Monday, May 27, 2019
A few weeks ago, I started practicing taiji (tai chi) at a different martial arts school. I’m not new to taiji, but I’m new to this school, so I am sort of a beginner and not a beginner at the same time. Some things are familiar to me, but every school, and even every teacher, has their own way of doing things, so there is always a steep learning curve at the outset.
The students begin class as a whole doing qigong or other warm up exercises, and then break into small groups according to their level. I thought I was moving through the preliminary stuff pretty quickly, and I was eager to get to the more advanced material. But after several classes, the teacher placed me in a beginner group with people who had not done any taiji at all, ever. The instruction was at the most basic introductory level.
It didn’t take me long to start feeling impatient, chafing at the slow pace, wishing to be in the group I could see in my peripheral vision that was working on material more suited to my level, at least in my not-so-humble opinion. I felt frustrated that the teacher couldn’t immediately see that a mistake had been made and didn’t move me to the other group.
Wow, I caught myself. What the heck is going on with me? My ego knickers were in a knot. I was violating every basic principle of taiji and everything I’ve learned from the Tao Te Ching. I was not being present. I was distracted and judgmental. I was wanting reality to be different and trying to make it conform to my desire. I was being disrespectful (at least in my thoughts) to the teacher. I was caught up in my mind’s narrative and missing the opportunity to practice in the situation I was in, which is really the only practice there is.
One of the slogans I’ve trained with for years is “Don’t insist. Don’t resist.” I was doing both, unlike my other beginning group mates who were fully engaged with what was happening in our group.
Hmm, so apparently the beginning group was right where I belonged. I clearly have a lot to learn. As I said to a friend after recounting my story, I might not learn a lot about taiji in this class, but I’m going to learn a lot about myself! And perhaps that is the same thing after all.
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few. ~Shunryu Suzuki
Thursday, May 23, 2019
When I moved to Portland, my son was just shy of his fourth birthday. It was a sudden move, necessary for many reasons. We arrived without much advance planning, and we were both disoriented and reeling. I rented a room in an extended stay hotel, and started to get my bearings.
My son has autism, so in addition to the upheaval that any three year old would experience in those circumstances, he had an added layer of struggle trying to cope with disruption and uncertainty.
Within a few days, he came up with his own way of navigating these scary seas of change. He made up a game, a variation of hide and seek. I would close my eyes and he would run and hide. He would call out “I’m lost,” and I would set out to find him.
I went through the usual search game that all adults play with children, speaking aloud as I walked around. Is he behind the door? No. Is he in the closet? No. And on until I found him (not too hard considering the tiny space we occupied and the fact that he always hid in the same spot).
Like all kids, he squealed with delight when discovered. But I understood that for him, this was different. I would gather him up on my lap and wrap my arms around him, looking him in the face as I assured him.
“You were never lost. I will always find you. You are safe and loved. And everything is all right.” And just to make sure, I would repeat, “I will always find you. Every time. You are never lost to me.”
I could feel his body relax. At least for a few seconds. Then he would slide off my lap and run off to hide again. Lost. Found. Repeat. Repeat as many times as it took for him to get the reassurance he needed. Some days that was five times. Other days it was twenty five times. I didn’t really count. The number of times didn’t matter.
Such a simple game. One that reassured me as much as it did him. It reassures me even now. We are never too old to remember that we are never lost. We are safe and loved. And everything is all right.
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see
Thursday, May 16, 2019
Monday, May 13, 2019
“Everything in moderation,” goes the adage. The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism is described as the “middle way.” A meditation instruction teaches “not too tight, not too loose.”
The concept of moderation is the foundation of this chapter.
Governing people in alignment with heaven
Is accomplished only through moderation
As with other chapters on governing, I find this most helpful when I think of self governance.
The character for moderation 啬 has components that mean come, from, earth, return. Returning, we are told elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, is the motion of Tao. There is a cycle of manifestation into form, and a return to formlessness. Like an inhale and exhale.
The center of this cycle, the liminal space between form and formless, the pause between the inhale and the exhale, represents this concept of moderation. Moderation is the point of balance between one extreme and the other.
The Tao Te Ching is fond of using a cascading structure in some chapters. Perhaps this aided in remembering what was at one time passed down through oral tradition.
Moderation means early attunement (or attunement from the beginning)
Early attunement means the accumulation of Te (Virtue)
The accumulation of Virtue leads to mastery
Mastery leads to limitless awareness
Limitless awareness leads to aligned governance
Aligned governance leads to the eternal
The deep roots of the eternal offer infinite perception of Tao
Admittedly, that might be a bit hard to follow. However, if we consider the overall arc of this chapter, especially in terms of self governance, we can see the connection between the middle way of moderation and our alignment with the sacred energy moving between heaven and earth.
When we swing too far in one direction or another, we lose this alignment. We must then use our energy to maintain this imbalance, or we compensate by swinging to the other extreme. But when we follow this middle way, our steps are effortless, and we are always attuned to the guidance of nature (Tao).
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." ~Isaiah 30:21
Thursday, May 9, 2019
Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down
For the last few days, I have awoken humming this refrain. It replays throughout the day and rocks me to sleep. Although it was written about war, it sings to my soul about internal war, the one we fight with ourselves, the one that I’ve been fighting for some time now.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that human existence is suffering. We suffer because we struggle. We desire things, including ourselves, to be other than they are and we fight to make them conform to our wishes. We fight until we learn that the Borg had it right – resistance is futile.
A series of seemingly unrelated events over the last year and a half has brought me repeatedly to the razor’s edge, the place I’ve written about as where we practice. With each event, I went through the same process of struggle, acceptance, peace. Then I would sit smug in relief, thinking that surely I had passed all my cosmic tests and could now chillax in enlightened equanimity.
But the universe, in its infinite wisdom and with a warped sense of humor, would nod and say, “Okay, well then how about this?!” And off we’d go again.
And so, as my last post said, I return to practice. Marianne Williamson wrote about a series of events in her own life that kept knocking her to her knees. With that good old perseverance that we value so much in our culture, she would pull herself to her feet only to be knocked down again. Finally, she realized, maybe she should just stay on her knees.
“Surrender is the name of the spiritual game,” teaches Adyashanti.
And so it is. Not the surrender of defeat, but the surrender into freedom. On my cushion this morning in meditation, I saw so clearly my struggle of the past weeks, a struggle to avoid pain and uncertainty, a struggle masking grief and sadness with anger and frustration, a struggle not born of courage but of fear.
I realized, in that instantaneous way we sometimes realize the simplest and most obvious things, that I didn’t need to struggle anymore. I...could...just...stop. I could stop listening to the endless spin of stories in my mind. I could act according to my own values and not let someone provoke me to react according to theirs. I could lay my body down and be swallowed up in the loving arms of the universe. I could choose freedom.
And so I did. Freedom is a choice available to all of us. The cost? Giving up everything that keeps us from loving.
I will fight no more forever. ~Chief Joseph
Well, at least for today. ~me
Sunday, May 5, 2019
“When do you meditate?” the interviewer asked the Buddhist teacher.
“I am never not meditating,” the teacher replied.
“You should be practicing.” This is one of the slogans we train with in martial arts. The idea is that we weave practice into our lives as we go through our day. I think this is what the Buddhist teacher meant – not that he was sitting on his cushion all the time but that meditation permeated all aspects of his life.
Our practice becomes how we live. We practice in class or on our cushion to enable us to apply what we learn in the rest of our lives, especially when we find ourselves on the razor’s edge. We find ourselves on the razor’s edge when something has hooked us, churned us up, thrown us off balance. When we have attached ourselves to a narrative and are poised to react to our story rather than to respond to what is. When grief presses all the air out of our lungs until we can’t breathe. When we are hurt and we want to lash out in pain. When fear has clamped our minds and we seek desperately to escape.
All of those descriptions apply to me at various times. I’ve been teetering on the razor’s edge recently. I have fallen off a couple of times. Okay, a lot. This is part of practice too. In fact this is where practice matters most – when we are tired, angry, afraid, suffering. When we fall off the razor’s edge in a heap and practice is the last thing we want to do.
So I went to the cabin this weekend. I sat by the creek. I meditated in front of the fire. I danced tai chi in the trees. I belly breathed. A lot. I stepped back from the razor’s edge. And I remembered.
I should be practicing.
Pray without ceasing. ~1 Thessalonians 5:17