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Paradox

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 78

 

This path seems paradoxical.
Like water, it is soft and yielding,
yet there is no better way to overcome the stiffness and rigidity that causes so much suffering.

We intuitively know that flexibility is more effective than stubbornness
and that tenderness is superior to hard-heartedness,
yet our conditioned habits keep us from acting on this knowledge.

By accepting all that seems humble and plain,
we become masters of every situation.
By opening our hearts
to all that seems painful and difficult,
we help end all suffering.
No wonder it seems paradoxical.
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I suppose it is a basic fear that so often keeps me from tenderness and openness. Why else would I choose to remain rigid in the face of pain and discomfort? The power was off for a few minutes last night, a reminder that outages happen occasionally during the winter. It is always restored within a few hours and is not a real problem.

“But,” the voice of fear intones, “winter is coming and you can’t survive without power!”

Actually, I can. We have a generator. We can relocate for a few days if necessary. We have firewood. But I can feel the bracing in my body against possible discomfort. Perhaps I’ll just open my mind and my heart to the cold clean quality of winter and end my suffering about it. Perhaps the paradox, and all paradoxes, are resolved by an open heart,

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 77

 

Following this path is like stringing a bow.
One end is pulled down
and the other is pulled up,
creating a dynamic balance.
So this practice encourages a dynamic balance between excess and deficiency.
When we see an excess,
we reduce it.
When we see a deficiency,
we give to it.

This is contrary to common wisdom.
Common wisdom seeks to constantly increase excess.
To do this, that which is lacking must decrease even more.
Balance is destroyed.

To keep balance we must trust this path and keep to our true nature.
This allows us to give without worry,
and to receive without attachment.

 
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Classic Communism hasn’t worked because it is an economic system based on the same materialistic paradigm as all other modern economic systems. But true balance, as this chapter points out, is something more fundamental to authentic human nature. Before the introduction of ownership, property, fences, and wealth that accompanied the agricultural revolution six to ten thousand years ago, balance was essential to the functioning of the community. If good times arose, all benefited. If scarce times came, all faced the scarcity together.

I sometimes despair when I see how far we have come from this essential part of the Path. Yet, I also see generosity and the gift economy beginning to seep into culture in a hidden way. We are all longing for authentic lives and recovering this kind of sharing balance is one of the signs that this longing may be on the path to fulfillment. Nancy and I have felt “lack” sometimes over the past year, yet “excess” has flowed into our lives in many more ways. A sharing and gifting economy exists. We are feeling and seeing it all around us. Both the giving and the receiving are necessary for the balance to be effective. We have received such blessing and, I hope, given freely within this new paradigm.

Flexible and Open

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 76

 

Before we are conditioned by all the “dos and don’ts” of life,
we are naturally tender and gentle.
As we grow old, we constrict around these conditions
and end up dying stiff and rigid.
Indeed all living things begin soft and supple
and end up brittle and dry.

So we see that hardness and inflexibility are signs of death,
and that tenderness and gentleness are signs of life.

It is the ability of an army to change its plans
that keeps it from defeat.
It is the ability of a tree to bend in the wind
that keeps it from toppling.
Our natural tenderness
is our true strength.
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The “stiffness” of body is sometimes inevitable as we age, though there is much we can do to remain physically flexible – Qigong, Yoga, Taiji, etc. However, the corresponding “stiffness” of mind is not inevitable. Softness of expression; tenderness of heart; flexible adaptation to change; and willingness to let the River of Tao carry us along are qualities that are available to all, without exception.

The difficulty I have living out these qualities comes from the conditioned expectations my culture has so firmly planted in my brain. All the “shoulds” and “oughts” rise to the surface and attempt to keep me braced against the flow of life. These inner voices want to circle the wagons and protect my ideas and opinions lest anything break through to change things.

I want to live today with flexibility of body, but even more, with flexibility of mind. Let my mind be awake and able to dance with life this day.

‘Tis a Gift

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 75

 

Why do the poor lack what they need?
Because the rich consume too much.
Why do people become restless and discontent?
Because those in power try to control every aspect of their lives.

Everyone is so concerned
with getting and keeping
that no one learns to really live
before they die.

To follow this path
we must abandon overconsumption
and embrace true simplicity.

 
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Lao-Tzu does not equivocate about simple living. He does not define it in detail, but insists that it is an essential part of the Tao. Without it, the gap between poor and rich will expand until societies self-destruct. Power and wealth will be used to control and dominate.

I can’t define simplicity for another person, but I know that my own life has been set free and empowered by it. Embracing simplicity is not just a “good” thing to do. It is a “natural” thing to do. Greed and overconsumption are not natural to humanity but are qualities that have been conditioned into us by economic and political systems over the past few thousand years.

Deep within my nature, this longing for authentic simple living has kept me somewhat on track, despite the circuitous detours. It has been a touchstone for my happiness. As the old Shaker hymn says, “’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free. ’Tis a gift to come down where we want to be. To turn, turn, will be our delight, ‘till by turning, turning, we come out right.”

Sum of All Fears

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 74

Our true nature does not fear death.
Our conditioned mind creates this fear
in a futile attempt to control events
and keep people in line.

Death is a natural part of this path.
An unnatural fear of death leads only to killing.
It is like trying to use the intricate tools of a master craftsman.
We will surely cut ourselves.

 
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When I think about it, it really is an unnatural fear of death that gives our destructive economy and dysfunctional government its power. It finances our trillion dollar insurance/health/pharmaceutical industry. It fuels our wars. (Kill them before they kill us!) It keeps us buying our toys and diversions. My conditioned mind is filled with anxieties that have their origin in this fundamental fear. It really is the “sum of all fears” isn’t it? If I didn’t fear death, what power would anyone have over me? What reason would I have to hate or to separate myself from others? If this fear were removed from our psyches, our economy and culture would collapse and transform.

It’s not that I seek death. That’s just the other side of the coin. The natural integration of death into life allows me to see the beauty and mystery more clearly. The days dawn in precious wonder and cycle through their rhythms without clinging. There is no need to turn my head away, thus I get to see real life rather than the imitation my culture offers me. This is true freedom, authentic joy.

Who Knows?

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 73

 

We do the best we can,
yet sometimes our actions seem harmful.
At other times they seem beneficial.
We find no answer as to why this is so.
We are only shown the way to walk,
one step at a time,
accepting both harm and benefit as essential parts of life.
We are shown how to remain quiet,
yet respond to every situation.
We are shown how to be present,
even before being called.
We are shown how to be patient,
yet accomplish everything.

The mysteries and unknowns along this path are many,
yet on it we never lose our way.
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I’m not even sure I can be clear about my intentions. Hidden behind an altruistic act may lurk a subconscious desire for gain. And the best of intentions can end up in overtly harmful results. It is reassuring that even Lao-Tzu allowed these things to remain a mystery.

Rather than perseverate about motives and results, I find it more helpful to just keep taking the classic next step along the way, accepting results as temporary things that may change in the next moment. I don’t know, really, what is best. All of my great accomplishments may mean nothing in the fabric of time. All of my mistakes may work together for some greater good beyond my own lifetime. Who knows?

I won’t lose my way if I just let the unknowns remain unknown, and the mysteries remain mysteries. I do know what comes next this morning – posting this little journal and pouring another cup of coffee while I sit by a warming fire and wait for Nancy to wake up.

Real Information

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 72

 

If we have no awe of the mystery,
we are easily controlled by fear.
We constrict ourselves with self-hate
and become the willing victims of other people.

Knowing our true nature,
we see ourselves clearly,
but do not become arrogant.
We cherish ourselves
but not as separate from all other beings.
Our external identity
is nourished by our inner reality.

 
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My media fast is truly helping me see life more clearly and gradually untying the knots of fear that my cultural conditioning has used to control me for so many decades. The “information” I receive is carried by the sights and sounds, aromas and textures of my immediate environment. The temperature on the porch this morning was 28 degrees – important information for one who is settling into winter living. Gas prices are rising – information that determines our driving schedule. The pine needles are turning brown on the inner branches, getting ready to drop – a good time to prune the low-hanging branches.

I don’t need any more stories and half-truths, delivered in alarming and manipulative ways, to know how I want to live in relationship with the Earth and all Her life. A person has to pay close attention and take great care in order to know where to find “actionable” information amidst the propaganda, economic pressure, and fear that fills our media and lives.

I am finding “my Self” and, from that discovery, all else falls into place. Right action emerges naturally and life lives itself. That’s what I’m focusing on today.