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The River Flows On

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 81

 

The most helpful words
do not please our conditioning.
Words that please our conditioning are not helpful.
This path is not taught by argument.
Those who argue
are not teaching this path.
Books cannot teach this path.
If we rely on books
we will not find this path.

Simplicity is our joyous and practical guide.
Therefore we always have enough to live with generosity.
In this way our path brings great gain yet does no harm.
No longer striving for control,
we discover life to be an ever-flowing river.

 

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Time has passed with amazing speed. I have arrived at the last chapter of The Tao Te Ching once again, and once again I am reminded that my words may or may not be helpful. I have simply walked along, day by day, with Lao-Tzu as my guide and have hoped that my reflections may have sparked something authentic in those who read over my shoulder.

I can’t teach this path. I can only walk it and speak as accurately as possible about my experiences. I am going to take a break now and turn to my work here on the family property and to my other writing. In the next few days I will make a PDF version of this 81 day journal available on both of my sites.
Blessings to all.

Present Moment

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 80

 

The present moment is all we have,
so we are not constantly seeking a faster way to do things
or a better place to be.
Our vehicles sit idle except when truly needed,
and our weapons remain locked away.

Our attention is always on
the experience of the moment
so we enjoy our food,
our clothing,
our homes,
and every aspect
of a simple way of living.

Though the world is filled
with sights we haven’t seen,
we die content because
we have truly lived.

 
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I’ve been sawing wood lately – literally. The cabin has a small wood stove which will accommodate small pieces of wood. There is a stack of firewood we’ve gathered from various places that is too large to fit. Piece by piece, I’m sawing the wood into chunks that will fit. “Borrow a chain saw!” the voice within shouts. But there is something in the rhythm of the saw cutting slowly through the Oak, Pine, and Cedar that brings me a great satisfaction. A voice from the distant past, probably my father or an uncle, reminds me, “Let the saw do the work.” So I relax and practice wu-wei sawing.

I take frequent breaks to stretch and look around. The autumn is showing brightly on the Aspen grove down the road. Pine needles are getting thick on the ground and will need raking soon. The little cabin, derelict for so many decades, is starting to come awake and stretch itself into life as well.

Today is Friday, a day in which we do not use the car nor participate in economic activity – part of our attempt to be in solidarity with the youth of the world in their growing protest over the climate crisis. Every moment is taking on a sharp flavor and I’m savoring it slowly and mindfully.

Content

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 79

 

Resentment always leads
to more resentment.
Only contentment leads
to contentment.
Therefore we do not seek advantage or control.
Our contentment is independent of the actions of others.
Seeking a special position is not the way of life.

There are no “special favorites” along this path.
It unfolds itself before whoever walks along it.
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I am conditioned to feel content only when I have my ducks in a row. This, of course, requires constant effort and is ultimately a futile endeavor. Ducks never stay in a row for long. Therefore what culture calls contentment is a fragile demanding thing, never staying long yet insisting that it be pursued.

I will sit in the evening sipping a scotch and give a large sigh of contentment. Terrified, my conditioned mind goes quickly to work lest it lose control. It subtly whispers some common theme, like: “Money’s getting low. What are you going to do? …” The whisper could be about money, health, weather, society – whatever will hook my and drag me away from my natural contentment.

I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding this hook, but occasionally I’ll bite. Usually I shake loose before too long. I’m no longer trying to be anyone special. I’m not looking for a special position. I am just walking along whatever path opens to me. Next step: Coffee.

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.