Month: January 2016

To know enough’s enough is enough to know.

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Circulation of Ch’i (1886), via the Public Domain Review

The title of this post, as well as the previous one’s, come from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way. The translation I have is Ursula K. Le Guin’s, which is why I picked it up in the first place. As a teenager, I devoured Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and have respected her enormously ever since. A few years ago, I read an article about her father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who eventually quit practicing anthropology when he understood that studying other people as savages was disrespectful and ansurd, or at least this is how I remember it. I also read that Le Guin’s fantasy characters were inspired by the Native American perception and wisdom, which makes perfect and beautiful sense. So when I saw that she translated Tao Te Ching, I was intrigued. She makes it clear in the Introduction that she does not read Chinese, and so her translation is more of an interpretation, based on reading all available English translations of the book and deciding on the sound and meaning that rang truest to her:

The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.

Some critics have subsequently criticised Le Guin for trying to dumb down the content of one of the most important texts in the spiritual tradition, but she warded off these criticisms in advance:

I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening to the voice that speaks to the soul.

So there you go. I picked up this book as that very kind of reader, and wasn’t disappointed in that I didn’t get much out of it. I have an impression that it would be presumptuous for anybody to claim to “get it,” though. This is the expected Asian philosophical quagmire par excellence. To my postmodern eye, its paradoxes and wisdoms evoke kung fu movies, comical in their culturally untranslatable gravity. Of course Lao Tze came before kung fu, and movies, and postmodernism, but what can I do. I get to know all of it backwards. It’s the curse of being born in the 20th century.

The Book starts off discouragingly enough, by explaining what Taoing is. Thus,

The way you can go

isn’t the real way.

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

And it ends in the following couplet:

Doing without outdoing

is the Way of the wise.

Every poem, or passage, contained in the Book of the Way (and there are 81 total), is based on oxymorons which blow my Western mind, and I love it.

It makes me wonder about the so-called universal wisdom, though.

I realize that in order to benefit from the wisdom of Tao Te Ching, I need to learn much more about Chinese philosophy, some historical context too, delve deep. And I don’t mind doing it. But what it really menas is that the Tao is not really universally accessible, clear and helpful to all – and neither is the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran. It’s like I am suddenly aware of this very obvious thing. We keep trying to translate those holy doctrines into other languages and mentalities and it’s never exactly right, but then it can’t be exactly right, because they are all built on paradoxes. Languages express or evoke, and nobody really knows which one is happening at any given moment.

I couldn’t sleep last night, and I was slipping in and out of dreams all night long. At some point, at 4 am maybe,  not-so-wide awake, I was mulling over this thing where we are told, by Buddhism, that we are asleep and that all we need to do is awake to see that this, here, is nirvana. And then I thought about the research that shows how much we are all creatures of habit, that we spend our days on autopilot, predictably reacting to various situations in the ways we are accustomed to. Mirror neurons play a part in making us react in unison with those around us, and so we end up in this half-awake state that very few people manage to break. And perhaps the biggest difference between being asleep and awake is that other people influence us by their actions in the latter case, while we dream alone, although Jung would disagree. And meditation leads to the same conclusion. Watching my mind spin off every random thought, sound, smell, sensation that reaches my senses, seeing how far it can take me in the space of seconds, how I make myself smile or cry with going along with the story I just unwittingly produced, is humbling. And that is only when I sit and am aware of these thoughts – I make myself not to act on them, I wait them out. But it is true, I am dreaming something all the time. My mind is dreaming something and showing me something and me, I think, this is my life.

So I read Tao Te Ching like a tourist visits a Shaolin Temple: wondering at how much I do not understand, cheering when I do seem to understand something, and than immediately distrusting my understanding. Enjoying Le Guin’s cheeky footnotes. Not really feeling that warmth and sense of humour that she claims permeate the work. Thinking about the patriarchal, feudal notions of political rule, and how they do not seem compatible with Lao Tsu’s proclaimed pacifism. And also the idolization of “not doing.” Like in Chapter 47, which rings very true to me.

You don’t have to go out the door

to know what goes on in the world.

You don’t have to look out the window

to see the way of heaven.

The farther you go.

the less you know.

So the wise soul

doesn’t go, but knows;

doesn’t look, but sees;

doesn’t do, but gets it done.

In other words, “Be water, my friend.”

Nothing much to add, really.

Whatever you lose, you’ve won. Whatever you win, you’ve lost.

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Stacked by my bedside are books I have read in the past few months, plus a Kindle. I kept putting them there to remind myself to write, and then I never did. I usually want to write about them right after turning the last page, or while I read. As I go through them, the words I read raise so many  questions, issues, criticism, gratitude. They make me feel smart, enriched, connected, engaged. But that feeling ends once I put them down.

I didn’t use to like reading anything twice, gods forbid more than that. But here is something I did for the first time in 2015: I latched onto a book and read it over and over again. Four, maybe five times so far. The strange thing is that I can’t remember what it is about. Maybe that is because it is not really “about” anything in particular. It’s a book that makes me go through the day’s events and see whatever happened from a fresher perspective. It is a spiritual guide and a part of me never wants to put it down, because it helps me deal with loss, that tragic theme of 2015.

This spiritual loop book is Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It’s a philosophy, a lens, a filter, a reality check. Sometimes it makes me shudder, but mostly it calms me down. I read it over and over because every time I go through a chapter, what I learn has a different color and flavor than it did the last time. It teaches me something new every day. And lessons must be repeated until they are learned.

This past September, only six months pregnant, I unexpectedly went into labour and gave birth to a tiny baby girl. She died five days later. Her short life began and ended in a hospital, where kind and courageous people fought for her survival. But she was too small, too early. One after another, her organs broke down: heart, lungs, brain. Taken off life support, she died in our arms.

In the five days of my baby girl’s life, my heart broke open and I understood the meaning of bereavement. I have also experienced an icredible wave of love, as powerful as nothing I have felt before. It seemed like too much to bear, and it made everything else meaningless. Until then, I didn’t truly realize that love does not shield from pain, because there is nothing to be done in the face of death. That those you love are not yours to keep. That sometimes, babies die. Yes, my intellect knew these notions to be true, but to have that truth settle in my heart was nothing alike.

In those moments, I tried to recall whatever I could from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. About a year ago, I think, I pored over its mythical descriptions of the passage of the soul and the advice to those left alive. I remembered the souls floating through bardo, the false heavens and the nightmare realms. I imagined my baby girl’s tiny soul floating through clouds and muddy waters, sucked into a painfully distorted mouth of a daemon, like the ones I saw in Tibetan temples. Then I saw her slipping right back out, brushing against daemon fangs, bobbing along on her way, free of anger, sadness, longing.

As Tibetans would have it, I tried my best not to hold her back. I tried hard not to burden her with my despair. I assumed my grief and was there for her with a beaming heart and gratitude for every second we spent together. I didn’t want to let her go, but what I wanted didn’t really matter. There are no words.

I don’t always feel strong and I don’t have it all together. My life energy is very low. Caring about anything takes a big effort. Pema Chodron is a good companion for these wound-licking times. I remember getting home from the hospital and reading, tired and resigned:

Hopelessness means that we no longer have the spirit for holding our trip together. We may still want to hold our trip together. We long to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done.

And I knew it was true. I was not comforted, but there was relief in facing the truth. Anyway, no comfort is possible in such moments. Grief has a life of its own. I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t do anything about it but be kind. One of my friends, after hearing about baby’s passing, sternly admonished me to close this chapter of my life, march ahead, and never look back. Shut off the pain, stay strong, keep walking. But this is not the way I will have it. I will keep examining my own mind, and have faith in my own experience. There is nothing to shut off, throw out, forget. There is everything to embrace.

Yes, I got my share of suffering, but I do not feel like I have been wronged. I thought about it on my birthday, Christmas day, and New Year’s, when people who love me and wish me well expressed their hopes that better things were coming our way in 2016 and later on. That we would all live happily ever after. I agree, it would be nice not to lose anyone or anything dear to me anymore. But it will happen. Hopefully not too soon, because, at this point in time, I might just collapse, but eventually it will. I don’t want to fear it, though naturally I do. I want to say, ‘Just stop dying, you people, stop it, alright?’ – but that’s impossible. Pema has  something to say on this, too:

The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.

Doesn’t it go against the grain of everything we were ever taught? I find it fascinating, the way I want to deny it.

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.

I used to read this passage in relation to self esteem, but when death enters the picture, it still makes profound sense. That feeling of lack is perhaps the driving force behind human actions. Accepting lack as inevitable dissolves it. If this is the way it must be, then there is nothing lacking.

Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time – that is the basic message.

Amen.