Tag Archive | reflection

The Parable Series: My Kingdom for…

Wang_Zhaojun

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.

Kuan Yin: Beyond Human

The Subject As A Younger Boy

The Subject As A Younger Boy

He’s lying in the sun, breath heavy and fast, sides shrunken, bones of the chest and neck showing through the skin, backs of the ears and the toes almost hairless now. Just an old cat suffering from age and pain and a host of ailments. “Just put him down,” people tell me especially after they hear I have to clean up his feces several times a day and live with puppy training pads on my bedroom floor because that’s the only way to keep him from urinating on the carpet.

Only one room still has carpet, in fact. He ruined all the rest so we’ve replaced it with hardwood, an oddly beautiful gift he’s given me through his feline dementia. And he still climbs onto my lap while I write, sleeps by my side at night, meets me at the door with his companion cat, who doesn’t understand why there are no wrestling matches every day.

My husband would be relieved to see him go–as I would be much of the time–but has come to understand and accept why we go on with him: not because I can’t bear to part with him but because he still has a pure enjoyment in much of life. I feel I need to respect and support that in an old cat no less than I would in any person.

Yesterday, I bought a new scratch pad laced with cat nip (which I’ve been referring to as “medical cat nip”) and he scratched and rolled and rubbed his cheek on it, then plowed through a bowl of cat food to satisfy the “munchies.” And as we ate dinner, this old arthritic boy came barreling down the hall top speed, startling his companion, and stretching his paws up onto the cat perch. This is not a cat ready to “go gently.” And I feel I need to respect that as well.

We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep him alive. He’s off almost all medication because the drugs for one illness just make another worse. And he gets to eat the cheap grocery store cat food he loves rather than the “special diet” that is supposed to make him feel better. He’s in hospice with us. We just want to give him comfort.

I will respect his right to die when his quality of life degrades or he is in pain. But I will also respect and show compassion for his delight in life until then, this old, skinny, balding orange tiger. Even as I clean up his latest gift.

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.

Age and Ache

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When I was young, if I was young, I believed the lies about how age creeps up on you, setting in like a fog, oozing into your pores a bit at a time. I also believed Sandburg when he said that the fog comes in quietly “on little cat’s feet.” Well, neither the fog not the fog of age comes on  quietly, not creeping, not oozing.

No, age leaps from hiding in the innocent branch of the willow and rips out the throat of your youth, fierce tiger, not gentle kitten. While I waited for the tiny lines, each signaling some new wisdom, the tiger raked its claws across my forehead in the night leaving deep gullies and yet no new wisdom. One morning, your skin is soft; the next hard and dull. As you dance one night away in heels and silk, you have no prescience that by morning your feet will only tolerate flats and that the bulky cotton sweater you saved from your last husband will now become your daily uniform.

I was going to be a star. I would write a vibrant dissertation that would astound my profs. Or find my voice at last and sing blues in smoky taverns. Maybe Christie-like disappear into Egypt to dig dinosaur bones. Age had other ideas. While I painted myself as the Renaissance Man, moving from dabbling first at academia, then at business, then on again like a bored but broke Gatsby, I missed that really I just wasn’t meant to be the star. While refusing to settle down, I settled sideways, never up.

There would always be time.

The tiger had other ideas.

No wiser, just older.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

 

T. S. Eliot “Prufrock”

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