September 9, 2011

Chapter 1 – Sitting, between word and thought

That Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
the gate to all mystery.

There is a stillness that sits between our thoughts and words. When we sit there too we notice the ‘ten thousand things’ that go on around us. Our noticing happens through our ears, our eyes, our skin, our nose, and our mouth. Our nose and our mouth take us deeper into our digestive noticing, our intestines and other organs send subtle signals of pleasure or discomfort. In our private parts we feel life itself stirring within us, and it somehow connects with our head, making us more or less aware and alert, more or less at peace or troubled, depending on the day, depending on the circumstances.

And with all of this noticing we experience thoughts, pictures, words and ideas that take shape in our minds about our noticing. It may not even be what we notice in the here and now, it might be a conversation we had yesterday that is still sitting happily, or uncomfortably, with us. Or it might be an email we sent three days ago, and we are still waiting for a response, wondering how the recipient is doing. Or it might be our loved ones who have passed but whose love and energy still envelops us at unexpected moments.

This is important to do – to sit between word and thought – because it awakens in us the truth of who we are, of where we’ve been, and of where we are heading. Awakened truth inside of you and me is precious, it is yours and mine, nobody can take it.

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June 14, 2011

Chapter 68 – Reaching Heaven

A good soldier is not violent.
A good fighter is not angry.
A good winner is not vengeful.
A good employer is humble.
This is known as the Virtue of not striving.
This is known as ability to deal with people.
This since ancient times has been known as the ultimate unity with heaven.

Let’s say ‘heaven’ is that perfect place containing all the things we value, we enjoy, and that we wish for. We are all doing the right and good thing to pursue it.

But what happens when two people’s pursuit of something that is good, leads them to conflict, where there can only be one winner and one loser? In a boxing match for example, both competitors have their heart set on winning, but only one will. What guidance does the loser refer to, or what principle of life can the loser find comfort in?

Should a boxer entering the ring be thinking that he might lose, and therefore, he might be more prepared for it if it happens? Probably not, most successful boxers appear to have an invincible belief in themselves and their ability to always win. There doesn’t seem to be much room for any doubt if a fighter intends to get through to the end of a boxing fight.

Sometimes we are told ‘time heals’. But this can mean carrying a lot of pain while we wait for time to do its trick. We know we are looking for some wisdom in this chapter that provides more helpful guidance when we have lost a battle we dearly wanted to win, or for when we have simply lost something dear to us and we did not even know we were in a fight.

The first four lines tell us that to be good at various things you have to NOT violate others in any way. Soldiers, fighters, winners, and employers, all perform their duties without taking what matters most from the people they deal with. ‘What matters most’ appears to have something to do with dignity, with independence, with respect and self-esteem.

All people in these situations will have the impulse to ‘strive’ for something, often at the expense of others’ sense of self-worth. To not follow that impulse, means to not strive, and probably also means to not act purely with an emotional response.

The path then is to act as though we will be victorious and to face our losses with an attitude of inquiry, an attitude of wanting to learn from the experience, and to become more wise because of it. In this way we can never really ‘lose’ but we can always be reaching heaven through all our experiences.

June 7, 2011

Chapter 25 (part) – Goal Setting

Man follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

We each consciously hold some of the Tao in us. But it is only a slither of something bigger, grander, and totally elusive. Like the Blind Men and The Elephant, we feel assured by the bit (tail, trunk, knee, ear, etc) we feel that it is what we ‘know’ (its a ‘rope’, a ‘hose’, a ‘tree’, a ‘leaf’, etc), while not knowing it is quite different to the whole (an elephant!).

More consciously, we have the earth in us: our own body’s flesh and blood remind us everyday that we are made of stuff that we experience intimately. Hungry, we eat; thirsty, we drink; tired, we sleep; energetic, we seek and do; all the time our earthly instincts guiding us.

In between the earth and the Tao, we have heaven. Less conscious than the earth’s presence, but more conscious than of the Tao, we sense not physical signals but spiritual ones. Emotions of joy, sadness, fear, and guilt, are triggered by our relationships while deep but clear yearnings and longings are triggered in us by anything at all. Scent, touch, and sensual attraction, are earthly signals, but all the time they are awakening in us an awareness of the ‘other’, and of the ‘other’s awareness of us.

We plot our life’s goals according to our dreams and to our earthly needs. If you are drawn to this talk of the Tao, or any of its similar forms, then you are already shaping your goals with its grand possibilities in mind. Our dreams become fueled by the deep happiness and rich freedom that a stronger connection with the Tao brings. Representing this freedom in clear heavenly and earthly goals is natural, and a challenge that makes us strong.

Goal setting sits in heaven, between two pulling forces. The force of the Tao, that we do not know and can not name pulls us from one direction, while our conscious earthly mind pulls us from another direction. Let’s take ‘wealth’ – for most of us it is the result of what we do. If we set goals around it we are consciously planning to do things. But everyone of us can only consciously plan to do things that our unconscious permits, not in a moral way, but in an energetic way.

Where the tension between these two forces is tightest, we are closest to our own inner truth. The strange thing is that it may consciously feel like we are at the farthermost point away from that truth.

April 17, 2011

Chapter 47 – The brighter the flame, the more we see

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The further you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

In each one of us is the flame of life. It is delicate yet robust, easily dulled by wind or lack of fuel, and easily strengthened with the right fuel and air.
The more we listen, sense, remain attentive to this flame and what it needs to be strong, the more we can learn of the outside world.
If we neglect this flame, do not listen to its call, do not respond to what it pulls us toward, it will weaken. The further we go from it, the less we can know.

Under pressure we know it better. Working hard to keep pace in McDonald’s kitchen, pushing hard to capture an image or idea in paint, constructing an argument to convey a public message with appeal and impact. These ventures test us, and help us be more aware of the flame we each have. Because they are difficult, they are also easy to resist, to dismiss as too hard, not fun or for us.

Yet all the time Lao Tzu is calmly reminding us that the key is within. To grow in wisdom, we must nurture the flame within. Our flame came to us through our biological parents, their unique gift is this flame of ours. We often get locked in unhelpful thoughts, trying to explain why things are not the way we would like them to be. To see and breathe our own flame, to nurture it and strengthen it, is to accept all that is in the life that we have. It helps us see more, and it makes ‘doing’ much less like ‘work’.

March 27, 2011

Whiteman’s Dreaming – unmasking our rituals

Gary Johns writes: “Aboriginal tribal life was radically different to modern life in both culture and economy. Tribal Aborigines had no real understanding of how the world worked; their profound lack of understanding was masked by ritual as a means of explaining events, whether abundance or absence of food, or life or death.” He goes on to explore the trends in public policy from assisting them to ‘enter the modern world’ to being left to ‘fend for themselves’. The pendulum has swung for two hundred years, he says, between these two extremes of ‘self-determination’ and of ‘integration’. (The Weekend Australian March 26-27 2011, Inquirer p.1. Book Extract by Gary Johns, Author of Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream)

‘Family violence’ and ‘mental illness’ are major symptoms of how our modern world ‘works’. Perhaps it is not entirely fair to make an observation using Johns’ words in this context. But the use of terms like ‘no real understanding of how the world worked’ and ‘lack of understanding was masked by ritual’ strikes a very deep and uncomfortable chord. Many ‘modern’ folk have received immensely helpful wisdom and guidance from those still connected with traditional Aboriginal tribal ways, because of the very understanding they do have of how the world really works.

Our modern world is suffering from modern illnesses in plague proportions. While it would be ludicrous to suggest we try returning to some idyllic ancient world, it is equally ludicrous to perpetuate the myth that the ancient world, of any culture or tradition, was ‘masking’ a lack of understanding with ritual. How did the Egyptians know how to build pyramids long before we had the machines to move the enormous stones they used, how did the Chinese navigate the world without any GPS long before western countries tried?

On the contrary, their rituals sustained them in their connection with each other and the world around them in such a way that we now appear to be desperately yearning for. Now we have the ritual of playing with our mobile devices while we wait for the next email, sms, tweet, or other form of connection with another human being, even if they are sitting only a few desks or rooms away. These modern rituals are fuelling the illnesses we see around us.

The Western mind quickly jumps to rationalising every latest event in a myriad of ‘rational’ ways. Are we really any closer to understanding ‘climate change’ or are we just kidding ourselves? The Nazi regime tried to validate its ‘superior’ Aryan roots by sending a team of scientists several times to Tibet. The goal was to validate Hitler’s and Himmler’s belief that their ‘Aryan master race’ somehow originated with ancient warriors in the Himalayas. So, on they went measuring people’s noses and skulls, hoping to prove some link, which they never did. It was a crazy endeavour, perhaps delightful for some so inclined. But the commitment of many educated people to the cause gave it, and the Nazi regime along with it, much legitimacy in the eyes of the less than discerning public.

Perhaps it is time to consider that our firm conviction that rational ‘understanding’ of the way things work, is itself a myth and represents a set of rituals that ‘mask’ our own ‘profound lack of understanding’ in this modern world. It is a conviction that could in fact be as self-destructive (e.g. heart attacks, car fatalities and injuries, cancers, etc ) as any tribal way of life, old or new, and it needs urgent revision or simple expulsion. We all need ritual, indeed we all practice ritual, the question is are they rituals that help or hinder our success?

We still have a lot to learn from those who have sacrificed (for ‘progress’) their rituals more recently than the rest of us. This learning starts with a public language in which we acknowledge and respect the profound wisdom of all ancient cultures, even before we ‘understand’ how to learn from them.

March 20, 2011

Chapter 48 – The Road to Success

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Whatever aspect(s) of success we personally strive for: health, wealth, power, happiness, peace, and so on, it is fair to say that we have a greater chance of achieving it if we tap into the power of the Tao.

But this chapter tells us that we have to come to grips with one of humanity’s greatest ironies first – of having to let go of that we strive to learn.

It points to the attitude that is required of us. At first we must learn, we must acquire skills and knowledge pertaining to the area in which we wish to achieve some level of mastery. Just as the accomplished soccer player does not need to think about which part of his foot he needs to kick the ball with for a certain lift or pitch, so does the person ‘let go’ of their learning when they begin to pursue the Tao.

The attitude is also one of respect for that which we do not know. A corrupt king in ancient China who obtained his throne through illegal means was petrified of losing it. Once he realised that he needed to cultivate healthy relationships with those who did good deeds, and not just associate with those who did bad deeds, he was able to start finding peace.

And to let the Tao ‘in’ to our lives, we also have to empty ourselves of everything else. We accumulate many unhelpful stories on our journeys, stories of why we are the way we are, of why we have the life we have, or why we do or don’t enjoy the success we want. We also develop many stories of how other people work, of what they think of us, of what we can do to influence them and their actions. All of these stories become meaningless when confronted with the Tao. The Tao is the ultimate proponent of what ‘is’. Once we get a taste of that, there seems to be not much else worth pursuing.

The value of ritual comes to mind too. The more we revere the Unknown, the Great Creator or Creative Spirit, or Tao, or whatever else we call It, in our daily attitude and practice, the more able we will be to learn what we need without holding on too strongly to it. To do this requires another dimension of ‘letting go’. More accurately, it requires another dimension of ‘holding on’ to that which can not be held.

February 20, 2011

Chapter 10 – As the Right Brain Sees

Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
Can you avoid separation?
Attending fully and becoming supple,
Can you be as a newborn babe?
Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
Can you be without stain?
Loving all men and ruling the country,
Can you be without cleverness?
Opening and closing the gates of heaven,
Can you play the role of woman?
Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?
Giving birth and nourishing,
Bearing yet not possessing,
Working yet not taking credit,
Leading yet not dominating,
This is the Primal Virtue.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk provides an astonishing insight to the workings of the right and left sides to the brain.

Lao Tzu appears to be someone who had a stronger orientation to right-brain thinking than what most of us have, from his time till now. Chapter ten provides us with a text for meditation on the many qualities and characteristics of the Tao, as it works both inside and around us. With modern insight to how the brain works we can confidently say that this is a ‘right brain’ account of the Tao.

The ‘left brain’ in such a context can be left to be considered the source of conflict, or the tension between the two as being unresolvable. It is true that both sides of our brain draws us to different perceptions, Jill Bolte Taylor goes so far as to suggest they are different personalities.

A general life lesson we might take from it though is that our left brains are the tools of our right brains and they enable us to plan, to organize and to formulate, and to carry out functions. It is conceivable that if we do nothing to foster our right brain activity that our left brain tendencies could run amok. And such may be the nature of various forms of mental illness.

Leaving aside diagnosed illnesses, it is fair to suggest that the more we do to foster our right brain activity (e.g. meditation, ritual, contemplative study, playing music, other artistic endeavors, individually or in groups, etc) the more effective our left brain ‘functioning’ activity will be.

Ancient cultures know this as ‘connectedness’ – with the land, the cosmos, belief systems, ritual, ancestors, families, etc. The more we cultivate our connectedness the more we are conscious of what is going on in our own life, and in our own body. Having the sensitivity to notice things not right in our organs, our digestion, our breathing, etc, long before they become an ‘illness’ is one of the many benefits that can come from training in the arts that belong with such connectedness. The ancient Taoist health arts are in this category.

February 6, 2011

Chapter 73 – Do we choose random-ness or purpose-ness?

A brave and passionate man will kill or be killed.

A brave and calm man will always preserve life.

Of these two which is good and which is harmful?

Some things are not favored by heaven. Who knows why?

Even the sage is unsure of this.
(refer first entry for full chapter)

We can easily imagine this middle aged man sitting down, reflecting and writing after a terrible event in his life. Perhaps it was the loss of a loved one to disease, to random violence, or to the unfortunate consequences of an inter-village war. ‘Who knows why?’ is the response that many of life’s events elicit in us, because we just don’t and can’t know why.

‘They are just random’ is one natural and ready response. But what does ‘just random’ really tell us for guiding us in our life?

in between our ears there are many thoughts going on all of the time. Regardless of what we tell even our closest loved ones, there is always a layer of privacy within our hidden dialogue that we don’t reveal. To that dialogue we can reflect and ask what are we drawn to – presuming it is ‘just random’ or to presuming there is a hidden purpose? As human beings, it seems it is natural to hover between both.

The original Chinese for the first sentence is far more elegant and precise than the English. The direct translation of ‘yongyu gan ze sha’ is ‘yongyu-to have the courage to gan-courageous ze-standard or principle sha-kill or fight or reduce. That is, being courageously courageous invokes Death. Similarly, the second sentence of yongyu bu gan ze huo translates as yongyu-to have the courage to bu-not gan-courageous ze-standard or principle huo-life. That is, to be courageously NOT courageous invokes Life.

How true this is in our own life experience. If we presume a purpose behind everything, and accept responsibility for what happens to us, we then quickly consider patterns in our own behavior when experiencing misfortune. To be paranoid about this is as unhealthy as it is to never do it. So somewhere in the middle is a wise balance. If you experience what appears to be random violence for example, ask what lesson it brings, and what responsibility you have to ensure it does not happen again, by adjusting your own behaviour.

One thing is for sure, in English we say that ‘we eat the fruit of the seeds that we sow’. Lao Tzu says ‘Heaven’s net casts wide. Though its meshes are coarse, nothing slips through’.

January 16, 2011

Chapter 7 – ‘Selfless’ is not just doing good for others

Heaven and earth last forever.
Why do heaven and earth last forever?
They are unborn,
So ever living.
The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
He is detached, thus at one with all.
Through selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

A while ago we discussed this chapter and considered various ways in which helping other people can naturally develop our fulfillment.

Today our focus was much more on understanding Lao Tzu’s message in relation to our own learning and development, of how selflessness can also mean enduring hardship for the sake of learning something new, or for accomplishing a new goal in health or in life.

‘Heaven and earth last forever’ – Lao Tzu is always stopping us in our busy tracks and saying STOP, consider the eternal, consider what relationship you have to the Other, with that might creative power from which all of life comes.

In Taoist teaching they often use the terms ‘pre-birth qi’ and ‘post-birth qi’. The path to Taoist enlightenment involves developing various practices to bring the pre-birth qi into our system, combining it with our post-birth qi, and with our will, and being able to direct that qi in and out of our body for healing and for martial applications. This pre-birth qi is where life comes from, the more of it we can cultivate in our system, and the more of it we can learn to ‘control’, then the more powerful we become.

To train in these exercises though is very demanding, and often very uncomfortable. Practitioners are forced to let go of all of their feelings, their desires to be elsewhere, to endure a hardship that is for promoting our well-being rather than to destroy it. How ironic it is that we become comfortable with habits that do quietly and slowly destroy us – eating the wrong foods, consuming excess of any one food or drink, walking sitting and standing with wrong postures, day in and day out. Yet when we practice different forms of meditation, or different slow motion movements, beginners can be brought to tears with the discomfort and the disorientation such practices cause. And yet, providing instruction is correct, every exercise is doing immense good for the person’s health and well-being.

When someone tries to give up smoking they suffer withdrawal symptoms. The discomfort that a practitioner of Taoist exercise experiences is not dissimilar, but because the exercise is chosen with a clear intent, it is often more easily endured. Not for all of course, just as with smoking, there are many stories of people relapsing to old ways.

This why we so often hear in popular talk of martial arts the term ’empty mind’. ‘Emptying’ our mind of all these distractions is an essential part of the process, but it is not really true to say ’emptying’ they often stay around, but their effect is dramatically reduced.

Serious martial training like this is an extreme version. There are a million examples in our daily lives of needing to be more selfless in order to achieve fulfillment – an ironic sort of selfishness. Learning anything requires sacrificing time and energy from other activities. If we are clear about what type of fulfillment we are seeking, then the sacrifices are much easier to accept, or to reject.

January 10, 2011

Chapter 17 – Trust, a strength that helps our emotions

The very highest is barley known.
Then comes that which people know and love,
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.

Who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, “We did it!”

In Chinese, the final words are not ‘we did it’ but ‘I am nature’ (Wo ziran). This is more accurate, we too easily forget our place and consider ourselves bigger than what we really are.

John Curtin, Australian Prime Minister from 1941 to his death in 1945, was a fascinating example of someone not forgetting their place. In the movie ‘Curtin’, depicting his time as PM, it shows how much he carried the burden of ordering two Divisions (46,000 soldiers) to return from the Middle East at the serious risk of being bombed by the more sea-able and better equipped Japanese Navy. As it turned out, much to everyone’s relief, they were not detected or attacked and returned safely to help defend Australian shores from the Japanese offensive.

There were no celebrations in Curtin’s life though, the job had only just begun. Those around him wanted to take time out to celebrate and to enjoy, what he appeared to consider, a sense of false achievement. It was pure luck that they had not been found by the Japanese, and it was merciful luck at that.

Curtin may have trusted in the decision that he made to call them back, but he could not sleep during the two weeks or so of thier voyage. Some may say he was forgetting his place by indulging in an inflated sense of duty, or an almost depression-fuelled self-flagellation. Either way, the end result inspires us to see it as a victory of trust – trust in a higher and clear sense of purpose that was given more weight than the emotional responses he was tempted by. Loyalty and obedience to Britain (Churchill desperately wanted the two Divisions positioned in Europe), and the fear of them being caught by the Japanese, were the two major emotions at play.

We know our desires, we know our fears, and we know our hates. Perhaps ‘know’ suggests more of a conscious ‘knowing’ than what Lao Tzu is probably referring to. he is referring to that ‘knowing’ that we tend to only recognize in our personal musings, but which we may never admit to others. For example, imagine riding on the train and seeing an attractive young girl flirting with an unattractive older man. This might spark a range of reactions in us, of attraction and repulsion in both physical and non-physical ways. Whatever mix of reactions we have, they are happening in the place of ‘knowing’ that Lao Tzu speaks of.

And in that same place we contemplate many of life’s toughest decisions – should we work or study, what type of study, what type of work? In that place we experience the contest between our emotions and our higher self. It is ‘higher’ and therefore ‘barely known’ yet we are constantly drawn to it and by it. If we deny it and let our emotions win the day, we will be less fulfilled, less satisfied in the long run. If we listen to it, nurture it, and trust it, we will be strengthened. We will still experience our emotions but they will be strengthened too, they will play a healthy role in guiding our lives, expressing our lives, rather than leading us in a less fulfilling and less satisfying direction.