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