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Snippet 2 of Taoist Mystery: Being With Nothingness

Obviously, the only reason I’m putting a few of these very first draft, rather random sections of my work ‘in progress,’ I’ll call it loosely, is to find out whether any readers out there would be the slightest bit interested in continuing if they stumbled across this: would you want to know any who, what, why, when, where? Please remember, compassion is a very mindful trait.

Snippet Two:

And now I was staring at a ditch that didn’t exist yesterday at the edge of a woods that was mostly brush and scrub pine with a roommate who I didn’t even really know at a retreat lead by a mad monk. “Everything changes.” “Accept the Now.” I was trying very, very hard to do just that but  was also thinking about why the ditch had appeared, who had put it there and where did it begin? Or end? Somewhere up in the pines above the dunes. Without saying more, I began to climb the hill. Sam followed, his rolling lumber heavier than mine as was his breathing. As the hill went up, the path turned from slushy grass to rocks and then to no path at all. But the ditch was still there beside us providing a trail when the trail had given up.
Finally, we stopped. The ditch stopped. The trees stopped.. We were in a clearing, a hole in the woods, nothing but dirt and a few wisps of bad grass with a few stumps dotting it. And at the very edge of the ditch, face down, head on one side, torso the other, lay a person. Or “once was a” person because she looked very, very dead. I knew I was letting my expecting mind get in the way. There really wasn’t any certainty that the body was a she. There was very long white-blond hair but it wasn’t like I had never run into a metal band before; and the figure was slight and didn’t look very tall but one of my favorite friends was a 5’ 3” drag queen so that meant nothing. And really, even the “dead” part, was I so sure about that? Who knows how comfortable lying face down across a ditch to sleep off a drunk might be, after all?

A few years before, I had taken a CPR class and I remembered at least the first part—the whacking and shouting part. To be absolutely correct I should first shout “Call 911” to Sam but there were no cell phones allowed at the retreat so that seemed a bit needlessly dramatic. I skipped straight to step two: I walked over yelling “Are you ok? Are you ok?” and started hitting the—person—on the back with the palm of my hand. Hard. There was a girl in the CPR class who had just said in a quiet voice “are you ok?” and she got reamed out by the instructor. I wasn’t making that mistake. “Are you ok?” I screamed as loud as I could and thwacked the—person—again.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sam snarled. “You can tell she’s dead.”
“How do you know it’s a ‘she’? Aren’t you bringing your expectations to this? Shouldn’t you approach it with ‘beginner’s mind’?”
“Well, she or he or it is still dead.”
I paused my back slapping, looked at the unmoving—body—the new position I had just promoted the person to.
“Yeah. What do we do? We can’t call the police; there’s no phone anywhere around. And in all the good detective shows, you learn not to touch the body, so we shouldn’t, but…”
“But you’re really jonesing to find out whether it’s a he or she, aren’t you?” Sam said, tilting back his neckless chin to peer down his nose at me. “Well, do it. Don’t keep me waiting,” he went on, smiling like the good little enabler he was.
I thought about at least waiting until we told Leon, the director of the retreat, the “monk” who ran the place like Mussolini on meth but I wasn’t sure the “mad monk” would be the best person to do the turning over. I already had him pegged as a main suspect. So my slapping hand now became my turning hand and I rolled the—woman–because she had now had a second promotion—over.

The Parable Series: My Kingdom for…

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My student recently reminded me of one of my favorite of the Tao parables:

An old man had built up a very wealthy life, owning many fine horses, and one very fine son. One day the latch on the horse corral was left open–quite possibly by the very fine son, but we’ll let that go–and the horses all ran away. The townspeople were all so sad for the man and cried “on, how awful for you.” The old man simply said “maybe.”

A few days later, the horses suddenly reappeared and not only did they return, they brought a bunch of wild horse friends with them (you know how horses party). This meant that the man now had even more wealth because more horses, more wealth, right, not accounting for oats, etc. Now the townspeople were so happy for him: “Look how lucky you are! Not only did your horses return, you have so many more. You are such a lucky man.” And the old man simply said “maybe.”

Wild horses need to be tamed so the very fine son took on the job of teaching the wild horses to play nice. As he was trying to ride one of them, the horse reared up, throwing the very fine son off and to the ground, breaking the son’s leg in several places–a very bad break in seemingly so many ways. Once again, the townspeople cried out “oh, we are so sorry for you, old man. What terrible luck this is to have your son so injured. How terribly bad and unlucky.” And once again the old man (I wonder whether he was getting tired of the nosy townspeople by now) simply replied “maybe.”

The very next day, while the son lay incapacitated in his bed, the soldiers of the king strode into town: “The king has decided he isn’t all that pleased with the country next door and is declaring war. All able bodied young men, especially very fine ones, must report immediately for duty.”

Except for the old man’s son who was, although still very fine, not at all able bodied and was not taken off to die in the not very fine war.

My Ukrainian Jewish grandmother when asked about her health or her children or her very fine husband who was a diamond auctioneer (which meant she had a couple very fine trinkets) always just responded “eh. So-so.” Because one shouldn’t ever brag about one’s luck. What might seem a piece of good fortune one day might be a piece of dreck the next. Just ask a Mega Lottery winner. Maybe.

The Parable Series: Where Are My Damn Keys?

Public Domain Sketch

Public Domain Sketch

And so the parable goes:

There was a very wealthy man who kept all his money, jewels and gold locked inside a box inside his mansion. One late night, he wanted to go count his loot but couldn’t remember where he left the keys. “I know I had them in my house last I looked but I can’t remember where I put them. Now where could they be?” (Note that he did remember what a key was just not where it was–not a dementia tale here.) The house was quite dark, the fires already having been drawn down for the night, but outside the street lamp was still lit. So the man went outside and began searching and searching under the street light becoming more and more agitated as he looked. A friend saw him and came up, saying “What are you doing, old friend?” And the wealthy man answered “Looking for the keys to my treasure box. I can’t find them anywhere.” The friend began to search with him, both looking everywhere under the street light but finding nothing. At last the friend said, “I can’t see them anywhere! Do you remember exactly where you last saw them?” And the wealthy but keyless–and clueless–man replied, “Oh, yes, they were in my house. But it’s so much easier to look out here where there is such bright light!”

And so the parable ends.

Easy one, right? When I first read this parable, I felt slightly insulted to be presented such a simple puzzle. Well, of course, it means that we shouldn’t be looking for answers in the outside world just because that is easier. We must look only within for the key to the meanings and treasures of life.

Or should we? If that’s all the parable means, I think I have just cause to cry foul, because can all answers really come from within? Of course, many times I find myself reaching for the easy solution or quick fix that the latest diet guru or purple pill might provide when I know that this probably isn’t going to  mean I’ll become rich and skinny–or poor but enlightened. And introspection and meditation certainly have given me far more insight (by definition!) than self-help books.

But what about that friend? I keep coming back to him, the man willing to help our buddy under the street light. Didn’t he play an important role as well? Wasn’t his willingness to stop and take time ultimately likely to help the wealthy man “see the light”? I can imagine the next scene of the parable being the friend saying, “well, then, let’s not waste time out here. C’mon, I’ll grab a flashlight and we’ll go inside and look for the keys where you think you saw them last in the house, old buddy.”

Of course, looking for the easy answer outside won’t lead me to my deep treasures. But I’ll be better off with a friend with a torch than alone in the darkness looking only inward.

“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