“Go Hard or Go Home”

Strolling through Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa the other day, I encountered a group of people running around doing various drills in some kind of organized fitness activity.  Their leader was a super-fit, fully engaged alpha male, shouting “C’mon, push it, PUSH IT!”  His leather work gloves hinted at some of the intense drills they must have been doing.  His T-shirt read “Go Hard or Go Home”.

I always appreciate the act of human cultivation and self-improvement.  And if you’re going to take on a view of human life, take it all the way.  His pithy mantra so captures the philosophical basis of modern culture and perhaps reflects the entire history of Western development – from falling out of favor in Eden to our long march toward perfection.  According to this view, our natural condition is deficient, pathetic even.  Uncultivated, we become fat, sloppy, and weak – common, worthless chaff.  To achieve excellence, we need to struggle and strain to overcome our wretched, imperfect nature.

From the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine, this group was demonstrating an aspect of liver qi.  The liver gets things moving – stirs up stagnation and inspires growth.  Springtime.  Determination.  To work the liver with such intensity is aggressively harnessing generative qi, what Daoists refer to as “post-celestial qi”.  Such cultivation is responsible for so many historical achievements – magnificent cathedrals, undefeatable armies, Olympian athletes.

Laozi’s perspective however tells us that all such achievements ultimately fade away into a common context of weakness.  From an alchemical perspective, we can say exerting the liver to such degree presses qi away from our center – it may produce myriad excellences, but it leaves the center without a basis for internal cultivation.  The view of pushing ourselves to overcome our natural condition is antithetical to Daoist cultivation.

Adepts in Laozi’s tradition bring a different qi-quality to their cultivation.  Daoist hygiene practices involve regular movement but not necessarily the development of special skills or massive amounts of qi.  Our demeanor outside becomes gentle and soft, unremarkable.  As Laozi observes, remaining soft and weak allows qi to gather inward.  This is the beginning point for cultivating regenerative qi, what Daoists refer to as “pre-celestial qi”.  Such practice may or may not produce remarkable generative results.  It does however bring about a profound appreciation of our natural condition.  Staying soft, staying home.

Mindfulness & Wuwei

黃-seal牝-seal

I recently attended a two-day seminar on mindfulness training in a program promoted by Google.  A Google engineer was inspired by mindfulness and decided this practice should be Google’s next gift to the world.  The program is now being taught all over the world, largely in corporate settings.

Despite my initial skepticism, I thought it was quite good – the teachers were steeped in the practice and well-versed in the latest science on meditation, and of course both were clinical psychologists because that is the route through which modern science is opening up to the benefits of meditation.  Practices included attending to the breath, feeling the body, noticing emotions, journaling, and conscious listening.

It wasn’t noted in the seminar, but mindfulness meditation per se comes from Vipassasa practice in Buddhism.  Vipassana – meaning “keen observation” – uses systematic conscious observation as a gradual method to chisel away at our illusion and impurities in order to uncover our pristine original nature.  From a modern agnostic-scientific-corporate perspective, we are chiseling away at our distractedness in order to optimize our brain function, creativity, emotional intelligence, happiness, and productivity.

It is pragmatic to meet people where they are (“skillful means”), and these practices, which are fundamentally non-cultural and non-sectarian in nature, have adapted to many different cultural and religious contexts for millennia.  Since we’re living in a largely post-religious scientific world, it probably makes sense to present these practices from a scientific perspective, as most of us trust doctors, psychologists, and scientists more than priests or shamans.

While mindfulness practice is wonderful in itself and has countless “benefits”, I am compelled to write about the distinction between mindfulness & wuweidao – they are not the same thing.

The Chinese term xin (心) translates as heart-mind.  It represents our central consciousness consisting of a harmony of 5 distinct kinds of spirit, each associated with 1 of the 5 phases of qi.  One of these spirits is yi (意), which means mind-intent.

Mindfulness practice engages the yi to look into the xin in order to gain perspective, to calm down, and to improve our ability to remain centered or to handle difficult situations.  Two Chinese words for mindfulness practice are ding & guan (定觀) – focus & observation (see Ding-Guan post).

There is a term in esoteric Daoism called the “Yellow Woman” (黃牝) – these characters are featured above.  “Use the yellow woman to harmonize yin & yang”.  The color yellow implies the qi-phase soil, which represents central equilibrium and is associated with yi.  The character for woman here – “pin” – shows an ox plowing a field, so the image is of furrows in soil.  While the process of plowing represents intentional practice (wei, 為), the open, empty grooves represent emptiness, fertility, and open potential (wu, 無).

Most traditions, including Daoist alchemy, agree that meditation practice needs to start with some degree of intentional effort, but at some point effort needs to be abandoned in order to allow our practice to ripen.  In Daoist terminology, we start with youwei (有為) – intention and control (plowing the field), and finish in wuwei (無為) – abandoning intention and control (relaxing effort).

In wuweidao, we abandon intention and control pretty much from the very beginning.  It takes some degree of intention to sit and maintain the specific points of posture, but once we’re sitting we just let everything go, leaving our cultivation to the great Dao.  We’re not actively cultivating and we’re not exerting effort to be mindful – this is an important point.  Letting our mind be as it is without placing effort or mindfulness or anything else upon it.

Mindfulness is the process of actively plowing the field.  Wuweidao by comparison is the practice of empty-mindedness – xuxin (虛心).  While mindfulness may aspire to wuwei as an ultimate goal or consider it an advanced stage, in Laozi’s practice we consider wuwei the fundamental method of nature itself and jump right in with full faith in the capacity of Dao and our own inherent virtue.

 

10,000 methods come & go

From where, to where?

I don’t know

Weary of them all

Something else arises – of itself

Can’t really call it a method

Call it wuweidao

 

*image source: Richard Sears – thank you!

Emerging Phoenix

My community recently suffered  the most devastating wildfire in California history, with more than 6,000 homes burned.  As the community recovers, I am reminded of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that regenerates itself by dying in flames and emerging anew from the ashes.  It thus serves as a symbol of hope, recovery, and rebirth after disaster.  Let’s consider this image from the perspective of wuweidao.

People typically celebrate birth & growth and want to avoid decline & death.  In Laozi’s practice, we see these phases all as part of one continuum happening within an unchanging context.  Birth & growth inevitably lead to decline & death; decline & death inevitably lead to birth & growth.

In Laozi’s practice, we recognize all aspects of natural process as the unfolding expression of Dao.  We yield to whatever arises.  Struggling to maintain growth or to avoid decline brings about exhaustion, stiffness, & internal blockage – ironically increasing the power of decline & death.

Disaster happens; rebirth & recovery happens – like a pendulum.  Wuweidao means staying with things as they are – relaxing aspirations for what we want and resistance to what we don’t want.  Hoping to obtain, maintain, or avoid particular conditions is not really part of the basis of Laozi’s practice.

Wuweidao is about continuity – the continuously renewing stream of reality has no beginning, no end, and no interruptions.  To stay with reality, we have no choice but to experience birth, growth, maturation, decline, & death as they come.  Sometimes we need to go through destruction in order to continue.

Although one may expect such a laissez-faire view to lead to some kind of complacent stupor, if we engage this view in meditation & qi-cultivation, we find that something quite different emerges.

Yin darkness gives birth to yang radiance.  Zhuangzi thus described Laozi’s practice as “cold, dead ashes”.  While some Daoist arts look impressive and exciting, Laozi’s practice looks anything but.  We are relaxing yang-expression, letting the fire calm down to nurture the radiant embryo inside.

Laozi says: “Dao is wide-open, but people like narrow paths.”  The character for wide-open (夷) suggests barbarian tribes leveling a village to the ground.  This image is similar to wu (see What is Wu-Wei? post).  Laozi is reminding us that although we may prefer particular conditions, the field we are actually abiding in is wide-open and unconditioned – the unborn and undying field of reality.

Not only do death & disaster happen from time-to-time, but things are in a sense continuously dying and being born.  The stream of reality is like a standing wave – stable yet continuously flowing – out with the old, in with the new.  When we let this current flow, letting ourselves die moment-by-moment, we likewise find each moment fresh and new – continuously-arising inspiration.  The ten-thousand things are continuously being destroyed; the phoenix is continuously emerging.