Tuesday, April 20, 2021
This is a “joke’s on me” story. I love martial arts. I have practiced various martial arts over the years. These days, it’s taiji, sword, and staff. I recently took a video of myself practicing a sword form. In my head I looked like this:
When I watched the video, my first thought was “Who’s that old lady with the big butt flapping that sword around?”
Ah, reality. I had a good laugh at myself. What a great opportunity to truly see and embrace things as they really are. And still love life.
On the other hand, there is no harm in enjoying our fantasies. When my daughter was young, she liked to wear a pink T shirt on her head and pretend she had long hair. She wanted to wear it to go shopping one day, and asked me if people would think she had long hair. No, I said with a smile. They will think you have a pink T shirt on your head.
She paused for a moment, then flipped her pink “hair” around her shoulders and said confidently, No they won’t. And off she skipped.
Note to self – no more videos!
Friday, April 16, 2021
Saturday, April 10, 2021
This is it, the last chapter of the Tao Te Ching. I began this series on the 81 chapters of this ancient text almost five years ago. Wow, that is hard for me to believe. The intention for the series was to share some reflections on each chapter based on my decades long love of this wisdom teaching, which led me to spend several years delving into the mystery and beauty of the original Chinese characters. What I’ve tried to offer is not another translation of each chapter – there are already so many of those – but rather some insight or application that has arisen in my own life through my engagement with the text.
So here we are, at the end which does not feel like the end. The motion of Tao is cyclical, manifesting and returning, rather than linear. It ends where it begins. This is the way.
With that in mind, I’m drawn to the very end of this chapter, which, at least to me, sums up the arc of wisdom throughout the Tao Te Ching.
Heaven’s Tao benefits yet does not interfere
Sage’s Tao acts yet does not contend
Here is our model for living in awakened moments. The energy of the universe is like the sun, providing light and warmth to all without regard to merit, without judgment, without manipulation. The ten thousand things of creation evolve and unfold according to their nature. We don’t have to look far to see how interference, no matter how well intentioned, often leads to unexpected and undesired results. This, in turn, requires more and more manipulation, layers upon layers of course correction to restore balance, which is never truly achieved and must be artificially maintained.
We can think of examples in our communities and in our own lives where we sought to make some improvement or to bestow some benefit that did not turn out the way we imagined. Think kudzu. For more entertaining examples, think of all the science fiction tales based on time travel that wreaks havoc with history’s trajectory, or medical breakthroughs that unleash unanticipated devastation. It’s no accident that Star Trek’s “prime directive” prohibited interference with the natural development of alien civilizations. (And yes, some of the best storylines in Star Trek involved the violation of the prime directive!)
Yet non-interference does not mean non-engagement. The sage acts. The key is in the absence of striving or contending. Appropriate actions arise naturally and effortlessly when they are in harmony with the movement of Tao’s intrinsic energy. Ordinary people sometimes act in extraordinary ways, and we call them heroes. When asked about their actions, they often say that they didn’t think. They just instinctively responded to a perceived need. I’m thinking of a man I read about recently who, in the moments after his outside wedding, saw a boy drowning in a canal. Leaving his bride and the photographer wondering what was going on, he raced to the water’s edge and without hesitation jumped in the water and pulled the boy out.
Not all examples are so dramatic. I’m thinking of a friend who baked cookies for me when I was having a really bad day. When presented with the cookies, I burst into tears of gratitude. Her gesture was perfect and exactly what I needed. She thought nothing of it, but to me it changed everything.
When we self reflect, we can often see that most of our effort and striving happens in our thinking minds, when we are struggling with what is, wanting it to be something different, wanting someone else to be different, wanting ourselves to be different. When we contend with reality, we will always lose. But when we loosen our rigid grip, when we release our insistence, when we allow awareness to open unimpeded, our way becomes clear in its own time, and we follow its path with effortless energy.
Thus we come full circle in this ancient wisdom teaching. The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching ends with the character for doorway or gate, inviting us into the mystery of an awakened life, lived fully in harmony with the natural expression of creation. This last chapter reveals how life unfolds when we walk through the door.
The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~T. S. Eliot
I hope you have enjoyed this series. You can access the entire series by clicking on the label Tao Te Ching chapter series below, or over in the right column under the list of labels.
Monday, April 5, 2021
This chapter starts with a description of a small country with few people. They live simply and in harmony with nature. (This chapter could have been the model for the back to the land movement of my younger years. Reading it brought back wonderful memories of living in a shack in the mountains of Montana!)
The people in this chapter enjoy their tasty food, appreciate their beautiful clothes, live contentedly in their peaceful homes, and are happy in their everyday life. The Chinese characters in these lines raise the question of what comes first. For example, do they enjoy their food because it’s tasty, or is their food tasty because they enjoy it? Are they content because their homes are peaceful, or are their home peaceful because they are content?
In other words, are these positive qualities inherent in the objects, or are the qualities a result of the relationship the people have with these objects? If I have an attitude of appreciation and contentment toward my surroundings, I am more likely to enjoy them and be at peace. But if I am generally dissatisfied and always wanting something different, I am going to see my life as lacking and never good enough.
Studies have shown that only 10% of our happiness in life is related to our circumstances. That’s not very much, especially when you think how typical it is for people to hold their happiness hostage to something outside themselves. I’ll be happy when I get a job, when I retire, when I have kids, when my kids grow up, when I find a partner, when I finally get that partner out of my life, and so on.
If only 10% of our happiness is dependent on all those things, then what is the true basis of our contentedness in life? Yes, our attitudes, our habitual thinking patterns, our choices in outlook – this is what really dictates the quality of our life experience.
So what can we learn from the people in this chapter? It seems that they are content with living simply and in harmonious relationship with each other and with their environment. Does living close to nature enhance this sense of well being? Some of us might be familiar with the Japanese custom of forest bathing. I can attest to my own experience of spending time at my cabin. My kids will tell you I am a much nicer person (!) when I spend a weekend sitting by the creek in the woods.
But whether you spend time close to the earth or not, we all have the power to choose our outlook on life, to be grateful, to care, to be content.
He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have. ~Socrates
Thursday, April 1, 2021
Friday, March 26, 2021
I’ve had two conversations with people recently who both, for different reasons, could not see or appreciate the gifts they were blessed with. They saw themselves as lacking in some way, lacking achievement, lacking purpose, lacking direction, lacking skill or talent.
This was remarkable because they are blessed with beautiful gifts that are so apparent to me, gifts that have so deeply enriched my life and I know the lives of others. One, for example, manifests the gift of compassion, with a heart that is big enough to care deeply, and a willingness to attend lovingly and without hesitation to the needs of those around her.
The other manifests the gift of connection and welcome, hospitality. She connects people not only to herself, but to others. She welcomes diversity to her table and makes all feel at home. She is a gardener of friendship and tends her garden with creativity and care.
I was surprised that they could not see themselves as so richly valued and valuable when that is how I see them. It occurred to me that that might be true for so many of us. We measure ourselves against very narrow rubrics of success and often overlook the gifts that bring the most benefit. We do not automatically see the impact we have on others unless someone points it out to us. We don’t know what we bring to the table unless someone tells us.
We often hear people at memorial services speak openly and gratefully about the person who is no longer there to hear, who perhaps died not knowing what they meant to someone, or how they helped or made someone’s life a little better. Why do we feel so compelled to speak of someone’s gifts after they are gone, and so hesitant to speak of them to the person while we have the chance?
We are all blessed with gifts, as varied as we are, but all are precious. We share these treasures, knowingly or unknowingly, by our very being. What a gift we could give to others by speaking the blessing of their gifts – naming the gifts, describing them, giving examples, expressing gratitude.
Don’t wait. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could help each other recognize:
I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness. ~Walt Whitman
Monday, March 22, 2021
My grandson and I watched the movie Yes Day recently. In the movie, a couple decides to reconnect with their kids by having a day of saying yes to whatever the kids want. Comedy ensues.
The movie made me more aware of how often I say no. Maybe I forego a chance to be kind to someone, or an invitation to do something fun. Perhaps I resist a nudge to write about something uncomfortable, or reject an opportunity to have a candid discussion about a sensitive topic. There are times I avoid examining my own conduct or thoughts or assumptions. And how many times have I said no to forgiveness even when I know that my own happiness would be enhanced?
We say no to life when we want things to be different, or people to be different. When we deny or repress feelings that are distressing or painful. When we struggle to control things beyond our reach, or try to force people or circumstances to conform to our desires. When we want ourselves to be better, smarter, enlightened, and condemn ourselves when we fail in our attempt.
How would my experience of life be different if I woke up tomorrow and said yes to whatever the day presents? If I remained open and curious instead of judgmental or anxious? If I allowed the day to unfold naturally instead of trying to plan or control every minute? If I watched for miracles instead of problems? If I was grateful instead of complaining? If I accepted myself just as I am? If I embraced each breath and touched every moment with compassion?
A yes day with life. Let’s see what happens.
For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes. ~Dag Hammarskjold