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

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tao Te Ching–Chapter 1

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

The Tao Te Ching opens with its most famous line:


You can see that the character for Tao appears three times. Many Chinese characters have multiple meanings. This character can mean Tao, as in the metaphysical Way or Path, or ultimate truth or reality. As a verb, it can mean to say or communicate, or to understand.

So this first line can mean: The way that can be understood is not the eternal Way

This line reflects the profound mystery of truth. Or of God. In Western culture, we are very fond of our thinking minds. We like to analyze and rationalize and scientifically prove things in order for them to be acknowledged as real or true. We love logic and facts.

As a lawyer, I get that. I also understand that when we peer beyond that comfort zone of the known and knowable, we can feel anxious or afraid. In the uncharted areas beyond the explored world, some ancient maps included the warning “Here there be dragons.”  Indeed!

If all we contemplated of this entire ancient text was the first line, it would be enough.


For those who want to delve further into this first chapter, let’s continue.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth
The named is the mother of ten thousand things

Along with our love of logic comes our love of names. We like to label and categorize things. Adam was tasked by God to name all the creatures of the earth. Science has divided us into genus and species. Many traditions include sacred naming rituals for our children.

Naming identifies things and makes them known. Names bring forth mystery into the concrete, called here by the poetic image of the ten thousand things. The nameless abides in mystery. The Hebrew “unname” of God is YHWH, which, when one attempts to pronounce it, has no sound other than the breath.

Ever desireless one sees the mystery
Ever desiring one sees the manifestations

Ah, here’s the tough part. If what we want is to experience the mystery, the only way is to be without desire! My desire restricts my vision to the manifestation of the mystery in the ten thousand things.

How can I not want what I want most of all?

For me, the answer lies in surrender, in accepting that my effort, my will, my attempts to control, my attachment to outcome, will avail me nothing. Mystery is not achieved; it is revealed, glimpsed in fleeting moments of grace, sometimes when we least expect it. No, always when we least expect it.

So, if you dare, step into your small craft without desire, and sail into uncharted waters, into the “cloud of unknowing” where you will dance with dragons.

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine