Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Season of Stillness

Winter is when the earth is pregnant. ~Dave

Fall was the season of courage, a time of gathering and preparing. Now winter draws us into the dark mystery of life. Outward activity slows as we burrow into our cozy nests and settle down for our “long winter’s nap.”

Winter is the season of stillness, allowing us to sink deep inside ourselves, to listen...and wait. The Chinese medicine and qigong associations with this season reflect this quiet energy.


Kidneys are associated with winter. Physically, kidneys are a filtering system, purifying the blood by removing waste. Energetically, kidneys are the powerhouse of the body, storing qi like a reservoir. (One of the points on the kidney meridian is called the “spirit storehouse.”) When our kidney energy is depleted, our health is weakened. Even our bones derive their integrity from the kidneys.

In martial arts, kidneys take their place front and center as the source of strength and stamina. We learn how to drive our movements from the kidneys, and how to replenish their energy by “kidney breathing.” (See below for a description of kidney breathing.)


The element associated with kidneys is, not surprisingly, water. Water is the element most closely associated with Tao. As we saw before, many characters used in the Tao Te Ching to describe Tao have water radicals. Water is power. Not the power of force, but the power of its very being. Its depths hold mystery, the mystery of all life.

In the Pacific Northwest, the conjunction of winter with water (it rains a lot here in the winter!) invites us to enter into this period of inward reflection, to listen in the cold silence. Indeed, hearing is the sense associated with the kidneys and winter.

If you have done any qigong or taiji or acupressure, you might be aware of the central point of balance and energy located in the center of the sole of your foot just behind the ball. This point is the first point on the kidney meridian and is called the “bubbling well” or the “gushing spring.” Here we feel the energy of water welling up from the earth, entering our bodies through the kidney pathway, which opens in the middle of our feet. Pretty cool. For a quick picker upper, sit down, cross your ankle over your knee, and give that spot a little massage.


As stated before, the emotional associations are often categorized as positive or negative, but don’t think of this as good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. The negative emotion associated with the kidneys is fear. The positive one is stillness. These polarities are sometimes surprising. For example, in the fall, the corresponding emotions were sadness and courage. Here, we might think that courage would be the counterbalance to fear, but it isn’t. Stillness is.

But think about it. When we are afraid, what are we most compelled to do? Fight or flight, right? One way or another, we want to get relief from the fear. We want to move, to act.

One of my favorite stories is about the young warrior who had to battle Fear. When she respectfully bowed and asked Fear how to defeat him, he replied that his strategy was getting up in someone’s face to make them react. The way to defeat him was simple, he explained. “Just don’t do what I tell you to do.”

At this time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty in the world, the kidneys offer us wise counsel. If our reaction to fear is to move, either in fight or flight, then how do we defeat fear? By remaining still, like deep water, drawing on the strength of our spirit storehouse, listening to the wisdom of winter.

In quietness and in trust shall be your strength. ~Isaiah 30:15

Note on kidney breathing: You might already be familiar with belly breathing, relaxing as you breathe deeply into your abdomen, allowing your belly to expand. Now take your hands and place them in the opposite position on your back, just over your kidneys. As you breathe in, draw your breath fully into the lower torso, so that not only your belly expands in front, but your back also expands, pushing against your hands over your kidneys. This energizes your kidneys, removing any stagnation or blocks. It also makes full use of your lung capacity. This deep, relaxed breathing pumps oxygen into all our organs, and tells our brains that we are safe and all is well. Thus, it is the perfect practice when feeling anxious or afraid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 13

Unlike many chapters which use just a few characters to generate lots of meaning, this chapter uses a lot of repetition to convey what I think is a very simple message: Equanimity = peace.

Equanimity requires a certain degree of detachment. This doesn’t mean not engaging with life. It doesn’t mean not caring about anything. It means, to me, not getting hooked by the stories others tell or that we tell ourselves. It means not struggling against the natural flow of impermanence that is reflected in the human condition.

What we detach from can be external or internal. Honor and disgrace come from what others think of us. As the chapter says, both can cause us to be fearful or unsettled, because they depend on what we can’t control. Even if we are being honored, the honor can be taken away. When we give others the power over our well being, we can never be at peace.

Fortune and misfortune come from our own judgment about our circumstances. Because we see ourselves as separate individuals, we tend to evaluate everything in relation to how we think it affects us.

Remember the zen story of the old farmer? A poor old farmer had one son and one horse. One day his horse ran away. A neighbor exclaimed over his misfortune since without the horse, he couldn’t farm his land. The farmer replied, “Who knows if it is good or bad?”

The next day the horse returned leading twenty wild horses. The neighbor congratulated him on his new wealth. “Who knows if it is good or bad?” shrugged the farmer. The next day his son broke a leg trying to tame one of the wild horses. The neighbor (who obviously was not taking care of his own farm!) bemoaned his ill luck. You know what the farmer said.

The next day the army swept through the village, taking all the young men away to fight...except the son with the broken leg.

You get the idea. When we are able to detach from our own self-centered judgments, as well as from what others think about us, we reach a state of unshakable equanimity. We recognize the illusion of opposites (as we saw in Chapter 2), and remain at peace as we engage with our lives.

As we transcend our individual selves, we experience our natural connection with, as the chapter says, everything under heaven. Individual events and circumstances are woven into the great and beautiful tapestry of all creation.

The old farmer’s refrain has helped me countless times to detach from a story or judgment. Its wisdom allows me to engage fully with life without being at its mercy. I think this is what the Bible means when it tells us to “rejoice always and to be thankful in all circumstances.” It doesn’t say to be thankful “about” but to thankful “in.” No matter the situation, equanimity allows us to be at peace, to be grateful for life itself.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Winter's Gift

Snow whispers
Grey dawn's arrival
Bringing winter's gift
A perfect flower
Wrapped in ice
My crystal cloud of thanks
Breathes up to heaven

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Repairers of the Breach

You shall be like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called repairers of the breach. ~Isaiah 58:11-12

This verse has been calling to me. I’m so worn down by the vocabulary of judgment and division, no matter which side it comes from. See? There is another word of division – “side.”

A Course in Miracles teaches that when we see ourselves as separated from anyone, for whatever reason, by whatever means, we are separated from God (or the divine or whatever word is meaningful to you). There is no exception to this, and it is true at all levels – in our families, our communities, our nations.

If a breach appears, it doesn’t matter where it is, where it came from, or whose fault it is. We have one function, one role, one task. It couldn’t be more simple or more clear. We are to remember.

That remembering might assume different forms. It might be the child who gives her dinner to a homeless person. Or non-Muslim people vowing to register as Muslims (if a registry is ever created). Or high school students walking out of class to claim the innocence and hope and power of youth. Or a worship service welcoming people of all faiths. Or bystanders stepping up to support and protect a person being targeted. Or protesters and police hugging each other. Or neighbors talking and listening to each other over coffee or tea, regardless of who voted for whom.

Or the Jewish rabbi who responded to hateful threats from a Klan leader by offering to give him a ride to the grocery store. (This is a great story. Click here to read about it.) Too often our response is “But they...,” or “I can’t accept....” This rabbi understood that he didn’t have to get the Klan leader to see the light, nor did he have to agree with the hate, in order to offer compassion.

So what is it, exactly, that we are remembering? We are remembering, as Stephen Covey said, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing might go by different words, but we all know what it is. And while it might be expressed in infinite ways, it is never found out there, but always within.

May I remember today and all days to be a repairer of the breach.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 12

I just read an article called The Case Against Reality. It’s about a professor of cognitive science who says that the world we perceive through our senses is nothing like reality.

Decades ago, in my know-it-all youth, I wrote in some philosophy paper, “We participate in creating the reality we perceive.” Most of us have figured that out to some degree by now. But according to this guy, it’s not so much that we participate in creating the reality we perceive, but that there is no reality to perceive. Mind-blowing.

And it is also pretty much what Lao Tzu said 2,500 years ago in Chapter 12. The focus of this chapter is how our senses and desires lead us astray, away from the natural energy flow of the universe, away from our innate wisdom.

It begins by observing the distraction of our sensory input.

The five colors blind the eye
The five tones deafen the ear
The five flavors dull the taste

Sensory experience blocks or overwhelms true seeing, true hearing, true tasting, in other words true understanding. True understanding is beyond senses, even beyond thought.

Desire, like sensory experience, can also distract us.

Chasing after things [described in terms of hunting] maddens the heart 
Rare [costly or hard to get] things hinder right action

These two lines are similar to these lines from Chapter 3:

Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace

Chapter 12 next brings in a character becoming familiar to us, the sage.

Thus the sage is guided by his belly and not by his eyes

This line again echoes Chapter 3:

Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly

As we saw then, the reference to the belly doesn’t mean the digestive system, but rather the belly or the dantian as the energy center of our being. Being guided by the belly rather than the eyes means to listen to our inner wisdom rather than our senses and desires.

And now the last line, which is only five characters but lends itself to many meanings.

      leave or let go of
     hold or choose

Various translations generally frame this line in terms of this and that–letting that go and choosing this. This could mean making choices about things in a detached way. It could also mean choosing inner guidance over sensory distraction.

But here is another way to look at this line. In classical Chinese, the last two characters when combined can mean ordinary or casually. So you could understand the last line to mean, instead of choosing, that the sage casually lets everything go, or allows things to come and go in their natural rhythm. This is the essence of nonattachment.

Isn’t that cool? One of the things I have so loved about contemplating the original Chinese of the Tao Te Ching is all the little treasures revealed in the mystery of this ancient poetry.

Anyway, we’re all thinking now, so what does this mean for us in the last month of 2016? We might look back over this year and consider what has caught our attention. What has distracted us? What desires or thoughts or emotions have captured our energy? When have we been guided by our “eyes” rather than our “bellies”?

This is easy to answer for me. I have been hooked by the endless news cycles and distracted by counting the number of times I have heard someone say “unprecedented.” Even as I recognized that I was becoming a bit (!) obsessed, it was hard to break away. It’s very challenging to hear, much less heed, inner guidance when willingly jumping into the maelstrom of sensory and emotional overload.

No judgment. Just observation. Our practice is on the razor’s edge, and this year has kept me on the razor’s edge a lot! I call myself home by remembering:

Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
~A Course in Miracles

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Magic of Gratitude

As I pulled up to a line of cars stopped at a red light this morning, I saw a driver waiting to exit a parking lot. Seeing the long line of cars behind me, I stopped short of the exit to give him room to pull out into traffic when the line moved forward. He caught my eye and waved his thanks. I appreciated the acknowledgment and continued thinking about the day ahead.

When the light changed, he smiled and waved again as he entered the street. I smiled and waved back. My thoughts did not immediately return to my plans for the day, but lingered for a moment in the warm glow of his gratitude.

As he moved forward in front of my car, his hand came out of the window with one more friendly wave. I returned the wave, now grinning, my spirit delighted with joy and well being.

And this time, instead of returning to my thoughts about the day, I marveled at the magic of gratitude. His simple gestures shifted my focus from the business of living to the blessings of life. For the rest of the way home, I felt uplifted and happy, looking at my fellow drivers and other people on the street with compassion and sending them wishes for a good day.

Wow. Such a magnificent return on such a small investment. How cool is that?!

In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.  ~David Steinal-Rast

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Gift from a Friend

    I have a friend who writes poetry. A few weeks ago, I got this unexpected gift from her. She said that the poem just "flew in" and she felt nudged to send it to me. She had no idea that that particular day, I was indeed lost in a story of my own making about someone near and dear to me. Reading this poem set me aright. 

    Today it occured to me to pass the gift along. So, with her permission, here is the poem that might set us all aright.

    Don’t Get Lost
    The story is bigger than this moment.
    Don’t get lost in the story.
    The question is deeper than the one you are asking....
    Don’t get lost skimming the surface.
    It will be easy in the days ahead to forget who you are,
    whose you are, where you have come from,
    and where you are meant to go.
    Don’t get lost.
    Walk towards all you hold to be true and sacred.
    You know what to do in times like this.
    Return to the root, to the core of your being.
    The story is bigger than the one you are holding.
    Let it go.
    Don’t get lost.

                                   © Esther Elizabeth

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 11

I started to write a post about my martial arts class yesterday, and then realized the next chapter in our Tao Te Ching chapter series is Chapter 11, which is directly relevant to what I wanted to write about. Synchronicity–gotta love it!

Chapter 11 is a favorite one for many folks. It talks about the overlooked essential value of emptiness by giving examples of common things.

For example, when clay is shaped into a bowl, we admire the beauty of the form, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the bowl useful.

In my home, I have a lot of original tilework around the doors and windows in the kitchen and bathroom. It’s lovely, but it is the space inside the windows and doors that make them useful. One commentary I read said that in the part of ancient China where the Tao Te Ching originated, homes were often carved out of cliffsides. So rather than enclosing space to build a home, they literally created space to make a home. I love that.

The chapter concludes by observing that form is what we value, but emptiness is what we use.

While the examples given are of tangible things, the same principle holds true in other contexts. Two people can’t have a dialogue, for example, if one of them does all the talking, not allowing space for the other person to speak. If my mind is full of judgments and opinions, there is no space for new ideas, or for another person’s opinion. If my heart is full of fear and hatred, there is no room for compassion and forgiveness. If my spirit is clogged with beliefs, there is no space to listen for divine guidance.

Let me go back to my martial arts class to describe this another way. In class we worked with a partner to practice “push hands.” In this exercise, the partners face each other with their forearms gently touching. They move slowly, staying relaxed, trying to sense through touch where their partners might be off balance or unguarded, sensing an opening. The teacher kept telling us not to struggle to occupy the space already occupied by our partner, but rather to seek the empty space and move into it, thereby neutralizing our partner’s force.

When the teacher was instructing me, he pointed to my partner’s arm and said, “He is already here. Don’t go there. Go where he isn’t. Grow into that empty space like a tree.” By filling the empty space, my partner had nowhere to go. Hmm, hard to describe. You sorta had to be there.

Over and over in martial arts we are taught not to try to combat force through muscular strength, but to maneuver around force in such a way that the incoming force defeats itself. The emptiness is what “wins” although we don’t practice in terms of winning and losing, but rather in terms of having a “conversation” with our partners about directing energy. We practice every day to release the energy-blocking tension in our bodies, to create space for the energy to move freely through us. In the vocabulary of this chapter, the emptiness is what is useful.

So as you move through your day today, consider the usefulness of space, both external space around you, and internal space in your heart and mind.

The moment you are not, enlightenment is. With emptiness, the matter is settled. ~Osho

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 10

What a perfect chapter for these uncertain times–a guide for living perfectly in an imperfect world. In this chapter, the focus shifts from the mysterious, unknowable Tao to its manifestation in Te (also spelled De).

Te has been loosely translated as virtue, but not in the moralistic sense. More like inner radiance, or integrity. When one is in harmony with Tao, one manifests Te. I think of it like fruits of the Spirit described in the Bible–love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruits are not the Spirit. Nor are they something that one can force. They naturally flow from Spirit when one is aligned and open.

Likewise, Te is not separate from Tao, but rather is the natural expression or revelation of unimpeded Tao in the world. Te can take many forms, just like life can manifest in countless animals and plants, all appearing different yet sharing the universal energy that breathes life into them. Likewise all forms of Te make visible an inner power that radiates from Tao like the rays of the sun.

We can further understand Te by contemplating its Chinese character  . The top right component means straight or perfect. The bottom right component means heart. And the root or radical of the character is the part on the left, which means stepping forward. So one could think of these components as suggesting going forward with a perfect heart, or right-hearted action.

The chapter has two parts. The first part is a series of six questions guiding us and challenging us to discern and live by the principles of alignment with this universal energy. The second part is a brief conclusion, identifying these principles as the original and mysterious primal Virtue or Te.

The six questions follow a similar format of introducing a topic followed by a question.

Holding universal spirit and individual soul in unity, can you be without separation?
Gathering the breath gently, can you be like a newborn baby? [Think belly breathing!]
Purifying inner vision, can you see without imperfection or distraction?
Caring for people or governing, can you act without acting? [wu wei or non-action]
Opening and closing heaven’s gate [five senses], can you be female [yielding, nurturing, receptive]?
Understanding everything [enlightened], can you be without knowledge?

The conclusion ties this all to Te

Producing and nurturing without claiming or possessing
Acting without expectation or taking credit
Leading without dominating
This is deep, profound Te

I hope you share my sense that this is a timely chapter to contemplate. As I have sought to settle my spirit this week by returning to my posts about the Tao Te Ching, I was quite pleased and even amused, in that cosmic sort of way, by finding this reminder of the bigger picture and the deep wisdom of the universe. There has been a lot of questioning this week, from both sides of the political aisle, about what to do next. Seems to me that this chapter answers that.

Love, and do what you will. ~St. Augustine

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Falling off the Roof

Today seems like a good day for a story. This is the story of when I fell off the roof. Some of you already know this story, but I’d like to tell it again.

I have a cabin in the mountains, my little forest retreat, with no phone, TV, or internet. It nestles under huge evergreens, on top of a small but steep rise overlooking a creek. One time, years ago, I left my kids with a trusted friend, and went up to the cabin for an overnight respite.

For some reason, I decided that I needed to clean all the little branches and pine needles off the roof. I stood on an extension ladder and raked the debris to the ground. After moving the ladder all around the cabin, I was on the last section. The base of the ladder was on the deck. There was one branch stuck further up on the roof. I leaned forward over the top rungs of the ladder and reached as far as I could with the rake. And then I felt the ladder slip.

My first frantic instinct was to grab for something. But there was only the slanted roof, with no gutters. In the next instant, I knew I was going to fall. And that is when everything changed.

I will try my best to describe what happened, knowing that I can’t. There are no words. So I will try to fail well, using words to do what words can never do.

The moment I understood that I was going to fall, the world changed. I did not leave my body. Indeed, I was very aware of being in my body as it bounced off the falling ladder. I felt my back land on the edge of the deck, and experienced the disorienting tumble as I flipped off the deck and rolled head over heels through the brush down the hill.

But that is not the story. The story is what was going on as all this was happening. At that exact instant when I surrendered to the fall, all fear evaporated. Arms of angels embraced me in peace and light. No, I didn’t see them, and “angel” is not even the right word, but I felt unconditional love beyond anything you can imagine. Everything that I knew or thought I knew fell away.

Surprisingly, I did not sense that I was being protected from bodily harm. On the contrary, as I felt my body crash and tumble, I was quite sure something was going to break. The blow of my back on the edge of the deck might leave me paralyzed. I might even die. At the very least there was going to be a broken bone somewhere. And I was there by myself with no way to get help. All of this was floating through my mind, but totally without fear.

Because none of that mattered. It didn’t matter because I was being held in the absolute certainty that whatever happened was perfect. I understood, not with my mind but with my entire being, that everything is perfect. Always. No matter what. Just let that soak in for a minute. Everything is perfect. Always. No matter what.

The sublime peace and exquisite joy of that moment was...ah, I can’t even try to express it. All I can say is that I knew it was real. That it was the only thing that is real.

I would like to tell you that this moment of awakening or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it lasted forever. At the time, it did seem like forever because time was suspended while I was falling. But I returned to the “ordinary” world. After my body came to a stop, I lay there on the side of the hill, fearing to move in case some part of me didn’t move! I started with my toes and moved on up, reassured that everything was functioning. Scraped and bleeding, and not yet feeling the bruising and soreness of the days to come, I crawled back up the hill and sat on the deck trying to process what had just happened.

As my thinking mind started to rev back up, all the “what if” thoughts started to dance a frantic, fearful dance, playing out scenarios that never happened, yet seemed real in my imagination. But I stopped them with a quick rebuke. I had been given a priceless treasure and I was loath to toss it aside in favor of worthless mind trinkets.

So I sat there, looking at the ladder lying innocently on the deck, tracing with my eyes the track my body took from the roof to the bottom of the hill, and giving up any effort to make what had happened make “sense.” I breathed in the smell of evergreen and listened to the creek, humbly grateful for this glimpse of...what? Heaven, truth, reality? The word doesn’t matter.

I might not have become an enlightened being that day, but since then, especially in challenging times, I have drawn on the memory of what happened, reminding myself of what I learned that day. That things are not what they seem, that I understand very little, and know even less. And that no matter what happens, even if I can’t see it, everything is perfect. Always.

Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God
    ~A Course in Miracles

Friday, November 4, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 9

The focus in this chapter is on excess. The idea that somehow having more, being more, doing more, gives us value. The chapter begins with four observations.

Better to stop than fill to overflowing

This first line reminds me of the story about the professor who went to visit a zen master. The professor considered himself an expert on zen and pontificated while the master quietly poured tea in the professor’s cup. When the cup was full the master kept pouring until the tea spilled over onto the table and then to the floor. The professor finally interrupted his lecture to exclaim, “Stop! The cup is full. No more will go in.” The master replied, “You are like this cup. You must empty yourself before you can learn.”

When we fill our minds with opinions and judgments, there is no room to consider the opinions of others. There is no room for truth and wisdom.

It also reminds me of a quotation by Suzuki Roshi. “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind are few.” The world is always fresh and full of wonder to a child’s mind. The more we think we know, the less likely we are to see the miracles all around us.

Over sharpen the blade and the edge will soon dull

If you have ever sharpened a knife on a whetstone, you know the truth of this statement.

When I was studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer, I realized a few days before the test that I couldn’t learn any more. The more I studied, the more it seemed that I was losing ground. I had gone past my peak. I promptly stopped and went to a movie!

Have you ever tried to solve a problem or make a difficult choice by over thinking it? Making lists of pros and cons, thinking until your head hurt and the choice became murkier? Or the solution more elusive? And then when you finally gave up, the answer became clear!

Fill the hall with gold and jade, and no one can protect it

When asked in an interview how much more money he needed before having enough, billionaire J.D. Rockefeller responded, “Just a little more.”

I smile every time I see this quote because it’s so true! Whether we want one more donut or a million more dollars, there just never seems to be enough. I love books, as evidenced by the piles of books stacked on the floor next to the overstuffed bookshelves. But I just need one more....

And it’s true that we can’t protect everything we care about, isn’t it? This is a bit of a tangent, but did you ever see the movie Harold and Maude? Maude, played by Ruth Gordon, is an eccentric old woman who goes around, well, stealing things. When Harold protests, she shrugs him off by saying that she is just a gentle reminder of “here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things.”

Maude goes on to say that since she understands this principle, she is not opposed to having things. Indeed, her tiny home is full of things she has collected (stolen?). So I guess as long as I’m not attached to all these books, it’s okay to have so many of them. Hmm....

Pride in wealth and titles leads to misfortune

Sound familiar? The Bible teaches that pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and is thought by some to be the gateway through which all the others enter.

Why is that? And why is pride so bad and self-esteem so good? I’m no expert (beginner’s mind always!), but it seems to me that pride separates us from others. It isolates us by placing us, in our own minds, above others. It takes us out of the natural energy flow of the Tao, closing our hearts and spirits to the wisdom of the universe.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, allows our true nature to manifest. Because we are neither puffed up nor insecure, we are liberated to be our authentic selves. This naturally connects us to others in the tapestry of all life.

Work is done, person withdraws
This is the way of heaven

These last two lines sum up this chapter and repeat a theme found throughout the Tao Te Ching. When we do not force or grasp, when we simply do what needs to be done and release our attachment, all is well.

Note: Three of the seven characters in these last two lines have a radical, or root, meaning “to go” or “movement.” This includes the character for “way” (Tao ). To me, this suggests the natural flow of universal energy when we allow it to move unimpeded.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Season of Courage

Autumn...the year's last, loveliest smile. ~William Cullen Bryant

I wrote recently about courage and also about surrender. These two concepts come together perfectly in the season of autumn, dancing with each other as the wind dances with falling leaves.

In Chinese medicine and qigong practice, there are certain associations made between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include associations with emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds...and seasons.

I thought you might enjoy knowing some of the associations of autumn. Let’s start with two of the things we most often think about when we think about this season. Harvest, a time of gathering the fruits of summer’s labor to store for winter. And leaves, turning color and falling from the trees. Now let’s see how these two aspects are reflected in the Chinese system of associations.


Autumn is associated with the lungs. The lungs are linked in the Chinese system with the large intestine. Together they create a balance of pure energy being drawn into the body through the breath and of waste being released. Autumn is a time of gathering the energy we need to sustain us through the winter, and also invites us to release whatever we no longer need. This could be a literal release, like finally cleaning out that junk drawer (!), or a figurative one, like releasing judgments or resentments. Like the trees dropping their leaves, we don’t need to force anything. We can just let them go.


The element associated with the lungs is metal. I was surprised by this, because I think of lungs as being very “air-y” and light, while metal is heavy and found deep in the earth. Then I thought about how we value metal. Take gold, for example. For a long time, our economy was based on the gold standard, making gold not only a thing of beauty, but a measure of value essential to our financial health, just like the lungs bring in air, our most essential necessity for life.


The emotional associations are often categorized as positive or negative, but don’t think of this as good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. For the lungs, the negative emotions are sadness and grief. The positive ones are surrender and courage.

Sadness and grief are a normal part of life. Sometimes people experience these emotions in the autumn, as the light fades, the rain comes (in the Pacific Northwest at least), and the lush green vibrancy of summer gets swept into piles of brown leaves in the street.

Sadness and grief are not “bad.” On the contrary, they can open our hearts and connect us to others by stripping away our facades. But they can become debilitating and unhealthy if they become stuck. This can happen when we try to deny or avoid emotions that feel painful or uncomfortable. This is the beauty of the positive (again think polarity and balance) emotions of surrender and courage. Courage allows us to surrender to the experience of our sadness or grief, and this allows it to move through us and be released, in its own time like the leaves falling.

There are other associations, but these are the ones that give us the most to think about. Any thoughts on these? What do you think about when you think about autumn? What associations do you have?

Note to my friends in the tropics and in the southern hemisphere: I know autumn is not happening where you are right now. Perhaps you could share some associations you have with your current season.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 8

Water is the most prominent image of the Tao in the Tao Te Ching. We saw this first in Chapter 4 where several characters used to describe the Tao had water radicals or roots. Here the chapter begins by explicitly comparing the Tao to water.

Before we talk about that, however, I want to introduce you to a character that is repeated in this chapter 9 times!

This character means good or goodness. So even though we begin with the water metaphor, keep in mind that goodness is the theme of this chapter.

The highest good is like water
Water’s goodness benefits the ten thousand things yet does not strive
It flows to places people shun
Thus is like the Tao

The goodness of water is not intentional. It is simply its nature, and so it supports all living things effortlessly. Remember that our bodies are mostly water!

The third line about flowing to places people shun is intriguing. Water flows downhill, and thus into low places. One might think of swamps or even sewers. But ultimately water flows to the greatest of all waters, the ocean. Its lowest point is its most powerful. This line reminds me of Jesus, who sat at the table with the people others rejected, and by so doing, manifested the highest goodness. In that way he was like water or like the Tao.

The next section of this chapter consists of seven lines, each one having three characters. The first character in each line is a topic character, followed by the character for goodness, and ending with a comment character.

This presents a challenge for translators who must try to understand how goodness links the topic with the comment. If you look at various translations, you will see much variation, and the central character of goodness is often obscured because the translators are trying to make this make sense in English.

So I’m going to try something different here. I’m going to just give you a word for character correspondence, and invite you to use this like you might use a zen koan, a puzzle if you will. Without trying to elaborate in English, just contemplate the topic and comment linked by goodness and see what understanding emerges. Try to get out of your head and let the meaning be whispered in your heart. There is no right or wrong, no single answer. Just an open heart and a listening spirit. Ready?

home good earth
heart good deep
associations good impartial
word good trustworthy
leadership good justice
work good competence
action good timing

Hmm, what did you think? [If you have your own copy of the Tao Te Ching, what do you think of how the translator interpreted these characters?] You might have felt some frustration because it is hard to tolerate uncertainty of meaning or understanding.

I think perhaps this is one of the greatest gifts of the Tao Te Ching. The original Chinese is full of beauty, rhythm, and poetry, much of which is lost in translation. But even in the Chinese, the meaning is not often clear. Many characters have multiple meanings, which change even more when combined with other characters. Thus, the meanings swirl like a dancing creek, escaping capture. Relaxing into the elusiveness, releasing the need to know, is how we enter the mystery.

Ursula LeGuin noted in her own interpretation that the text of the Tao Te Ching itself is like water: the poetry flows, the teaching is not forced. Just as you cannot grasp water in your hand, you cannot capture the Tao in thought or word.

Because there is no striving
Thus there is no error

So beautiful.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Name of the Game

Surrender is the name of the spiritual game. ~Adyashanti

Marianne Williamson wrote about a challenging time she went through in her life. She described getting knocked to her knees over and over. Each time, she did what most of us admire and like to think that we would do. She got up. Again and again. Until she finally wondered if the message she was getting from the universe was to stay on her knees.

Our culture teaches us to keep fighting, to keep getting up, to struggle on in the face of insurmountable resistance. To never, ever give up. Surrender is for sissies.

So why is it that surrender is such an essential component, perhaps the essential component, of the spiritual path? And what does it really mean?

It doesn’t mean escaping difficulty. In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna is sick at heart, reluctant to fight in a great battle because he has family members on both sides of the conflict and he doesn’t want to kill his kinsmen. Krishna tells him that he is a warrior and he must fulfill his destiny by fighting in a righteous war. Surrender in this case meant bowing to the divine dictates of fate and marching into battle.

It doesn’t mean being a coward. Jesus could have saved himself but faced his trial and death with courage, surrendering to God’s will.

It doesn’t mean defeat. The Tao Te Ching teaches us that yielding is how we overcome. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. modeled this wisdom with courage through their nonviolent movements to bring freedom to their people. Their surrender to the violence directed towards them didn’t just change politics, but changed people’s hearts.

It doesn’t mean not trying. When I think about surrender, I think about the efforts I made to adopt my daughter Lily. Lily grew up in an orphanage in China and by the time I met her, she was nearing the age beyond which she would be unadoptable. In fact, I was told it was already too late. But I felt an inner guidance telling me to try. So I did, and kept trying in spite of roadblocks at every turn. So where was the surrender? I knew my part was to do whatever I could, but whether she became my daughter or not was out of my control. At each step I made my peace with the outcome, whatever it turned out to be.

Surrender is hard because it asks us to transcend our fear and to trust in the basic goodness of the universe, whether it involves something as mundane as being stuck in traffic, or as grand as liberating a nation. It asks us not to give up, but to give back. To give back ourselves, not to the tyranny of another, but to the unconditional love of the divine. [Surrender, in fact, means to give back over and above – sur meaning over, and render meaning to give back.]

So, it seems, surrender is not at all for sissies. Each moment of surrender is a moment of courageous release, radical transformation, heartbreaking joy, exquisite peace, and sublime freedom.

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Tender Sweetness

Tender sweetness
In the night
Comes love
To claim its youth
And bloom fresh
The withered heart

[Photo is an 18 year old dog surrendered at a shelter]

Monday, October 10, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 7

This chapter is so simple, yet profound. In it, we see the connection between the nature of the universe and our own existence.

Heaven is eternal; earth is enduring

This first line complements the first line of Chapter 6: valley spirit never dies. And it continues the images we are accumulating of the mysterious essence of Tao – empty, inexhaustible, receptive, fertile, impartial, transcendent.

This chapter, however, offers more explanation.

The reason heaven and earth are eternal and enduring
Is because they don’t exist or live for themselves

This last line can also be translated as they don’t create themselves, or are unborn – an interesting concept. With all these interpretations, there is a sense of serene infinity and harmonious existence.

The next part shifts from the universe to the individual.

Thus the sage stays behind yet is ahead
Is unattached to self yet is ever present
Without self bias or focus
Self realization can be attained

Although the origins of the Tao Te Ching are centuries before Jesus, there are unmistakable similarities in the teaching. Jesus said the last will be first, and the first will be last. He also said that those who seek to save their life will lose it, yet those who lose their life for him will find it.

This is not a teaching of self sacrifice and denial as much as it is a teaching of liberation and transcendence. Of awakening. Of coming home. The price of the ticket, from the ego’s perspective, is everything, which is what makes it seem so scary. But when we arrive, we realize that what we thought was everything was nothing at all. The ticket is free because all we give up is illusion.

Regardless of your faith beliefs and orientation, there is a universality to these teachings reflected in wisdom traditions from all corners of the globe. It’s beautiful.

Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God. ~A Course in Miracles

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

At the Testing Point

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ~C. S. Lewis

I saw this quotation on a poetry post. Not a blog post, but a real poetry post in my neighborhood. I saw it as I was walking with a dear friend who will have cancer surgery next week. A testing point for sure.

Now I can’t quit thinking about it. I had always thought of courage as its own attribute. But now I see that courage doesn’t exist by itself. Courage is what transcends fear and keeps our hearts open, and an open heart allows other virtues to manifest, even in the most challenging times.

The word courage comes from Old French “corage” which in turn comes from the Latin “cor” meaning heart. Although there can be some overlap, as when first responders put themselves in danger to rescue someone, it’s not exactly the same thing as daring or boldness. Courage can also be quiet.

Courage is what allowed a little girl sitting in a restaurant with her family not only to feel compassion for the homeless man on the bench outside, but to pick up her plate and take her dinner to him.

Courage is what allowed a popular guy in high school to be kind to a girl with disabilities and ask her to the prom.

Courage is what allowed an African American demonstrator to walk up in peace and hug a police officer, and what allowed the police officer to hug him back.

Courage is what allowed the Amish community to forgive the man who came into one of their schools and shot ten little girls.

The testing point is sometimes described as the razor’s edge. It’s not comfortable, and can be risky. This is where our practice is. The Bible says it’s not hard to love someone who loves you back. But to love your enemies? That takes courage.

Can you think of some examples of testing points, from the news or your own experience, where courage became the form of virtue?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 6

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te ChingClick here for more details on this series.]

If Chapter 5 is one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Tao Te Ching, then Chapter 6 is one of the most enigmatic. And one of the shortest. Just 26 characters, it has spawned pages of commentary. Like the blind men and the elephant, everyone sees different facets of meaning. When we can release the need to have a single, “right” meaning, when we can let the meanings swirl in mystery, then we enter the true meaning beyond words, the mystery beyond understanding. And it is beautiful.

Valley spirit never dies

The valley is the image of the female – open, receptive, fertile. The spirit energy of yin. Like the image we saw in Chapter 4 of the empty vessel that is never exhausted but always dynamic with potential, the valley sustains with unending abundance.

This is called mysterious female

The character for mysterious  carries a sense of translucence, allowing light to pass through without revealing form. It also can mean dark, unknown, profound. The character for female literally means a female horse, or mare, and can also mean womb.

So these two characters can literally mean dark mare. Metaphorically, they carry forward the idea from the first line of the fertile valley, a place of gestation, the mysterious source of life.

Jonathan Star compares this valley spirit/mysterious female to Shakti, the divine feminine creative power in Hinduism, who manifests as the infinite forms in the universe. Or the ten thousand things of the Tao.

The gate of the mysterious female
Is called the origin of heaven and earth

The gate could refer to the opening of the womb, but many think it refers to the nose and mouth as the gates through which the breath passes. The Bible says that God breathed the breath of life into man, making him a “living creature.” In that sense, the breath is the origin of creation, and continues throughout our lives to connect us to where we came from.

Using the Shakti reference again, Muktananda describes her as vibrating eternally, “Brahman in the form of sound,” giving birth to everything in the universe. This vibration is like God speaking to create the world.

Endlessly manifesting

The character for endlessly is repeated 绵 绵 , doubling the sense of the eternal aspect of creative movement. We talked in Chapter 4 about how a Chinese character is made up in part by a root or radical. The radical of this character is the left part , which means silk. The image here is of a delicate silk thread being spun and drawn out.

Used without effort 

In tai chi, there is a posture called reeling silk.

The concept of moving chi throughout the body is often described as drawing the chi smoothly and consistently, like drawing a silk thread. If you jerk it or force it, the thread will break. This is also consistent with the principle of wu wei, or non-action.

So what can we learn from the poetic imagery of this chapter? I think of this chapter not so much as practical advice, but more as creating a sense of wonder, accepting life’s invitation to join in the marvel of creation.

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. ~Albert Einstein

Monday, September 19, 2016

Growing Asparagus

Ken Kesey, renowned author and 1960s counterculture icon, led, in his later years, a quiet life in rural Oregon. When asked by an interviewer during this time what he was doing to make the world a better place, he looked out from his front porch over the fields and said, “This year I’m growing asparagus.”

This morning, someone expressed to me a feeling that I’m sure we can all relate to at least sometimes–a general sense of anxiety and despair over the world situation. If you live in the U.S. you might be feeling this closer to home in the current political climate. What can we do, he asked, to make things better?

Indeed. Just asking the question invites an overwhelming wave of helpless frustration. It is an unanswerable question.

Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” And therein lies the problem, so to speak. In our current election year, we are trying to solve through politics issues that are inherent in our political process. It won’t work. Nor will we solve through politics issues that are inherently not political.

Am I suggesting that we throw up our hands and go sulk in the corner, or start packing for Canada? Not at all. In fact, I’m not suggesting that we “do” anything in particular. I’m suggesting that we look at things differently. That we look without judgment, without seeking a solution, but rather to seek understanding, not of the world, but of ourselves.

Take me, for example. Like some, I’ve been a little distracted, okay pretty much focused, okay a lot obsessed with the evolving dynamic in this election season. And, as I watch, I see an increasing polarity of us/them separation. And as I watch more deeply, I begin to question how that might be seeping into my own life.

Where have I recently dismissed someone’s opinion, while bemoaning the lack of respect in political debate? Where have I allowed anxious thoughts to spin unchallenged in my mind, while shaking my head at the fear-stoking in speeches? Where have I tried to win, while being disgusted with the whatever-it-takes-to-win campaign strategies? Where have I walked past someone in need, while demonizing policies that seem heartless? Where have I failed to be a good steward of my resources, while I rail at the lack of commitment to environmental and financial reform? Where have I denied someone’s experience, while protesting the insensitivity of political characterizations?


So what am I doing to make the world a better place? This year, I’m growing self-awareness.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Water's Hymn

Stilling at creek's edge
Leaves fall one by one
Into water's hymn

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

Heaven and earth are impartial 
They treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs
The sage is impartial
She treats all people as straw dogs 

The opening of this chapter is one of the most misunderstood passages in the Tao Te Ching. To some it seems harsh, but there is another way of looking at this passage that reveals the beauty hidden within.

Let’s start with the concept of impartiality. The characters used here are variously translated as ruthless, or heartless, or without kindness. These interpretations carry a connotation of cruelty or moral judgment that is not present in the text. Instead, the impartiality here is the same lack of favoritism reflected in the Bible.

He makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on the just and unjust. ~Matthew 5:45

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh likewise speaks of the generosity of the flower that blooms for all passersby without judgment or preference.

This is not an impartiality of cold, uncaring detachment, but rather the impartiality of an engaged open heart, welcoming all without reservation.

Straw dogs were objects used in sacred rituals, and afterwards discarded. Their value was not in their form, which was unimportant, but in their function, which was holy. All things living on this earth will die, and our form will disappear, but our essence, by whatever name you want to call it, continues unchanged in eternal oneness.

The sense I get from this chapter is of equanimity, remaining balanced in the center of life’s vicissitudes, showing kindness and compassion to all, recognizing the sacredness of, well, everything.

And summarized best at the end of the chapter:

Many words lead to exhaustion
Better to abide in the center 

Oh what would our lives be like if we followed this advice?! My son James, who has autism, has an uncanny way of getting to the heart of things. When he was young, he would hold up his hand when I went on too long with an explanation, and say in a robot voice, “Talking is over.” And he was always right.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Time Stops

Time stops
At the speed of light
In light
There is no time
A moment
Is forever

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

This short chapter, one of my favorites, and one of the most enigmatic, attempts to describe the indescribable Tao by using three images.

Tao is empty, yet in use is inexhaustible

The first is an image of emptiness, like a hollow bowl or an empty vessel. The emptiness of the Tao is not a barrenness, but is dynamic with potential. This image also has a connotation of a welling up, as an inexhaustible spring bubbling up from the ground.

Unfathomable, as the source of ten thousand things

The second is an image of bottomless depth, like an abyss. The phrase “ten thousand things” represents manifested creation. The Tao is often described as the origin of the manifested universe, and also the place to which the ten thousand things return. An endless cycle of creation into being and return to non-being. Think of the cycle of water, manifesting as rain, creating the ten thousand forms of water on the earth, then returning as water vapor to the heavens.

Pure stillness, enduring forever

The third is an image of profound tranquility. Not in a stagnant way, but in the sense of a deep, clear pool with a mirror surface reflecting the heavens, yet teeming with life in the hidden darkness. I described the practice of martial arts in my last post as movement within stillness, and stillness within movement. In an eternal dance of beauty and mystery.

The secret treasure of this chapter is found in the Chinese characters used for these three images. Chinese characters are broken down into parts. Each character is based on a radical, what we might think of as a root, which provides meaning. The other part of the character might enhance the meaning or might simply suggest a pronunciation.

So here is what I think is the coolest thing about this chapter. The three characters used for these images of the Tao all have water radicals, even though their meanings in English aren’t specifically water related.


See the little lines on the left side of the character? Those are the water radical. The right side of the character 中 means center or middle.


There is the water radical again on the left. The right side of this character is a bit more complicated. The three vertical lines taken by themselves 川 mean river. If you take the outer vertical lines away, the middle part 米 means rice, which, in Chinese, symbolizes sustenance and fertility.


Again, the water radical on the left. The right side 甚 means extremely.

While the Tao is very connected to nature in all its forms, the element most closely associated with the essence of Tao is water. Think for a moment of water’s qualities. What is its nature? How does it behave?

It doesn’t struggle. It flows around obstacles. It can’t be grasped. It yields to force (think of your hand pushing through water), yet nothing is stronger (think of the Grand Canyon). It follows the laws of gravity, not exerting energy, but simply flowing downhill. It joins together (think of drops of water touching and merging). It changes form – liquid, solid, vapor – yet never loses its basic structure. You might think of other qualities.

So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate the nature of water, and thus the wisdom of Tao, into our own lives?

Here is a recent example from my own life. I crossed cyber paths not long ago with someone I never knew well, and had not had any contact with for many years, but was pleased to reconnect with. A brief email exchange followed – the hey, how have you been, synopsis of decades, friendly but superficial sort of communication one might expect.

I was taken aback, then, when I received a lengthy email attributing motives and beliefs to me that I did not recognize as my own, and to which she reacted very forcefully.

I was tempted to push back with a sort of WTF reaction, because my feelings were hurt, and anger often emerges to protect such vulnerability. But I paused. I allowed the force of her message to move through me as I flowed around it and moved on. I responded with an acknowledgment of her feelings, and I sincerely wished her well.

Thinking that would be the end of it, I was surprised by the next message. She apologized for the misunderstanding on her part and the accompanying defensiveness. She said I “practiced what I preached.” Equanimity was restored.

Wow, I thought. I don’t know what I’m preaching, but life gives us countless opportunities to practice, doesn’t it?

Be water, my friend. ~Bruce Lee

Friday, August 26, 2016

Life Lessons from a Ninja Granny

When people find out I practice martial arts, a typical comment is, “Oh, I better not mess with you!” My standard response is, “That’s right. If you stand really still and do exactly what I tell you to do, I can defend myself against you.”

Truth is, if I’m ever attacked, I will most likely rely on the ever popular self defense technique of running and screaming.

So why, then, do I spend hours every week in an outfit that looks like my pajamas, practicing kung fu, tai chi, bagua, and sword? Because I love it. I’m not trying to be the next MMA cage fighting champion. (Do they have a category for gray haired seniors?) For me, martial art is exactly that, an art. And while the practical context is combat, the life context is enlightenment.

For me, the practice of martial arts is the process of releasing the ego, of being aware of and responsive to the present moment, of developing and deepening beginner’s mind. The last one is easy, because the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn, until you reach a point where you understand that, like Jon Snow, you know nothing. (Couldn’t resist the Game of Thrones reference.)

It is meditation in motion. Movement within stillness, stillness within movement. Whether practicing with partners or alone, there is a harmony of external and internal energy, a surrender to the natural flow of vital essence that moves through nature and through ourselves. We are one with something...beautiful.

The best part about the practice of martial arts is how, at least for me, it integrates body, mind, and spirit. Not just in class but throughout my life. The principles of structure, alignment, harmony, effortlessness, stillness, and fluidity, influence how I see and respond to circumstances and other people. There is no need to get my ego knickers in a knot, no need to fight or force, no need for anger or retribution.

I have to smile when people think that I must be some bad ass, weapon wielding, Bruce Lee wannabe. (Well, okay, I do wield weapons and I love Bruce Lee.) But oddly, practicing martial arts has made me a more peaceful person. More than learning how to win a fight, I’ve learned how to avoid one.

So should you race out to the nearest martial arts school and sign up? Sure, if you want to. But you don’t have to practice martial arts to learn what I’ve learned. This wisdom is available to all of us, from within us. The practice of martial arts is simply one of paying attention, being present, staying open, finding balance, listening, responding effortlessly, resting in contentment, and having fun.

The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. ~Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

This chapter is divided into two parts and a coda. The first part highlights the cause and effect relationship between creating or perceiving disparity and the resulting discord. The second part is often interpreted as giving advice on how to govern others, but personally I think it is about how we govern ourselves.

Exalting some above others causes rivalry
Prizing costly goods causes theft
Coveting what we don’t have disturbs inner peace

All three examples have in common a value that we place on something through our own judgment, a value that is not inherent in the thing itself. That value creates distinctions, and then desire that leads to attachment. We experience a sense of lack, creating discontent, and even fear or anger. We tend to see this dissatisfaction as rooted in our circumstances. Instead, we could see our dissatisfaction as rooted in our own judgments, which we can change or release.

Even as I write this, my mind is spinning out “yes, but...” scenarios. For example, we have just finished celebrating the amazing accomplishment of Olympic athletes from all over the world. We exalted some above others as a result of competition. Is that a bad thing?

Here is the simple answer. How did it make you feel? Did it open your heart or close it?

Contrast the Egyptian judo athlete who would not shake the offered hand of his Israeli competitor, with the American tennis player who, when the referee called his opponent’s shot out, urged his Australian competitor to challenge the call. His opponent won the challenge, and the look that passed between them was not one of rivalry but of brotherhood.

Thus the sage governs by
Emptying the heart
And filling the belly
Gentling the will
And strengthening the bones

As stated above, this section is often interpreted as guidance for governing others. In this context it can be misconstrued as suggesting manipulative tactics, like keeping the masses docile by hard work and a “chicken in every pot.” Although there are many references in the Tao Te Ching to governing, nowhere does the text advocate controlling the populace in any way. But when viewed as a guide for self governance, these lines make more sense.

Emptying the heart (or the heart/mind – in Chinese, the heart is seen as the center of intellectual as well as emotional activity) does not mean giving up one’s autonomy, but rather emptying ourselves of ego and attachment.

Filling the belly doesn’t mean sitting down to a super sized meal, but rather filling our center, in the mid-abdomen, with pure energy, or as the Yellow Emperor said, “swallowing the breath of heaven.” Belly breathing, that is, breathing deeply so that the abdomen expands, as opposed to shallow chest breathing, is the perfect way to practice this.

Gentling the will doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather giving up our need to force our will on others or on circumstances beyond our control.

And strengthening the bones doesn’t mean heading to the gym, but rather being so perfectly aligned in our structure that we stand and move, literally and figuratively, with little or no effort, because we are in harmony with the universe. It can also refer to strengthening the bone marrow, the source of our life blood, again both literally and figuratively.

Doing without doing
Then all is as it should be 

This coda reflects a theme we first encountered in Chapter 2 and repeated throughout the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei, or non-action means being in harmony with the Tao, or the natural flow of the universe. Doing without doing means that when we are aligned with this harmony, things happen as they should without our trying to direct things with our will.

I’m laughing as I finish writing this post because Chapter 3 is quite short. I have used many more words than Lao Tzu did to express this simple teaching of contentment and non-interference.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Truth Comes

Truth comes
To take us home
Where we will 
Shake our heads
At our resistance
And be glad
Truth cared not
For our fear
But heeded only 
Our deepest wish

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Allowing Our Hearts to Break

I once went to see Todd, an energy healer (whose quote about “the way of no way” appears above with the blog title). During this appointment, Todd started thumping on my chest. At first the thumps were gentle, but gradually Todd increased the intensity until my whole body became a drum. The thumping became so powerful that I felt like my chest would crack open and my heart would explode. It was a little scary. No, it was a lot scary. I tried to stay calm, but I confess I was relieved when he stopped.

Echoes of the thumping reverberated in my body as I started in with my usual questions about what had happened. Ever reluctant to verbally debrief a session, Todd finally responded to my pestering by saying simply that there was a crust around my heart and he broke it off.


Although I paid to have my heart liberated that time, I’ve found that life will often do it for free. A family member disappoints us, a friend betrays us, we lose someone dear, a love is not returned, our feelings get hurt, a child is struggling. It hurts.

Life offers us opportunities every day to make a choice – to guard our hearts behind thick, crusty walls, or to open the door to the pain that enters hand in hand with joy. Yep, hand in hand. That’s why sometimes we cry with joy, and sometimes laugh through our tears.

Chogyam Trungpa described the heart of a warrior as being so tender that a feather’s touch would burn like fire. Okay, that doesn’t sound so appealing. Why would anyone want that? Many of us, if we’re honest, wouldn’t. And yet, time and time again, we walk right into the fiery furnace, willing to risk anything, suffer anything, to experience the sublime transcendence of deep, profound love.

President Obama, when asked in an interview about parenting, shared the familiar analogy of walking around with your heart outside of your body. I remember years of repressing the grief I felt over having an autistic child, until the love buried alongside chipped through the concrete like an irrepressible sprout. The love bloomed bright red, the color of a bleeding heart. The love and the pain – both exquisite.

What is it about love that calls us to its stony shore like the Sirens of mythology? I think it’s because we recognize that shore as home. Love is our natural state, the birthplace of our soul. Our life’s journey is one of returning home. And like the ships that heeded the Sirens’ call and crashed upon the rocks, our homecoming will break apart the shell around our hearts, and set us free once more.

A heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. ~Joanna Macy

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 2

[This post is part of a series on specific chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Click here for more details on this series.]

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching introduces two themes: non-duality and wu wei.


The first part of the chapter illustrates the nature of non-duality with a list of complementary qualities which we often see as opposites, showing that our perception of these qualities comes from their manifestation into being. So, for example, we know the manifestation of beauty because of ugliness, and the manifestation of kindness because of unkindness.

Before they manifest, there are no opposites. Chapter 1 says “The named is the mother of ten thousand things.” So not only does naming “create” but it also separates, or distinguishes. We see this reflected in the creation story in Genesis. God separated the heaven and the earth, the waters from the land, the light of day and the dark of night. And how fascinating that God did all this by speaking, as in “let there be light.” Naming caused manifestation.

Before God spoke, Genesis says that the earth was formless and empty, which is also how the Tao is described. Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching says “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth.” The Tao is that empty, formless void, not barren at all, but brimming with infinite and undifferentiated potential, which then, through naming, manifests.

We perceive the manifested “ten thousand things” as separate, and even opposites, but Chapter 2 shows us that we are perceiving various facets of one whole. We perceive distinctions according to the lens through which we look. If two people viewed opposite sides of earth from space, one person would see the earth as dark; the other would see the earth as light. It’s the same earth; the darkness and light are surface appearances that shift with the rotation of the earth and its orbit around the sun.

Our perceptions reflect further separation when we add in judgments. For example, one might think that the dark side of earth is beautiful. Another might think it is frightening. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” When we can recognize our own participation in our perception, we can begin to relax our hold on our own world view and become more open to, well, everything.

Which brings us to...

Wu Wei

The second part of Chapter 2 shifts our focus to a familiar character in the Tao Te Ching – the sage.

Thus the sage acts effortlessly...

Because wu wei literally means without acting, and is thus often translated as non-action, people sometimes mistakenly believe that what is being taught here is a passive, doormat, being buffeted by life’s waves kind of approach to living. I think of it more as action without ego, more of an allowing rather than forcing. As Fritz Perls said, “Don’t push the river; it flows by itself.” When our actions are in harmony, they seem effortless, almost like we aren’t doing anything, but rather things are happening through us.

...and follows no words teaching

This line can mean that the sage practices no words wisdom herself, or that she teaches others without words. This is one of my favorite lines in the Tao Te Ching. Like many of the passages, the original Chinese lends itself to multiple meanings. Since I spent much of my career as a teacher, I’m drawn to the blurred distinction between teaching and learning present in this particular line.

A Course in Miracles says that we are all teachers, and that we teach what we want to learn. When I was interviewed for a book about teaching practices of law professors, I related the story of my most successful class. I had come down with a severe case of laryngitis; I couldn’t even squeak. Canceling class was my least desirable option, so I created some projects for the students to work on in groups during class. When class began, I handed out instructions and sat back to watch. After a few moments of confusion, students arranged themselves in groups and got to work. I walked around the room to listen, and was amazed by the level of engagement, excitement, and accomplishment taking place.

They learned more that day than I ever could have “taught” them with my own words, and I learned the most of all.

As a result of the sage’s practice of wu wei and no words teaching, the ten thousand things follow their natural course.

Work is done and then forgotten. Because it is forgotten, it is never lost.

So how do we reconcile the two concepts in this chapter – non-duality and wu wei? What does the correlation of opposites have to do with effortless action?

Perhaps when we truly understand the illusion of opposites, there is no longer a need to judge them as good or bad, no need to force circumstances, no need to condition our well being on a particular outcome. We allow transitory circumstances to arise and pass without attaching to them, like water washing over us, or a breeze ruffling our hair. Like the creek by my cabin, nature is always moving but always there.

Perhaps by recognizing the unity of apparently opposite manifestations, we can develop a sense of nonresistance or allowing, an ego- and judgment-free attitude towards life, a respect for the natural movement of the universe and our place in it.

As long as words are used to denote a truth, duality is inevitable; however, such duality is not the truth. All divisions are illusory. ~Yaga Vasistha

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Soft Green Sunbeams

Soft green sunbeams
Pierce deep creek shadows
Shimmering underwater
Like dancing northern lights