Imagine

Autumn Time

Fall is traditionally a time of change as the world around us inexorably transitions from a steamer to a freezer. But I’m ready for some steadiness and stability after a summer packed over the top. 

How can we invite stillness into a season of transformation? What has the frantic pace of your summer delivered that you’d like to keep around, sit with, leisurely explore?

It’s maybe a little ironic that I’ve recently (re?)discovered for myself the health benefits of — wait for it — regular appointments with an acupuncturist who genuinely cares about my wellbeing!!! Those of you who have incorporated that into your lives: why didn’t you tell me???

Seriously, try it if you haven’t lately, and spread the word — acupuncture is a game changer.

All of that is truth mixed with playfulness, and that might be the best way to describe the other new steadinesses I want to share with you: 

I’m practicing in a beautiful new space, at the Darling Den in St. Paul. The address is 882 Seventh St. W, Suite 3. It’s designed to be a respite, luxurious with both space and coziness. If you haven’t been in yet, I’m looking forward to welcoming you there. 

Online booking is once again available! You can use this link: or, as always, by texting 720-612-9788 or responding to this email to schedule.

Good friends, of course, can be a source of constancy over time, and it was a delight to see the photos my friend Tejas made recently. They mark the office move as well as a moment of shifting understanding about who I am and how I’ve always been, so I’m sharing a few. 

If you’ve read this far in another of my long letters, I’m holding space for you to define restfulness within the stream of changing seasons that is your life. May the best of who you are be welcomed with love and comfort into its fullness not just once, but ongoingly, along with time. 

From the perfect power or infinite nature of God… all things… have necessarily flowed, or are always following from the same necessity; just as from eternity to eternity it follows from the nature of a triangle that its three angles are equal to two right angles.

– Spinoza

Summertime is for Expansion!

First, the most photogenic news: Our little family has expanded to include two bunny brothers! Luca says they’re sweeties from heaven and I don’t disagree. If you need more cuteness in your life, you can follow them on instagram @bunnies_breaking_rules.

two baby bunnies sharing a piece of hay, a brindle lop with a white mark on his face on the left and a golden lion head on the right
Meet Popcorn and Pendleton, h/t Mark Miller for photo

Then, the most clinically relevant news: I’m adding Thursday hours at a beautiful location in St. Paul! Seriously, make an appointment with me there just to check out the waiting room, which feels like you’re inside an encaustic painting. The walls! are coated! with beeswax!! It’s like wrapping all your senses in luxury, and I want that for each of you. And the space in Minneapolis continues to be wonderful – what fortune to be able to offer both locations!

Finally, if you have followed along with my philosophy notes and ever thought you might be interested in something similar, I have something for you! I’m organizing a group to read and discuss the Ethics by Benedict Spinoza. This is a beautiful and highly original and not easy work, and I’m so delighted to explore and discuss it! We will meet Fridays at 1pm Central starting July 8. Please email if you’re interested in joining.

I’ve been especially happy with my work lately, and grateful for the connections and conversations we can make together. My hope for the future rests in deepening understanding that’s rooted in our bodies which are part of the world. Cultivating this is moving toward wholeness, which is healing. Let’s embrace each opportunity to understand more deeply with open arms – expansive! 

Spring Exhortation

There is a place where the flow of your environment and your inner impulses converge, and this is where you’ll find the next right step for you. 

I’m just writing to encourage you all to listen a little more to your inner impulses, open your senses a little more intentionally to the space around you, and respond to that information today.

Without overthinking it, this is my working model for developing wisdom, or the capacity to use what you know to live well. 

Whatever capacity we have for clear thinking and agency can be expanded or contracted by where we choose to place our attention. 

And if you’re going to attend to any question at all, what is more beneficial than to examine how to identify and realize a good life?

Choosing to avoid this question has negative consequences for your body/mind/heart/spirit system and for the world, as well. So please, orient carefully to your surroundings, listen a little more to your inner impulses, and let your movements be informed by something truer than destructive social expectations. 

Imagine childlike trust in your own body — your home! — but with the grounded wisdom of a caring adult. A return which is more valuable than what was lost.

Reach out for support if that feels right. Imagine asking the kinds of questions that result in more peace, from the inside out.

News! I finished Repetition by Kierkegaard and the Apology by Plato (major inspirations for these thoughts today), and I’m working my way through the Meno and, as always, MORE George Eliot and Søren. Newsletter frequency will probably decrease, but who knows? I enjoy connecting with you all, after all. 

I am stocked up on herbs for GI upset, which is the latest unhappy set of symptoms going around, with and without a covid diagnosis. Get some to keep in your medicine cabinet to fend off what the ancient Chinese physicians poetically dubbed Sudden Turmoil (!).

Ancient Chinese Philosophy Wrap-up

Part Ten – Final Segment

As we close out this series on Confucian and Daoist philosophy, there’s one question that keeps scratching at the edges of each reading for me: What happens when we try to apply any of this to our complicated, fragmented, 21st century lives? Does it hold up, and what does it hold, especially at scale? As a very incidental observer of global politics, it’s helpful for me to compare the functionality of China and Taiwan through this lens.

In China, President Xi Jinping’s expressed admiration for Confucius’ teachings has been well-documented, and the influence can be seen in his emphasis on morality and each citizen’s indebtedness to society. Confucian values are evident in his apparent intentions to rule with both benevolence and absolute, undiluted power. The corresponding questions around human rights mirror the disconnect I’ve noted in both The Analects and Mengzi: Are some people somehow more capable or deserving of making good choices for themselves and others? To what do we attribute that supposed capacity, when there are so many circumstances and influences in our lives that are beyond our control? 

Confucian thought simply doesn’t allow for any measure of personal agency beyond just doing your best within the strict confines of whatever your lot happens to be, and it tends to reinforce stratifications among social positions. To be clear, the idea that the opportunity to live comfortably should be privatized is a utopian vision held by those in power: it is clearly not liveable for the majority of people, and requires government monopolies on violence while clinging desperately to the hope that those in power will provide for those who aren’t, with little to no recourse if (when) rulers choose to be tyrants instead. On the other hand, when a nation is lucky enough to have benevolent rule, the superficial circumstances of its people as a whole do improve substantially, and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has improved the lives of billions of people. The levels of censorship and constraint that accompany these improvements don’t seem sustainable, though, because “In all things, the Way does not want to be obstructed, for if there is obstruction, there is choking; if the choking does not cease, there is disorder; and disorder harms the life of all creatures.” (Zhuangzi 140)

But reading The Daodejing and Zhuangzi (especially the outer chapters, which may not have been written by Zhuangzi) can feel unrealistic, too. At one point, “The Perfect Man” is said to be able to “walk under water without choking, can tread on fire without being burned, and can travel above the ten thousand things without being frightened…[because he has grasped that] things have their creation in what has no form, and their conclusion in what has no change.” (Zhuangzi 122) This sounds great – who doesn’t want to be superpowered? – but it doesn’t match the reality most of us experience.  

Similarly, just the thought of choosing to rest and work less (a central tenet of Daoism) is met with fear and accusations of privilege in a world where the false and even paradoxical connection between success (aka financial wellbeing aka getting to choose how you spend your time) and hard work and even just earning the right to live is reinforced with increasing intensity from the time we’re babies being evaluated for developmental milestones while our parents scurry around playing Mozart and buying toys to turn us into perfect preschool geniuses. “It’s not realistic to just play and explore and enjoy being a human with this other tiny human,” people will half-scream while they schedule 19.5 minutes for Creativity Fostering Activities followed by Relaxation On Command.

That description sounds so sarcastic, but it comes from a place of deep compassion for anyone who might recognize part of themselves there. It comes from my training in classical Chinese medicine (rooted in Daoism) and my knowledge about the way trauma and stress are held -and healed!- in the body. How can I care as much as I do about the pain others are experiencing and not want to address the root causes in our society as I understand them? 

It’s disorienting and maybe even terrifying to believe that all one has to do is “Hold on to the great image and the whole world will come to you./ They will come and suffer no harm;/ They will be peaceful, secure, and prosperous.” (Daodejing 35) We can live up to that truth.

So it was with true amazement and relief that just this week I learned about Audrey Tang and her incredible success with digital democracy in Taiwan. Her emphasis on transparency and fun in public spaces has returned real-world results, such as one of the most successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, and ongoing expansion of trust among citizens and government officials in a country that ranks among the highest in the world for being bombarded with misinformation from outside its borders. 

In explaining her approach to creating effective internet spaces for democratic participation, she has quoted Chapter 11 from the Daodejing: “By adding and removing clay we form a vessel./ But only by relying on what is not there, do we have use of the vessel…/ And so, what is there is the basis for profit;/ What is not there is the basis for use.” 

I don’t know whether Audrey Tang can walk under water or atop fire, but her unconventional life and work are tangible proof that the world benefits from people who are more interested in empowering others than hoarding recognition and power for themselves. We don’t have to be perfect, as long as we’re continually moving toward better alignment with the way things really work (and therefore away from misguided attempts to control what we can’t control). If you’re interested, here are a few interviews/ talks she’s given – I hope they anchor you with hope and possibility as much as they have for me.

https://www.humanetech.com/podcast/digital-democracy-is-within-reach-rerun

https://www.wired.com/story/how-taiwans-unlikely-digital-minister-hacked-the-pandemic/

Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Nine – The Zhuangzi

In the Zhuangzi, there’s a story of a great oak tree who speaks to the carpenter in a dream. “As for me, I’ve been trying a long time to be of no use… how do you know I’m a worthless tree?” (60) The message is profoundly pro-life and anti-instrumentalist. What if we don’t need to be useful in this world? What if the fundamental fact of being alive – of existing – is enough? What if existence alone is enough to confer absolute value on anyone and anything?  

That’s a terrifying thought to entertain because it requires us to let go of so many categories we’ve established over time to know what is good and what isn’t. Moving in this direction is a step into darkness, where even the penetrating descriptiveness of language can’t always penetrate. Some things resist being known. Contrary to superstitions, these too are valuable – even crucial to living a good life (but are best explored with safe people). If it’s sunshine all the time, when do we rest and cool our minds, which tend to be overheated with thinking and explaining? Our unquestioning faith in the power of language to protect us from the darkness is part of what feeds our fear of the unknown, and Zhuangzi finds ways to undermine and play with language in every chapter. “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words and I want you to listen to them recklessly,” (42) he says, and also, “understanding that rests in what it does not understand is the finest. Who can understand discriminations that are not spoken, the Way that is not a way?” (40) “Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there?” (34)

He feels the same way about institutionalized morality. “The way I see it, the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are all hopelessly snarled and jumbled. How could I know anything about such discriminations?” (41) One thing I love about Zhuangzi is the gentleness with which he introduces these possibilities. He seems to understand how disorienting it can be to let go of all our boxes and analyses, so he uses playfulness and soothing imagery to soften the impact. “There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (38)

According to him, this world isn’t just a binary of subjects and objects, acting on each other or being acted upon. There is subjectiveness in everything, and when we lean into that collaborative attitude, life gets much easier. This is illustrated in the story of the cook who has carved up thousands of oxen and hasn’t needed to sharpen his knife for nineteen years.  “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began carving up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.” (46, italics mine) 

It’s not that our hero doesn’t think at all: “whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until – flop! The whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.” (46) It’s just that there is a recognition that thinking and reason only take us so far in our experience of the world and in our being virtuous in the world. There’s an emphasis on intuition and pre-rational knowing. 

Similarly, he’s not against feelings and emotions, but he recommends a way of being that isn’t ruled by emotions. “When I talk about having no feelings, I mean that a man doesn’t allow likes or dislikes to get in and do him harm. He just lets things be the way they are and doesn’t try to help life along.” (71) “And to serve your own mind so that sadness or joy do not sway or move it; to understand what you can do nothing about and to be content with it as with fate – this is the perfection of virtue.” (55)

So if we’re not ruled by thought and reason and we’re not ruled by emotions, what should be our primary source of information for decision making? It is the moment. “So he has no use [for categories], but relegates all to the constant. The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished.” (36) Zhuangzi tells us to follow the moment, to not try to avoid what is real, but to accept it. This is hard work, but not necessarily the hard work of an ascetic who denies or mutilates themselves in order to chase goodness – that is falling back on the fragmented view that there is something other – an object – to be achieved. Instead this is the middle way which requires ongoing focus and openness and ongoing opening and ongoing becoming. 

I think the fundamental project and shift that Zhuangzi is advocating for is a turn back to the recognition of absolute subjectivity outside ourselves. This takes an ongoing awareness that Kierkegaard would argue requires something like religious fervor – whatever you’re willing to check out from is whatever you’re willing to use instead of relating to with more integrity. Obeying rules and lists of expectations allows a person to check out from the work of truly being with the world, but it is a fragmented way to live. It is easier in the short term, but disconnects you from the world in the long term. In the same way that each of us has the choice to respond to the limitations of our bodies as they are now or be even more limited in the future by the results of ignoring those messages, we have that same choice in our relationships with the people and situations we encounter every day.   

Another thing I love about this book and this attitude toward life is the sense that it’s available to everyone. Each person has their own Way and will interpret the words differently (Zhuangzi is using language to point at the inadequacy of language, after all!), but the more each one of us can consciously respond to outer limitations with our inherent freedom and respect for the freedom of others, the less friction we will experience in relationships, and the safer the world will be for everyone. “[The tiger trainer] gauges the state of the tiger’s appetite and thoroughly understands its fierce disposition. Tigers are a different breed from men, and yet you can train them to be gentle with their keepers by following along with them. The men who get killed are the ones who go against them.” (58) 

If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher?

Ancient Chinese Philosophy (Plus!)

Part Eight

Well, I finished the Mengzi book and started reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It’s helped me clarify (again) that my whole project as a clinician and as a student of philosophy is about liberation. Where are the places within your mind-body-heart-spirit complex that feel stuck and frustrating, where you’d choose differently if you could? It’s an endlessly satisfying experience to help open up new options of thought, movement, experience, and – maybe most importantly – imagination.

Mengzi distinguishes between fate as an excuse for giving up or wrongdoing, and “proper fate,” which is beyond human control. “…someone who understands fate does not stand beneath a crumbling wall.” (Book 7A2.2)

We exist in a world with many limitations. Some of these are outside our control, but maybe not as many as we’ve been led to believe. My wish for you today and everyday is that you’ll give yourself some time to just imagine the kind of world you’d love to live in. Use all your senses and play with world-building. “The function of the heart is to reflect.” (Book 6A15.2) You’ve been generously loaned your magical heart for such a short time – how will you honor that gift?

The Dawn of Everything is a survey of the latest archaeological science, what it might mean, and a gentle inquiry into why it’s so hard for historians and social scientists to talk about those findings. There is strong evidence against the conventional story we’ve learned, that all humans everywhere are inexorably drawn on a linear path from primitive foraging to complex hierarchical systems. It’s a myth that centralized, cereal-based agriculture is the necessary foundation of any thriving society. There is strong evidence, instead, that for at least half of the 12,000 years that humans have existed on this planet, we have moved in and out of complex cities and federations, rich with art and knowledge, trying various modes of governance and living for centuries at a time in something that looks like sustainable, egalitarian peace and prosperity more than anything else. There’s evidence that the story of humanity can be playful and kinda boring and I’m here for it. 

Graeber and Wengrow talk about the basic forms of social liberty which one may actually put into practice: 1) the freedom to move away or relocate from one surroundings, 2) the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others, and 3) the freedom to shape entirely new social realities or shift back-and-forth between different ones. We live in a world that has been shaped to keep us from even knowing these freedoms are possible. What would change if we stepped out from under those crumbling walls and reclaimed them? 

“To fully fathom one’s heart is to understand one’s nature. To understand one’s nature is to understand Heaven. To preserve one’s heart and nourish one’s nature is the way to serve Heaven. To not become conflicted over the length of one’s life but to cultivate oneself and await one’s fate is the way to take one’s stand on fate.” (Book 7A1.1-3)

“Benevolence is the human heart and righteousness is the human path. To leave one’s path and not follow it, or to lose one’s heart and not know to seek for it – these are tragedies! If people lose their chickens or dogs, they know to seek for them. But if they lose their hearts, they do not know to seek for them. The Way of learning and inquiry is no other than to seek for one’s lost heart.” (Book 6A11.1-4)

Most of us need help seeking our lost hearts, looking at our snarls of conflicting beliefs, narratives, and survival impulses, and carefully disentangling ourselves. It can be done, and it’s essential work. I’m so grateful to be taking a stand on fate with many of you! 

We have no limits to our world. We’re only limited by our imagination.

-Bob Ross

Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Seven

Two-thirds of the way through this book, the example of moxa (4A9.5) is so helpful for me as an opening into Mengzi and his project. “Those today who desire to become King are like people who have been ill for seven years and seek three-year moxa. If they don’t start preparing it, they won’t get it before the end of their lives. If one does not set one’s will upon benevolence, to the end of one’s life one will have worries and shame, until one sinks into death and destruction.” 

I absolutely love moxa, which you probably already know. It’s true that if you have someone present with a seven-year illness, you can’t start curing and refining a three-year moxa for that patient now. And if you don’t have any already prepared, then you need to find other, perhaps less effective ways to mitigate the illness or slow it or bring comfort to that person who may not live to find the cure. Maybe some of what Mengzi advised was more about mitigation than about cure. Maybe he didn’t even realize or articulate that difference himself. And so we see this vacillation between putting bandages on a society beyond reform while yearning for something truly better. 
As he points out in 3A4.18, there are important differences in value between things made with skill and time, and things thrown together. “Things are inherently unequal. One thing is twice or five times more than another, another ten or a hundred times more, another a thousand or ten thousand times more. If you line them up and treat them as identical, this will bring chaos to the world. If a fine shoe and a shoddy shoe are the same price, will anyone make the former?” 

The same is true with relationships and social structures. Unfortunately, not all of Mengzi’s advice is of the quality to build a society where everyone flourishes, but of a palliative quality, helping to introduce some comfort into a system that is built for only a few to truly thrive. 

This is how I understand his unfavorable characterization of Shen Nong and Xu Xing in comparison to a Confucian teacher, Chen Liang. Shen Nong was a legendary emperor known also as the Divine Farmer, who is considered to be the father of classical Chinese medicine. He tested and introduced hundreds of substances into the materia medica. And he also discovered tea! Seriously, with that history, how can I agree with anyone who would argue with a follower of Shen Nong. Xu Xing promoted his teachings, which sound more in line with Daoism, saying a ruler shouldn’t store up treasures and food that the people might need, and that “the worthy plow with their subjects and then eat, having breakfast and dinner with them, and then ruling.” (3A4.3)
Mengzi’s response to Chen Xiang, who has chosen Xu Xing’s way over his Confucian father, Chen Ling, is to say, “Some labor with their hearts; some labor with their strength. Those who labor with their hearts rule others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others. Those who are governed by others feed others; those who govern others are fed by others. This is the righteousness common to the world.” (3A4.6) He goes on to describe the work of Yu under emperor Shun, channeling the Nine Rivers over the course of eight years. “Even if he wanted to farm, would he have been able to?” (3A4.7) With these changes and the cultivation of grain, “the people were nourished. The Way of the people is this: if they are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals.” (3A4.8) Later, Van Norden points out the paternalism rampant in Confucian thought, and this is a prime example.  

It is true that visionary leaders and planners have a place in society. It is possible that when people have been deprived not only of basic needs but also access to education and self-actualizing support, they might initially respond to comfort in antisocial ways. But rather than addressing the root causes of that behavior – namely poverty and unequal access to both education and leisure time – Mengzi’s solution is to slap on a surface-level treatment, and teach benevolence within an unequal system. His Way is very different from the Way of Daoism. It’s about maintaining outdated social norms and stratifications, rather than releasing those things in favor of a more natural social order.  

He never stops to answer why the work of an agricultural minister is more valuable than that of a farmer. Among clothing makers, we can see the difference in time and skill between garments made from silk vs hemp. One has more value than the other by weight perhaps, but if both types of clothing have their place in society, then both kinds of weavers are equally valuable. My main issue with Mengzi is that he really believes that some people possess more inherent value than others. His bigotry is laid bare as he couples the Central States of the north with genuine Chinese culture, and calls Chen Xiang, who is from the south, a “twittering southern uncivilized person.” (3A4.14)
At the same time, he’s right that in his society (and in ours), there are people at all levels who can’t be trusted with the wellbeing of others. And since there are more people in the lower classes, there are more lower class people who can’t be trusted (even if the percentages of representation among classes aren’t equal). We cannot live with absolute idealistic purity in such a society. His example of this is Chen Zhongzi, who, “in order to avoid eating anything obtained illicitly, he did not eat for three days, until his ears did not hear, and his eyes did not see… To fill out what Zhongzi is trying to maintain, one would have to be an earthworm.” (3B10.1,6)  

So maybe we tolerate a classist society with benevolent reforms temporarily, as in the poetic (and also condescending) line: “People turn toward benevolence like water flowing downward or animals running toward the wilds.” (4A9.3) Perhaps it’s the first step in a multi-generational project, but it shouldn’t be presented as the curative answer. 

Mengzi believes that “there is a Way for making oneself Genuine. If one is not enlightened about goodness, one will not make oneself Genuine. For this reason, Genuineness is Heaven’s Way. Reflecting upon Genuineness is the human Way.” (4A12.1) It’s a start toward the refinement of the three-year moxa, but just barely. I’m not sure exactly what that more curative medicine is – I think it’s a project that requires our collective education and imagination and, somehow, nonaction. 

Fancying nothing, learning not to know, electing not to interfere, [the sage] helps all beings become themselves.
Daodejing, Chapter 64

Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Six

We’ve switched back to Confucianism via Mengzi, and the contrast with Daoism is starker than ever. In the middle of Book 2A, there is a discussion of qi and will and having an unperturbed heart. He seems to be saying that if qi is cultivated correctly, then it will harmonize with the Dao and with righteousness. “One must work at it, but do not assume success. One should not forget the heart, but neither should one ‘help’ it grow.” (2A2.16a) 

This emphasis on work and on doing things correctly is, of course, in direct opposition to Daoism, and, I would argue, at cross purposes to Mengzi’s ultimate values. (2A8.3) Even the numbering structure of this collection of books, with each book broken into parts, and verses broken down into decimal points and even subcategories of those decimal points, seems overwrought. 

There’s such a focus on hierarchy. (2B2.6-2.9) Of course many things necessarily happen in a particular order, and it’s helpful to describe those: “Your will is the commander of qi. Qi fills the body. When your will is fixed somewhere, the qi sets up camp there. Hence, it is said, ‘Maintain your will. Do not injure the qi’…When your will is unified, it moves the qi. When the qi is unified, it moves your will. Now, running and stumbling have to do with the qi, but nonetheless they perturb one’s heart.” (2A2.9b, 2.10) But earlier, Mengzi distinguishes between nobles and commoners in a teaching that does nothing so much as reveal its emptiness. While speaking with a king who most definitely does not have a constant heart, who has had all the advantages of education and engagement with “the Pattern of righteousness,” he says, “Only a noble is capable of having a constant heart while lacking a constant livelihood. As for the people, if they lack a constant livelihood, it follows that they will lack a constant heart.” (1A7.20) His point is that people in authority should provide the circumstances for others to live good and moral lives, but maybe it’s the existence of authority and otherness that are the deeper problems. 

Similar to The Analects, there are multiple stories that give high school lunchroom. (2A1) Mostly I just laugh and roll my eyes as I read them (2B12.5), but the truth is so far this ancient philosophical work is mostly making me feel sad.

I suppose it was true then as it is now that most people experience a need to produce things to justify their existence. It’s an isolating idea. It seems like Mengzi was so intent on being a teacher and a thinker and a minister but missed something more authentic about himself and those around him. There are many times when his teachings uphold Daoist principles, but can’t quite let go of the hierarchical structure. (1B1.8, 3.2, 4.10, 5.4, 10.4, 12.3) Maybe he was simply fighting for his life, and he survived better than the sage Wangzi Bigan who “kept pleading with Tyrant Zhou to govern virtuously. Finally, Tyrant Zhou remarked that sages supposedly have bigger hearts than others, and that he wanted to see if Bigan had a heart to match his words. So he ordered his guards to rip the heart out of Bigan’s chest.” !!!!!! (2A1.8)

I think we’re meant to read this book and think about how much better things would have been if only Mengzi had been listened to. But it’s really a chronicle of how one king after another refused to listen to his advice. So the real story here isn’t about how good his advice was- the real story might be about how he participated in holding up a system that worked for no one – neither the rulers nor the people.

Maybe, since “Heaven does not yet desire to pacify the world,” (2B13.5) we could do worse than teachers who instruct the wealthy to limit their consumption (1A3.3), share with the poor (1A7.10), but so much moralizing misses a deeper truth about our potential to live in harmony with each other and the planet. Mengzi thought that “the capacity for virtue is innate in humans, but it must be cultivated in order for us to become fully virtuous.” (2A6.7) I’m still leaning more toward the next step that Daoism prescribes: to then release the cultivation entirely. 

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)

Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Four

The text of The Daodejing, especially Chapter One, feels like breathing to me. Ideas are presented with their contradictions, in the same way inspiration and expiration follow each other – such different experiences and yet connected in the same life-supporting action. Breathing is simple on the surface and endlessly complex when you look deeper into its processes. And there’s the way breath deepens and softens when you arrive home in your body and settle there.

There’s so much I wrote and thought to share about the differences in translation of just one of these poems, the contrast with The Analects,comparing this to ancient Greek and early Christian thought, etc. But sitting with this text makes me less interested in “contributing to the discourse.” Over and over the text says its central concepts are beyond words. “This is why the sages abide in the business of nonaction, / and practice the teaching that is without words.” (2) “To be sparing with words is what comes naturally.” (23) “But talk about the Way – how insipid and without relish it is!” (35) 

The whole point of a paradox is that it’s beyond words. We can learn from each other, and yet there’s nothing important to learn that we don’t already know in our being. That’s where I’d like to center our conversations. Strengthening our inner knowing and weakening our tendency toward self-interest may be the two best reasons for people to come together. 

    Cut off sageliness, abandon wisdom, and the people will 
        benefit one hundred fold.
    Cut off benevolence, abandon righteousness, and the people will     
        return to being filial and kind.
    Cut off cleverness, abandon profit, and robbers and thieves will
        be no more.
    This might leave the people lacking in culture;
    So give them something with which to identify:
        Manifest plainness.
        Embrace simplicity.
        Do not think just of yourself.
        Make few your desires. (19)

Some people say that Daoism advocates for a return to some mythical early way of being in harmony with nature. But Chapter Thirty-two says, “When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. / Now that there are names, know enough to stop!” I would argue that there is a cusp, unique to each individual in each moment, between analysis and synthesis (because what is yin-yang theory if not the original dialectic of cosmology), where we are meant to live in dynamic balance. This is where we flourish. “To embody the Way is to be long lived, / And one will avoid danger to the end of one’s days.” (16) 

This is where my faith rests most naturally, in the ongoing expansion and contraction that breathes life most abundantly through the minutes we spend open and unattached to outcomes, full of curiosity and wonder and informed by kindness. “Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows? / Empty yet inexhaustible! / Work it and more will come forth.” (5)

This letter is an invitation to take time with the knowledge you have, and to fully embody what you know. This is deeply healing work, leaning into learning more about your life. Just this is the source of human flourishing, beneath and through all the layers of socialization- which is curious because it is best done in community, with someone you trust. I hope you find good companions to join you for parts of your journey, and if you consider me to be one of those, know that I’m deeply honored. 

Those who revere their bodies as if they were the entire world can be entrusted with the world. 

Chapter Thirteen, Daodejing