We create the path as we walk it

Running into Daoist elitists is always a bit surreal. But I feel in good company. Zhuangzi was suspicious of “sages,” too.

I’m reading a book about the globalization of Daoism and trying not to be disheartened by the bickering. Political battles are not of interest to me. But I am enjoying the authors’ analysis contrasting East and West:

American spiritual seekers can be said to begin their quest and practice within a framework of “ontological individualism,” in which spirituality consists in discovering, nurturing, and expressing one’s own “deep self”; Daoist cultivation, on the other hand, is based on a process of “cosmological attunement” in which spirituality consists in the harmonization of the dynamic structure and forces of the body/mind with the corresponding dynamic structure and forces of society and of the cosmos. (Palmer, David A.; Siegler, Elijah. Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.)

Certainly, the culture that evolved Daoism matters. Certainly, cultural appropriation is an act we can examine in the same way we examine privilege: it’s not something we can avoid doing (or having), but recognizing our standpoint gives greater context and respect for others.

But that’s not really my interest today. I’m mulling over “identity.”

A fixed identity (West) vs a process of aligning identity (East) is very meaningful to me. As one who has lived as, and loved others, living in the margins of society, I’ve witnessed the fierce struggle for rights and protections, a struggle that requires of the socially nonconforming to state and defend a permanent and one-dimensional identity:  “I was born gay…I didn’t CHOOSE it…” or “I AM trans…I ALWAYS have been this gender inside…”

The cultural shift that brought equal marriage to the US was won with the idea that sexual attraction is not a choice. This was the mantra of the movement for over three decades. Now, the young people coming out as transgender are being forced to use the same argument. I say “forced” because why should it matter whether they “can’t help it” or they “choose to”?

But it does matter to many people. If a gay man marries a woman, he was never really gay but only confused. If a trans youth detransitions or desists years later, they were never really trans but a victim of social contagion or seeking attention. To be authentic, those expressing their trans experience are expected to tell stories of gender confusion that start before speech, show a consistent nonconforming gender expression throughout childhood, and use keywords like “disgust” for their current bodies.

As my trans son expresses his identity, I won’t demand that he “has always” or “will always.” Maybe one day he will stop being a man, or maybe he will always be a man. It doesn’t matter. It’s his story. Identity is a process. Aligning our personal stories with our intimate sense of spirit is an ever-changing experience.

We create the path as we walk it.

 

Let’s complicate things

There’s a panhandler on a corner in my town.

Many times I’ve driven by feeling pity for him because he was homeless, wore shabby clothes, and had few options in life. But one day when I drove by, I was coming home from a job I hated, stressed about bills and loved ones I was worried about, and the thought came to me, what a damn lucky guy.

This panhandler didn’t have the worries I had. He didn’t have a house payment, a schedule to juggle, and other people to care for. And he had a job after all — a good one, because he was sitting on the corner for only a few hours a week. At least he was getting some sun and rest. Maybe he was a liar, playing on people’s pity and his life was not as his sign suggested.

That moment was my first stumbling awareness of Tao.

The pity I’d felt had been an extension of my Self into a space it had no business being. The envy I felt on another day was equally inappropriate. I’d been judging his life by my own, making assumptions and creating a dichotomy where only plurality exists.

Judgment always depends on where you stand.

I value owning a car: how sad you waste money on taxis or time getting places when you could travel quickly in comfort. My dad, who never drove, had the opposite view: how sad you waste money and time on that machine when you could get fitter using pedal power.

Oh, I doubt I’m challenging your nimble mind with my mundane examples! You understand how pluralism works. Maybe you even know what standpoint theory is.

So how do you feel when I ask whether you:

  • have gay friends?
  • would use a nongendered bathroom?
  • would be friends with a couple who has a nonmonogamous marriage?

Did you feel yourself tense and your mind dart for a moral line-in-the-sand?

Let’s complicate it.

  • What do you think about a parent who chooses assisted suicide?
  • What do you think about a neighbor who becomes a sex worker?
  • What do you think about a friend who pays for an abortion?

Now we have more context to consider when judging “right” and “wrong”. But are these examples different in principle from the former examples? Are you required to be part of the choices any of these people make? Yet you may try to limit their choices directly by confronting them or indirectly by voting for laws that control them.

And still, are the values you hold even your own?

This is the point Laozi makes. The values we uphold in our moral dichotomies are not our own. They belong to our culture — cultivated by many different entities from retailers to religion. When we reinforce them through thought and action, social conventions and laws, we’ve trapped ourselves and we’ve trapped each other. We are very far from walking with Tao.

Tao isn’t found in the “superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.” (Tao Te Ching: LeGuin).

You may know the wonderful allegory about the farmer and the horse. I think of this often, like when I drop some coins in the panhandler’s cup and wonder about whose life is “good” or when I’m attacked by people who call themselves “good” Christians.

A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians. All his neighbors offered their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock. All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t a disaster?” The two horses bred, and the family became rich in fine horses. The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them; one day he fell off and broke his hipbone. All his neighbors offered the farmer their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” Another year passed, and the barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able-bodied young men were conscripted, and nine-tenths of them died in the war. Thus good fortune can be disaster and vice versa. Who can tell how events will be transformed? (Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version Perennial Classics. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

Your story, maybe my story

I have zero interest in changing you.

I don’t want such responsibility nor do I need such validation. Not even from those closest to me. Not even from my family.

I write my thoughts because it’s the best way for me to think. My fingers know things that my mind doesn’t. Creating stories and images is the tao that guides me to Dao.

When in a class setting or in my work, my goal is to share my stories so others know variety. There are many equally good stories. That doesn’t mean anyone needs to change.

Take from my ideas what feeds you. Shrug off what doesn’t. If you have questions, terrific! If you have stories to share, even better! If you think I should change, why do you read a blog about Dao?

Finding one in the many

I meditate. It’s not how you likely imagine.

Tradition, television, and many books and apps show us images of serene, silent people in lotus positions. We see that meditation is about cultivating stillness, a quiet mind, a union of body and spirit seeking to limit external distractions and internal dialogue.

To go further, meditation is an action that avoids self reference. Meditation voids Self. One exists within the moment, looking neither back nor forward, neither in nor out. Thoughts with self reference, such as “mulling over” ideas or events of the day, is not meditation. That is contemplation.

Meditation isn’t passive, although its goal is a kind of stillness. And yet, that stillness is not necessarily a physical or mental nonmovement. It’s a stillness of multiplicity. A stillness defined by stopping the splintering of the One into many. Most people likely find the experience works easier by not moving. They experience a greater sense of unity by reducing the movement of their thoughts and bodies; by holding still they reduce distractions. But that isn’t the only way.

Sometimes the best way to still the mind is to move the body. Gentle, joint-focused movements help focus the mind and the body, reducing distractions.

Sometimes the best way to still the mind is to exert the body. Intense, muscular movements help focus the mind and body, reducing distractions.

I’ve never felt stillness in being still, but I find bliss in exhaustion. I don’t find a place in Tai Chi. My meditation is CrossFit.

The hours I spend stepping into myself during these work outs provides a great sense of stillness. Each session is a ritual. I greet friends, plan the work out, warm up, then prep and set up. Then for 20-40 minutes the Many Things become only my body in motion, pushing through tasks.

Later in the evening I can sit and contemplate what I felt and learned. But at the box, in the moment, there Is.

If you’ve found it difficult to meditate because you’re trying to emulate what you see others doing, take some time to think about the process, not the style. You’ll likely find you’re already experiencing meditation somewhere in your life. Perhaps contemplate how it works for you. You may want to expand your experience or increase its frequency.

 

Everything’s not a matter of principle

I’m not a vegan. In fact, I call myself a carnivore. I eat mostly meat, few plants. If you read about Dao, you may find that odd. If you walk with Dao, you probably won’t.

I’ve researched plant- vs animal-based diets for decades. Discussions often followed. And arguments. And unfriending. And then there are the memes. The majority of memes in food politics seem to focus on “moral” superiority. I recognize the competitiveness and consumerism that drives this argument. Mostly, I recognize the deep lack of awareness at the damage done by the notion of dualism.

I used to struggle with the notion that we are spirits trapped in flesh. Yes, we’re thinking animals. Does that make us two things? Are we by nature two disparate entities at war within ourselves — spirit vs flesh? This (Cartesian) dualism has been around a long time. It even infected Daoism as it developed after Laozi (part of that stuff distracting from the heart that I mentioned a few posts back). Dualism is so much part of both West and East, it infects even those far removed from any religion and ignorant of philosophy.

Why does existence itself require a civil war?

I suspect the war was not started by your birth but by your culture. Splitting you in two, seeking to control one part or the other, gas-lighting you into trusting authorities more than yourself, is the work of humans not Dao. Many “shoulds” control you, shouted at you by governments, churches, ideologues, and profiteers.

Dualism denies that humans exist within nature. It tells us that we are superior. We are souls clothed (or trapped) in flesh. Only we, of all animals, are required to label and deny ourselves in ways other animals aren’t. We must free our spirits from the flesh. We shoulder the burden of morality, and more importantly, only certain people can be trusted to tell us what that morality should be. Is it your church? Your father? Your friends? Your ego?

Ho hum.

Right now, microscopic creatures are eating what they can of you inside and out. At every moment, larger animals — parasites and predators — will try to consume you if they can. And one day, they will succeed, even if it’s only beetles and worms that enjoy what’s left of you. We are each part of a cycle that consumes and is consumed.

Running across some vegan memes today had me thinking about choices. For one seeking “virtue,” choosing between a cow and a tomato is not as simple as a meme makes it sound.

In any case, “virtue” is a spurious word.

When I see turkeys trotting through the early morning mist near my home, sometimes I think “beautiful” and sometimes I think “yummy.” It depends on whether I’m hungry.

I seek to live in my body. I am embodied. I am one, not many. And when I walk with Dao I am one, still.

 

 

I am a wave in the ocean

Hollowed out,
Clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
Is where it’s useful.
So the profit in what is
Is in the use of what isn’t.

(Book One, Tao Te Ching – trans. LeGuin)

I have a mantra that helps me on especially stressful days: “I’m a wave in the ocean.”

I visualize the undulation, hear the fiery rush, smell the earthy freshness, feel the cool spray. The experience works for me on many levels. I love water. It comforts me. It delights me. It instructs me.

As a wave in the ocean, I’m like all the others. Competitiveness dies. I’m not in control of what happens. Desire dies. I’m not alone. Fear dies.

Like the pot, where I am not is where I am most useful. Removing Self makes space. That is, where I am not — where I do not compete, desire, or fear — not-me can be.

Most of us live like spots of oil which water surrounds but never penetrates. Competition, anxiety, desire, ambition, and fear work as filters and obstruct our awareness of the reality around us.

As with oil and water, I cannot mix both Self and Dao.

A Christian walks with Dao

A mother attempts to control a child through authority and tradition, through shame and fear. In thinking about the judgments used against this younger member of my extended family, I’m saddened the mother calls herself “Christian.”

The mother feels righteous. She desires others to affirm her goodness. She feels the security of patriarchal authority nodding to her hurtful words from millennia of tradition. But she doesn’t realize that words of exclusion and shame come not from Jesus. Her judgments come from those who wield power.

The first revelation, the source of a belief, is often inspired and becomes the heart of a new Way. Better if humans left it at that. But people don’t leave it at that. Later thoughts and interpretations often diverge from the heart in order to create institutions and maintain authority. Why? Because people desire power and answers, while detached observation and questions make them anxious.  These developments seem to happen in metaphysics and religions of all kinds.

I don’t hate Christians. I don’t pity them as confused or manipulated, either. In fact, I don’t think about them much at all. The farther I walk with Dao the less I care about the people whose stories diverge so much from mine. In other words, it’s none of my business what this mother thinks or why. But her daughter suffers, and her daughter has a story much like mine.

So I’ve been thinking. With Christians, we have the Beatitudes, the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Further actions that use this heart are Christian. Actions that don’t use this heart serve another purpose, not Jesus’s own. The same can be said for Dao. Tao Te Ching revealed the heart of Dao, and the many religions, rituals, and magic that arose over the centuries since Laozi distract from the heart and serve another purpose.

In other words, I have no interest in becoming immortal or directing my chi.

I just walk with Dao.

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The eight Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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My favorite translation of Tao Te Ching is by Ursula LeGuin and here’s why:

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years. It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. (LeGuin, Ursula K. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (Kindle Locations 201-206). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.)

Most people seem to quote the beginning words of Book One, but the most meaningful to me are a few lines down:

So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.

 

 

 

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