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?