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In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” — Shunryu Suzuki

In Taoism, there is also the idea, “to gain something, you must lose… to lose something, you must gain.” It is the way of the natural world, and indeed of all of us.

Natural disasters like we have recently seen in Colorado and in the Philippines illustrate this principle very well. People worked for decades — centuries perhaps – and it is all wiped away. Entire lifetimes are wiped away. In such extremes we see how flexible we must be, how willing to begin again with little warning. And, as life flows again, houses are rebuilt, roads rebuilt, water and electricity return. People rebuild their lives anew. And more than they realize, they return to the beginning.

During the week of the floods, I began my tai chi class. Some of you may recall that I was soaked to the skin when I arrived. As it happens, the students of that class are about to graduate. They have attained some minimal knowledge of the forms. On the evening he announced people would be graduating, my teacher idly mentioned to me almost as an afterthought, “You can always take the beginner’s class again.”

This was quite upsetting to me. Had I not practiced, learned, applied myself? My endurance, flexibility, all those things were so much better than 12 weeks earlier! I have attained something! My brain really circled and tightened around the idea that I was a failure or was lacking something. It continued circling for several days after. Peace? Well, not right then, for sure.

At roughly the same time, at the place where I work hard to bring cookies home to Chi, I was struggling to learn a new skill. I had to learn a new way of thinking about the work I had done and was about to do. It has been very difficult to retrain my brain. I was frustrated.

Last Saturday morning, I was getting my weekly massage and regaling my patient masseur with all of this. I wound up for the big finish with the tai chi instructor thinking I should stay behind and take another beginner class. I was indignant by that time, and not relaxing very much on the massage table. I beat my hand on the table and talked about failure, what was the point, was I really that bad? At one point, the massage therapist broke his silence and gently mentioned that it might not be because I was a failure. He was almost giggling by the time he pointed out that repeating the beginner sequence of movements will make them more ingrained and lead to a better practice. My brain hated that, insisting it knew enough already. I told my massage therapist that I would consider what he had said out of politeness more than conviction.

By the time I got back to tai chi class last week, I had decided I would follow my teacher’s advice. As I told him I’d stick around, the teacher looked genuinely pleased. It was only then that he conspiratorially whispered that he himself had taken the beginner’s class twice… in combination with the continuing class. You deepen your practice, he explained, and get into the continuing discipline as you go. Explained that way, it made sense. It was not a failure at all. Western mind likes to make us think if we don’t hurry through and be perfect at every endeavor, then we must be failures. This is a lie.

At the-place-where-I-earn-Chi’s-cookies, there also I got to return to the beginning, discussing ideas from the beginning and slowing down to reach true understanding.

All of this seeming setback had shown the possibility inherent in starting something new, and staying in an open, receptive, beginner’s mind throughout life.

For Chi’s part, he doesn’t have to actually catch the squirrel in the back yard. He chases it every day, trying to learn HOW to catch it. It’s not really about the outcome.

I look for places now to practice beginner’s mind. I am grateful I was allowed to see and experience it when so many rush around unseeing, consuming, accumulating, rushing. There IS another way.

Beginners-Mind-ZenRocks

Experience is a riverbed,
Its source hidden, forever flowing:
Its entrance, the root of the world,
The Way moves within it:
Draw upon it; it will not run dry.

— Tao te Ching adaptation by Peter Merel

Chi has a thing for the neighbor over the back fence.  It may have always been so. The neighbor is a kindly old man, rather like the Sage in the stories. He spends endless hours in his yard perfecting the grass, the beautiful flowers. Each tree is cared for and pruned with exquisite attention.

This care extends to Chi. As long as I can remember, the man has called Chi to come to him; preening, mugging, cajoling, teasing. And, as long as I can remember, Chi has had nothing to do with it. Chi runs to the fence like a sentry, barking, hairs standing at attention.  The dance goes back and forth between the two.

I’ve tried to help the old man. Surely, this man would have a treat for Chi. I greet the man, tell Chi the man is a friend. I tap my foot and look annoyed. I yell at our poor pugalicious. Normally, any of these things would stop Chi in mid-bark.  Not this situation; not this neighbor; not this day.

This ritual was playing itself out for the umpteenth time last weekend when a new thought emerged. Maybe this dance, this back-and-forth, was exactly the point. Both seem to enjoy it, no matter how noisy or frustrating it might appear to outsiders. It perfectly illustrates the endless spin of yin and yang, both circling, one sharp, one gentle, The play IS the point.

And, once again, I find Chi teaching me. Humans talk on and on about living life. But those damned rules sometimes stop us from experience. Don’t bark, don’t trample the flowers, don’t be rude, don’t, don’t, don’t.

Getting to the root, the essence of life, IS life. And sometimes, it’s loud and messy.

OUTSIDE VOICES, EVERYONE!

goodluckwiththat

Photo by Rick Harris.

Photo by Rick Harris.

“… I’m afraid a boat

so small would sink

with the weight

of all my sorrow.”

Li Qingzhao, “Spring at Wu-Ling”

Sometimes we must walk through life as solitary creatures. We may have companions, but, in essence, we are born alone, and die alone… with the exception of the Divine, if you believe in such.

This week just past was one of those times. A cherished friend passed away unexpectedly last Monday evening or Tuesday morning. Funny my choice of topic last time. One could almost infer I knew something was about to happen, but I did not. Maybe it would have been easier if I had.

Chi was always by my side, for he could feel things were “off” somehow, and would curl up on the back of the sofa by my head, or at my side, or somewhere nearby. Even so, this was one of those journeys I felt I had to take alone.

Loss is never easy. In this case it was an invitation to look deeply into the things that make life tick. Friends, small pleasures, moments caught in shards of glass within time. And it was a good chance to practice the Lessons of Chi. I took many walks along shaded, tree-lined parks and sidewalks. I wrote love letters. I sat and reflected on my friend and the ephemeral, fragile nature of this life we lead. I prayed; I cried; I spoke with this one who had finally moved beyond the veil. I played sad songs – mostly for me, not for my friend. I shared many hugs with other friends and acquaintances doing much the same thing. We spoke about our friend and realized, as we shared, that maybe we were all linked more closely than we realized. Complete strangers came to share their thoughts, love, prayers, and energy.

As we walked through the process together, we realized our small boats were, in reality, not so small. There are a lot of boats out there, all sinking under the weight of so much grief. And yet, if you join boats, the boat gets progressively larger and more buoyant.

This event of loss became something much larger, and more life-affirming. We all have this chance to pilot our ship, be it a rowboat, a canoe, a yacht, a cruise liner, or speedboat. It’s up to each of us to make it count.

I am grateful for all who reached out in ways large or small. I am grateful to be sharing this experience of life with each of you. Let us choose to enjoy this grand tour, wherever it leads.

This morning my quarters were so cold
I suddenly thought of my friend in the mountains
gathering firewood down by the creek
lugging it back to boil white rocks
I wish I could bring him a gourd full of wine
to drive off the wind and rain at night
but fallen leaves cover the deserted slopes
and how could I find the trail

Wei Ying-wu

[Translated by Red Pine, from the book, ‘In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu’. Copper Canyon Press]

A Scholar's Retreat amidst Autumn Trees, Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Wang Fu (Chinese, 1362-1416)

A Scholar’s Retreat amidst Autumn Trees, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Wang Fu (Chinese, 1362-1416)

This lovely poem speaks of a truth in many of our lives. How many times have we thought of a friend, just out of the blue. How nice it would be to see them. Then, the various problems associated with seeing this friend ensue.

Too snowy. Too rainy. Too hot. Too cold. Too busy. Too broke. Not enough time. Always something.

And then, there are the friends who are not embodied. The friends long since departed, gone to some distant coast, or perhaps location unknown. We think about the memories we shared, the times we wish we could have again. Our selves which always seem somehow better through the lens of time and distance.

Maybe what we truly miss is an ideal. A thought. A time we felt strong, or wise, or vital. It’s always in the past, or the future, or somewhere other than here.

How could I find the trail?

Many times the truth, sensation or experience we seek is deceptively near. Our brains search everywhere for this ephemeral thing called now. Maybe you can pick your way amongst the fallen leaves and find the trail to your friend’s house by taking a detour. Perhaps wandering with no destination will bring you home.

Allowing yourself the time and space to explore in the present moment is key.

Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy. – Spider Robinson

Pain

Pain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week was a time of great stress – deadlines, evaluations, things to get done everywhere I looked. As the days crept along, my neck bore the burden. It was tight on Monday, aching on Tuesday. On Wednesday I had my quarterly review at work. When it was over, I was finally starting to relax. Suddenly, my neck snapped out of alignment. Pain, great pain. That night I woke up and couldn’t rest at all. Of course, the dogs sensed my discomfort.

The two Manchester terriers, Cara and Mara, both wanted to make me feel better – literally. They both jumped up by my face, licking me. Despite my best efforts, the natural reflex to protect the neck kicked in, making me jerk in pain.  They kept licking and trying to get me to move or play to feel better. While this is great puppy therapy most of the time, it was decidedly wrong for this particular occasion. They were summarily dismissed from my presence due to the fresh pain they unknowingly caused.

Chi waited until the terriers had gone to lay across the room, and then he came up close to me.

“No, Chi! Go! It hurts! Go!”  After several rounds of this, I gave up. Chi refused to leave.

The pug gingerly step-stumbled over my legs, and curled up in a ball at my feet. He snuffled with considerable nervousness.  I was still mumbling my objections. Finally I gave up and let Chi stay there at my feet.

It may hurt my pride to admit that some relatively small amount of time passed before I fell sound asleep. And, once again, I became aware of how wonderful Chi is at the fine art of being present to someone else’s pain. By insisting on “being there,” Chi made the pain seem bearable. From that point, the time passed quickly until I could go see my chiropractor and get some treatment.

The next time your animal wants to simply lie with you or rest against you, don’t be quite so fast to send them away. They may well be giving you a gift.

In the meantime, I have an hour of massage scheduled for myself tomorrow. Time to rest and rejuvenate!

chi

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Verse 26 – Gravity is the Root of Lightness

Gravity is the root of lightness,
Stillness is the master of passion.

The Sage travels all day
But does not leave the baggage-cart;
When surrounded by magnificent scenery
Remains calm and still.

When a lord of ten thousand chariots
Behaves lightly in this world,
Lightness loses its root,
Passion loses its master.”

~ “Tao Te Ching Lao-Tzu”, translated by Sephen Addiss & Stanley Lombardo

I’ve been reflecting still more on Chi’s sense of quiet, of flowing like water.  The thing that is really wonderful about working with the Tao Te Ching, of taking the low road, is that you learn an entirely new way of reacting — actually, not reacting — to things as you practice.

In our Western world we are encouraged to “strike while the iron is hot” ; “seize the day”; “take control”; “be assertive”; “don’t be a doormat”… and on and on the advice goes. Be strong, strike hard. Many of us become addicted to this confrontational, competitive style. It’s no wonder. These qualities are often listed among the most attractive traits for managers and entrepreneurs in the contemporary business world. These personality markers also thrive outside the office. Within sports, games, even personal improvement programs there is often found competition and different scenes of what could easily be called battle.

Chi sees most everything in his own puggy time. He is, as the Sage above, calm and still. (Unless there is a squirrel.) By allowing all of the millions things to move around him he gets to experience much more of his puggy world, rather than chase every single thing as his sisters do.

I am trying to allow time to flow like that for me as well, be it at work, or at home. Surrendering and flowing with things allows me to relax. It allows new creativity to flow. And, amazingly, I accomplish more than I would if I was running around after everything.

This also works beautifully in relationships. Allow people to come and go. Stay in the baggage cart being taken from place to place. Force nothing. Embrace the moment and be grateful. These seem like simple tasks. They are deceptive.

So, until next time, I am going to continue to practice this new receptivity, this new yin way of relating to the world. If you try it too, share how it goes for you!

English: Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou...

English: Statue of Lao Tzu (Laozi) in Quanzhou 中文: 福建泉州老君岩 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You ask for what reason I stay on the green mountain,
I smile, but do not answer, my heart is at leisure.
Peach blossom is carried far off by flowing water,
Apart, I have heaven and earth in the human world.

Question and Answer on the Mountain — Li Bai

 

Li Bai’s famous poem speaks to the heart of what leads people to live apart — whether it is in the wilderness, in a monastery, or simply in isolation from others for large periods of time. Artists are particularly likely to need this kind of space, as are sensitives of all stripes.

Many have pointed to the fear of being alone as the root of much of modern society’s malaise. We must have noise; we must have activity. Electronic gizmos and gadgets. The better iPhone. It hurts to be alone. Find someone to be with. Love the one you’re with… well, yes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I was a child, I used to spend many hours in the woods across the street. I’d pack a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, grab a book, and sit there reading for hours. I had a favorite tree trunk, and I’d settle by that trunk and be completely alone. At that time, I hadn’t been properly socialized that it was a bad thing for a woman to be alone. No one told me there were bogeymen and rapists and aliens and so forth. There were monsters, but those were under my bed at home – never outside.

Most of us can relay similar stories. We had invisible friends, secret hiding places. Some of the best hiding places were in our own homes, or in school or a friend’s back yard. These spaces are now found in video games and movies… but they are still there. The busier we get with things to keep us distracted on the outside, the more out of balance we become within ourselves. Balance is that most sacred of things we must find and preserve for ourselves. For many of us, this means time alone… in meditation, hiking in nature, listening to music, soaking in a hot bath.

Ironically, once we reconnect to that space, many of us find we need to spend significant time there. it is home, it is our Center. 

If you feel a little disjointed, a little off kilter… take a walk. Drive to the most beautiful park in your immediate surroundings. Then just get out, wander, and listen. Sit by that babbling brook. Watch that doe in the distance. If you have a dog friend like Chi, take them along. They can help you reconnect to that as well.

You may soon find yourself just like the Taoist poet Li Bai — blessed with heaven and earth and your heart at leisure.

Image

At times, everyone needs that little “bump” life brings. Maybe we have gone stale through routine; maybe we have gotten lost through grief. Whatever the reason, life has a way of bringing opportunity to our doors.  It encourages us to dip a toe back in the collective pool, as it were.

For me, life used dogs to remind me of innocence, to show me how simple it really can be. For me, I’ll even say it was God. I now understand why people say God = dog! It’s not as denigrating as some people like to make it.

Sometimes our human minds get all tied up in complexities. In my case, it was a broken heart. Life bumped me around a bit. I was depressed, and badly so. My mother and God seemed to abandon me at the same time. There was little point. I was scared of the world and unable to relax into outside life any longer. I barricaded myself into my house, resolutely staying away from the outside world. I was locked up tight, blocking the tiniest hint of Light from entering my world. God had little option but to bring something to break through the thousand layers of resistance. And thus, God = dog.

Chi arrived a little damaged as well. We understood each other, despite his peeing on my blanket. If he made the wrong move and sensed he’d displeased us, he’d cringe and hide. It took a while to coax Chi out of his darkness…. And, over time, I found myself being coaxed out of my darkness as well. Occasionally I’d get in a space where I would not want any attention from anyone, human or canine. Chi would stubbornly insist on coming wherever I was at those moments. When I would allow him next to me at those times, we would both benefit.

Eventually, looking back, I had to ask whom was healing whom. For a while I resented “life energy” being present. It was infinitely easier remaining in my comfortable husk of a life. Inevitably, just as the Tao te Ching says, the repeated presence and love of Yin wore its way through the rocks blocking the river of my heart. If it was so with the Grand Canyon, then it’s definitely so with lesser rock structures like the human heart.

To end our time today, I would ask you this question: What makes you come alive?

Now, go do it.

comealive

Blogger’s note: While there is some question of the attribution of this quote to Howard Thurman, it would appear the quote did occur in conversation with Thurman. Thus, I am using it.

There are many mornings I look at Chi, and I wonder how he can sleep so soundly. Safe home? Of course. Snuggly place underneath someone’s arm? Sure. And yet, when I look at the sleeping Chi, I see a deep peace.

No, it’s not the peace of someone who doesn’t want to wake up, like most of us two minutes before the alarm goes off. This is qualitatively different. When I went to wake him this morning, his eye fluttered open, and then shut again. Grunt, deeeep stretch. And Chi rolled over, seeking someone to pet him. He was in sleep heaven.

Chi also likes to snuggle with me on work mornings. We have repeated discussions about this. I tell him how humans don’t live by pug rules and that we have to get up and run everywhere. Chi looks at me as if to say, “Why? There’s no hurry. You need to slooow down.”

Pug wisdom is not always easy wisdom. And so I get up,  rush off to work, shake the sleep out of my eyes, and immerse myself in human work for 8 or sometimes 9 hours. And then when I return home, Chi comes wagging his curly tail as if to say, “Let’s get on with things!”

And then, before too much time has passed, the snores of a happy pug are heard again throughout the living room. I think I’ll meditate with him tonight.

Snug as a pug in a rug