There is nobody who can teach the way of no way. It cannot be learned either. Teaching and learning require someone. When there is no longer anybody, then the way of no way is evident and there is neither need for learning nor desire for teaching. ~Todd Jackson
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.
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?
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.)
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 ...
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.
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
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
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.
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
The world is divided into people who think they are right.
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
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.
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
Fame or self, which is dearer Self or wealth, which is greater Gain or loss, which is painful
The first two lines remind me of a popular question – would you rather be rich or famous? Although here, we are asked to evaluate both fame and riches in comparison to our self. The character for self also means body, so we could make our evaluation in terms of our physical lives, or in terms of our identity or sense of self.
The third line asks us to look at the effect of gain or loss on our lives. Most of us would prefer gain to loss, but if we examine our attachment to gain and our aversion to loss, we might see that both can cause anxiety.
Excessive love comes at a great cost More acquisition is balanced by more loss Knowing contentment avoids disappointment Knowing when to stop avoids trouble Thus one long endures
The message here is one of balance and equanimity. Fame comes and goes. Riches come and go. We receive and release. There is a point of equipoise where the self remains balanced, not seeking to force or interfere.
Sometimes people misinterpret this to mean that we should just sit around doing nothing. That is not in harmony. When it is time to work, we work. When it is time to rest, we rest. We take responsibility for our lives. We provide for our families. We contribute to our communities.
We can do all of that from a centered place of contentment and gratitude, knowing when we have enough, or have done enough.
My sister is an artist, and I often wonder when she knows that a painting is finished. There seems to be a point where she has done enough, and more would be too much. She just knows. That fascinates me.
I have a friend who lives in a gorgeous, palatial home, but is always worried about money. How can a person who lives in such luxury have such a joy crushing sense of lack? That fascinates me too.
This chapter invites us to examine our own lives, to notice where we are out of sync, where we struggle hold the scales out of balance, and to consider the effort it takes to maintain our disequilibrium. Can we observe without judgment? If we can, then perhaps we can gain some insight that might allow us to release even just a little of that burden.
Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. ~Herman Melville, Moby Dick
You are the face of my longing But you are not my longing You are the name of my longing But you are not my longing You are the form of my longing But you are not my longing You break my heart But it is not you It is my longing
There is a rhododendron bush outside my window. A few minutes ago, I saw a squirrel perched on one of the branches, grooming itself. It was so cute, washing its adorable face and stroking its fur. It looked so soft and cuddly, bringing back sweet memories of the friendly pet squirrel I had as a child.
I was lost in pleasant reverie when I noticed something was a bit off. Where was its fluffy tail? I looked more closely and recoiled in alarm. It wasn’t a squirrel at all. It was a rat! Its beady little eyes were full of evil threat. It looked filthy and diseased. I immediately started doing a mental scan of my house, hoping there was no way for it to get inside. I wished one of the feral cats in the neighborhood would come to the rescue.
It was the same little creature going about its business, unaware that in one moment I was gazing upon it with pleasure and enjoyment, and in the next moment I was wishing it a swift and violent death. Nothing had changed except my perception of it and the emotional reaction to that perception.
Wow. Lots to contemplate. I can see how this plays out in my life. I look at a situation from one perspective and witness all the judgments and emotions that flow from that perspective. Then I shift to a different angle and everything changes. My whole “reality” shifts. Meanwhile, the universe just goes about its business.
So thank you, Master Rat, for my spiritual lesson today. I bow in gratitude. And I confess I’m still hoping one of those cats is nearby.
We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are. ~Anais Nin
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge. ~Psalm 91:4
In the Hebrew Bible, God gives directions to Moses to build a temple. Within the temple, in the most sacred inner room, Moses is instructed to build a “mercy seat” of pure gold and to place it above the ark of the covenant. “There I will meet with you,” promises God.
I am no Bible scholar, so my mind is uncomplicated by specific knowledge about this seat. In my imagination, the mercy seat is the thin place where we encounter the divine (by whatever name we choose). God does not meet with us on the seat of judgment, or the seat of vengeance. There is no separation here, no hatred, no fear. Only mercy, only love.
If I sit on the mercy seat, I will be bathed in the light of divine love, filled with the basic goodness of the universe. My spirit will be purified and mercy will spill over like a golden fountain, flowing wherever I hold judgment and condemnation, washing away everything that is born of fear, imbuing what has been dark with a light so brilliant that nothing is left in shadow.
I have held this image in my heart recently as I have struggled to forgive and release a situation that continues to churn in my spirit. When I feel myself sucked back towards that whirlpool of anger and blame and fear and pain, I picture myself on the mercy seat, opening my soul to the sacred energy of the universe, asking for mercy for myself and for those against whom I harbor thoughts of separation and judgment.
The true gift of grace is that the line between giving and receiving mercy immediately disappears as soon as mercy is asked for or offered. Mercy never flows only one direction, but washes over both the giver and the recipient.
Imagining myself on the golden seat of mercy is humbling. Grace is so exquisite, the limitless generosity of the universe so sublime, that my grievances simply melt away. I am bewildered that I ever thought them important, worthy of my attention and energy. What are they compared to this glorious freedom from what entraps my soul?
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. –Lewis B. Smedes
So much of the news today seems to be about what someone said on social media. Or what someone said in an interview or on the phone or in a meeting or on a blog or in a hotel room or inadvertently in front of a hot mic. Then other people have to talk about what was said. And others have to react. Then the person who initially spoke either doubles down or apologizes. Then people have to talk about it some more.
At least until someone else says something that eclipses the story and begins another news cycle. This usually doesn’t take very long.
When my daughter was little, she talked nonstop. She had a husky voice. We joked that she was perpetually hoarse from all the talking and that we had never heard her normal voice. I was often her audience of choice, and she would follow me around, peppering me with questions that she didn’t even want an answer to. (I figured that out because she never waited for an answer before asking the next question.) She just wanted me to react. She talked until my ears hurt.
Sometimes I was the talker. I tended to explain too much when I was upset with the kids. Their eyes would glaze over. My son would hold up his hand in a stop signal and say in a robotic voice, “Talking...is...over.”
What is it about our need to talk? What is the nature of this urge? For us to contemplate this, we need to stop talking. We need to listen. Not only to others but to ourselves. Perhaps we are looking for connection. We want to be heard. We want to feel valued. We want to not feel alone.
I’m sure there are other reasons. But I suspect that a good part of our motivation to talk so much isn’t really about the content of what we are saying. And whatever the underlying need is, I suspect that it will not be met by using more words or a louder voice. Underneath all the screaming words, attacking words, manipulative words, lying words, judging words, complaining words, or even just too many words, I suspect we might find a reservoir of pain and fear.
If we could hear that in others, and recognize it in ourselves, perhaps our speech would take on a very different quality.
The acronym above is a wonderful reminder to pause and gently question our use of words. I like the Buddhist concept of “right speech.” Before speaking I can ask myself three questions about what I’m going to say.
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
And if I can answer yes to all the questions, then I might hold out an open hand to my son and say, “Talking...has...just...begun.”
Take the one seat, Beloved And wait Wait without knowing for what is beyond knowing Wait without words for what is beyond words Wait without thought for what is beyond thought Take the one seat, Beloved And wait Note: Comments are closed on poetry posts
I just realized that my comment notification is not working. I usually get an email notification that I have a comment awaiting moderation, but after not getting any email notices for a while, I went to my comment moderation page and found a lot of comments! Oh dear.
I have now published all of those, and I will go back and respond right now. I'm so sorry for the delay.
Meanwhile, I have heard from a blog buddy that my site is not allowing her to comment. Another oh dear. If you are having similar problems, will you please email me at email@example.com and let me know.
If you are a Blogger blogger and are having similar problems, do you know how to fix this? Again, please email (or try to comment!) and let me know.
I did get a notice from Blogger about OpenID changes. I have no idea what this means.
Again, please excuse my blog blips. Your comments are always valued and I'm sorry I didn't realize faster that there was a problem.
The Tao Te Ching has been a source of inspiration in my life for many years. I don’t remember how I first encountered it in my young life, but I do remember that its simple wisdom resonated in my soul and I have loved it ever since.
Several years ago, I gathered various translations with the intention of taking one chapter at a time and comparing the different interpretations. However, I quickly saw that this was not enough. I needed to go to the source. And so I began a journey into the original ancient Chinese text. It was like finding a door hidden in the overgrowth to a secret garden of unimaginable beauty.
“Here there be dragons,” say the old maps designating uncharted areas at the edge of the known world. Dragons indeed, bursting from the depths of the sea, water diamonds cascading from their wings, dancing in the air, their form too brilliant to behold, then disappearing in a puff of smoke. I had no idea.
And that is the point perhaps. Having no idea.
The Chinese text dances like those dragons, defying analysis or intellectual understanding. It is poetic, with rhythm and music to delight the soul. The characters are cryptic, with multiple meanings swirling in fluid mystery. Trying to pin down a single meaning is like trying to catch with your bare hands a single slippery fish in a vast school of fish. Better to float in the water, watching the colorful fish dart and twirl. I quit trying to understand and just immersed myself in the experience.
We see such variations in translation, not because one is right and one is wrong, but because translators by necessity must dip their net into the water and catch a single meaning to put into language that we recognize. We form ideas about the meaning so that we can use words to share our ideas with each other.
My daughter grew up in China with Chinese as her first language. When I shared with her my exploration of the Chinese text of the Tao Te Ching, she brushed her hand through the air and shrugged. “No one understands this,” she said dismissively.
I had to laugh. But her response gave me a deeper insight. Even if we were native Chinese speakers, we would have to form ideas and use words to communicate with each other about the meaning of this wisdom teaching that defies explanation in any language!
Expanding even more, we can include all of life in this process. All of us, all the time, are “translating” our experience into ideas, concepts, beliefs. And using words to communicate these to each other. That’s not bad. Or good for that matter. It is a necessary process for us as embodied separate individuals. Our ideas, beliefs, and concepts then in turn shape our experience because we will only recognize what comports with the internal structure we have built. We create a loop of what we call reality through what we create and perceive.
Meanwhile, our direct experience of true realty has been “lost in translation.” To me, this is what the Tao Te Ching teaches. If I can embrace all the possible meanings in the mystery of the text, then I can appreciate the various translations without judging them as right or wrong, good or bad. Likewise, if we can embrace the direct experience of what is, then we can engage in and enjoy the dialogue of human-ness without the added suffering of attachment. We can dance with dragons.
Any belief limits my reality, because any belief is a prejudice. Any belief imposes an artificial structure on the free flow of experience. ~Paul Ferrini
This short chapter highlights a theme that runs through the Tao Te Ching.
What is most soft Overcomes what is most hard
Two characters are used for “overcome,” literally meaning to gallop on horseback. Having grown up riding horses, I have wonderful memories of galloping bareback across meadows, hands entwined in flowing mane, hanging on as my horse ran free. It was exhilarating and powerful.
The horse’s strength came from being supple, its speed from finding its rhythm. This is the image I have of softness overcoming rigidity.
The next line uses a different image.
What is without form or substance can enter the impenetrable
While not exactly on point, I am distracted by a memory of being inadvertently caught in a revolution in another country. With just minutes of warning, I and some fellow travelers crowded into a hotel room as chaos erupted in the streets below. When we saw the tear gas canisters exploding, we began stuffing wet towels around the windows, hoping to seal them. But within moments, our eyes were stinging red and watery as we looked at each other helplessly.
Flipping to the other side of the concept, much of what I practice in martial arts is about not being stiff or forceful. As one teacher says, “I know you, but you don’t know me.” He means that he can sense where our resistance is, where his advantage is, while we are unable to find any vulnerability on his part. If I push, I meet nothing and suddenly my own effort is my defeat.
“I’m trying...,” I begin. “That is your problem,” he laughs in response.
Just like in life. I’ve learned with my grandchildren something I never mastered with my strong-willed children. Don’t meet force with force, but rather yield and overcome. Deflect and redirect!
I’m reminded of the fable about the wind and the sun arguing about who is stronger. They agree to decide the question by competing to see which one can remove the coat of a person walking along the road. The wind blows as hard as it can, but the person grips her coat and wraps it tightly around her body. The sun shines gently and soon the person removes her coat to bask in the sun’s warmth.
The chapter ends with a lament that few people understand this principle. So true, isn’t it? We exhaust ourselves with our force and resistance, trying to make the present moment something other than what it is. But each new moment gives us another opportunity to mount up and go for the galloping ride.
These apparently contradictory statements are at the heart of spiritual awakening, representing the two practices of release and acceptance.
“Neti, neti” is a Sanskrit expression from ancient Hindu texts. It can be translated as “Not that, not that.” It reminds me to not grasp onto my beliefs and opinions, my judgments and fears.
“This too, this too” is a phrase I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, teaching me to accept what is, whether that is my circumstances or my feelings or yes, even those opinions and judgments.
I find that acceptance rather than resistance is what allows me to soften my grip and release whatever binds me. If I make a mistake, as I did recently, I can replay the situation endlessly, feeling worse and worse. But no matter how wise I am in hindsight about what I should have done, or wish I had done, I can’t change what I did. I try to deny, rationalize, justify, reframe, tell a different story – anything other than just acknowledging that I made a mistake. So now not only have I made a mistake, but I have created a story about it evoking feelings of shame, embarrassment, anger (at myself), and judgment.
So I quit fighting with reality and accept what happened, without embellishment. This too, this too. And I accept my feelings of regret and sadness. This too, this too.
Everything is workable, everything becomes my teacher, everything has a place in my life.
And when I can accept my circumstances and myself, as is, the thoughts that torment me begin to fade. I can see through them. They are not real. Neti, neti. They do not bind me. They have no power over me. They no longer separate me from others. I need not defend my position, nor impose my views. I don’t need to be right. Not that, not that.
Harmony is restored.
Years ago when I was in therapy, my therapist would respond to my frequent descriptions of how I had somehow fallen short, or not been my best, with a tilt of her head and a little smile. “Welcome to the human race,” she would say. I hated that. I held myself to a higher standard. Than being human? “And how is that working for you?” was another one of her standard lines. I hated that too.
But now I am older, and if not wiser, certainly more tired. Too tired to struggle against what is. Too tired to pretend. Too tired to carry the heavy baggage of a lifetime of judgments and failings. Too tired to do anything other than the best I can do in this moment.
What a relief.
No wonder sages are most often portrayed as old ... or as Yoda.
You can’t organize truth. That’s like trying to shape a pound of water in wrapping paper. ~Bruce Lee
I was having a discussion with a friend about a particular theological concept, one that has defied any sort of sensible explanation for centuries. We had read various scholars’ analyses; we had listened to podcasts interviewing well respected teachers and experts. I listened as my friend tried various approaches to understanding, until she finally threw up her hands in unhappy defeat.
Then she asked what I thought. Hmm....
I think that what I think doesn’t really matter. As Adyashanti says, we cannot think our way to truth. We are so wired to analyze, to categorize, to explain, and by so doing, to understand. Our sweet little brains just cannot stand to not know. It’s like a toothache that we keep probing with our tongue. Relief comes only when we have an answer, and we are so relieved to have one that we are loath to question it in case we find it lacking and have to start again.
But our answer is not truth. I can put water in a cup, but the water is not the cup. I can put truth into a belief or a concept or some sort of thinking structure, but truth is not that structure.
So is there a test for truth? Maybe...
Can you explain it? It’s not truth.
Can you describe it? It’s not truth.
Can you disagree with someone about it? It’s not truth.
Can you understand it? It’s definitely not truth.
The Sanskrit expression “neti, neti” meaning “not this, not this,” is a practice or meditation to reveal truth by identifying what is not truth. It is comparable to the via negativa or apophetic theology, which seeks to remove all blocks from direct experience of the divine.
We don’t find truth. We don’t need to find it because it was never lost. We live in truth the way a fish lives in water. Its eternal presence is revealed when we drop all the barriers we have put up with our beliefs.
If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. ~Psalm 42:7
For the last six weeks, my usually busy schedule has been emptied. I suspended my martial arts classes, my piano lessons, my Chinese tutor. I made a choice to devote my mornings to a writing project. (Mornings, I’ve discovered, are really the only time I have even the slightest bit of self-discipline and productive energy.)
So I cleared my calendar and set to it. Coincidentally, I also found myself temporarily without a TV, and then decided to not replace it for the time being.
That’s a lot of alone time with less distraction than usual. After a couple of weeks, I began to experience an inner discomfort, a restlessness, a vague dissatisfaction. I wanted something. But what was it?
My typical approach to such a question is to think about it. So I thought ... and thought. But got no answer, proving once again that thinking is highly overrated. Nothing seemed quite right, like when you’re starving and standing in front of the open refrigerator but nothing looks good.
Meanwhile, this undefined feeling was expanding, like a spring welling up and spreading over the ground, like a wave swelling as it rolls toward the shore. It was painful, and a little scary. But there was no escape. It was inside me, calling me, touching my heart, drawing me deep.
Longing. My soul was longing. As all souls do. We long for home, for awakening, for remembering who we are, for union. Like salmon returning from the sea, this is the longing of creation, to manifest into form and then return to the formlessness from which it is birthed. We miss its quiet beckoning in the roar of our lives.
But now I heard it, unmistakable and compelling. I was distressed because I was resisting, wanting the familiarity of my distractions, the comfort of certainty, the safety of understanding.
This longing of the soul brings none of those. It is a call back into the mystery, unknown and unknowable. It is terrifying, and ultimately irresistible. We all hear it. We hear it in the beat of our hearts, in the rhythm of our breath, in the silence of our souls. Deep calls to us, and what is deep within us answers.
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. ~Psalm 42:1
The first part of this chapter carries its deepest meaning. It begins with a brief version of creation.
Tao gives birth to one One gives birth to two Two give birth to three Three give birth to the ten thousand things
Using symbols, this progression can be illustrated by the movement from wuji, or unlimited potential,
to taiji, commonly recognized as the yin yang symbol.
It is the separation of oneness into the complementary energies of yin and yang that creates form from the formlessness of One. This reminds me of the Buddhist teaching: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”
The union of yin and yang then produces the manifested universe, referred to as the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang These two energies exchange in the middle creating harmony
The character for carry suggests carrying something on one’s back. Thus carrying yin and embracing yang (in front) give a sense of yin and yang circling through us and around us in perfect balance, one fading as the other manifests.
This also reflects our breathing. We breathe in and manifest; we breathe out and release. The point of exchange is that moment when we are neither inhaling nor exhaling. There is a moment of balanced stillness as the two energies meet in the center before exchanging places and repeating the cycle. Within that stillness is the eternal harmony.
In Shambhala training, this point between the breaths is called the gap. It is the gateway of the holy instant described in A Course in Miracles. Within that tiny portal in time is the transcendence of time into the vastness of infinity.
This is our practical way to practice something mysterious and indefinable. We breathe. And as we reach that point of exchange, when we have fully inhaled or exhaled and are poised to reverse , we can be aware of the perfect harmony in the stillness.
A law professor, speaking English as a second language, once gave us an instruction to turn to a particular page and “be amazed.” Our breath is like that. It seems ordinary and we take it for granted. But within each breath is all the wisdom teaching of the universe.