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.