a simple word – unknown.

My mind hates that. My mind is useful for many things, and I appreciate its contribution to my life. But minds are wired to know, to identify, to categorize, to understand, to store and retrieve. Confronted with mystery, our minds continue to search for an answer. That’s fine if the mystery is about what is making that scratching sound in the attic, but it doesn’t work when the question is beyond the limits of mind, when the answer is not only unknown, but unknowable.

Not one to give up, the mind solves the dilemma by latching onto an answer. Then a problem arises when someone else’s mind latches onto a different answer. Which answer is The Answer?

How can we know? We can’t. As one teacher says, we cannot think our way to truth. Thinking is always one step away from truth. Truth just is, regardless of what we think or don’t think. When we drop everything we think we know, there it is, shining like a light that has been uncovered, shining as it always has been and always will.

But as soon as we try to think about it, or understand it, or explain it, it disappears again, not because it isn’t there but because our efforts to hold it in our minds block our inner sight. As the song says, how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Someone recently joked that I’m like Oprah. (Really, they were joking.) Oh no, I replied. Oprah’s monthly magazine ends with a column titled “What I Know for Sure.” Oprah knows something for sure at least twelve times a year. I don’t know doodley-squat ... ever.

Footprints lead to the shore of the sea
Beyond that point no trace remains
~Rumi

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Homesick


At night
When darkness makes the edges soft
And thins the veil
The boy wept
I miss home, he cried
We are home, his parents soothed
No, my home before, now sobbing
His parents stroked his back, perplexed
You mean our old house?
No, not that one, the one before!
There was no other
You were born in that house
No! he wailed. The one BEFORE!
His parents understood at last
And cried with him

Friday, July 6, 2018

Water Moves the Color


I am participating in a four part Art and Meditation workshop. That doesn’t sound like such a remarkable thing until you know that I am a bit phobic about art. I joke (but not really joking) that my sister got all the artistic talent in the family. She is indeed a wonderful artist and my home is graced by several of her lovely paintings.

I feel about a blank piece of art paper the way some people feel about a blank screen when they are trying to write. So if you really understand how reluctant I am to do anything even remotely artistic, you will marvel at my willingness to try out this workshop. I marvel at it myself. The meditation aspect was the hook – THAT I’m comfortable with. And so I went.

And here is what happened....

The director of the workshop, Margaret, began with all of us in a sitting area. So far so good. I can sit. Tables and shelves in another part of the room were filled with all kinds of art supplies. I tried not to look. Her presence was calm and her words aimed to reassure. This was not about producing a certain product using specific techniques. This was about exploring, playing, discovering, allowing. Blah, blah, blah. Anxiety nipped at my heels.

Then, in giving us a brief orientation to the materials, she used the phrase “Water moves the color.” My soul phone rang and I hesitatingly answered. Hello? As we settled into meditation, those words held out their hands, inviting me to dance.

After a period of silence, we moved into the art area. I felt excited and a tiny bit brave. I picked a large piece of watercolor paper taped to a board and sat with it flat on the table in front of me. I closed my eyes and moved my hands over the paper. It wasn’t so scary if I couldn’t see it. I chose a few colors and squeezed the paint out beside the paper.

No brushes, I decided. Just my hands, water, and color. I cupped my hands into the water container and soaked the paper until it was saturated. Then I stuck my hands in the paint, closed my eyes again, and let my fingers dance in the puddles. There was color everywhere. I picked up the board, tilting the paper this way and that.

And guess what...water moved the color! Across the ridges and into the valleys created by the wet paper. It was amazing. But the water wasn’t done. I laid the board on the table again, and over time, as the paint and paper dried, shapes and lines emerged that could not have been predicted. It was like the water itself was painting. I was simply a witness to its own creative dynamic. It was all a beautiful surprise, one I neither envisioned nor controlled.

Just ... like ... life.


To learn more about Margaret and her soul enriching offerings, click here to visit her website. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 45


This chapter reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:12 – For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. We think we see clearly, but when we look through the fog of our own judgments and beliefs, our hopes and fears, we see illusion yet think it real. We try to make sense of the paradox of our perceptions, seeking the safety of certainty instead of the mystery of truth.

Great perfection seems imperfect
Yet its use is not impaired

Great fullness seems empty
Yet its use is not exhausted

Great truth seems wrong
Great skill seems clumsy
Great eloquence seems awkward
Great richness seems poor

The repeated use of the character for “seems” suggests that things are not always as they appear. Or, as the saying goes, don’t believe everything you think.

This is especially true of the second couplet above. The fullness that appears empty is the unlimited potential of the formless, undifferentiated Tao, the source of the entire manifested universe.

In martial arts we practice wuji stance, or empty stance, as pictured above. From this perfectly aligned, relaxed stance, all movement is possible. The internal circulation of qi (energy) is unrestricted; the potential for outward expression of power is unlimited.

We can cultivate this same “stance” in our lives, by finding our inner balance and alignment. When we are fully present with an attitude of open awareness, we engage with life as it truly is, as we truly are. We see face to face.

Every object, every creature, every man, woman and child
has a soul,
and it is the destiny of all
to see as God sees, 
to know as God knows,
to feel as God feels, 
to Be
as God
Is
~Meister Eckhart

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let It Go






The creek whispers
Let it go
Let it go
There is so much more
There is 
                so
                    much
                               more

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Divided World


The world is divided into people who think they are right.
~Tara Brach

It took me a few seconds to understand that there was no more to this sentence. Each side of the divide claims the higher ground of being right, being righteous, being morally superior, being more ethical, being smarter, being better.

Nowhere was this more evident to me than in the case of two business owners, each of whom denied service to a customer based on their own sense of morality. The customers in both cases were denied service because of who they were, not because they were engaged in any behavior disruptive to the businesses in question.

I’m not here to debate the legalities, the politics, or any other aspect of the owners’ decisions. What caught my attention was the reactions to the decisions. One group of people condemned the first owner and praised the second. Another group of people praised the first and condemned the second.

Neither group seemed to see any contradiction in their own opposite reactions to basically the same scenario. And of course each group saw their reactions as the “right” ones.

But how can any of this be right? How can any of this lead to anything other than more division, more distrust, more judgment, more hatred, more insistence, more fighting, more of everything that brings us down as human beings?

Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, please pour your nectar of compassion over all of us, over both business owners, over both customers, over all who have furthered the divide, and over all who seek to bridge it. Help us love with the love that we profess to believe in, help us open our hearts to receive the grace we long for, help us reach through our fear to find a hand on the other side. May we shine like the sun and nourish like the rain.

For the sun rises on the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust. ~Matthew 5:45

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Pink T-Shirt


When my daughter was little she would put a pink T-shirt on her head and pretend it was long hair. She would stand in front of the mirror swishing it around and styling it. Yes, that child could braid a T-shirt. And make it into a ponytail or a bun.

One day we were getting ready to go to the store. She ran to get the pink T-shirt, and when it was arranged to her liking, she headed to the door.

Looking back at me, she asked, “Will people think I have long hair?”

“No, sweetie,” I said gently, “they will think you have a pink T-shirt on your head.”

She paused as a shadow of doubt flitted across her brow. But just for a moment.

“No they won’t,” she said resolutely. And flipping her long, cottony tresses over her shoulder, she skipped away.

That is one of my favorite stories of her irrepressible childhood.

I was reminded of it recently when I caught myself in a pink hair story about a situation that I wanted to be a certain way. I told myself that it was indeed how I imagined it to be, and was puzzled and frustrated by all the evidence right in front of me that didn’t comport with my desire. I wanted to dismiss anything that contradicted the image I had created.

It didn’t work, of course. I saw pretty quickly what I was doing, and still I was reluctant to let my dream go. The hold that our delusions have on us is strong. And so I did what I’ve learned to do when out of sync with what is.

I sat.

And I began to inquire. What is the nature of this desire? Of the reluctance to let it go? Where do I feel it in my body? What is underneath?

I became aware of the energy it took to sustain the delusion, and I could already feel how tiring that was. I could observe the suffering of attachment, even a minor attachment such as this one. I saw, as is often the case, that our attachments are rarely about the object or story of our desire. We have to go deep for the source to be revealed. And as my hold softened, compassion welled up to soothe the loss.

I pulled off the pink T-shirt with gratitude, and lovingly put it away.

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. ~Carl Sagan