Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Five

What I love about Daoism is the comfort and reassurance it offers, that we can find ways to flourish as vulnerable, limited beings in challenging environments. There are patterns and processes that we can apprehend and follow, and that support our lives. There is a way of moving in rhythm with those unfoldings. It requires flexibility and sensitivity that anyone can cultivate. The movement itself isn’t hard at all. 

What’s hard is the timing. 

Work at things before they come to be; 

Regulate things before they become disordered.

A tree whose girth fills one’s embrace sprang from a downy sprout…

People often ruin things just when they are on the verge of success. (64)

I’m so grateful for the teachers who have shared with me what they know about working with time. It is such a demanding and rewarding practice!

Harmony in the environment, in music, among others, and even within the body isn’t just about individual elements working well together, but especially about those elements working well together in time with each other. 

What is this moment calling for? It might be very different from just a moment before. We’re always stepping through thresholds not in being but in becoming. I’m coming back to contraction and expansion, and breath. What happens in the gap between an inhale and an exhale? Why would anyone want to force that, and yet we do all the time.

Life doesn’t care whether you flow with it or fight against it – it just continues unfolding. And at the same time it offers deep nourishment to those who are ready to receive it as it is, in the rhythm it’s offered. 

I believe it’s enough to come into attunement, over and over, with what’s offered, free of expectations. And it’s so hard to just do that! It’s constant, unrelenting work – this becoming less of a worker. This stripping away what isn’t real to get to what is. This cultivating and using all our ways of knowing (imagination, emotion, meaning making, movement, sensation) only to arrive at openness. 

Do we choose our ancestors or do our ancestors choose us? As a white American woman who practices within a tradition that isn’t mine to claim, I’m not talking about genetic ancestry, but rather ideas and knowledge that were meant to be shared and whose cultural origins command my deep respect and gratitude. 

I’m also talking about all we have in common as creatures among “myriad creatures” and why some teachings resonate more with some and other teachings resonate more with others. Where does that variation in resonance come from? We all breathe. We all think and feel and move, even if those can look very different from one person to another. Water is something we all have in common. “In all the world, nothing is more supple or weak than water; / Yet nothing can surpass it for attacking what is stiff and strong.” (78) 

We all thrive when we are moving in time with all the various cycles happening in and around us, and we all struggle to submit to those cycles. “That the weak overcomes the strong and the supple overcomes the hard, / These are things everyone in the world knows but none can practice.” (78) 

Maybe there are correct times for ideas like filial piety, and correct responses to unavoidable calamities, like conflict. “And so when swords are crossed and troops clash, the side that grieves shall be victorious.” (69)

Who chooses the right time for paths to cross? I take comfort in not knowing, and in having far more questions than answers, and in returning to the practice as much as I can. 

The clearest Way seems obscure;

The Way ahead seems to lead backward;

The most level Way seems uneven;

Highest Virtue seems like a valley;

Great purity seems sullied;

Ample Virtue seems insufficient;

Solid Virtue seems unstable;

The simple and genuine seems fickle;

The great square has no corners;

The great vessel takes long to perfect;

The great note sounds faint;

The great image is without shape.

The Way is hidden and without name. 

Only the Way is good at providing and completing. (41)

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