Monday, October 28, 2013

Animal Wisdom

I asked once in a blog post about what animal you would be if you were an animal. [I would be a wolf.] But today, I’d like to raise a different kind of animal question.

Is there an animal that has some special significance to you? For me, the praying mantis has caught my attention this year. As some of you know, my word of the year is Wait. I had not thought of this word in connection to an animal, but the image of a praying mantis kept popping up here and there, so I started looking a little closer.

The mantis is described as an ambush predator because it gets its food mainly by being still and waiting for something to come close enough for it to attack quickly and seize its prey. Patience is key.

Beyond the obvious connection to waiting, the mantis symbolizes stillness and inner peace, insight and divine wisdom. It is the sacred symbol of God to the African Bushmen, or San people.

So these days I have a little glass praying mantis sitting with me as I meditate. It is a reminder to be patient, alert in the stillness, waiting until it is time to act.

What about you? Any special animal speaking to your spirit these days?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Touching the Earth

Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so is man rooted to the land. ~Joseph Conrad

In Greek mythology, Antaeus was the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Gaia, mother earth. As long as he was in contact with the ground, his mother gave him strength to beat anyone in battle. He vanquished all foes until Heracles figured out his secret and held him in the air, rendering him weak and easily dispatched.

In tai chi and kung fu, our teacher repeatedly reminds us to root through our feet into the ground. All our power comes from our connection to the earth. I got a memorable demonstration of that today. Our teacher was showing us how much energy can be generated by “sinking” into our root. Using me as his partner, he stood in front of me with his open palm facing me, his fingers lightly resting on my chest.

Without withdrawing his hand, he made only the slightest visible move, sort of a dropping of the hips and a settling of the wrist. Power exploded from his hand. It felt like a horse had kicked me in the chest. I flew backwards across the room and landed unceremoniously on my behind. It surprised everyone, including, I think, the teacher, who ran to help me up and was very solicitous of me the rest of class.

As I’ve told people about my martial arts practice, it is a practice in humility! Beyond my wounded ego and derriere, though, I learned something today about the giving and receiving of energy.

On the giving side, it is abundantly clear to me that we are the most powerful when we are grounded. This is true whether we are talking about physical power or spiritual strength. When we are connected with an open channel to our source, by whatever name you want to call it (nature, God, chi, the universe), we are able to offer to others the energy that flows through us and out. People who manifest beauty, whether through art or love or martial arts or any other form, often speak of something coming through them rather than from them.

On the receiving side, the same is true. We are the least powerful when we try to block the natural flow of energy. Knowing what my teacher was about to do (even if I did not anticipate the degree of power), I braced myself to resist. I was not rooted, but rather rigid. Whatever harm I suffered was from my own resistance. Had I been able to stay fluid and rooted, his energy would have moved through me and back into the earth.

And what was my resistance but fear? Fear blocks energy. We can neither offer nor receive energy when we are stiff with fear. Fear uproots us because it disconnects us from the ground of the present moment, from the fluidity of our breath, from the loveliness and the lovingness of the universe.

How often in my life do I resist what is? How often do I get pulled from the perfection of the present moment into fearful thoughts? Yes, too often. So I’ll be back in class tomorrow, and I will ask for another demonstration. Because this is where my practice is, on the ground.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. ~Frank Herbert

related posts: Invest in Loss; Step Away from the Thought

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Baking Bread

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. ~Aristotle

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was a back to the land hippie. I lived in the mountains of northwest Montana, far from neighbors, with a view of Glacier National Park from the front porch of the little shack I called home. Without electricity or running water, life revolved around getting water from the spring nearby and wood for cooking and heat. I hiked miles through the woods with my dogs, and watched the big Montana sky. Life was good.

I prided myself on my self-sufficiency, learning about foods and medicines that grew wild all around me. I learned to cook on the wood stove and fixed some pretty tasty meals, if I do say so myself.

But baking bread was something I just couldn’t seem to master. I bought wheat from a farmer, ground my own flour with a hand cranked mill, and meticulously followed countless recipes. The hard loaves I produced were more useful as weapons or doorstops than for eating.

Finally a woman from a ranch in the next valley took pity on me. She invited me over one day to make bread. First, she taught me the right water temperature for activating the yeast. She taught me by having me put my hand in the water when it was just right. Then she added flour until the dough was ready for kneading. She didn’t measure anything. She just knew from experience. She had me feel the dough and knead it when it was just right.

At every step she had me looking, touching, poking, kneading, pressing, smelling, teaching me not by words in a book and precise measures, but by sight and feel, by the experience rather than intellect. The bread finally came out of the oven. Perfect. We sliced off steaming pieces and slathered them with home churned butter. I think I ate a whole loaf all by myself.

From that day on, I baked delicious bread, all kinds of bread. I never looked at another recipe.

Now I’m not saying that recipes are bad, and I certainly needed instruction, but I couldn’t learn how to bake bread until I could feel it.

Sometimes I look at all the books I have on my bookshelves about happiness, meditation, forgiveness, martial arts, mindfulness, grace, bring present. I’m looking at them right now, in fact. How many more books do I think I need?

Billionaire Rockefeller was once asked how much more money he thought he needed. Just a little more, he replied. I get that. Perhaps I need just one more book.

But I can’t read myself into inner peace unless I practice, just like you can’t read about running and then go run a marathon. I need to actually have the experience of meditating, forgiving, practicing martial arts, whatever. I need to feel the dough.

The doorbell rang just a few minutes ago. Oh good, my new book on tai chi just arrived.

Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired. ~Martha Graham

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I'm in Paradise

I went to lunch last week with two wonderful women. One I had known for years, and the other was new to me. As we were getting settled, our server stopped by with water. He made the perfunctory introduction and asked how we were doing. Fine, we said, in the usual response.

Then I asked him how he was doing. He lit up. “I’m in paradise,” he enthusiastically replied. We all stopped mid-menu-opening and looked up. Was he being sarcastic? I couldn’t read his face.

Our expressions must have suggested we needed further explanation, so he continued. “I’m alive and employed.” We must have looked even more doubtful about his sincerity, because he stopped pouring water and looked at us with his full attention. “I mean it,” he said simply, and moved on to other tables.

We three just looked at each other, aware that the universe had just treated us to lunch.

He who knows enough is enough will always have enough. ~Tao Te Ching

related post: Contentment: Priceless

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Neti, Neti

To organize is to destroy. ~Lao Tan, quoted by Thomas Merton in The Way of Chuang Tzu

“Neti, neti” is a Sanskrit expression from ancient Hindu texts. It can be translated as “Not this, not this.” The words are meant to express the inexpressible, what the Tao Te Ching calls the name that cannot be named, or the way that cannot be told.

We humans are dependent on language to think and to communicate, at least most of us are. The idea of something that is beyond linguistic representation can be unnerving. We like things labeled and properly categorized, from science to Tupperware containers in our freezers.

Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of faith. We choose one belief and reject another. We seek those who share the beliefs that we have chosen, and we form groups around these beliefs, excluding those who don’t share them. And then we argue, and even fight, to prove by might that we are right. Chogyam Trungpa called it spiritual materialism.

It’s so important to us to believe that we have chosen the right belief that we close our minds, and even our hearts, to thoughts and people who might threaten our inner security. We organize our faith until it’s safe and tidy. Until that which cannot be named or told is lost.

I just finished a book by three women – a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian. (A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walked into a bar.... No, that’s a different story.) These three women, who all lived in New York, were moved by the tragedy of 9/11 to begin a dialogue, a dialogue that was not safe or tidy. It entered the dark shadows of stereotypes and cliches, the Holocaust and the West Bank, the cross and jihad.

They called their group Faith Club, which is also the title of their book. And unlike Fight Club, the first rule of which is not to talk about Fight Club, they talked not only to each other but to their friends, families, and faith communities about Faith Club.

And what they found was their deep and true faith, not in a set of beliefs, but in the openness of their hearts and the willingness of their spirits, in the humility of not having all the answers, and in the grace of knowing that the answers weren’t so important after all.

If you can understand it, it’s not God. ~St. Augustine

related posts: Tapping of the Heart; The Way of No Way