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“Nothing Special”

Snow on Mountain

“I have been there and come back.

It was nothing special:

The river at high tide,

The mountain veiled by misty rain”

                                                                        Zen Buddhist saying

Beauty returns most fully when I stop looking for something higher. When the remaining grey snow piles blink at me as if to say “what are we still doing here on March 28?,” I hesitate in my gnarling about their ugliness and see they are as at sea as I. And the two cranes that flew over my car as I tried to hustle home on the always-too-crowded and frighteningly fast highway reminded me to breathe, reminded me that their path might be straighter and less crowded but their return home no less important.

In the study of Qi Gong and the Tao, I have never felt even close to knowledgeable, so I deftly if dumbly escaped thinking of myself as a “Great Expert,” as Ken Cohen refers to the first stage of learning–that in which you know a little so, therefore, you feel you know it all. I skipped straight to “Banana Head,” that phase where you realize that, as he says, “knowledge is limitless and human life is limited.” I know I don’t know.

What I have started to feel are moments within my ignorance, that I begin to catch sight out of the corner of an eye, tiny glinting sparks of the final stage of learning, the stage where all nature is once again part of you and you, part of nature, so that all entwines and all becomes so special that it is “nothing special.”

May I never reach that stage fully for I know I would then be a “Great Expert” and I might not see the inch long tree frogs under the birdbath who are so special that they are “nothing special.”

The Hubris of The Lone Wolf

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“Chutzpah. Nothing but ego-driven chutzpah”

That has been my brain for the last few days as I try to keep going with setting up The Qi Gong Center. Not that my brain has been alone in this derision. I’ve also been asked why I don’t just go join the local Tai Chi center. “But Tai Chi is a martial art. It’s gorgeous; I love it but it’s rigorous and exacting. Qi Gong is its ‘gentle mother’ and so much more accessible to more people.” Yeah, but what’s your ‘elevator speech?’ “my what? It’s bad enough that I talk to myself in all sorts of places, elevators included; I need to give speeches now?” And who are you partnered with, who else is in on this with you? “Well, no one exactly. I have people who love the idea and are very psychologically supportive, will maybe even help with web design but basically…well, more than basically…it’s me. Just me. I just want to do it.”

But now I’m wondering why.  I’m an introvert; I don’t network; I can’t schmooze worth a damn. I’ve never played well with others which is why I usually find a way to work for myself. Even when I taught University, the system left me to do what I pleased and I quit teaching when I got a department chair who wanted me to be a “team player.” So what am I doing trying to or thinking that there’s any way I can possibly become a “center” for anything?  Isn’t that making me assume an enormous ego when all of my Taoist teaching tells me I should let go of ego? Isn’t that making me the center of the universe?

There is no answer for me here, no easy phrase that will give me an out. But sometimes even a lone wolf needs to howl into the communal macrocosm and be heard.

And then continue to trudge on through the snowbanks. Alone.

The Parable Series: Let It Go

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And so the parable goes:

A master and his disciple are walking along the bank of a river (there’s a lot of walking goes on in parables: second of the parable series and we’ve already walked twice) when they come upon a lovely young gentlewoman, standing on the bank and crying because she cannot get to the other side. Don’t ask; who knows why she wanted to be there, doesn’t affect the parable. She sees the two men and begs them to carry her across the shallow river to the other side. The disciple, knowing that the teachings allow no contact with women, ignores her plea and assumes his master will do the same. Much to his surprise, his master hoists the young woman onto his shoulders, carries her across and returns to the bank where his student stands stunned. They continue to walk but the young man can’t get the idea out of his head that his master not only looked at a woman but, Holy Moly (I doubt that was his exact thought), actually touched one! Al lthrough the walk he stews over this until he can’t keep silent any longer: “How could you have touched a woman! Isn’t that forbidden? Don’t you feel guilty?” The master smiles, “Look at you. I left that woman on the bank of the river long ago. But, you, you are still carrying her on your shoulders.”

And so the parable ends.

For much of my life, I was a chronic “muller.” I would chew on a thought until the last crumb was gone and would then continue to chew some more. No perceived slight went by; no criticism was ever forgotten; no idiotic act I committed was ever quietly put to rest. Even a trodden on toe became a reason to dwell on the insensitivity of the foot that did the trodding or the obvious lack sincerity of apology–if there was one. I’m not sure whether flagellation would even have been satisfactory.

Ah, yes, truly my mother’s daughter. I watched her abandon a favorite restaurant because the server didn’t remember her drink order from a previous visit and years later, she would bring this up to me again, as if it had plagued her every sleepless night. And worse, she ditched a friend of decades for some perceived insensitivity on the friend’s part. As I recall, it was because her friend had lunch with someone else without inviting her. And, yes, this became a story that she would repeat over and over, in explicitly juiced-up detail, stirring the bitterness of rejection into every cup of tea.

I’m not sure what changed for me. Perhaps it was simply growing older–although that certainly didn’t help my mother–or marrying a man (third time’s the charm) who for all of his gentleness and, more important, incredibly good taste in fashion, won’t ever remember what year I was born. And why should he? What importance could that have? For that matter, what importance can a stepped-on toe have once the stepping is over?

My nights have been more restful; my self-forgiveness much easier; my relationships quieter. And it only took remembering three words: Let it go. Let it go and leave the woman on the bank, rather than carrying her on your shoulders.

 

 

So, A Buddhist and A Taoist Walk Into A Bar…

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I often write about Buddhist ideas and refer to authors and Buddhist scholars like Jack Kornfield but I have to admit I’m just not a nice enough person to be a Buddhist. Really. Quietly and patiently putting up with jive? I think not. Sitting quietly under the bodhi tree awaiting enlightenment like the bodhidarma? Ain’t gonna happen.

Which is why I’m so much more drawn to Taoism. As a Taoist, my indignation at social injustice can feel fully legit, my tendency to meet the bs of the world with smiling snark just a part of living all experience fully–but not to excess–as taoists would.

One of my favorite stories is one told by Ken Cohen about the difference between Buddhists, confucionists, and taoists:
3 people, one of each philosophy, are sitting on a bench, the Taoist in the middle. A soldier approaches. The Confucionist begins to rise but the soldier growls roughly “sit down.” And because Confucianism prizes social order and respect for governance, he sits. Then the Buddhist begins to rise and the soldier once again snarls “sit.” And the Buddhist, believing in being peaceful and not stirring up trouble if it can be avoided thinks, “what the heck. Not worth disturbing peace. Accept what is” and sits. The the Taoist stands and when the soldier barks “Sit. Sit.” the Taoist, feeling that the soldier is being arbitrary and mean just to show off his power does not sit. Instead, she continues to stand and reaches over to each side and gently helps the Confucionist and the Buddhist to their feet, knowing that sometimes acting for social justice in the face of tyranny is more important than peace and good behavior.

“There is my way and there is your way and there is The Way,” Lao Tzu

The Meditation of the Stinky Feet

Sitting, my free ten minutes scrolling before me, I find the breath, acknowledge the sensation and happily settle into my meditation. When I meditate, I try not to shut out the world, try instead to let all sensation in, listening to not just my breath but the gentleman, using the term loosely, in the next office screaming into the phone, rather enjoying the way he can string profanity into argument. I feel the tingle in my crossed legs, the air from the heater on my face, or the scratch of my sweater on my neck.

All very relaxing, refreshing, reminding me to stay in this moment, this place.

Until the next sensation comes through, one that really makes me feel this moment all too vividly: my socks are smelly. Do you suppose the Buddha had this problem?

The Parable Series: The Tiger Below

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And so the parable says:

A man is walking through the forest thinking about his past and his future, paying little attention to the trees and birds around him, when he hears a low growl behind him. Turning, he sees a large tiger bounding through the woods toward him, images of legs of lambs reflected in his eyes like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Terrified, the man begins to run, huffing his way along just ahead of the tiger (admit it: here the parable breaks down a little–could he really outrun a tiger?). At the moment when the tiger has almost caught up to him, the man comes to a cliff. So scared he doesn’t even think, he flings himself over the edge  to find that there are two vines trailing down the side and he is able to snatch onto them, one in his left hand, one in his right. As he hangs, relieved to have escaped, he thinks “Cool. All I have to do now is climb down and I’m home free.” He should know better; this is a parable, after all.

At the moment he’s about to start shimmying down, he hears another low growl, this time from below. The tiger that had been chasing him is still pacing at the top of the cliff, so it can’t be him. Sheepishly (remember the leg of lamb image) peering down, he sees another tiger, even more ferocious looking as tigers go, pacing below him, licking his chops just waiting for the man to climb down. “Oh, great” sighs the man, “I can’t go up; I can’t go down. Oh, well, at least for now I’m safe on the vines and maybe the tigers will get bored and go away.” Hands tightly gripping the vines, he relaxes enough to begin to doze, feeling safe again if not comfortable, when he hears tiny gnawing noises above him. Feeling a bit piqued at his troubles by now, the man looks up to see a black mouse chewing on the left vine and a white mouse doing the same on the right, stripping away his safe hold millimeter by millimeter. “Well, that does it. I’m doomed to be the value menu for that tiger below,” the man sobs, resting his head on the cliffside awaiting his fate.

At that moment, he sees, just within reach to his left, a slender plum branch growing out of the cliff and on it hangs one perfect, shiny purple plum. Grabbing the right vine a bit tighter, he reaches out, plucks the plum and bites into it, the sweet juices rolling down his chin. And he smiles.

And so the parable ends.

Perhaps it’s not too tough to figure out that this parable represents living in the “now,” enjoying the present moment rather than worrying about the past–the tiger of birth chasing him through the woods–or the future–the tiger of death below. But I come back time and again to the mice that represent the passage of time, the night and day, that chew away our lives in tiny pieces. Nibble: a new wrinkle appears. Nip: arthritis in our fingers draws us away from our writing. Chomp: the knee that ran a month ago now berates us on every stair.

The tiger below? Yeah, he’s going to get me, maybe sooner than I would prefer or later than I can tolerably bear. But the mice. The mice are the animals I am most afraid of, the ones that send me running to my therapist, my meditation cushion–or a cosmetic surgeon. The animals whose little needle teeth, tiny as they might be, will cause me, more than the tigers, to forget the pleasure of biting the plum.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Does every003one have someone they can reach out to with whom they play no roles, someone who answers the call when the crying out is about to burst through, someone who can listen but not judge? Does everyone have this person except me?

Why do I even ask this? The question started with a cup of green tea, a discussion of a wilderness adventure–not mine–and my meditation teacher simply asking: Who do you call when you feel tears of exhaustion or fear or longing for what never was boiling up inside you ready to push the lid off the pan of sanity and spill out? I thought I  could answer but then…

Nothing came. I could think of no one with whom I don’t fulfill a role, know the expectations held, the assumptions made. Oh, I suppose I could have taken the glib way out and said “the cats.” But even they have roles for me: food lady; nighttime body heat provider; lap in a storm. I have many, many supportive people around me, supportive cats, too, but no one off stage. I found myself sitting looking blankly at him, rather the way the turkeys inhabiting the neighborhood look at me if I request use of my driveway when they are sunning.

His return gaze was equally blank. “You don’t have someone?” As generous as he is with his time and tea, he spoke with an “are you just trying to get sympathy”  impatience. “No, no, I don’t think I do.” Both of us deftly moved the conversation back to the new Dancing Shiva statue he had bought.

And I was left only wondering whether everyone else knew the answer to his question. Even the Shiva, who dances only because she has one foot solidly planted on a small body below her, dances because she is grounded; even she seems to know.

I think I’ll pretend this was another koan.