Monday, April 27, 2020

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 70

This is a beautiful chapter that acknowledges how elusive something so simple can be.

My words are very easy to know
Very easy to put into practice
Yet under heaven no one is able to know them
No one can put them into practice

When people ask me to explain Tao to them, or ask me what they need to do to live according to the Tao, I’m always a bit stumped. As we’ve known ever since the very first lines of the Tao Te Ching, the Tao that can be understood or explained is not the eternal Tao. So no matter what I say, I will fail to answer the question. My aim is, then, as one teacher says, to fail well.

I was asked a few months ago to give a presentation on Taoism to a group of people who were studying a book comparing major “religions.” I put that word in quotes because my first hurdle was to figure out how Tao can be neatly packaged into a religion. I’m pretty sure it can’t be. It is, as the Tao Te Ching teaches, without form, without name, without substance. It has no creed, no doctrine, no structure, no ritual (although the Taoist religion, as it has developed over millennia, has pretty much all of these things). It is, to use Bruce Lee’s description of his approach to martial arts, the way of no way.

Why is it so easy? Almost a thousand years ago, Li Hsi-Chai explained it best: “It is easy because there is no Tao to discuss, no knowledge to learn, no effort to make, no deeds to perform.” (translated by Red Pine)

It is, as I explained to the study group, as easy and natural as breathing. In fact, breathing is our best model of Tao in action. Breathe in, breathe out. Manifesting into form, returning to formlessness. Fluid like water. Natural. The only breath that matters is the one right now. Now this one. I cannot hoard or store my breath, or borrow future breath on credit. I cannot hold on to it (for very long) but must release it to allow the next breath. Everything we need to know is not in a book or in the words of a teacher. Everything we need to know is in the breath.

So why is it so hard? Finishing Li Hsi-Chai’s quote: “It is hard because the Tao cannot be discussed, because all words are wrong, because it can’t be learned, and because the mind only leads us astray.”

That made me laugh out loud. I know. I have a strange sense of humor. But didn’t Li Hsi-Chia perfectly capture the human brain’s frustration with not being able to name, classify, anazlyze, evaluate, and attain intellectual clarity and moral conviction? “I think, therefore I am” gives us the great mental pleasure of certainty. “Don’t believe everything you think” throws us right back into the terrifying (to the brain) unknown.

Most of us are thinking, okay great, I get this, sort of, but what do I do? What does this look like?

It looks like this: breathe in, breathe out.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. ~Jesus

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Just DON’T Do It

Like me, you’ve probably had lots of conversations in recent weeks about how we are all coping with this sudden shift in our day to day lives. We’ve gotten through the initial shock and disbelief, and now we are settling into management systems, which necessarily remain fluid and responsive to changing information.

There are undeniable challenges and tragedies. And at the same time, I’m hearing some folks talk about “sweet surprises,” as one person called it. Time to spend with family, read a book, work in the garden, take a walk, call a friend. Another person spoke of opportunities, a chance to slow down, contemplate the deep questions, engage more fully in a spiritual practice, a chance to stop doing and just be.

Some people embrace these opportunities; others resist them. I have spoken with a few people who have the freedom right now to take advantage of these opportunities to step out of their usual hustle bustle, but they seem unable to, offering numerous justifications for why they must carry on, even if they are overwhelmed.

So that got me thinking. What are we afraid of? What is so scary about empty space, time to do nothing? Where does the demand come from to, as one person says, “soldier on”? What do we think would happen if we just stopped? Really stopped.

Circumstances have stopped a lot of external things for us. Yet many of us have continued on at the same speed internally. What lurks in the shadows of stillness that is so threatening?

This is not about what we should or shouldn’t do. This is about a chance to be curious, to see ourselves and our lives in a different way. To question our basic assumptions, to reveal our hidden expectations, to explore who we are when we are not what we do.

Perhaps our inquiry starts with a gentle awareness of our resistance, our anxiety, our grief. If we accept ourselves and whatever our experience is with honesty and compassion, we might discover some sweet surprises. We might even allow ourselves to enjoy them.

Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.  ~George Sand

It's that element of surprise. When you lose control, you discover new things.  ~Daniel Lanois

Friday, April 17, 2020


Come and listen
Not to me
But to what is spoken 
In all our hearts
Just so
Your soul will recognize the sound
Humming humming
Vibrating all into resonance
Can you not hear it

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Fear Is the Mind Killer

I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
    ~ from Dune, by Frank Herbert

This litany against fear resonated with me when I was young. I memorized it and would recite it when needed, which was often. It came back into my awareness recently. Now, decades later, it resonates still, perhaps even more so because over the years I have lived its wisdom so many times.

What I appreciate about this passage is the recognition that if not resisted or denied, fear will dissipate on its own.

We are taught first to understand what fear is and then to face our fear. Years ago, a friend told me that the driving force in my life was fear. At the time, I saw myself as a bold person, taking risks, living adventures. I dismissed what my friend said, thinking that she must not know me very well, and was probably not such a good friend after all. Time proved that on the contrary, she knew me better than most, and certainly better than I knew myself. Only by acknowledging the undertow of quiet terror in my life was I able to do the work necessary to release its hold on me.

And how do we do that work? Not by struggle, but by being inwardly still, emptying ourselves of resistance, thus allowing space for the fear to move over or through us. Sounds easy but we all know it isn’t. Why is that?

The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron tells the story of a young warrior sent out to battle fear. The warrior felt small and ill equipped to confront fear, who stood across from her, looking huge and invincible. Yet she summoned her courage and approached. When she got close, she bowed to fear and asked how she could defeat him. Fear was moved by her show of respect. He said that his weapons were that he would get up in her face, talking fast in a loud voice. However, if she did not do what he told her to do, then he had no power over her.

This story portrays fear the way most of us think of fear – like a big scary screaming monster. But I’ve found that fear can also look less threatening, even alluring. Not yelling but whispering, sounding very reasonable.

So how do we know if fear is speaking to us? We know because fear will always tell us to separate, to close our hearts, to be ever vigilant and on guard. Fear will tell us we are powerless. Fear will urge us to try to control what we can’t control, thus affirming that our efforts are futile. Fear will tell us to take, to defend, to attack, to judge. Fear will tell us that we are alone. Fear will tell us that if we don’t do what fear says, we will die.

We’ve all been there. Whether fear screams or whispers, we’ve all felt that urge to do what fear tells us. We play right into fear’s hands. Fear has indeed killed our minds by hijacking our thoughts and spinning out stories that we believe.

But if we can recognize when fear is speaking, we can claim our power, our power to choose. We can choose to do what fear says, or we can choose not to. We can choose to be still, to hold fast in openness and allow fear to move on through. And then, as the passage promises, we will see that fear was nothing. It never was.

We are living in a time when fear appears to have seized the minds of individuals and nations. It can feel overwhelming. We need a reminder, something to hold onto, something to ground us in truth. It might be time to memorize the Dune passage once again, to breathe deeply and recite it when fear is in our face. We can bow to fear in acknowledgment and respectfully decline to do what fear says. And then wait for the peace that will surely come.

The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite. ~A Course in Miracles

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 69

This chapter carries forward the teaching in the last chapter about power and conflict.

Warriors have a saying:
I do not presume to be the host (aggressor) but would rather be the guest (defender)
Rather than advance an inch, I would retreat a foot
This is called going forward without advancing

This passage reminds me of the martial art of aikido, which I’ve never practiced, but is described as a purely defensive martial art with no offensive moves. An interesting concept.

I confess that when engaged in any sort of martial art sparring, my tendency is to go on the offense. I do this because it gives me the delusion of control, and I often persist even when it is clearly not to my advantage. My challenge and practice in martial arts is to empty myself out, to be alert and responsive to what is happening, rather than try to force a particular outcome.

I have found that this works best in daily life. I wrote about an experience when I was confronted by some young men looking for trouble and was able to deflect their intention just with words. Retreating a foot in that case was definitely “going forward without advancing.”

Grasp without arms
Control without weapons
Capture without hostility

The last line can also be read as capturing without an enemy. I love the wisdom in these three lines. As soon as we set ourselves up in an adversarial dynamic by labeling someone as an enemy, as soon as we react to someone with hostility, we have set up a win/lose conflict that might win a battle but will not bring peace.

When I taught law students how to draft contracts, they would often say that they wanted to draft a contract that would hold up in court. My response was often a surprise to them. “If you are in court over your contract, you have already lost.” Because no matter what the judge says, a litigant has already lost the benefit of the bargain that the parties agreed to. The relationship has broken down, trust has been betrayed, time and money have been wasted. A successful contract is one that the parties perform.

In our culture, we are so locked in to an us/them, win/lose mindset that we cannot see what is lost by the adversarial stance we take with our families, our politics, our religion, our planet.

It is hard to write anything these days without a mention of the virus spreading across the earth. Yes, there is Covid-19, but there is a more intangible virus spreading through the hearts and spirits of those who see only danger and feel only fear. Gun sales are up in the United States. Disturbing. I joked to a neighbor passing by that someone was going to get shot over toilet paper. He replied in all seriousness that he had his guns and was prepared to use them. Very disturbing.

The chapter ends with this:

Thus when opposing warriors meet each other
The one with compassion will win indeed


Friday, April 3, 2020

Flame Dancing

Cranes flame dancing
In love darkness
Wind wings flapping
Over whitest snow