I have been asked (and I often ask myself) how a Taoist approach to life responds to the ultimate Yin of life - death. As I enter my 73rd year the question is anything but theoretical. It is a reality that insists on breaking through the walls of my culturally conditioned denial and avoidance. But let’s stick with philosophy for a moment. The folk Taoism of Chinese culture entertains various beliefs in reincarnation, rebirth, and multiple heavens and hells, but the philosophical school of Taoist thought - that of Lao-Tzu and The Tao Te Ching - does not speculate about an afterlife. It does not deny the possibility, but it is frustratingly consistent in its refusal to pretend to know the unknowable. Instead it recommends the wise practices of; “letting go,” and of “not knowing.” I’ll “know” someday. In the meantime I want to practice the wonderful art of letting go and develop a relationship of gratitude with this ultimate Yin that is asking for my attention.
I am coming to understand that the presence of death breathes life into the too-easily shrugged off concept of letting go. The Tao Te Ching, repeatedly advises the practice of letting go - of opinions, beliefs, desires, things, and even of people. The Buddhist ideal of non-attachment fit well with Taoist thought when the two philosophies blended in China two millennia ago. Both continue to stress the importance of ceasing to cling. Yet it is all to easy to delude myself into thinking that I am not attached, while in the back of my conditioned mind the thought process is actually: “I’m not attached. I’m just confident that my life tomorrow will have the same perks and pleasures that it contains today. It’s always been that way and I don’t see it changing.” This thinking process is the essence of clinging, and clinging is the root of humanity’s stress, tension, and unhappiness no matter how much my conditioning tries to insist otherwise.
I do not advocate a morbid preoccupation or obsession with death. I am finding, however, that the acknowledgement of its reality can enhance life in ways that the practice of denial and avoidance can never fathom. One of the changes that the growing awareness of the ultimate Yin has brought to my life is the joy of actually letting go, not just pretending to let go. I am now able to say, from experience rather than philosophy, that letting go increases joy and pleasure in events, things, and people. What I have believed for decades to be true, I now find actually is true!
I am healthy and take great pleasure in the elements of my life, but my physical energy and muscular strength is noticeably less than it was five, or even two, years ago. On the other hand, my pleasure is noticeably greater. My delight in the sights and sounds of the natural world is increasing almost daily. My gratitude for simple things has expanded - for the aroma and taste of morning coffee; for pasta sauce simmering on the stove; for the breeze that comes through the window touching even a mid-summer day with coolness; for Nancy’s loving presence on the patio in the early morning.
Those of you who have had this ultimate Yin enter your life suddenly rather than gradually know how wrenching the process of letting go can be when it is imposed upon you. One of my dear friends has recently discovered that he has a debilitating and terminal disease that will take his energy and his life, sooner rather than later. I can only imagine the fear and grief that he and his spouse must be facing, yet they both report the presence of a marvelous joy that comes from remembering their long years together, from sitting on their patio with evening tea, and from learning how to care for and to be cared for in new and tender ways.
These friends have had a crash course in letting go. I am reminded that, for the moment, I can take this course a bit more leisurely but take it I must. It is a course we all must take. We can’t “test out of it” with our philosophical meanderings. We will, however, all surely graduate. In the meantime, I think that Taoist thought advises us to allow the mystery of death to teach us the true meaning letting go. This, I believe, will bring us greater joy and appreciation than any of the false promises our acquisitive culture has fostered will ever be able to do. As one of my folk heroes, Arlo Guthrie, says, “Die now, go later!”
SOURCE: Taoist Living
"Lost and Insecure" from Constellations of My Mind
Hold to your own nature.
A strong wind does not blow all morning.
A cloudburst does not last all day.
The wind and rain are from Heaven and Earth
and even these do not last long.
How much less so the efforts of man?
One who lives in accordance with the Truth
becomes the embodiment of Tao.
His actions become those of Nature,
his ways those of Heaven.
It is through such a one
that Heaven rejoices,
that Earth rejoices,
that all of life rejoices.
(The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 23 – trans. Jonathan Star)
The vast majority of people who have existed on this small blue dot of a planet have experienced lives filled with uncertainty and insecurity, yet have still managed to create beauty in the midst of ugliness, compassion in the midst of hate, and courage in the midst of fear. My grandparent’s generation saw millions of young men die in the carnage of the trenches of World War I. Half a century earlier their own grandparents watched a civil war tear the country apart. My parent’s generation lived for years not knowing whether or not the darkness of the Third Reich would engulf them. The American Revolution itself turned on a dime and those we call “Founding Fathers” could easily have been hanged as traitors and terrorists and we today might well be, along with Canada, part of the British Commonwealth.
The wonder for me is not the existence of hatred, fear, and intolerance. The wonder I feel is for the existence of compassion, courage, and acceptance in the midst of such primal energies. Armies have marched across continents for millennia and yet people still sat by firesides and told stories, loved one another, and looked up at the night sky in wonder. In fact, the most difficult of times have given birth to the most marvelous lives of courage and resilience. Among the thousands of examples I think of the French Resistance, the German families who hid Jewish families, the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom, and the ever-present willingness of many people to share their homes, their food, and their lives with those in need.
In the midst of increasing insecurity I don’t doubt that we will be writing our own stories of courage and compassion. Individually, and in community groups, we will be creating our own versions of sanctuary for ourselves and others. We will be turning our creative attention to mutual support, new forms of community, simple generosity, and the better angels of our humanity. We have been blessed to live in “interesting times.” Let’s make the most of it.
(The Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Commentary by William Martin
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
A new drive-through food establishment has opened in Chico. It’s called… wait for it… Mad Dash! The sign out front proudly proclaims, “Two slices of pizza and a drink in 90 seconds!” I’m thinking of opening a competing place called Instant Gratification! People will pull up to a pump, insert their credit card, stick a hose in their mouth and pump a liter of high fructose corn syrup directly into their gut. No muss, no fuss, no nutrients to get in the way and keep us from getting about the business of… whatever it is that is so urgent.
As Lao-tzu says in Chapter 9, we hurry to fill our bowls, sharpen our knives, and chase about our world with a frenzied mind and a clenched heart. I feel it every time I drive my automobile on city streets and freeways. I see it in my rear view mirror in which I can count the bugs on the grill of the behemoth behind me. I experience it as I sigh with impatience at the confused and dawdling driver in front of me. I have nowhere to get, yet I often hurry to get there. If there is more traffic than I expected I find this somehow wrong; it shouldn’t be this way. (Or, often, “I should have chosen a different time or route. The wrongness is my fault!&rdquo
Taoist thought does not value urgency because it sees all events as having their own natural flow, occurring at the proper time and place without effort or strain. Urgency is a product of the conditioned human mind, superimposed on top of the movement of the Tao. This urgent conditioning is not wrong, and in a broad sense it is also part of the overall context of the Tao. But Lao-tzu is clear that, while all things belong to the Tao, not all things are helpful and congruent with human happiness and contentment. Not all things help the human mind find the balance of the Tao. Urgency is one of these things.
I can’t change it by holding up a “SLOW” sign like a highway worker. The only thing I can change is the way I respond to that urgency when it arises from my conditioned mind. I wish I could say that, “It’s really no problem. I’m actually above all this hurry and stress. I can go out and about and remain serene and placid because I am so very very spiritual. I let it roll off my back while I meditate and breathe deeply.” Not likely.
Perhaps one could discover a coexistence with the sound, fury, and mad dashes of our world, but I’m not so sure. Lao-tzu eventually had to get on his ox and leave the country rather than live where the preponderance of societal energy was so contrary to his perception of the flow of the Tao. I don’t have an ox on which to ride and don’t know where I’d go if I did. (Can Nancy and the cat fit on an ox anyway?)
So I’ll stay. I’ll pay attention to the way my mind creates urgency, impatience, and judgment. I’ll ask myself over and over, “What’s the hurry anyway?” I’ll turn my attention to the slow cooking and eating of natural and tasty food. I’ll continue to develop the habits of walking, biking, and public transportation whenever I can instead of pushing and being pushed through traffic. I’ll wander the Farmer’s Market and the cooperative farm to which we belong instead of the aisles of Mega-Market Inc. where the music, lighting, and signage is devoted to hurrying me into impulsive and unnecessary purchases. I’ll slow down as best I can.
While nurturing my sense of outrage and writing the above essay, I have been sitting at a coffee shop absent-mindedly scarfing down a lemon-poppyseed scone. The crumbs remain on the plate as the only reminder of the process. I vaguely remember tasting it…I think.
Oh my! Do you know where I can get a deal on a nice two-person, one cat, ox?
----WILLIAM MARTIN'S WEBSITE:
-- Painting by Nam Hải Huyền Môn
As infants, we are ushered into a world of physical separateness but a sense of ego separateness has not yet been formed by the brain. Our psychic boundaries are still porous and we experience everything without self-reference. It's all One Thing Happening and we haven't yet made categories to separate it out.
As the brain creates categories our experience begins to have the reference point of a separate self. As children we now live in two worlds. We have a growing sense of a separate self yet still have many moments in which we are still aware of the vast mystery and magic of Life. Most of us have a memory or two remaining of this wonder and awe.
As we enter adolescence, our separate ego becomes solid but we are sub-consciously aware that we are leaving something important behind. The world is making its demands that we "grow up" and enter the Adult stage as quickly as possible. The Rebel will express itself in one of two ways: resistance or compliance. We either say, "hell no" or "yes sir" (often a bit of both). Either way is in reaction to the pull of the Adult world. My own route was predominately “yes, sir” and repressed a great deal of awareness, power, and clarity.
The Adult is the driving force of society. The adult is, at once, both the producer and consumer in the economic engine. The pressure is enormous to pull the child/rebel up into this stage and thus insure that the society "functions" as usual. There is nothing wrong with the Adult stage. It can be productive and creative, but usually operates according to unconscious conditioned forces that lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The adult is conditioned to be “responsible” and this responsibility is usually defined by society rather than by a deeper sense of responsibility to authentic and meaningful living.
This is where things really get interesting! The abandoned memories of the early stages begin to reassert themselves. The ego boundaries soften and some of the "rebel" energy emerges, but now not in reaction to adult authority but instead in response to a pull from a higher sense of Being. The Outlaw asks the embarrassing questions: "Why?" and "Who says?" and begins to assert: "Not me. I don't believe it. I’m going to do it my way." Again, the gravitational center of the Adult stage pulls against Outlaws, demanding that they remain conformed to the accepted beliefs and roles; that they go to the grave as "good adults.”
The Outlaw is threatened with a legion of frightening stories about what will happen if this “lawless” path is followed: "There won’t be enough money. Your old age will be uncomfortable. Your health will suffer. You will get in trouble with the authorities. People will not like you anymore. Who do you think you are?”
These questions are believable and powerful. They stop cold the Outlaw journey of most people and turn them back to comfort-seeking compliance or to withdrawn apathy and bitterness. Lao-Tzu was considered an "Outlaw" by most of his society. It is a difficult stage to enter. Most of social conditioning warns against it.
If the Outlaw path is followed with courage and determination, the Sage awaits. The Sage has been present all the time, but has been unnoticed and repressed. The Sage is free. The ego boundary is very porous and a sense of returning to the Oneness of the Tao pervades life. The Sage can choose to adopt the responsibility of the adult; the wonder of the child; the emptiness of the infant; the "Hell, no!" of the rebel; or the "Who says?" of the outlaw as the mood strikes - moving between these personas with ease and compassion. No rules, no beliefs, no rituals constrain the Sage who needs neither to rebel nor conform, but simply to be.
----WILLIAM MARTIN'S WEBSITE:
---“Misty Paradox” by Robert James Hacunda
“We can only do the best we know how to do.”
by William Martin
Once, long ago in ancient China, a drought of many years' duration was bringing great misery to a small province. Year after year the people of the province waited for the rainy season to come and bring the needed nurture for the rice crop. Each year the season produced very little rain and the rice crop dwindled. Many were on the verge of starvation. Indeed, some elderly people had died of illnesses brought on by their hunger-weakened condition.
The people turned to the superstitions of their ancestors in an attempt to influence the rain. They performed rituals designed to stir whatever gods there were who might control the rain. They weren't sure these rituals would work, but they were desperate. They needed the rain.
Finally, just when the province was about to be devastated by yet another failing crop, the rainy season came with torrents. Day after day the rain poured down and the rice seedlings thrived in the flooded paddies. The crop was the biggest in memory. The people of the province once again felt the beneficent power of the Tao.
"Now," the Master asked, "do you think this was indeed a beneficent rainy season?"
"It would seem that it was," answered his student.
"So it would seem," said the Master. "The neighboring province, whose villages were situated along the banks of several rivers, experienced the worst flash floods of their history that year. The water came pouring suddenly down steep canyons and washed whole villages away, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. What do you suppose their view of that rainy season might have been?"
"That it was very harmful," said the student.
"So—benefit or harm? Can you ever know?"
I can write myself into endless circles trying to describe the complexity of the harm/benefit continuum. In the same way, the conditioned mind can tie me into knots of guilt by pointing out the harm I do no matter what course of action I choose. Are the chickens who laid these eggs living a cage-free, non-antibiotic,
vegetarian life? If not, should I be buying these eggs? (Never mind the messages when I sit down to an actual chicken dinner!) And the coffee sitting by my hand here at the Naked Lounge Cafe-—fair-trade? No. Shade-grown? No idea. Delicious? You bet. Does my next sip doom a struggling farmer in Brazil?
I remember the look on the face of a woman with whom I had a long-term intimate relationship many years ago when I told her I was leaving the relationship. How could I cause such pain, such feelings of betrayal, such grief? From that relationship I entered into love and marriage with my beloved Spouse. Benefit for me? Beyond measure. Harm for the former lover? Yes, or ... ? She went on to have an interesting and satisfying life. Benefit? Harm? Both?
To this day, twenty years later, personalities in my head occasionally bring up that look on her face and shake their ghostly heads in disapproval. "How could you? And here you are, happy. How dare you be happy?" Well, like all of us, I did the best I knew how with what and who I was at the time. I put one foot in front of the other, causing harm and benefit willy-nilly as I went, my conditioned moral judges always quick to point out what they see as the harm done, no one really acknowledging the benefit.
The Tao Mind uses both harm and benefit as the raw materials that are used to build compassion. They are as necessary to each other as are the proton and the electron. They are part of a greater whole, of a compassionate life that cannot come into being without the interplay of the two. They seem to be opposed to each other, yet the Tao Mind is constantly using forgiveness to transform harm into empathy, openness, acceptance, compassion, and wholeness. Whether harm is intentional or unintentional, the forgiveness within the Tao Mind allows it to be integrated into the great Dance of Life in ways that bring unexpected benefit, allowing the surprises of grace to occur.
My conditioned mind argues, "Are you suggesting that a cruel, callous act is excusable just because the universe is complicated?"
No. But remember, "cruel and callous" is a label, not a fact. It may seem accurate but we might choose other ways of describing the act that would be more helpful in allowing forgiveness to facilitate appropriate reactions. Being willing to look at the act without the labels can lead us to certain helpful steps.
We can look with clarity and courage at the act itself with a desire to understand just what happened and what factors might have led to that act. We may find that the "cruel and callous' labels are no longer necessary.
With a clearer understanding we can take steps to heal the wounds that the act may have caused.
We can put appropriate structures in place to prevent continuing harm.
Remember, in the Tao Mind, the act is accepted as "having happened." The Tao Mind contains the forgiveness necessary so that we might be aware of the most compassionate healing act possible in the moment. No effort is wasted in judgment upon persons or actions. All energy is directed to the present-moment, naturally arising, compassionate action.
BUY the BOOK:
---Of Butterflies and Egos
My needs are real,
as are my sorrows.
My opinions count,
as do my actions.
I’m the star of this production
so listen to me
and take me seriously!
When I’m gone the loss will be
horrendous for I am the
There is nothing wrong with having an ego. It’s an essential step in human biological and spiritual development. It is, however, at best a temporary necessity; a framework built by the brain in order to allow a subjective experience of life. Once it has supplied this structure it can naturally soften and fade into the background. The unconditioned mind can then move back into its natural role as the primary identity; an identity not nearly as separate, isolated, and fearful as the ego-identity.
Unfortunately the “civilization” of human society over the past five thousand years or so has moved so rapidly that the ego process/structure has lost its ability to soften. It has been pushed into an adaptive strategy for which it is not equipped. The complexity of warring nation-states, media-driven belief and behavior, over-population, and economic domination of the many by the few have all worked together to create a hyper-vigilant ego; one that is not capable of its natural voluntary softening. In order to recapture the satisfaction and pleasure of life as it was designed to be, we need to consciously help the ego release its death grip on our being.
It is not a battle. We are not at war with our ego, though it often is pictured that way by well-meaning spiritual practices. Our ego is natural, essential, and able to play its necessary role in the developmental saga of human life; but only if it is allowed to soften once it has provided structure to our experience.
Believing that the ego structure is the acme of human consciousness is akin to believing that the cocoon is the acme of caterpillar consciousness; that once the caterpillar has carefully spun the cocoon and let it harden into place the developmental work is done. Pity our species which is striving so desperately to keep the shell solid, seeing it as the only safety possible. Pity the society which extols the strongest, most impermeable, and most rigid of egos, cheering their advancement to positions of power and wealth.
Were the caterpillar to believe that the cocoon was the real and final stage of life, it would shrivel within that shell and that would be the end. Despite our bluster and appearance of control and power, that shriveling is exactly what is happening to our personal, social, and institutional life. We must begin to understand that the ego is merely a mental structure designed to let us process a tangible and material existence for a short period, while we gather the wisdom and experience necessary to take the next developmental step.
There have always been butterflies among us. Every generation has seen them. Most of them, however, have gone unnoticed because their priorities are so different from those of caterpillars. We have to look up to see them. Looking up is not something the ego feels comfortable doing, so we keep a fearful eye peeled and spin extra layers into the cocoon whenever we sense a crack developing.
Let’s all take a long, slow, deep breath and let ourselves understand that the shell will never, ever, keep us safe. It doesn’t need to. Let’s find out what’s next after the cocoon.
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---“Path to Wisdom” - By LEONID
Talking about a path is not walking that path.
Thinking about life is not living.
Lao-tzu was neither a priest nor a follower of any religious belief system. He was a patient observer of the flow of life. He watched the wind move the clouds across the sky and the rain soak the earth. He watched rivers flow through wide valleys and tumble down mountain canyons. He watched the crane stand patiently by the lakeside, waiting on one leg until the water cleared to reveal a fish. He considered the contentment of the turtle sitting in the mud. He observed crops flourish one year and fail the next. He watched the seasons come and go. He saw the wonder of all things rising and falling, coming and going, living and dying. He came to understand that this wonder cannot be captured by words and concepts. It can be talked about, yet never captured. It can be thought about, yet never fathomed. It can only be experienced.
The legends that surround the formation of the Tao Te Ching illustrate Lao-tzu's reluctance to put his teachings into written words. One such legend speaks of a time when he became so fed up with the politics of repression in the China of his day that he got on his ox and left the country. But the border guard would not let him leave until he wrote down his wisdom for all to share. Lao-tzu said, "If I write it down it will no longer be the Tao." Nevertheless, the guard would not let him leave until he wrote something. So Lao-tzu dismounted his ox, sat in the shade of a tree, and in one afternoon wrote the short text of poetic wisdom you now have in your hands.
Legend? Undoubtedly, but a legend that speaks to the very nature of this path. It is a path of direct experience, not of abstract philosophy. It is a way of looking with clarity at the processes of life as they are, not as we think they should be. It is a path that must be walked moment by moment, and not discussed in endless words.
Yet using thoughts and words to make sense of our experience is what we humans do. It is part of our nature. Lao-tzu uses words in short poetic stanzas so that they may serve as guides and gateways to direct experience rather than as mere abstractions and distractions. This sometimes frustrates our Western conditioning, which has come to expect things to be explained without ambiguity or paradox. Such an approach forces us again and again to return to our own experience of life rather than rely on the words and teachings of others.
Directly experiencing life is not something we do easily. By the time we are adults, our experience is mediated through a multitude of conceptual filters that provide a constant commentary about our life, but that ignore the thing itself. This process is so deeply conditioned in most of us that we don't even notice it. We wander through day after day with our minds spinning an endless stream of thoughts, judgments, hopes, fantasies, critiques, and plans, all mixed with a babble of advertising jingles and fragments of television shows.
Lao-tzu suggests that this habitual commentary on life, though a natural part of being human, is not the same thing as a fully lived life. At the same time, he does not totally discount the conceptual thinking process. We make a certain kind of sense out of our life through the use of categories, thoughts, and words. But, as he suggests in chapter 1, these thoughts and words are gateways to life, not life itself.
How is it for you? Does the commentary in your head serve as a gateway to the deeper mystery of life? Or are you, like most of us, deeply caught in the never-ending round of judgment, effort, worry, striving, comparing, desiring, hoping, dreaming, and all the other distractions that keep you from the actual, sometimes frightening, intensity of a direct experience of life?
William Martin — A Path and a Practice: Using Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an --Awakened Spiritual Life
Striving, we become exhausted.
Ceasing to strive, we find astonishing energy.
Tranquility rests within us, "softening our edges and bringing us peace.
Where does it come from? ;
Someplace we can't name.
What is its source?
What does it do?
Everything that needs to be done.
We have been taught not to trust our true nature and to look outside ourselves for peace, tranquility, and wisdom. Yet at the core of who we are lies an ancient, innate wisdom. This is our natural connection with the Tao.
This connection is called by many names. We talk of returning to our "own hearts" or coming back to "center." We speak of our "true nature," which is compassion. In all these ways we point to something that cannot be named. It can only be rediscovered through direct experience.
We recognize it when we are doing well in the midst of the challenges of caregiving. We see it when we know deep within that all truly is well, even in the middle of the most distressing day. We sense it when we find tenderness welling up to soothe our frustration and despair when we feel we are failing at our task.
Watch for these experiences. They are available to all of us, to remind us of the trustworthiness of our own hearts.