Category Archives: Tao

Lao Tsu, the Tao and Balance

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Even though our focus here is primarily Buddhist, no exploration of the subject of balance would be complete without looking at the Tao de Ching. Two weeks ago we looked at the gyroscope as an example of how we can find balance even amidst seeming chaos, by staying centered in the moment, sensing our connection through the paired intentions of being present and being compassionate. Then last week we looked at the Buddha’s Middle Way and the Eightfold Path to see that not only can we be balanced in the midst of whatever arises, but we can actively create through our conscious choices a more balanced life. The Tao looks at both of these aspects, using different language for the same concepts.

I am no expert on the Tao but I did study it quite intensely at one period in my life and I have a number of translations of the Tao de Ching to work with. I remember answering the perennial question about what book would you have with you on a desert island with ‘Tao de Ching.’ Why? Because in 81 succinct verses it encompasses so much wisdom, and each time I read a verse it is fresh for me. I learn something new from it because I am in a different place. 

If you are unfamiliar with Taoism or the Tao de Ching, there is plenty of information online to explore, so I will give a very brief introduction here:
About the same time the Buddha was teaching in 500 BC, legend has it that an archive keeper in a kingdom in China named Lao Tsu, which translates ‘old master,’ saw that the kingdom was decaying and decided it was time for him to hit the road. On his way out the western gate of town on his oxcart, he was stopped by the gatekeeper who implored him not to leave without at least writing down some words of wisdom, for he was known as a sage. So Lao Tsu got down off his cart and spent a couple hours writing down these verses, then went on his way and was never seen again. This may be a true story or it may be a legend with symbolic seeds of wisdom in the story itself, and the Tao may be the compilation of many sages over the centuries.

The word ‘Tao’ means the whole or supreme reality, and ‘te’ is the way we put our understanding of the Tao into action for the benefit of all beings. Ching means book, so the Tao de Ching could be translated ‘the book of the Supreme Reality and its Skillful Manifestation.’ So you can see that this is indeed very much what we were talking about in our previous discussions of balance: We align with the oneness, and put that awareness to use in our interactions with the world.

There are many translations of the title and of the verses themselves, and it is very interesting to have a few translations available to explore the verses. Why so many? If you look at a verbatim translation with each Chinese symbol of each verse given all its possible meanings, you can see it would be impossible for any two translators to come up with identical wording. I have no need to choose one translator over another. I like to draw from them all to get a well-rounded feeling of each verse. But if you plan to only purchase one book and you have several to choose from, you might take the time to compare how each translator approaches a particular verse, and then choose the one that resonates with you. 

CLICK HERE to see animated version

In class I began our exploration of balance and the Tao by showing the Yin/Yang symbol. Most of us are at least familiar with the sight of this symbol in all its various decorative uses, but what does it really mean? As a teacher I believe that the symbol was developed as a teaching tool to demonstrate balance in nature. Looking at it you can see that the black swirl and the white swirl are perfectly balanced, and that within the black swirl is a white dot and within the white swirl there is a black dot.

If you were able to click on the symbol and see the animated loop, then you can see how this static image represents a singular point in time that is ongoing ever-changing. The black and white dots started as mere specks, almost invisible, and are continuing to grow so that at some point the white swirl has turned black and the black swirl has turned white, and then specks of the opposite begin to grow within them. Studying this symbol, especially in its animated form, gives us insight into the way of the universe. Isn’t this our experience of nature as we traverse the seasons, from dark to light, from cold to hot, and from wet to dry?  In this season of the ending of summer, isn’t the hint of fall here, making itself known more and more each day, like the growing speck of black or white in the Yin Yang symbol? Noticing the ongoing changes in nature and in ourselves with loving curiosity and appreciation for being present to experience this fleeting gift of life and frees us from clinging to one over the other. 

One student in class said she felt that the animated gyroscope from last week was more helpful than looking at the Yin Yang symbol because it offered a stable place to be, and the Yin Yang is in a constant state of flux. But when we look at the Yin Yang we are observing it from a whole view, not getting caught up in any place within the circle but holding a sufficiently expansive view that we see the way of the 10,000 things. Understanding the constancy of change and the nature of impermanence is key to liberating ourselves from being dependent on specific causes and conditions to stay the same for us to find joy in living.
Yin and Yang are opposite energies that together form a whole. As you read the following list of yin and yang opposites, feel it like a poem rather than simple information to be understood. Yin is dark, yang is light; yin is moon, yang is sun; yin is night, yang is day; yin is winter, yang is summer; yin is soft, yang is hard; yin is interior, yang is exterior; yin is passive, yang is aggressive; yin is contracting, yang is expanding; yin is water, yang is stone; yin is valley, yang is mountain; yin is estrogen, yang is testosterone; yin is contemplative, yang is active; yin is feeling, yang is thinking; yin is subconscious, yang is conscious; yin is listening, yang is speaking; yin is nurturing, yang is achieving; yin is intuitive, yang is reasoning.  
(If you are familiar with yin and yang, you may have noticed that I chose to use the hormones testosterone and estrogen rather than gender, which is traditional.  All of us, men and women, know what it feels like to have testosterone coursing through us. We feel strong and able, ready to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. And maybe sometimes we feel it as anger, frustration, even an urge to be violent.

Likewise, we all know what it feels like when estrogen flows through us. Perhaps we tear up with empathy at a movie. We feel a sense of connection with others and the world around us, we feel open and curious. But perhaps at times we might feel vulnerable, sad and weepy.

So we understand that women are not all Yin and men are not all Yang, that we all feel the effects of both these hormones to varying degrees throughout our lives.)  

Our awareness of yin and yang helps us to bring them into balance and become more skillful. Chinese medicine and martial arts are all about this balancing of the yin and yang within us, and skillfully using them in our interactions.  
I hope that reading the above list of yin and yang qualities gives you a feeling of the difference between the two, and how they work together to create the whole of our experience of life. It is less important to be able to name them yin and yang, and more important to notice this ongoing play of opposites that together form a whole balanced system. Understanding this, there is nothing we want to eliminate. All aspects have their place in the scheme of things. Developing an awareness of the Tao, of the wholeness of life, brings us into balance.  
Here are a few verses from the Tao te Ching just to give you a taste. I hope it will inspire you to peruse your bookshelf for that copy you’ve had since the sixties but never really bothered to read, or to enjoy discovering it for the very first time. 

Be still
And discover your center of peace.
Throughout nature
Then ten thousand things move along,
But each returns to its source.
Returning the center is peace.
Find Tao by returning to source.
Tao 16 Trans. Diane Dreher

All beings support yin and embrace yang
and the interplay of these two forces
fills the universe
Yet only at the still-point,
between the breathing in and the breathing out.
can one capture these two in perfect harmony.
Excerpt from Tao 42, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Tao is infinite, eternal.
Why is it eternal?
It was never born;
Thus it can never die.
Why is it infinite?
It has no desires for itself;
thus it is present for all beings.
The Master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.
Tao 7, trans Stephen Mitchell  

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
This nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
This loftiness has roots that go deep.
I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
Tao 67, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Gratitude for Everything

We come together this time of year in a celebration of giving thanks. Many of us have cherished traditions. Probably just as many would be happy to skip the whole season. But whatever our feelings about the holiday of Thanksgiving, most of us enjoy feeling gratitude and the act of counting our blessings even if the rest of the year we are complaining about our lack of blessings. This one day is a day of accounting, checking in and doing a little tally. We tell ourselves that even though we lost a job, got ill, lost a loved one or any of a myriad of other situations that might befall us in any given year, still, at Thanksgiving we seek out those things that are going well, polish them up, list them and take comfort in them.

And there’s nothing wrong with a little comfort. But this kind of gratitude is finite and conditional. What if the balance sheet doesn’t come out? What if the awful things that have happened cannot be compensated by any small comfort we may have? What if we have tried and tried to look on the bright side of seeming disasters, and have just not been able to find it? Then where’s the gratitude? Gone!

To have nothing and then not to even have gratitude? That really sucks! It feels better not to even go there! Forget gratitude. It’s unreliable.

I’ve talked before about the value of noticing when we are operating from a finite source, how the results are shallow rooted, unsatisfying and unreliable. So then, let’s look to see if we can discover gratitude from a deeper source.

Gratitude from that deep source, that sense of connection to all of life becomes gratitude for everything. Everything. This is not just reflecting back and saying well, this bad thing happened, but now good has come of it, so now I am grateful for it. This is deep complete gratitude for everything. Everything!

Suddenly a resounding ‘No!’ is proclaimed across the land. We can’t be grateful for the horrors of the world, for the evil that is done, for the devastation that is wrought, for the injustices – the list is long of all the things we refuse in any way to acknowledge one iota of acceptance, let alone gratitude. Really, Stephanie, you’ve gone too far this time.

Maybe so. Let’s investigate. I’m sitting with it now and asking in deeply. You do the same. I am asking myself, ‘How can I be grateful for the horrors of the world?’ Well, I can be grateful they are not happening to me in this moment. But that is clearly a self-serving, blind, finite answer. So what is the infinite answer?

It begins, as always, with coming fully into this present moment, this spacious awareness. In this relaxed state we can sense in to our bodies and all sensory experiences become illuminated. We notice sounds and sense into the rhythms, the volume, the tones, the pitch, the pulsing, the beat, the variety, the layering. We look around and notice light and shadow, color, texture, distance, shapes and the interaction of all of these in space. Closing our eyes we sense in to the pressure where our body meets whatever is supporting it. We feel the texture of whatever clothing or furniture comes in contact with our skin. We feel the temperature of the air, and the stillness or movement of it. We feel whatever is going on inside our body — pain, tension, energy, pleasant sensations and numbness. We taste the inside of our mouths. We smell the air. Some of our senses in this particular moment may be subtle, but still present if we stay with them. We become aware of our breath, rising and falling.

When we are able to release fully into this moment, savoring each sensation with a beginner’s mind, really noticing how this moment, the very one we thought was so ordinary, is in fact extraordinary because of our attention.

In this open spacious moment where we experience all that arises with a freshness we didn’t even know we were capable of experiencing, we feel gratitude.

This isn’t a gratitude conditioned on whether what we are seeing and hearing and sensing is pleasant, ordered in the way we like things to be. We have access to a less critical noticing. The impulses we might normally have — to tidy up the mess of newspapers on the floor or to bang the broom on the ceiling to get the loud radio upstairs to stop, or any other fault-finding rescue mission we might think up — all that falls away. In this moment, everything is just fine, even the mess, the noise, and all the things that usually irritate us.

We feel gratitude for simply being alive in this moment. Because this moment is the only thing that is real. Everything that has passed, both our personal history and the collective history of the world is just memory turning to compost. Whatever is in the future is currently simply potential, trending toward possible directions, always subject to the unseen and unknown, thus beyond our ability to imagine with any useful accuracy.

But this moment, this is our one and only reality. On a finite level we can enjoy it and wish it would last, or dislike it and rush to get past it. When we pause and release the tension that has us so tightly wrapped, we tap into the infinite: This moment, fully relaxed, is the gateway to our sensing the infinite.

From this deep connected place, we bring forth an authentic response to whatever arises in our experience. This is the only place where we can interact with the world, to sow peaceful seeds that might nourish the world of our great grandchildren. We can’t do that from the past or the future. There’s no power there. We can only be effective right here and now, by staying present and connected in deeply rooted moment. From this singular point of power, the present moment, when all our preferences and judgments have fallen away, we can see the universal dance and our place in it.

Raging at the horrors of the world we are stuck in a finite limited powerless rant. We feel like helpless victims in a storm of intense chaos. Going deep and quiet, touching the infinite, that is what makes real change possible. It is where Gandhi went and where Martin Luther King Jr. went before taking powerful peaceful action that changed the world. It is where Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi have gone time and again, both able to draw sustenance and even freedom in physical incarceration – turning inward to the silence, finding patience and compassion instead of bitterness – and then allowing that sense of connection to inspire wise action.

From this place we are able to spot leaders who are authentic and deeply rooted. Instead of ranting at these leaders as if they singularly hold all the power and we, who were powerful in our ability to work to elect them, are suddenly cranky demanding children angry at mommy. We encourage our leaders to remain unseduced by the shallow-rooted calls to finite power that surround them, and to stay deeply connected both to that deep wisdom and to the community that elected them in order to make wise decisions that affect us all. And we continue to stay connected, using that access to be the change we want to see in the world.

Whatever injustices we face in the world can be met from this deep place in a truly transformative way. So first on our Thanksgiving list of gratitude might be our own ability to access this font of quiet connected wisdom, grateful that it is possible in any moment to access this place.

But what if we are new to the practice and this access to the moment is just a pipe dream? Be with the pipe dream, see it for what it is. Let it inform your experience of this moment. Keep practicing being present with whatever is. Stay focused on the senses, noticing. Notice everything. Notice the judgments, notice the emotions, notice the thoughts. Just notice. Maybe it feels like a big tangle, a tight knot, inaccessible. Be with that! Notice and notice again.

When we begin to meditate it is like any new skill. At first paying attention to the present moment feels as if staying present is like trying to balance on the head of a pin. The moment we realize we’re on it, we fall off. But with patience, intention, compassion and consistent practice, we begin to notice the head of the pin getting larger until we feel present for longer and longer periods.

This sensing in to this moment is the practice that gives access to the infinite source within ourselves, the connected place that has gratitude for everything. There’s no hurry to get there. There’s just the practice. Wanting to be there, rushing to get ‘there’ only seals the door and locks us out of the possibility of accessing it. For there is no ‘there,’ only ‘here.’ Just this experience. Can you feel gratitude for the rise and fall of your breath?

We don’t have to feel grateful for the Holocaust, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the sexual predator living near the neighborhood playground. But finding wise ways to respond to them includes recognizing that the world is now, has always been and always shall be full of what the Tao calls ‘the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.’ Without the sorrows, there are no joys. That is the nature of earthly existence.

Over and over again in our lives we see that good times can cause bad things. A booming economy is perceived as a good thing, but it also causes overworked people to feel they don’t have time for each other and then they fill their sense of lack with purchasing material things.

And we’ve all had the experience of bad times causing good things, bringing strangers together as one people to address the challenge or weather the storm together. The yin and the yang freely flow from black to white and back again, and that’s the nature of life.

As we observe this flux and flow in our own lives and in the world around us, we may find we have a more open ‘don’t know’ mind about things. When I was younger knowing seemed so important. Now that I’m older, not knowing feels even more delicious!

There’s that wonderful old story told in Buddhist and Taoist traditions, of the farmer whose neighbors told him he was so unlucky because his horse ran away. They were surprised when he replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Then the horse returned with a lot of other horses to fill his corral, and his neighbors said, “Oh, what great fortune!” He still answered, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” When his son fell off one of the horses and broke his leg, the neighbors said, “What terrible luck!” And even then the farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Well, the neighbors thought him very strange indeed. But then the military came to the village seeking young men for conscription into the army, and the farmer’s son was exempted because of his broken leg. The neighbors now saw that healing leg differently, as their sons marched off to war. “You are so lucky,” they told the farmer. And he said, of course, “Maybe yes, maybe no.” And so the story goes on throughout life.

While taking full responsibility for our own behavior and vowing to do no harm to ourselves or others, with a don’t know mind we can be less outraged at the poor choices of others, and certainly at the inconstancies of nature. Events we might perceive as good fortune, we can vest with less power to enslave us. (Enslave us? Yes, because we say, “Now that I have this great job, this great relationship, this great house, how can I keep it? How can I make this happiness last?” And suddenly we’re caught up in fear and suffering again.) It is said that the greatest suffering is caused by striving for a perfect world or by running away in fear from the imperfect world we see around us.

Here’s a thought! Let’s just stop striving for a moment! Let’s stop running away from what is! Instead, let’s simply focus on our breath and the various senses. Fully present in this moment, we feel gratitude for just this, whatever form it takes in this moment. We access the place deep within ourselves that is beyond the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Each moment, with all its sensory offerings, offers access to this vantage point, from which we recognize the fleeting gift of the wild, the monstrous and the wondrous nature of earthly existence. And we have ringside seats!

On this fine fall day, we might enjoy looking at this idea as a multitude of leaves flying around in the wind, each leaf in some state we call beautiful autumn foliage or dried up, dead, and ugly.

And we see ourselves in this turbulent swirl, sometimes in our leaf nature being acted upon and sometimes in our wind nature, causing a stir. But only when we are able to stand in the middle of the whirl, in the quiet stillness of the eye of this ongoing storm of life, can we relax into a state of gratitude for everything.

In this centered stillness we can see with fresh eyes the multi-layered dimensions of all things. We can see into the fearful hurting heart of the being who hates and hurts others in turn, and we can see the strength and resilience of the being who has been hurt but is able to access connection and compassion for all beings, spreading joy. We see those who would divide to conquer, and we recognize their fear and how they are conquered by it. We see those who see the unity and act out of that sense of unity for the well being of all. We see the natural disasters and are awed by the power of nature, and the fragileness of our brief lives, and the strength of the human spirit when challenged.

This rich alive moment that until we relaxed into it seemed so ordinary fills us with a sense of abundance. From this perspective, everything that brought us to this point softens in its wake.

We see that all those events we would not have chosen are now just stories, stories that we have clung to as proof of the veracity of our tightly held beliefs, stories that have left us scarred but still standing, or perhaps lessons we are still trying to learn from. They exist, along with cherished memories, only in our minds. And we can hold them lightly, letting them go when they no longer serve us, feeling gratitude for whatever gifts they brought us. Or we can cling to them tightly, empowering them to define and confine us.

When we relax into simple awareness of this moment, we fully inhabit our bodies and minds in a way that enables us to live an authentic, heartfelt generous and meaningful life. Accessing the infinite wisdom of simple presence, simple awareness, brings clarity and gratitude for everything.

Yin, Yang & You

This is the Yin Yang symbol. It was developed over 2000 years ago in China by followers of the Tao, a philosophy for leading a richer more meaningful life. It was probably originally created as a teaching tool, and that’s how I will use it here, because this isn’t just some symbol of some foreign religion, but something we can learn from today in order to bring greater balance and understanding to our own lives.

First let’s talk about what we see when we look at this image. It is a circle and this is important. It is the circle of life, whole and complete unto itself. Then within that circle are two swirls, one black, one white. The black one is called Yin and it represents energies that are passive, weak, receptive, soft and dark. The white one is called Yang and it represents energies that are active, strong, hard and bright.

Yin is considered feminine and Yang is considered masculine. This may cause a bit of consternation, because as a woman, I can tell you I don’t feel passive or weak, and I’m not very receptive to the idea of feminine being associated with those words! But wait a minute, this isn’t about gender. This is about energies. If this were being developed today, they would probably choose to talk about the hormones estrogen and testosterone rather than feminine and masculine.

Because all of us, men and women, know what it feels like to have testosterone coursing through us. We feel strong and able, ready to accomplish whatever we put our minds to. And maybe sometimes we feel it as anger, frustration, even an urge to be violent.

Likewise, we all know what it feels like when estrogen flows through us. Perhaps we tear up with empathy at a movie. We feel a sense of connection with others and the world around us, we feel open and curious. But perhaps at times we might feel vulnerable, sad and weepy.

So we understand that women are not all Yin and men are not all Yang, that we all feel the effects of both these hormones to varying degrees throughout our lives. Our awareness of these energies helps us to bring them into balance and become more skillful. Chinese medicine and martial arts are all about this balancing of the yin and yang within us.

So this symbol of the Yin and the Yang is about opposites. We know a lot about opposites in our culture. When presented with opposites, we are geared to take sides, to choose one over the other. We root for teams, we get caught up in limiting ourselves to either/or decisions, and we define ourselves by our preferences. We might say, “I like summer better than winter.” By locking ourselves into choosing, we lock ourselves out of appreciating the fullness, the entirety of this earthly life. We doom ourselves to being dissatisfied at least part of the time.

But doesn’t the Yin Yang symbol confirm this point of view? When you really look at this symbol you notice that there is more to it than just two swirls. Within each swirl is a small circle of the opposite. This is not just an artistic decision to make a pretty design. This is the real message within the Yin Yang symbol.

When you look at the symbol, think of it not as a static image but as one frame in a continuous loop of the movie of life. A few frames beyond this one we are looking at, you would see that the little white circle and the little black circle are growing. In each subsequent frame they each grow and grow until the black swirl becomes white and the white swirl becomes black, and then small dots of the opposite emerge within them, and so forth and so on in an endless fluid motion. The Yin and the Yang are continuously merging and separating and merging again.

I mentioned that this was the movie of life. Yes! Look around you! Here we are in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. In twelve hours it will be in the middle of the night. In six months it will be the middle of winter. But night doesn’t suddenly appear. It makes its coming known, just like the growing dark dot within the white swirl. We feel it in our own bodies that are a little more tired than they were this morning, and in the slant of the sun and the shadows cast. Likewise, even in the middle of this hot dry season, the cool wet season makes itself known. The rolling hills covered with dry grasses call out to the coming rains. We feel the changes as they come, if we are paying attention.

And so it is within ourselves. If we are paying attention, really noticing our experience, we notice the growing of the opposite within ourselves, and within our current situation. How does this serve us? Well, say we are in an unhappy situation, things are going badly, we aren’t well or we have suffered a terrible loss. How great is it to become aware that within this very situation, there is a seed of change, a kernel of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel? “This too shall pass,” is an expression that the Yin Yang symbol embraces.

Yes, but what about when we’re in a good place, in a good relationship for example. Why would we ever want to think about it changing, of losing our loved one? Well, we all know the truth already. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all know that life is temporal, that we will all die, that nothing stays the same. That change is the only constant. It’s just the way it is. No point in kidding ourselves about it.

Brutal? Well, maybe. But when we allow that potential for change to be a small but acknowledged part of our experience, we are able to fully be present for the joy of our lives. We are able to really appreciate our loved ones rather than take them for granted. We can open to our experience, savor it for what it is, and stay present for the ways in which it changes.

This is why the Yin Yang symbol is valuable to us today. When we see it, maybe on jewelry, a poster or flag, we can take a moment to reflect on its message for us, and open fully to the ever-changing nature of this temporal life.

And we can also expand our awareness beyond this small circle that represents our earthly experience, beyond the dance of opposites merging and separating, and rest in infinite spaciousness, in the oneness of all that is.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tao, I highly recommend the very accessible book the Tao de Ching, which is available in many English translations.