Archives for category: spirituality

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

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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.

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)

Water overcomes the stone;

Without substance it requires no opening;

This is the benefit of taking no action.

 

Yet benefit without action,

And experience without abstraction,

Are practiced by very few.

TTC 43

Interpreted by Peter Merel

I learn a lot when I sit and watch Chi interact with his sisters. His sisters are two rambunctious Manchester Terriers. He lacks their energy and their speed. He cannot outrace them in one of their dizzying races around the yard. He can’t jump so fast and high that he almost catches a squirrel by the tail.

Still, Chi has something the flashier pair lack, and he uses it — often without fanfare. He can lie quiet and motionless. When they crawl all over him, he sinks into himself with a deep sigh. He’ll close his eyes and pretend he’s asleep. They will paw at him, push him, lick him. None of it matters. He’s oblivious. Sometimes, he seems longsuffering. Other times, he seems stubborn.

He uses this with his humans as well. If we want to put him in the kennel, and he doesn’t want to be there, he refuses to move. Quite literally, he becomes as water. Completely limp. The effects are comical as we drag him (gently) across the bed or the sofa or the floor. He is a conscientious objector. He is passive resistance incarnate. If you try to pick him up, his limp dead weight is hard to lift. If he slips from your grasp, he sinks back into the sofa, only for the cycle to begin again.

Chi is illustrating the overcoming of adversity with the humor of a sage. Water has no real substance; it flows, it moves, it molds to hard substances. And, over time, it carves stone. Water is the ultimate example of acting without acting. We can do the same, by flowing through difficult situations. If chaos is exploding around you, remaining low to the ground and flowing with the tide will serve you well. You can observe, witness from this place.

All this, from “doing nothing.”

be water

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

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

–Written by Lao-tzu
From a translation by S. Mitchell

I love watching Chi experience the world. To watch him stick his nose into a blossoming rose,  bark at a squirrel taunting him on a telephone wire far above his head, or just lay on the warm flagstones by the shed in the backyard… all of these speak to immediate experience. I move to pick up my camera, and it all shifts. I’ll pester the pug, I’ll try to position him for a photo, I’ll cajole and beg.  The moment is gone, just like that.

All of Chi’s lessons are exactly like this. It’s all fun to watch him hamming it up, and then to tell you about it. But nothing makes Chi happier than me getting down with him and playing, chasing the squirrel with him, or sunning on the grass right beside him. When I play with Chi, I’m present and want nothing. The minute I grab my camera and say, “wow, I can get a perfect shot of this thing”… I’m in desire and the experience is now a manifestation, an idea — a Thing.

Chi helps me get over myself. And that’s a gift we can all use now and again.

chidandelions

And yet, though we strain

against the deadening grip

of daily necessity, I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Who is living it, then?

Is it the things themselves,

or something waiting inside them,

like an unplanned melody in a flute?

—  Rainer Maria Rilke