Tao Te Ching, verses 74 and 75

To my friends, who fear the changing nature of life and the possibility of death.

Verse 74 [my interpretation]

Once you accept that all things change,
you can realise there is nothing you need to hold on to.
When you are not afraid of dying,
there is nothing you cannot achieve.

There has always been a lord of death.
Anyone who supposes themselves able to play the lord of death
is like an amateur who uses the tools of a master carpenter;
they are sure to cut their own hands.
(Death is an inevitable part of life. You cannot have one without the other.)

***

This goes out to my friends who have difficulty letting go of controlling others. I include myself among this number, and will strive to relinquish my opinion of “the right way” people “should” act.

 

Verse 75 [my interpretation]

When the taxes are too high,
the people suffer.
When the rulers are too controlling,
the followers lose faith in the leaders.

Let every action you do benefit others;
trust others to perfectly express the Tao,
and to do what they need to do
exactly when they need to do it.

You Are Not Your Body

Another blog post I wrote for the youth organisation Tune In Not Out.

***

What’s more important: who you are, or the way people see you? What do you value more: a healthy body that doesn’t look particularly “attractive”, or an “attractive” body that’s quite unhealthy? Although the answers these questions might seem obvious in isolation (generally speaking you’d want to pick the healthy body, right?), in this complex society we live in, they are not always easy to answer. We live in a world where we are pressured to maintain appearances, sometimes at the cost of our health. We might see this manifesting in choosing to wear a short dress on a freezing night, depriving ourselves of food in order to avoid putting on weight, choosing shoes that kill our feet but look fantastic, and other such markers of appearance before practicality. But when we struggle to lose weight or gain muscle, to appear taller or look curvier, what are we really trying to achieve?

The world is in a constant state of composition and decomposition. Every moment of the day, some of the cells in your body are dying, and new cells are being created to replace them. Almost every part of your body is literally being replaced every couple of months. And unfortunately, your body is going to break down and stop working one day: it’s part of the package deal of life. Why then do we cling so desperately to the image of something that is constantly changing? When you look at it like that, being attached to your body seems to go against the nature of life itself!

There is more to you than the body you’re inhabiting. Quick exercise: point to your consciousness/soul/identity. You can’t, right? Who you are, your sense of “self” does not exist inside the brain, or the heart, or anywhere in the body. The brain might be a tremendously complex information processor, but there are many schools of thought (including the neurosciences) that believe that the “mind” (consciousness/soul/identity etc.) exists separate from the brain. Buddhists believe in reincarnation- that your body is like a car. You own it for a number of years, taking good care of it so that it will last a long time, but you can get into accidents or it can break down with age. It’s nothing to worry about: the driver can get out of the car and buy a new car when the old one stops working.

Taoists believe that behind the material world there is an immaterial world that cannot be seen, touched or sensed physically. Because the material world is in a constant state of destruction and renewal, life and death, yin and yang, only a fool would cling to it. The wise person instead realises that nothing that matters can ever be destroyed, and therefore lets go of his or her attachment to the material world. Personally, I believe that all life is fuelled by energy and that when we die the energy is transformed, not dissipated. Basically, I believe that who I am is not what I am, and that the who is infinitely more important than the what.

At its essence, the body is just a bag of flesh to help you move through the world! In Paul Jennings’ story “Clear as Mud”, the people of the world get infected by a strange disease that turns their skin transparent. Imagine that when you looked at your best friends and loved ones you could see their organs- it’s hard to look “attractive” when your bowels are showing! And that’s exactly what our bodies are: meatbags. But what wonderful meatbags they are! From my studies of human bio, I have been constantly amazed at the incredible complexity of an organism made of billions of unique cells, functioning in remarkable harmony. The closer I look at the human body, the more awed I become at its genius and miracle. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s constantly changing, and that as we grow older it deteriorates. Rather than resisting this change and being obsessed with physical appearance, it’s so much healthier to focus on being a good person rather than a good looking person.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel good about the way you look, or that you shouldn’t try to look attractive to other people. You’re on the earth, and you have a body, and you may as well enjoy it. Humans are social creatures and are drawn to connect with one another. But a friend of mine once said “Looks draw people in, but personality makes them stick around.” There’s more to you than just your appearance!

And besides, “attractiveness” is highly subjective, and there is no perfect model of a human being. TV, magazines, our friends, our societies, and the world in general might seem to promote a particular type of look or style, but in the end it’s all artifice. There’s no reason to take my word for it, but please trust me when I say that your idea of “attractive” is not universal. For every part of your body that you want to change, I guarantee that there is someone in the world who wants you to stay exactly as you are because they love you. And really, if someone is going to judge you for the way you look, they have such a shallow insight into what’s really important and they’re really not worth your time and company. If you’re lucky, you’ll have people in your life who see you exactly as you are, without veneer or facade, and who accept you unconditionally. If you don’t have any such people in your life, start looking, because it’s not worth lying to yourself and others in order to feel accepted.

So next time you get on your bathroom scales, or you suck in your stomach when you take your shirt off, or you pick clothes that show off a certain amount of skin, remember that what you are is not the same as who you are. There’s more to you than just your body, and once you accept that, how wonderful it becomes to be alive on the earth!

Stay healthy everyone- I hope you’re all around to enjoy life for many years to come.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 72: Inspiration and awe

This particular verse resonates with me having recently returned from gashuku. I can recall a particular instance towards the end of the week where I was walking through the bushland, waiting for one of the seniors to arrive. I looked down and saw a tiny red flower with small tendrils extending from its core, and upon each of these tendrils was a tiny drop of dew. The effect was quite startling- it was as if the flower were wearing a circlet of diamonds. Shortly after I found a plant that had been covered in a fine layer of spiderwebs, as if a soft cotton mat had been spread across the ground for some kind of small animal to sleep on. Another time, I was about halfway up a mountain when I stopped and turned around. The sun had just risen and was casting golden rays through the murky clouds, illuminating lush and verdant fields throughout the countryside. I took a deep breath and felt humbled that be alive, with the great privilege of bearing witness to the beauty of the world. It seems so unusual now to be bored or disinterested in a world that is so full of wonder.

In another instance, the wind upon the mountainside was so powerful and unpredictable that it was difficult to walk in a straight line. I looked out into the storm and laughed, because it seemed absurd that I, one tiny, fleshy little person, thought I could possibly stand against the powers of Gaia. Humans have become deeply arrogant by supposing themselves the most important organisms on earth. How little we are compared to the great powers of nature!

Verse 72 [my interpretation]

When people forget how awe-inspiring the world is,
disaster strikes.
When people do not humble themselves before the powers of nature,
greater power arises.

Do not place limits on yourself.
Do not reject the life you were born into.
Do not resist the natural course of your life.
In this way, you will never have cause to be bored with life
as you recognise all the wonder around you.

Thus the sage knows who he is
without being egotistical.
He loves himself,
but places no extra value on his life.
He values what is within to what is without.

Some SARK wisdom, flinging your way

Whoa, I’m really going into blogging overdrive mode! I’ve been writing blog posts every day for a few days in a row now! It’s quite satisfying, actually. And I’m getting a better sense of just how long it takes to write a blog post (around 1.5 hours, more if Beth and I do any editing before submission.)

 

Anyway, Bethwyn recently sent me an email which she thought she could work on applying more to her own life. The author, SARK, is a brilliant and inspirational woman, and I found this article to inspire me too. It reminds me of a story I heard about the Dalai Lama…

There was a reporter who followed the Dalai Lama around for several months, trying to get a sense of the man and record some of his most important lessons. He was surprised to observe that, wherever the Dalai Lama went, people would give their belongings to him. He was even more surprised to see that the Dalai Lama took them, even when he had no use for worldly possessions. One day, in a small, poor village, an elderly woman came up to him and offered him a plain brown skirt that had seen some wear, yet was in better condition than most of the other clothes she currently had on her. The Dalai Lama accepted it with a smile, and the reporter snapped, unable to tolerate this selfish greed any longer. “Why are you accepting goods from people who clearly need them more than you? That woman is obviously giving her best clothes to you, and besides, it’s a skirt- you can’t even wear it! ” The Dalai Lama paused for a few seconds saying nothing, and as the silence drew on the reporter heard the echoes of his words. He felt ashamed at his outburst, and that he had spoken out of anger. Then the Dalai Lama said “You’re quite right. I was planning on taking the skirt to another village and giving it to someone else who needed it. But that woman needed to give me her skirt more than she needed to wear it.”

It is such a kind act to allow others to practice kindness!

 

***

 

Many people- including me- value their “independence” highly and just never want to “be a burden” to anyone. We fear dependence and haven’t learned to develop interdependence.

Most people wait until they’re really ill, old or incontinent before practicing receiving. While these are all great times to practice receiving, it leaves out a whole lot of experiences earlier, in the middle, along the way, and denies
other people opportunities to be generous.

I began my true receiving practice by noticing when there were opportunities for people to give to me, and accepting it-without conditions.

This is more challenging than it appears. Especially the “without conditions” part.

My younger brother was visiting with his wife and some people were coming to visit us, and he offered to make eggs.

I said, “Great, thanks!”

He asked if there was a special way I wanted him to make the eggs and I hesitated before answering and then remembered my updated receiving practice and said,

“Whatever way you make them is great.”

He looked very surprised and began making the eggs. I was reading the paper and periodically looked up at him while he was cooking.  I noticed that the egg mixture was spilling over the edges of the pan and burning on to the stove. I noticed that he probably hadn’t used enough eggs for the amount of people coming…. Then I stopped noticing and just read the paper.

The next time I looked up, I saw that a paper bag had caught on fire and was floating through the air in flames! And I could tell that he hadn’t yet seen this.

So I just calmly said,
“Fire”
And resumed reading my paper.

He gasped in shock and shouted,
“Oh my god, fire!!!”
And quickly put it out.

Then he looked at me to see my reaction and I looked up and said,

“When will the eggs be done?”

I felt that I’d graduated to a new level of receiving, and so did he.

One tiny action for you is to notice new opportunities to practice receiving and ask yourself:

How could I practice receiving differently, without conditions?

Truly,
Susan (aka SARK)

 

Transform Thyself

My Great Life Letter is beautifully published by

PlanetSARK

Copyright 2012 SARK. All rights reserved. Even though we are not.;-)
Permission is happily granted to reproduce, copy or distribute this Great Life Letter, so long as this copyright notice and full information attributing SARK are attached. enJOY! You are an adorable little button of a person.

PAWS

There’s a small vegan cafe in Perth called PAWS (People and Animal Welfare Society). I’ve eaten there many times, thoroughly enjoying their vegan products, hot food and amazing raw cakes. One afternoon as I was having lunch with my friends, the man who was serving the food handed us the green juice we’d ordered with a smile and an utterly sincere wish for us to have a nice day. His love and kindness radiated from him like a beacon, and it suddenly struck me that he was a volunteer. I instantly saw myself in the same role, able to provide the same service with warmth and kindness in my heart. I talked to the manager about volunteering, and after a slight hiccough from forgetting about gashuku, I organised to come in this morning!

The day didn’t start off that well. I once again underestimated how long I can dawdle, and by the time I left to catch the train Mum had to drop me at the station so I wouldn’t miss it. Twenty minutes later when I got to Perth, I realised that I’d left my umbrella at Kenwick. I talked to the transit guards and they sent someone to look for it, but the search turned up negative. I left my contact details with TransPerth so they’ll call me if it turns up, but I think it rather unlikely. That’s okay. I know that umbrellas get lost all the time, so you might say it was inevitable, or that it’s in the nature of umbrellas to get lost. Just like every glass has a crack in it that will one day shatter it, I think every umbrella is destined to either be lost or broken. Besides, the next few days are going to be rainy, so it’s good that I was able to pass on my quality umbrella to someone who needed it. It also gives me an excuse to use my ninjato umbrella more, so no harm done really! And perhaps I might even be able to justify purchasing that dream umbrella I’ve wanted for years…

Arriving at PAWS late, Hadley, the manager was already preoccupied interviewing someone else. At his signal, I headed inside the cafe, sat on a couch and started writing tuide drills in my budo no hon– the journal I keep about the martial arts. About an hour and a half passed as I busily scribbled away, surprised at how much I had to write and how much more I had yet to go. I figured Hadley would call me when he had a moment, so I ordered a delicious raw lunch with some exquisite raw tiramisu (though after enjoying the first bite, my stomach started hurting from the sugar and coffee- I think I’ll just have to stop eating cake entirely T_T). It seemed Hadley never had a spare moment so I finally decided I’d take the initiative and see if he still needed me. He said “Yeah man, you’ve filled out the form?” I answered in the affirmative, and he said I could start right now, leading me into the kitchen to dry dishes.

It wasn’t glorious work, but I was grateful to be helping an organisation I loved for values I supported. The tiny kitchen had four other people in it, and though I was nervous, I made myself as useful as possible. I I got to know them all over the two and a half hours I washed dishes and cut up beetroot. My idealism quickly began to fade as I realised that, apart from the awesome serving staff, the other volunteers were not good-hearted vegans who wanted to give back to the community. They are all “obliged” to volunteer in exchange for government income support, and PAWS was an easy place to work. Two of the ladies spent an extra twenty minutes on lunch and snuck back in, hoping Hadley wouldn’t see them. They then hung around the kitchen watching us work, and when told to find something to do, walked out into the cafe, pretended to look for dishes to wash, and then came back down to the kitchen. I felt like turning to them and saying “Well, you’re here now, and you have to be here, so you may as well enjoy opening your heart to the work and serving others. You might find it much more pleasurable than complaining and counting the minutes away.” I thought it would be pretentious to come into a new environment where they’d been working for months and tell them what to do. Plus… They didn’t seem ready to hear it. I think they (and everyone else in the kitchen) would have just turned on me, because while they were at different levels of servitude and humbleness, I don’t think any of them were doing it because they enjoyed it. Plus I learned about their trouble in high school, their teen pregnancies, their opinions of the police and other such gossip. It was quite disheartening.

I haven’t lost all hope though. No, the company isn’t great, but I’m going to go back and volunteer on another night of the week when no one else wants to work. I imagine that the remaining staff will be dedicated and loving and enjoyable company, though I’m open to the idea of being proved wrong.

I’m a little worried that I’ve made a mistake in working for a place I love. It’s like the error of meeting your childhood hero- when you learn their flaws, you lose faith in the ideals that you saw in them. I fear that by overexposure to the smells and tastes of the food I’ll appreciate it less. And that by creating negative associations with the staff there, I’ll end up not enjoying being at the cafe. We’ll see how things go, but for now… Fingers crossed!

Tao Te Ching, Verse 71: Living without sickness

This verse rings especially true to me after my adventures on gashuku. Having slept well, eaten well, exercised well, interacted socially well, and found a high level of spiritual health over the course of a week in the mountains, returning to city life has been challenging. I’ve instantly noticed the effects sugar has on my body, and I’ve come to understand my sleeping patterns much better. Good health is surprisingly easy to maintain, but with the trappings of the city life, it’s easy to get bogged down. I aspire to maintain a light and healthy life, wherever I am!

Verse 71 [my interpretation]

Knowing you are ignorant is wisdom.
Ignorantly knowing is folly.

Only when you choose to be healthy will your sickness disappear.
The sage knows that a healthy mind keeps a healthy body,
and she has no tolerance for unhealthy thought and action.
Yet she also knows that it is the nature of the body to experience pain and illness,
and she accepts them when they come.
She knows that what happens to her body need not affect her spirit.

Knowing these secrets is the key to good health.

Gashuku 2012

Once or twice a year, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts holds a gashuku– a (mini) weekend or (full) week-long period of training in the wilderness. This year’s week-long gashuku was held at the Stirling Ranges, and was an incredible and memorable experience.

My first encounter with Wu-Wei Dao was mindblowing, and I learned techniques, applications and concepts that had never before occurred to me. This was my second gashuku (not including my own attempt at holding a training camp in Beth’s back yard), and I’d been training with them for over a year, so I had a good idea of what to expect. Our schedule ran something like this: every morning at 6am, we got up for some taiji, went for a half hour run, honed our basic techniques, had cold showers, ate cereal, drank tea and mused over life and the warrior way, trained, had lunch, trained somemore, practiced with weapons, did yoga, showered, had dinner, and slept before 10pm. To be perfectly honest, this gashuku seemed much less enchanting and difficult than my first one- I put this down to knowing what to expect and being familiar with the syllabus, rather than being thrown in the deep end in a whole new system like last time. And I think I’ve grown a lot, physically and spiritually- I still endured all the same bruises, sorenesses, cuts, cold, hunger, tiredness, but it bothered me less- they were just part of ordinary life, and not worth drawing attention to. I think, as a whole, I weathered the training quite well- perhaps too well. Aside from those agonising morning runs, I didn’t really push myself to my limit as much as I expected I would have had to- perhaps I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn’t go all out because I needed my energy to last for a whole day. Whatever the reasons, the afternoons seemed to be spent refining technical skills, and only the mornings really challenged my spirit.

One thing we did quite a lot of was mountain climbing. The Stirling Ranges are a mountain retreat, and in the end, I (and a handful of others who elected to do the optional climbs) scaled Mount Trio, Mount Hassel, Ellen Peak, Baker’s Knob, Pyongerup Peak, and the Third, Second and First Arrows. This was one of the major aspects of the gashuku, and we had been forewarned that we would spend a day, a night, and most of another day trekking through the mountains. In essence, we rose early with our packs bulging with water, rations and survival gear, and set out across the mountain range, climbing each summit as it came.

In the many hours we spent trudging along rocky paths, pushing our way through vegetation, scrambling up beds of scree, slipping on dewy rocks, sliding down sandy banks, squelching through mud and scaling cliff faces, I found that I was never bored. Apart from the attention required to keep a good pace, the process of being on a journey that would take hours, to reach a cave in the mountains somewhere before dusk, was quite romantic. It was like something out of Eragon or Game of Thrones, and it was very satisfying to see our destination inch closer hour by hour, through our persistent effort. I also discovered that I’m quite a good rock climber, and have no issues scaling near-vertical walls of stone with a heavy pack and uncertain footing.

The adventures of the day were more enjoyable than the night though: the “cave” we slept in was still subject to sudden and freezing wind, and as we were not allowed to bring sleeping bags (in order to make it fair for everyone- someone with a $200 sleeping bag would be more comfortable than someone with a $15 bag), it was a frigid and restless night. The survival bags we slept in very uncomfortable- they were essentially big plastic bags which trapped heat and moisture inside them. One of the (many) times I woke up during the night, I realised that the moisture trapped in the bag had soaked through my two pairs of socks to chill my feet. This triggered a sense of panic in me, because I once caught hypothermia from climbing a mountain in the rain and then going to sleep with wet clothes on. In my semi-conscious state, I leapt out of my survival bag and despaired that my only other pair of socks were damp with sweat, so I ended up sleeping in my slightly less-damp hiking boots. I also had some intense stomach pain that night, and despite my resolution to “hold it” until we got back to the retreat, I ended up going out into the darkness with my head torch and a roll of toilet paper, and digging a hole in the bush. It was nightmarish and terrifying (I prayed to God that nothing would bite me), yet I have to admit, it felt surprisingly natural- it’s an act that humans have done for millenia, and it was a peculiarly grounding experience.

The morning after was also pretty exciting. We were so high up that we were in the clouds, so all we could see was white mist all around us. Furthermore, WA had a particularly nasty cold front throughout the week, so drizzles of rain and relentless wind challenged us at every step. I could literally lean off the mountainside at a 30 or 40 degree angle and have the wind support me. It was quite thrilling to try and climb down a rock face when the wind would change directions suddenly and push you back a step when you intended to walk forwards. We made it down eventually, hunched over and lowering ourselves to sit on each rock as it came.

Other challenges we faced included Kancho’s ceaseless pranks (read: lies). On the drive down, I called him to ask where we were meeting for lunch, and he told me that everyone else was already at the retreat and I was hours behind schedule. Little did I know that this was one of the many “Kanchoisms” I would fall for. My complete trust in all people was abused again and again as I was conned into thinking that we were climbing the mountain with only 500ml of water and a muesli bar. That we were taking imported Himalayan dried apples in our ration packs. That Bruce Lee died from ingesting marijuana. That we needed to camouflage the car with leaves and branches so that the Ranger didn’t fine us for parking illegally in a firebreak. That we had a compulsory one hour nap after lunch in order to rest our bodies. Or that Basil Lupis, Pinjarra’s top DJ, would be at a local cafe for their annual bootscoot/hootenanny. And those were just the ones I fell for- he spun all kinds of crazy tales about fancy French menus, mosquito beards, gold coin donations in the cave and other such nonsense. When Kancho told me that the kitchen tent had blown away, I finally said “I don’t believe you!” As it turned out, he wasn’t lying. Having been betrayed so many times in the past week, even when I asked him if he was being serious, I’m still having some residual issues telling fact from fiction.

Also, I’m a little sad to say that I failed the 30 Day Cold Shower Challenge. Although I had committed to it on a whim (just because Rob was doing it), I finally caved and had a hot shower one night after a freezing session of yoga. And then again after we returned from the mountain, having spent the night shivering. Although the challenge is officially over, I’m still going to continue taking cold showers to remind me of the  discipline I forged, and to treasure the exquisite experience of having running water.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I learned a lot about life during that week in the mountains. It took time, but eventually my mind began to quiet and my thoughts began to slow. I stopped caring so much about always doing things and keeping busy, and I started enjoying just sitting down at a table. It’s hard to imagine that mindstate now, but after the night in that cave, I was so happy to return to the two-person tent I was sharing with Rob. I had enough room to roll out a sleeping bag, and I could even keep two bags nearby. It was luxury to have so much space for me and my few possessions! Coming back to the city was overwhelming at first- I was really confused by the first traffic light that stopped me- it seemed to strange for someone to tell me when I needed to stop. I knew how to drive, I knew how to let other cars in, yet some outside system was regulating my driving for me. It seemed so unnecessary. It got even more confronting to see a McDonalds, a billboard, a shopping complex… As Rob put it, I instantly wanted chips, a new bicycle and a better tent. I didn’t need any of that stuff, but somehow being around the advertising made it normal to want it. It was as if I had been temporarily freed from a great and unnecessary illusion: the idea that “stuff will make you happy”. What a ridiculous notion! Yet it’s what our society survives on. It’s what our society thrives on. My time in the mountains taught me how little I need to survive, and more importantly, to be happy. Yeah, I missed watching Mulan or playing Resident Evil, but I wouldn’t have wanted to plug a TV into my tent to go with my fully sick muffler. Being disconnected from facebook, text, email and phone was ridiculously liberating- it gave me an enormous sense of independence. Why would anyone want to be so hyperconnected all the time? It boggles the mind.

Having spent a day back in this material world, it’s been confronting, irritating and a little unsatisfying. I just want to grab everyone I meet by the shoulders, give them a good hard shake and say “Everything you’re worried about is unimportant! Get some perspective!” I know that I can’t maintain this spiritual revelation forever and I’ll soon forget the experiences I had, but for a little while at least, I’d like to keep going to bed early and rising with the sun. I’d like to keep eating healthy snacks and in moderate amounts. (The first three things I ate when I got back to the city were Pringles, hot chips and ginger ale. I went on to have birthday cake later that evening, and after lunch the next day I felt like having chocolate to cleanse my pallet. I was a little disgusted that I could slip into old habits so easily after all I’d experienced, and perhaps more importantly, it made me physically ill to eat so much sugar.) I’d like to stop spending money on material goods that won’t change the quality of my life by one iota. Life is so, so simple: eat, sleep, and enjoy things while you still can. Yet we fill it with so much crap and wonder why we’re miserable. Just for a little while, I would like to be like the spiritual masters of old and live simply, kindly and humbly.

So that was gashuku! Some things you only learn by heading out into the wilderness and training for eight hours a day. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested. Can’t wait to get back to training tomorrow. Night everyone!