Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's been a while, but I've been preoccupied...

I'm studying for my GRE. Thought I'd go back to school for my Masters in Somatics (study of Mind/Body). So...I'm preparing for the quantitative (i.e. Math) portion. I'm staring at the above equation, but really, all of my energy is focused on my writing hand.

My writing hand is holding a sharp pencil.

That it wants to jam into my left eye.

I wasn't so great at Algebra 25 years ago. And now I'm trying to remember what I wasn't so great at from 25 years ago.

So here's what I've noticed about myself when making the choice to shift my life's "direction" in a fairly substantial way: I tend to fall back into habits and behaviors I thought I had left far, far behind.

Top of the list:

Complete Non-Communication with Those I Love: In this state, people should know instinctively what my momentary emotional status is, AND shift their state to benefit mine WITHOUT me having to say anything. I shouldn't have to ask for anything to be done, I shouldn't have to tell anyone to do anything, it should all just BE as I have it pictured in my head. Thanks.

Complete Self Downtalk: Dusty old 8 tracks are spiffing themselves up to replay nasty messages in my head: You can barely juggle what you have NOW! How are you going to juggle graduate school!? You aren't smart enough anyway, moron. And how selfish can you possibly be? So what if you hate what you were doing? Suck it up and get back to your job because your kids have braces and glasses up the hill and college around the corner. You've already blown any kind of hope for retirement.

Complete Fear-Based Mania - Oh my God, what if you don't pass the GRE? What are you going to tell everyone? You'll have to tell everyone! embarrassing for you! Aren't you ashamed already? Don't you feel that?

The Sucker Punch: Oh, please. You're way too old to go back to school.

As these thoughts rise to the surface of my consciousness, for a brief moment, just a waning pause, I believe the voice! I go right along with it. And then clarity dawns on me and I have to laugh at myself. The animated movie "Aristocats" pops into my head. Do you remember that movie? My internal movie screen starts at the part where the old pack leader hound dog realizes he's following the ideas of another dog and says "Wait a minute! I'm the leader!"

And that's how I feel!

So that's where I am...and I have to say that if it weren't for the grounding practice of taiji - and the great family of players that surrounds me - I'm not sure where that pencil would be.

Sitting in some dusty drawer, but certainly not challenging me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Climactic stillness

So a while back I found myself walking down a labyrinth path trying not to pass gas loudly.

Why is it that any time I have indigestion and I'm with a group of people, it's loud indigestion in silent surroundings? Why is it that when walking and trying to respectfully release one quietly it squeaks out past the cheeks with every step? It's like a dirty music cd that keeps blipping back to the same note over and over and over again. I hate that.

And what the heck do you say? I was outdoors in a sacred space where people are emptying their minds of thoughts, breathing fresh air, and savoring the silence.

Well, two oughta three ain't bad.

Okay, enough about escaping nitrogen.

I took a moment to breath in some fresh air (pre-gastrointestinal) and prepare my left brain for a rest. My left hemisphere, when it's engaged for a long time, has a really difficult time letting go of control, I've found. It takes a while for the left brain's sarcastic, cynical comments to dissolve (even when they are supposedly for humor), the harsh judgments and evaluations to ease, so I can hear the open-minded right brain's observations. As I begin with just a few steps through the opening of the labyrinth, my right brain engages: "Whoa. That's cool! Did you feel that energy?" And, of course, the left brain can't possibly let that one go by: "Yeah. It's called indigestion, you freak."

Funny thing about the right brain, though. It attaches no emotion to anything the left brain puts forth. It's really genuinely unaware. Instead, it keeps observing, "Oh! Yes! I felt that too, but what I was talking about was different from indigestion. It's a little more subtle."

So with each step I try to release the left brain's "this is so freakishly woo-woo-ey, why am I doing this" attitude and engaging the right brain's trust that a quiet reconnection is just exactly what I need. Maybe...just maybe...the indigestion is related directly to the left brain addiction of late.

Each step releases just a little more of the left brain. My recent urge to wrap my daughter in loving protection from some aggressive, but typical, school girl behavior. Fears about a student's cancer. Worries about reaching deadlines, getting paid. Concerns about my husband's happiness at work. Disgust in walking across the kitchen floor's filth.

None of the thoughts or emotions are necessary. But all of them fully there. And with every step in the labyrinth, the emotions dissolve, replaced by a centered space of emptiness. My left brain has quieted. It’s not sarcastically criticizing my right brain thoughts of letting go, feeling each pressure point of every step I take. It’s allowing the right brain equal time. The right brain needs to stop and feel this labyrinth, the other people who are walking it, the air, the connectedness.

The layers come off, sometimes thick, weighty, substantial ones. Sometimes so thin, so insubstantial that they’re actually even more noticeable.

The path winds itself, turns, pools in certain areas. At first I feel it as stagnation, then no, just a pause. Yin to balance out yang.

And only when I realize I’m in the labyrinth's center do I feel completely present. The path has done its work.

I am free.

Sitting in the center, just existing in wuji (in simple terms: nothingness), is really powerful. I sit for some time drinking it in. Savoring the space.

And the time to return comes. Back through the winding path I feel clear, light – at times almost giddy. There were others walking back, some talking softly with each other. Some moving a bit more quickly than they were on the way in. A little less reflective. And before I even realize it my left brain is re-engaged and spewing out my list of things I have to get done.

I stopped in the path blown away that I wasn’t allowing this part of the experience equal attention. Where else do I do this in life? During family celebrations, do I have a tendency to work really hard cooking, cleaning, tending to people, just to get to the celebration and then collapse afterward? At work, do I put it into full gear to make it to the deadline, only to collapse again and possibly get sick afterward? In Taijiquan, do I put much more intention into the yang application and gloss over yin?

There is great strength in the yin phase. In life, it can be a time for pause, reflection, healing, awareness, preparedness. And in this labyrinth, I was letting it go. So I stood – once again reconnecting. Enjoying the hard work of letting go, maintaining the balance.

Being in the moment. Just being.

Walking through the archway that led out, I made a commitment to myself to be aware of every yin phase in my life and give it the respect it deserves. No glossing over just to get to the excitement of the yang. Being present: beginning, middle and end.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Taking sides

Verse 5 of the Tao Te Ching

The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides
she welcomes both saints and sinner.

The Tao is like a bellows;
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces,
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the centre.

I don't know about you, but I was raised to take a stand. If there was an injustice, I was taught to expose it, shame the producers of it, and then eradicate it.

I was the offspring of Civil Rights Movement parents who really worked toward equality between black and white people in the United States. They worked to erase redlining in housing districts, put an end to police violence and profiling, balance the massive educational inequalities, and obliterate inhumane treatment of African Americans. Civil Rights advocates brought justice to criminals who carried out racist acts or allowed them to happen. Advocates worked to remove racists from office or at least jail them for their crimes. It was a divisive time. People were polarized. Even those working to erase racial lines were drawing lines of their own: Rich vs. poor. Young vs. old ("Don't trust anyone over 30"). Republican vs. democrat.

It was fuel for the fire of change.

So talking about not taking sides isn't an easy one for me. Clearly, aren't sides important? Wasn't all of that work for equality for a reason? Clearly, CLEARLY, we have things to accomplish still in the area of civil rights - but doesn't the civil rights movement beautifully illustrate that taking sides, making a stand, IS important?

So living in "Tao" is living without taking sides? How can I possibly do this in this world of inequality, oppression, hatred? How can one do that when we so value describing people things as beautiful or ugly, smart or stupid, worthless or an idol?

The first time I read this, I shook my head. That is, until I read the last sentence. Hold on to the centre. That stuck me in the gut. And the image I have in my brain, looking back (although I was pretty darned young during the 60s and 70s), is that we, as a nation, were so far away from the center that a jolt back to it had to come. The country was so divided. So angry. So opinionated. So frustrated (hmmm...this sounds familiar...). So oppressed.

Something had to give. Something bold had to explode from such a culmination of the energy of a nation of people at a boiling point.

And maybe it knocked us back toward the center. Maybe that was the overall point.

Living closer to the center, i.e. in balance, I know that I no longer feel the need to take a side, judge good and evil, separate sinners and saints. When I'm balanced, the need just isn't there. And honestly, I have the ability to be both saint or sinner for a reason. We need both - balance.

I'm not advocating going out and committing crimes, and then turning around and sincerely apologizing in order to stay in balance. But I am beginning to see that evaluating what is right/wrong, good/bad, painful/pleasant is useless because in the long run it all In the big picture, not in specific circumstances, it all just is. Whether by mistake or by intention.

What happens in life, whether it's on a personal or national level, just is. Like the bellows opening and closing. It may be fanning the flame to make it grow. It may just blow the flame out. Either way it isn't the end. Just a shift. Another flame comes. Infinitely capable.

So now I'm going to quit chatting about it, clear out the drama, stay centered and live.

See ya.

Other translations:

Nature is not kind;
It treats all things impartially.
The Sage is not kind,
And treats all people impartially.
Nature is like a bellows,
Empty, yet never ceasing its supply.
The more it moves, the more it yields;
So the sage draws upon experience
And cannot be exhausted.

translation by P. Merel

Nature acts without intent,
so cannot be described
as acting with benevolence,
nor malevolence to any thing.

In this respect, the Tao is just the same,
though in reality it should be said
that nature follows the rule of Tao.

Therefore, even when he seems to act
in manner kind or benevolent,
the sage is not acting with such intent,
for in conscious matters such as these,
he is amoral and indifferent.

The sage retains tranquility,
and is not by speech or thought disturbed,
and even less by action which is contrived.
His actions are spontaneous,
as are his deeds towards his fellow men.

By this means he is empty of desire,
and his energy is not drained from him.

-S. Rosenthal

Monday, March 2, 2009

Defining the Undefinable

Tao Te Ching Verse 4
I'm a bit warmer to this translation but I'll add Steven Mitchell's below it:

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the emperors.

Steven Mitchell's version:

The Tao is like a well:
Used, but never used up
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

I used to think that the Tao was another name we could give 'love'. Love is unending. Like the eternal void in this verse. Filled with possibility. Love guides, connects, fills.

When I feel really connected, not only with people around me, but with the moment (you know, not spending this moment thinking about all of the things I have to do, or maybe should have done, or possibly could have done...) I feel love. I am moved to act in loving ways. Listening deeply. Responding instead of reacting. Being instead of doing.

But there have been just as many times when I've been moved by anger...seemingly unending anger! Usually it happens when I've allowed myself to take on much more than I'm able to do and I've had enough. Enough deadlines, caretaking, phone calls, cleaning, emotional drama, disrespect from clients and family, cat hair. You know: enough. And to cut it all off quickly I throw out a few select sharp words in a tone and volume no one can misunderstand - and just for good measure some loud noise like a door slamming or a pounding fist. Whichever seems to be the most effective in making a quick change in the immediate circumstance. The anger gave me what I needed: solitude, disconnection, clearing out. I said yes to too many people, let my boundaries down and I had to have a quick and dirty retreat. At the moment anger was a means to an end.

So if love is Tao, shouldn't anger be Tao also? Anger sometimes feels unending: used, but never used up. Many times filled with infinite possibilities.

And I think back to all of the times anger has saved me over the years. Anger, initially, can spark dramatic change. I remember giving birth to my first child. The umbilical cord was prolapsed, cutting off oxygen to my daughter. The doctor told the staff to prep me now for immediate surgery, so they started milling about to prepare. The doctor dropped into a fury: "I SAID NOW!!" he boomed. His anger (and fear of possibly losing the baby) shook them up and we were in surgery in no time. It was amazing. It was also anger that saved me, when in college, from being pulled down an alley by two drunk young men - fighting and yelling in anger made them take off. It was initially anger, a few years ago, that made me defend several young kids who were being lured into a fight by boys seven to eight years older.

Anger isn't the Tao. No emotion is. Not love. Not peace. Not anger. Tao is not a feeling.

But we always feel better when we can define, describe, compare, evaluate what something is. We have such a need to define that we sometimes do it by what it is not! Because with these descriptions, definitions, comparisons, evaluations...we feel that we know. We understand.

And above all, we have to understand. Wrap our brains around it. Know.

This is how I approached understanding "Tao". This was the only way I knew how to approach it. Break it down into what it's made of, how it works, what it feels like, looks like, tastes like, smells like.

But Tao is different. I had to get over that. Because it is none of those things. It just is.

And to understand it, I really had to work hard. I worked to blunt my sharpness: to stop defining what everything is and is not. Worked to untangle my knots: my stress, anger, love, happiness, curiosity. I had to soften my glare: no more judgment, evaluations, constant thinking. I had to merge with the dust: for a moment, just a moment, believe that I am not separate from anything - ANYTHING: from the stained carpet beneath my feet, from the barking dog outside, from wars beyond my country's borders, from miniscule ants living under rocks, from the garbage lying in the bins outside.

The more I am able to smooth, untangle, soften, merge life's circumstances, that's when I begin to understand Tao, and only then. Because when I don't get it, I realize I'm trying too hard.

There really isn't anything to get.

There is only to be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Frolicking through the Pedestals

We've been looking at verses from the Tao Te Ching. Reminder: We're on #3!

Here it is:

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

It's a dangerous place, the pedestal. Whether you're on it, or looking up at it.

So this week I had a great example of pedestelian proportions. Sure, it isn't a word, pedestelian, but it should be, shouldn't it? It's fun to write and say. You can say it really quickly in a sentence and sound scholarly, "Pedestelian." Or in a big booming voice, like a political leader on an ego trip: PEDESTELIAN! Try it! Fun.

Anyway, I had a great couple of days working with someone who was on a pedestal. I didn't put him there, but so many others had that trying to talk to him from such a distance was difficult. I must add that he worked it to stay up there.

Our "company" was working with this gentleman who has great talent in our field of work. People love his style, his attention to detail, and in our field, he is one of the top players. Needless to say, over time he has gathered a good following. People respect his work and ask him to present his abilities in workshops and seminars. He's good! And a lot of our clients are his clients.

With his popularity, however came power. Our company's board of directors allowed him to control and influence decisions because his name brings in the money. The company board of directors were ultimately afraid of losing a large number of clients and therefore continually bent over backwards to please him.

For every person looking down from their pedestal there are those beneath them looking up. You can't have one without the other. Yin and yang.

This is clearly how people become powerless. Even though they've helped to create the powerlessness.

So Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, challenges us to be our own "Masters" (a person who is at peace) instead of putting others on pedestals by clearing our minds of evaluation and returning to simplicity. In other words going back to your core, your original identity. Not your job title, your associations, illness you live with, hobby or any other external device you cling to.

This verse is saying empty your mind of your expectations (I should have been... I could have been... I used to be...) of your ambitions (I need a widescreen T.V... I thought I would have 2 children by now... I should have been promoted WAY before that lady) and experience the peace of not-doing.

Well, as usual, it's much easier to read this stuff than to do it.

I've a family to feed and shelter and educate. I can't drop everything to frolic naked in the woods among woodland creatures tapping into the joys of freedom all day.

And I would certainly be arrested.

But is this verse asking us to do that? What Lao Tzu writes is those who are "Masters" in life behave as if they're frolicking even when they've been passed over for that promotion, even when they haven't had two children, even when they're home is widescreen TV challenged. Because none of that shit matters, honestly. When you're in the midst of it, it feels like it's the ONLY thing that matters. (And now you know how a teenager feels every waking moment of his/her teenage life.)

When he writes: "practice not doing, and everything will fall into place" he isn't suggesting to get rid of your job and possessions and pick a spot in the wilderness to meditate for the rest of your life. He's saying get rid of your mind's obsessions and LIVE. Go frolic wherever you happen to be. Work. Cleaning you home. Playing with kids. Running errands. Paying taxes. Grocery shopping. (Mental note: long lines vanish when you frolic here.)

This verse is saying to me: I don't care about the letters after your name. I don't care about your title, your demographics, your accomplishments. I don't care if you are a garbage man or a Sanitary Engineer. Secretary or Administrative Assistant. Homemaker or Ma. Nothing in those descriptions change but our internal evaluation of them. And the second verse of this book has already uncovered evaluation as a ridiculous mind game.

Quit playing.

Yeah. A lot easier to say than to continually do.

One of the things I do daily is raise my children. (This is a perfect setup for a self-deprecating slice of humor, but I will resist.) Anyway, sometimes, when one of my children is telling me something, I find myself listening as "The Parent."

'Now,' I say to myself while my daughter's mouth is moving and I am partially listening to her words, 'being the "parent," how should I respond to this outpouring from my child in an instructional and meaningful way? How can I bestow knowledge to her to make her strong and self-sufficient? How can I use this moment to reach out and connect with her?"

How about shutting up and listening??

Honestly. Is that the way you would want someone you love to respond to you? All heady, clinical and distant? That response is from someone playing the role of "Mother." That's someone "doing" Mother.

There are other times when I do look into their faces and hear them. And it's just me. Present. I may not even have any answers for them when they're finished talking. They aren't usually necessary anyway. And that's when I'm "not-doing" Mother. I just am.

Practice not doing, and everything will fall into place. It makes sense.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Part B: Tao Te Ching V. 2

I posted about this verse earlier in the month, but I had to split it up because there's such depth to its simplicity. For those who haven't read it, I've pasted a copy of the entire verse at the end of this post.

Lao Tzu spends a great amount of time writing about the worthlessness of spending time judging and evaluating: whether it's about a situation, a person, an act, a behavior. What he simply states is that seeing things as they are, without having to qualify, evaluate, or label leads to a much happier, less stressful way of living. Living in the flow of life, rather than fighting against it.

Put yourself into a situation where you might judge someone. In fact, I'll offer up a scenario that I've seen play out. Let's say you just moved into a new home. It's spring. Everything is green and lush. And as the summer approaches you notice little flags decorating your neighbors' yards warning people that their lawns have been doused with chemicals. "Idiots!" you cry as you watch your cat walk across the neighbor's lawn looking for small rodents to chew. "These idiots care more about their curb appeal than they do the environment they're poisoning!!" You run after your cat, ready to give your neighbor an earful of organic gardening advice.

Or, if that doesn't fit, try this one: let's say you just moved into a new fixer-upper home. It's spring. Everything is green and lush. As the summer approaches you notice little yellow dandelion heads emerging from your neighbors' yards. Your yard is the only one that is tightly manicured. "Idiots!" you cry as you watch your cat walk across their weed-ridden lawn looking for small rodents to chew. "These idiots don't give a damned about their homes! Look at this street! No matter what I do to this house, there's no way it'll sell well with these surroundings!" You charge outside ready to give you neighbor an earful about lawn maintenance.

"When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad."

Now, what Lao Tzu offers as an alternative to hating your chemical- or organic-happy neighbors is this: we will all be faced with life situations that challenge us to either judge or observe. So when he writes the following:

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

what he is saying is both sides of every story, of every event, of every life situation will always be there. Whether difficult or easy, long or short, high, low, before, after. These will always be. Do you want to wrap yourself up in the emotion of these situations? Do you want to increase your anger, irritation, frustration? Or would you rather observe the situation, connect with those involved, agree to disagree and move on without the drama?

'Well, sure, Lao. I'd rather observe to save my blood pressure. But you don't understand, cause your old. And dead. Here's the deal: People who spray their lawns are idiots! I need to let them know this. I must educate them.'

He's got an answer to that as well:

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

You act without doing anything: you just live. Work on your organic lawn. Who knows, maybe you'll inspire a neighbor to do the same. But Lao Tzu doesn't even care about that egoic thought. He's just sayin': live, without expectation, without judgment, without evaluating every step. Just live. Go, without ego, GO.

I don't know about you, but to me, THAT's the way I want to live. Simple.

But not easy.

Oh, man, it takes work to be an observer. A couple of nights ago at a movie theater I watched a couple bring their young children into a violent "R" rated movie. I had a really hard time "observing" that one. I have a hard time"observing" anything I read or watch that is political. I have a hard time "observing" the bagger lady who beats up my groceries.

But those times when I can? Like when someone cuts me off on the highway? Or when my purse or phone is stolen? Or when I am dismissed in a business meeting because I'm female (yes, it still happens). But for some reason, those things don't trigger my judge. Although I may not agree with the situation, I can understand it. I understand people who may be in a panicked rush on the highway. I understand people who are desperate enough to steal. I can understand prejudice. It just is and I understand it.

The practice of observing doesn't mean that you agree or disagree. That's making a judgment. The practice of observing is allowing it to be: no rising blood pressure, no frustration, no excitement. Not attached to the outcome.

I always get the image of a screen filter. When I'm observing, the mesh of the filter is very forgiving and open. It allows things to flow. My emotions are even and welcoming. I feel warm and inviting.

When I'm critical and full of evaluations, the filter is speck fine. Everything gets trapped. I feel irritated. I don't let anyone get away with anything. I feel critical, calculating, frustrated, angry.

During those times, I really need tai chi.

For me, Tai Chi puts into a physical form the ability to observe. Moving through the postures, I empty my mind of everything (...or try) and bring my intention and attention to the present moment, feeling my way through each movement. I observe the texture of the movements, the inhale, the exhale. I feel them without judging, without criticizing myself for not doing it "perfectly." It's minutes out of a day where I practice holding the space of "being." And working toward taking that space with me for the rest of the day.


Verse 2

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come'
things disappear and she lets them go.

She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tao Te Ching V. 2 :

So here we go with verse 2, which has so much in it that I'm going to split it up a bit...feel free to help me out with your own thoughts, experiences, opinions.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come'
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

Just a note before digging in: "Master" is, in my estimation, a term used for someone who is at peace with whatever happens to be. No matter what. Someone unrattled by emotional family situations, tight work deadlines, or the fine line between losing your house and paying your mortgage for the next month.

I've never met this kind of a master.

It'd be so cool to meet someone like that, wouldn't it? Or maybe that I think about it, I might just be immature enough to try over and over and over to rattle him or her. Like a little kid extending his finger just close enough to his neighbor to annoy. "I'm not touching you. I'm not touching you. I'm not touching you."

So in this verse, seems like Lao Tzu wanted people to know that evaluating everything is pretty much a waste of time. Things just...are.

Crap...can I live with that?

I've had a lifetime of being judged and judging situations as good or bad; friends as true or untrue; family members as ignorant or enlightened; the workplace as the root of insanity or salvation! I'd have to live in silence on a mountaintop to live as if things just...are.

But maybe not...

I had a friend who was late for everything. Not only late for everything, but depended upon me to take her places because her car was usually in an impound lot. I always told her to meet me 1/2 hour early because I knew she would be at least a 1/2 hour late. (I swear she had her own time zone.) It happened a lot. I was angry a lot. She was so late to her own birthday dinner that we all ate without her. She showed up late to 3 weddings - two of which she was in - causing stress on many levels. We all tried talking to her, helping in any way we could, but mostly ended up feeling really frustrated and angry.

Until this verse of the Tao Te Ching bitch-slapped me in the face.

Therefore the Master/ acts without doing anything/ and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come/ things disappear and she lets them go.

My friend was notoriously late. I knew that. So if I am going to make dinner reservations, I better be prepared to eat alone. If I am giving her a ride and she doesn't arrive on time, I better be prepared to leave without her. And without judgment, criticism or grudging. Whether it's judging silently inside or worse, behind her back with friends. It had to stop.

So I stopped waiting. If she doesn't show, I choose to do something else, knowing that that is a good possibility. And it is so incredibly freeing. I'm not waiting in anger. I'm not anticipating. I'm not criticizing myself or her.

Being alone on that mountaintop would be great! But I'd miss my family and friends. Even when they're two hours late.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Understanding "The Way"

The Tao Te Ching is really one of my favorite poem/books to read. The words strip any kind of tension from me and make life plain and simple. Oh how I love plain and simple!

I've wanted to take each section and post my thoughts or observations from it for a long time, but I always felt that my knowledge would stand out like a leafless tree in midsummer.

And all of a sudden my left brain kicked in with: "Bonehead! [Seriously, does it always have to call me that?] That's exactly why you should do it! People will be able to post their own thoughts and experiences to fill out the bare branches! Quit pretending to meditate and get it done."

So we start today! Or, I start on the branches and hopefully you'll fill in the leaves?

(By the way, I ignored my left brain and finished my meditation - even though it threw a little hissy fit for a couple of minutes.)

Verse 1
The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Th unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

When my kids were little, the first thing I did was to teach them the names of everything.

I wish I hadn't.

When you give something a name it becomes an object, separate from you. It is a much different feeling when you walk down a path with no labels or names of the things around you. Eckart Tolle suggested to walk in nature without labeling or naming objects (Sorry if you aren't a Tolle fan! Get out of your judgmental left brain and just hear me out). The experience is much different. You feel connected to the beauty around you - not separate from it. This unnamable is the eternally real. Naming separates us into particular things.

When I experience nature or the people around me for who and what they are - not Jesse the gay man, Helen the woman with the anger issues, bagger lady at the grocery store who hates fruit - when we take all of the judgment and evaluations away...ahhh...we connect on a much deeper, more compassionate, more loving place. We are free of desire (i.e. expectations). We know the mystery!

When we don't, we live with our manifestations: judgment, racism, homophobia, hate, fear...which lead to everything from hateful feelings, fights, inner disharmony on a small scale to poverty, war, ethnic cleansing on a large scale.

So how can the Tao Te Ching also say that our manifestations and our mystery be rooted from the same source? Cause lemme tell ya, it sure feels different!

Well, I believe we can choose to cultivate compassion and love, but we can also choose to cultivate hate and fear. It's all there in the darkness. Just a matter of which you choose to develop.

And where you wish your understanding to be rooted.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Yin and Yang: Triumph and Humiliation

I had to go grocery shopping today.

Don't know if you know this about me, but I hate shopping. Grocery shopping is the worst, but one must do it, because one must eat.

I hate the lights, the music, the crowd, the unending choices. But most of all the uncaring bagger person who always bruises my fruit and mooshes my bread. I walk out of there feeling like every cell in my body is vibrating in hypersensitivity. I just wanna get in, run through, and get the heck out.

But today would be different! I would stay present. Not be affected by the bazillion ridiculous choices we have of everything. I wouldn't become frustrated with those around me. I would not become angry with the bagger lady. I would try.

And today, I noticed something as I wound my way around, trying not to forget toilet paper and trash stickers (another post all together).

There is weird balance of flow and stagnation between people in a grocery store.

Like water in a creek.

Some people are like big rocks, completely unaware that they have positioned themselves to take up most of the aisle, slowing the flow. Sometimes they just position the cart so that it takes up the shelving area you want to get to. Like a couple of branches at the side of the creek that have caught leaves in their twining arms. You can eventually get what you want, but it takes some time.

There are others who whip through the aisles, either forcing you to the side like whitewater or allowing you to catch the wave they produced by riding right behind them and moving with their flow.

Flow and tranquility. Movement and stillness. Yin and yang.

I wasn't grocery shopping anymore! I was watching flow, part of flow. It was tai chi!

I waited in line. The aisles next to me flowed. Mine was stagnant.

Flow! Stagnation! More complementary opposites! Yin and yang. I was in my element!

I watched...waited. Gently began to place items on the conveyor belt. Feeling each item carefully, not breaking the flow of this experience.

With each item I lovingly placed on the item, with each scanner beep I heard as my carefully chosen item rolled down the conveyor belt there was a slight tightening of my existence. What's this? The flow became constricted. The coherence was disrupted. I looked up.

Into the eyes of my nemesis.

The bagger lady.

She was trained to place yin and yang in each and every bag. A can of tomato sauce on bread. Delicately ripened bananas wedged under a box of crackers and cereal. All the while staring right into a shopper's eyes. Almost in challenge.

There are times when you can't watch flow. Times when you can't just move with flow. You have to create it. You have to be the rudder in the stream. You have to guide yourself, move yourself in this water.

I grabbed the pears from her blunt-knuckled hands and gently placed them with the apples. I took out the soup can and put it in with the box of cereal.

"Yin and yang may not be in each bag," I told her gently, not realizing I had embodied the accent of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine. "Yin bag, yang bag: all go in same cart." I said, softly. "Balance." I nodded to the bags and then gently bowed to her. "Have good day."

I walked slowly behind my grocery cart feeling at peace. I made it through. Not only was I not stressed out, but this time my fruit and bread were saved. I was triumphant.

Until I realized I had forgotten trash stickers and had to get back in line.

"Just trash stickers," I said quietly to the cashier. I glanced down at the bagger lady. She held my glance, then rolled her eyes and moved to the fruit and cans of the next line.

Balance, I thought. I was triumphant. I am now humiliated.

"Have good day," I said quietly to myself as I walked out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Holding your pee

Life in the left brain is like living with a constantly full bladder. You are always preoccupied.

You can function. You can pay bills, work with a client, send out emails, drive, feed the cat, design a web page, make coffee - many times doing these things at the same time. But even while multitasking, there's always that underlying noise, nagging you that there's more to do.

And then there's the ridiculous dancing from one foot to the other.

Allowing the right brain (peaceful observer) equal time really gets rid of the noise, the nagging, the preoccupation. The urine of life.

And the only way I know to reach the right brain through the noise of the left is meditation.

It quiets the left brain and introduces the peace of the right. So that when you are working with a are working with a client. When you're feeding the cat, you're feeding the cat. When you are responding to an email. You got it. You're responding to an email. That's it. You are fully there to listen, feed, respond. You are clear.

When you are clear in your mind, you have the structure of the linear left mind that keeps you on track and the open awareness and acceptance of the all observer right brain, amazing things can take place in the body.

For me, the first shift came from breathing into the belly. One of the first times I tried to meditate, my respiratory system was blown away. I was breathing in and out. And I did it more than once. Over and over for eternally long two minutes.

I didn't hold my breath on the inhale. I didn't take a big breath in and sigh it out. I just let the air come in evenly and release evenly. My lungs freaked.

"What the heck is this?! Air in? Air out? What? Balloon-lung look not in anymore?"

My lungs can be pretty sarcastic.

The breathwork in meditation is so nice and even that the respiratory system responds. Lungs not only were stronger in case studies, but lung capacity grew, and meditators were able to hold their breath for much longer periods of time. They also found that the even breathing of meditation increases the blood oxygen and allows it to adhere to blood more evenly.

And there are oodles of case studies (here's an interesting one) that go over the connection between meditation and cardiovascular health. In a healthy human if your breathing becomes nice and even, your heart rate is going to respond, raising your heart rate variability (HVR measures autonomic influences on the cardiovascular system. The autonomic system supplies, involuntarily, impulses to the smooth muscle tissues, glands and the muscles of the heart. It also controls the circulation of blood, body temperature, respiration rate and many other functions like salivation, urination, and digestive systems.

So when you're breathing evenly, the blood begins to flow evenly, oxygen is getting around and healing...lo and behold, the digestive systems begins to assimilate food better. Woo-hoo! No more fears about bending over in class anymore!

Because all systems: endocrine, nervous, cardio, digestive, respiratory, are connected, they are also all affected when you create a space for the right brain.

The hard thing is to make time to actually follow through with meditation. In the beginning just be good to yourself and don't give up. It takes practice just like anything else. You'll watch the clock. You'll hear noises and want to know what they are. You'll fall asleep. Your left brain will nag, nag, nag until you give up. Don't.

Add it into your day slowly:

Before you get out of your car. Pause. Breathe.
Before you set the toothbrush to your teeth. Pause. Breathe.
Before you pick up the phone. Pause. Breathe.
Before you get out of bed. Pause. Breathe.

These are mini-meditations that will help you ease into longer periods of time. And you can add an exercise on to the breathing: pause, breathe, feel your hands. Just feel them. Don't judge. Don't evaluate. Just see if you can feel the blood pulsing through them. Can you feel any sensations? Just feel, be aware. Let your right brain have a voice. It's pretty quiet, but it's powerful.

Now quit dancing and go pee.


Good books on the brain:
My Stroke of Insight
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Left, Right, Center

Be still as a mountain,
move like a great river.
-Wu Yu-hsiang

If you're just starting out with meditation, staying present - or just practicing focusing on one thought - it can be difficult. What can end up happening is that a little "To Do" list will pop into your head, making sure to challenge your quiet moment.

"What am I doing?? I have to reply to that email from my boss! I can't forget to do that! Oh, Lord, if I don't do it now, I'll probably forget! I've been forgetting everything. Uhhhggg, I just remembered when I forgot my mother's birthday last year. That was fun. I felt sick. I had to pay $40 extra dollars to FedEx it there quickly to save face. Boy did she harass me for that. Speaking of payments, when did I last pay bills...I haven't paid bills this month! I can't be late for that too! Extra fees will kill me! I've got to look into that. And look at me! I'm just sitting here! Doing nothing!"

So, staying in your comfort zone, you jump up and head for the computer to pay online bills, return emails, and write a loving letter to your mother.

What is going on here? What is this voice that spits out so much worrisome information while we are trying to slow down and be still?

Inside of our lovely skull, cupped in it's strength, is our brain. A necessary organ that is still largely curious to researchers. It is divided into two hemispheres: left and right. The left is very analytical, allows us to critique, judge, analyze. The right behaves as a complete observer, not caring whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, it just observes and lets things unfold with curiosity and wonder. See the balance there? Both are necessary. You want to be able to judge a situation as safe or dangerous, using the left brain. You want to observe, and not judge, the smirk your mother makes when she opens your $20 gift in the $40 FedEx packaging, using the right brain. (Why, you ask? Because getting caught up in the emotion of your mother judging your gift, and the expense of how it got there, is a huge waste of your time. Get right-brained whenever you find yourself in this kind of situation. Step away from the drama!)

The left hemisphere is the one we Westerners are still having one remarkable love affair with. (Sorry about the hanging preposition - my detailed oriented, perfectionist left-brain won't let me move on without pointing that out.) The left brain is highly analytical, allowing us to problem solve, create sentence after sentence to communicate coherent paragraphs, to analyze, criticize, judge, make predictions, create and follow schedules. It is deeply needed in our Western environment.

When one overuses the left hemisphere is when the trouble starts. The left hemisphere - just as it did in our example above - takes any quiet moment and makes them loud in our heads. It guides us to think about and remember things that have happened in the past and propels us into the future to worry and fret over things that have yet to come. And the saddest thing about this is what we miss: the precious moment occurring right now.

And it's the right brain that allows us to be present. Present is all it knows. Right now, this moment.

But it takes practice.

The beginnings of meditation are difficult. The left brain acts like a spoiled brat. It has received constant attention from you for years and years, and now you want to focus your beam of light to the right hemisphere? Not without a fight. Those messages you get when you try to maintain quiet are the left hemisphere having a little hissy fit. It's fighting for your attention. The right brain, in it's laid back, non-judgmental never vies for your attention.

"Ah, well, it is what it is," the right hemisphere says as you jump up from a lotus position, or drop your arms from Standing Post, and give in to the 'to-do' list that the left hemisphere provided. The left hemisphere is happy because it has you back, the right hemisphere is happy, because it doesn't judge, and you are back in your comfort zone and feeling fine...

Except for the occasional acid reflux. Oh, and the fluctuating blood pressure. Well, then, there's the lower back pain. Okay, and to be honest, the daily anger, bad moods, feelings of depression, impatience with close friends and family, and the constant criticism of others when really all you want is peace.

And you realize, clearly, that practicing being in the right brain might just be a good thing.

Next post: Entering into the right brain, watching body functions shift in 'observer' mode.