Viewing entries tagged

"Split a piece of wood; I am there" -- the Force is all around us

"Split a piece of wood; I am there" -- the Force is all around us

Gospel of Thomas translation: Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer (link).

David-Dorian Ross has devoted much of his life to the practice of Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Gung (or Qigong). He has won eight gold medals in US competition and a World Silver and two World Bronze medals in worldwide Tai Chi competition performances. Together with martial arts film superstar Jet Li, he has made it his mission to try to spread the message of the beneficial aspects of Tai Chi and Chi Gung to at least a hundred million people who have not previously known about them!

Here is how he has described the force which is called chi (or hei) in Chinese culture and in writings going back hundreds and even thousands of years (and which can also be spelled qi in the Roman alphabet, under the convention that the letter q is generally used to represent a sound that is pronounced like a "ch"-sound in Mandarin):

Qi is not only a human, or even animal characteristic: everything in the world has energy -- plants, animals, even rocks. Qi is all around us, circulating in the air, vibrating in the colors we see, and literally raining down on us from above. The Chinese word for weather is tianqi: heavenly energy. Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong, 121.

In other words, chi sounds very much akin to what was described as "The Force" in the very first Star Wars movie from 1977 -- a movie that resonated so well with so many millions of people that it became  an enormous box office sensation that year and remains the number-six-grossing film in North America of all time (I certainly remember the impression it made on me the first time seeing it that year, at my best friend's birthday party in the theater that is now a Planet Granite in Belmont). Below is the famous initial description of the Force by Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness in an Oscar-nominated performance:

In that brief video clip, Alec Guinness / Obi-Wan explains: "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power: It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us -- it binds the Galaxy together."

In other words, the description is nearly identical to that given by Tai Chi and Qigong master David-Dorian Ross when trying to convey the concept of chi or qi. But, although his description of chi was written well after the initial box office release of Star Wars, we can see that the concept of chi has been known and described for literally thousands of years, such as in the inscription from a jade artifact from China dated to around 380 BC that was described in the preceding post examining one of the mysterious texts that are known as the Tai Chi Classics.

Star Wars is thus popularizing an extremely ancient concept in a very accessible manner and one which has captured the imagination of hundreds of millions (billions?) and continues to do so to this day. It is a concept that has been written about in China for at least 2,400 years, and has undoubtedly been understood and practiced for much longer than that.

In fact, the descriptions of chi given by David-Dorian Ross and in texts such as the Tai Chi Classics, the Tao Te Ching, and the jade inscription from 380 BC have clear and direct parallels to concepts which I believe can be found at the heart of virtually all the ancient myths, scriptures and sacred traditions from virtually every continent on planet Earth -- which can all be shown to use the awesome motion of the celestial spheres as a way of conveying truths about the invisible realm to our understanding, the invisible realm or spirit world or realm of the infinite which is in fact present in all living things and indeed in every single molecule of the universe.

The invisible realm surrounds and interpenetrates the visible or material world, and according to the ancient wisdom preserved in many sources around the world, it is the true source and fountain from which the visible world emanates or is projected (see for instance the discussion here, especially the extended quotation from Lakota holy man Black Elk, as well as the discussions in many, many other previous posts).

I believe that it is not an exaggeration to assert that the ancient myths and sacred texts and traditions of the world were in fact originally intended as powerful teachers to guide us towards regaining our awareness of and connection with the life-giving infinite source. As some of the Tai Chi Classics (including the Song of the Thirteen Postures examined in the preceding post) tell us, the invisible force of chi is already in us from the moment of birth or even before: we don't have to "gain more" of it but rather become attuned to it, within us and all around us.

The ancient myths are teachers for connecting with the infinite on many levels, which we are all designed to do.

Below is a short video clip of David-Dorian Ross showing a way of experiencing this force for yourself:

As the Thirteen Postures Song tells us, entering through the door on the journey traditionally requires a personal teacher -- but then there must also be a lifetime of continual cultivation and practice and study on one's own, for which each will ultimately "hear it" or "know it" from within himself or herself.

Although it has been obscured by nearly seventeen hundred years of teaching its stories from a literalistic perspective, I believe that it can be conclusively shown that the collection of ancient scriptures commonly known as the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) was intended to teach this very same awareness of and connection with the infinite (within oneself and the rest of the universe, even the rocks and trees) that all the other myths and scriptures of the world were intended to convey.

Indeed, some of the texts in the same family or genre as those which became the canonical New Testament scriptures (but which were rejected and even outlawed by those advocating a literalistic or externalized approach to the stories and allegories) make statements and declarations that sound nearly identical to the descriptions of chi from the ancient texts of China, or of the Force as described by Obi-Wan!

For instance, in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the most important of the so-called "Gnostic Gospels" or texts that were left out of the canonical New Testament and thus forbidden by the end of the fourth century AD (and which has been discussed in some detail in previous posts such as "The Gospel of Thomas and the Divine Twin" and "The Gospel of Thomas and the Everlasting Spring"), there is this very interesting teaching:

Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." [Gospel of Thomas 77; translation by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer].

In this very concise but extremely direct little vignette, we have Jesus telling us that he is the infinite, and the source of all that has ever come forth. Where do we find the infinite? The infinite is everywhere, in all things, in every single atom or molecule of the visible (projected) material universe.

Even if we split a piece of wood: there is the infinite.

This is a very powerful image, and very much in keeping with David-Dorian's teaching that qi is found in all things, even plants and rocks, and with Obi-Wan's teaching that the Force "binds the Galaxy together."

Elsewhere in the gospels (both those that were rejected by the early literalist leaders and those that were included in the canonical New Testament) and also even more directly in some of the letters attributed to the one who calls himself Paul, we are told that this infinite is within us as well. This can also be shown to be the message in other sacred myth-systems, such as that found in the Bhagavad Gita and in the Mahabharata which contains the Gita (discussions and videos here and here).

And yet, for at least seventeen hundred years, this understanding of the ancient scriptures as powerful teachers to help us become aware of and attuned to the force of the infinite within us and all around us has been suppressed (the Gospel of Thomas, quoted above, was literally buried in a sealed jar beneath some lonely cliffs along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt since the fourth century, because these teachings were forced to "go underground").

In fact, the very same Gospel of Thomas tells us that the ones it labels as "the Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so" (39).

It's as if our planet had a host of stories and written guides for cultivating and using the Force, and a group deliberately set out to destroy all knowledge of them.

Why would anyone want to do that?

The good news is that the teachings have not been totally obscured. They are preserved quite powerfully in the world's myths, which are like a precious inheritance to humanity. And they are preserved in ancient systems such as Tai Chi and other martial arts, as well as in Yoga, all of which are deliberately designed to help us become attuned to the cycles of the universe and to the flow of this infinite divine energy which is both within us and also in every single other person and creature we meet and every other thing that we see (even within a piece of split wood!).

And, the popularity of films such as Star Wars  show us just how powerfully this concept resonates with us.

For this reason, we should be grateful to teachers like David-Dorian Ross (and Jet Li) who are preserving and passing on aspects of this ancient knowledge to millions who have not known about it before.


A meditation upon the Thirteen Postures Song 十三勢歌

A meditation upon the Thirteen Postures Song 十三勢歌

image: Wikimedia commons (link), cropped and with added text of the Song of the Thirteen Dynamics (or Song of the Thirteen Postures).

The Wudang Mountains of China are associated with the ancient internal arts: practices and disciplines designed to facilitate one's cultivation of and connection with chi.

Whether or not they actually originated there, the association between the internal arts and the Wudang region is justifiable, because the area has been a center for both ascetic and monastic pursuit of the Way of the Tao for at least 1200 years and possibly even longer than that. There are direct parallels between concepts conveyed in the Tao Te Ching and teachings associated with the specific "internal" martial arts and disciplines associated with Wudang.

According to legend, it was to the Wudang Mountains that the mysterious Zhang Sanfeng retired to live an ascetic life, leaving a promising career in the government ministries and giving away all his possessions. The traditions say that Zhang was already an accomplished martial artist who became more and more attracted to the development of internal kung fu, and whose prowess became greater and greater even as he became less and less interested in external displays of power, until he eventually made his way to the mountains . . .

There, he would in time master the internal arts, develop one (or more) of the most famous systems for cultivating internal power, and ultimately become a Taoist immortal or 仙 -- a word that is pronounced Xian in Mandarin and Sin in Cantonese, and which when used as a verb means "to ascend" or "to transcend," and which thus when used as a noun means by extension "a transcendent one" or "an ascended one" (the character itself is composed of the symbol on the left for person and the three-pronged symbol on the right which means "mountain").

Among the many texts sometimes attributed to this legendary personage or associated with the internal arts he imparted, one intriguing representative of their style and content is the Song of the Thirteen Postures, a short poem whose actual origin and date and author(s) are all unknown, but which is counted among the Tai Chi Classics: texts belonging to the art of Tai Chi Chuan, one of the three main Chinese martial arts associated most closely with Wudang and with the practice of attuning oneself to the flow of chi. The other two are Xing-Yi Chuan ( 形意拳 -- pronounced Jing Ji Kyun in Cantonese, and translating to something like "Form and Conscience Fighting Style [literally "fist"]") and Bagua Chuan ( 八卦掌 -- pronounced Baat Gwaa Jeung in Cantonese, and translating to something like "The Eight Divination-Trigrams Palm").

Zhang Sanfeng is traditionally credited with creating the original system of Tai Chi Chuan itself. An earlier name for Tai Chi Chuan was in fact "The Thirteen Postures" or 十三勢  -- the first two characters and syllables of which literally mean "Ten - Three" (which is the standard way of saying "thirteen") and the final character and word translating more literally as "powers" or "energies" or "forces" or "dynamics." Thus, "The Thirteen Dynamics" or "The Thirteen Forces" might be a more accurate translation of the sense of the original, although it is so commonly referred to in English as "The Thirteen Postures" that this is probably what we should use to refer to the poem in question.

It is also worth noting that the reason for the "Thirteen" in the title comes from the connection of the different "forces" or projections of energy used in the motions of Tai Chi were traditionally eight in number and connected to the eight angles or Eight Divinatory Trigrams of the BaGua, and to these were added five directions or ways of stepping or directing the body (going forward, going backwards, going left, going right, and holding at the center), to bring the total to thirteen.

The Thirteen Postures Song is reproduced in the Wudang Mountains image above, and is available in various English translations (some more literal than others) in a variety of places on the web, including here and here and here. Borrowing from these sources as well as from the literal meanings of the characters themselves (with apologies for any misinterpretations which I myself introduce in the process), a fairly literal translation might be:


Thirteen Collected Dynamics: Do Not Lightly Esteem ["do not take them lightly"].

[Their] Life-Heart and Head: [It] Issues from the Waist / Kidney Region.

The Transformations and Turnings of Empty and Solid: [You] Must Keep in Heart-Soul-Mind.

Chi Everywhere in the Body, the Human Body: Not Steered into an Obstacle [usually translated to mean "not hindered or obstructed"].

Stillness [in the] Center of Initiating-Action: Action Like Stillness.

Because of it, the way that you Adapt to the Opponent's Moves: Indeed Mysterious and Uncanny.  

Each Posture [each "dynamic" or "force"] Learn by Heart: Come to Know its Usefulness and its Deepest Essence.

Acquire / Will Come all-Unconscious: Effortless Mastery or Advanced Skill [literally "kung fu"].

Deeply Engrave and Hold the Heart-Mind in the Place of the Waist / Kidney Region.

In the Abdomen area [be] Relaxed and Still: Chi Gallops, Flying-up -- Yes!

Tailbone Centered and Straight: Divine Energy [from there up through] The Top of the Head (like a string through a thousand coins).

The Benefit of a Body Filled with Lightness and Agility: [it is achieved by] Hoisting or Suspending the Top of the Head (as if hanging from above).

Follow the Slender Thread [perhaps meaning "to the deepest, thinnest ends of the roots"]: Push Towards what you Seek.

Flexing and Opening and Closing: You will Hear it or Know it from Within Yourself.

The One who Begins this Path: Must necessarily have this teaching Transmitted from the Mouth [of a teacher].

Practice your Skill [literally "kung fu"] Without Stopping, Without Resting: the Way is by Your Own Study -- your own Cultivation.

Regarding the Usefulness of this System: What Guideline or Standard shall we Make or Observe?

The Heart-soul and the Chi Arrive as the Sovereign: the Bones and the Flesh are the Monarch's Ministers and Officials.

Towards What Goal does all of this Push or Impel us?

The Benefit of Desired Long Life and Delay of Aging: a Never-Aging Springtime.

A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh! A Hundred and Forty.

These Written Characters -- Genuine, Clear-cut: Right in Conduct, Without any Suspicion.

If one does Not Toward this Direction Push, Seek, and Go . . .

In Vain all that is Spent on Achieving Skill [literally "kung fu"]: Sighing, Loss, and Regret.  


This is a remarkable poem, filled with important teachings with far-reaching implications.

Foremost among them, perhaps: the connection of the cultivation of chi and the concept of stillness in the midst of action.

The poem imparts specific images to aid in attuning oneself to the invisible force of chi. Chi itself is written 氣 and it is pronounced hei in Cantonese: both chi and hei mean "breath" and "spirit," which just as in English can refer to either literal breathing and also to the entire realm of spirit, the life-force, that which animates all beings (the in-spir-ation) and which also permeates all things in the cosmos.

While the actual date and authorship of this specific poem is unknown (and some scholars place its origin to within only the past few hundred years or so), texts which explicitly refer to the raising of chi exist from as early as 380 BC, as Professor Victor H. Mair (an accomplished scholar of Chinese culture, language and history who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania since 1979) notes in his valuable translation of the Ma Wang Deui "silk texts" containing an early arrangement of the Tao Te Ching (discovered in 1972). Describing an inscription on ten pieces of jade which once formed a small knob, he gives this translation:

In moving the vital breath (hsing ch'i) [through the body, hold it deep and] thereby accumulate it. Having accumulated it, let it extend (shen). When it extends, it goes downward. After it goes downward, it settles. Once it is settled, it becomes firm. Having become firm, it sprouts [compare Yogic bija ("seed" or "germ")]. After it sprouts, it grows. Once grown, then it withdraws. Having withdrawn, it becomes celestial [that is, yang]. The celestial potency presses upward, the terrestrial potency presses downward. [He who] follows along [with this natural propensity of the vital breath] lives; [he who] goes against it dies. [cited on page 159 of the paperback edition of 1990 of Victor H. Mair's translation of Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way]. 

The harmonies in this jade inscription from 380 BC and the teachings contained in The Song of the Thirteen Postures should be self-evident.

Additionally, as Professor Mair references in a bracketed parenthetical comment upon one specific part of the above-quoted jade inscription, some clear connections can be perceived between the teachings in these ancient Chinese texts and the teachings preserved in the Yogic traditions and texts. Professor Mair addresses in some detail these conceptual connections in the Afterword and the Appendix of his translation of the Tao Te Ching -- not referring specifically to the Thirteen Postures Song but rather to the Tao Te Ching itself, which also contains numerous admonitions to have stillness or inaction even in the midst of action.

Professor Mair points out some of the passages in the Tao Te Ching concerning action-inaction, and connects their teachings directly to the direction given by the Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. For example, in the section of the Tao Te Ching traditionally numbered 38 (but in fact arranged as the very first section in the Ma Wang Deui texts), we read -- in part -- that:

The person of superior integrity takes no action, nor has he a purpose for acting.
The person of superior humaneness takes action, but has no purpose for acting.
The person of superior righteousness takes action, but has a purpose for acting. [From the passage found on page 3 of Professor Mair's 1990 translation].

All this taking action and taking no action, without a purpose for acting, may seem confusing, but when we examine (as Professor Mair does) the words of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, we may begin to understand what is being advised.

And again, a few sections later in that part of the Tao Te Ching traditionally numbered 43 but arranged as section 6 in the older Ma Wang Deui texts, we read:

The softest thing under heaven
gallops triumphantly over
The hardest thing under heaven.
Nonbeing penetrates nonspace.
I know the advantages of non action.
The doctrine without words,
The advantage of nonaction --
few under heaven can realize these! [page 11].

It is interesting to wonder, given the explicit description in the tenth line of the Thirteen Postures Song of chi as "galloping," whether the Tao Te Ching in this passage is not referring to the invisible spirit-force of chi when it describes the triumphant nature of "the softest thing under heaven."

For a fairly detailed examination of the importance of the teachings given to Arjuna by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, see this previous post

(which also contains a video).

That post examines the fact that Krishna's direction to Arjuna, given in a variety of different ways using a variety of powerful metaphors, can be summarized as "do what is right, without attachment to the results" and thus, without ulterior motive -- without concern for reward or even without concern for the outcome whatsoever. This can clearly be seen as throwing some light upon the Tao Te Ching's admonitions regarding "taking action" or "taking no action" but having "no reason" (no ulterior motive, no concern for or connection to the results) for it.

Professor Mair explains in his Afterword that the concept of wu-wei or nonaction is one of the most important concepts in the Tao Te Ching, which tells us that "through nonaction, no action is left undone" (see discussion on page 142). He explains that an understanding of the Bhagavad Gita helps us to realize that this teaching about nonaction may in fact mean action --  but action  as though not acting (because totally nonattached to the action) [this is at least my interpretation of what Professor Mair is expounding on pages 142 and surrounding].

My earlier post and video discussing the Bhagavad Gita, which on a literal level is portrayed as Krishna's advice to Arjuna prior to entry into the great Battle of Kurukshetra, may in fact be seen as guidance given to the human soul prior to descending into incarnation itself, which is by its very nature a great battle or struggle or interplay between the "forces" of matter and spirit. If so, then the Bhagavad Gita teaches us that one of the most important principles in this life is to do what is right, but without attachment. And, the Bhagavad Gita shows that in order to do this, one must be connected to the divine charioteer -- portrayed in the Gita as the divine Lord Krishna, who in the text of the Gita itself reveals himself to be the Infinite, the Supreme, the Undefinable (beyond words or categorization).

In other words, in order to be able to act without acting (without attachment), we must cultivate connection with the Infinite: with the invisible force which pervades everything.

And this is exactly what the Tao Te Ching teaches as well (note that it describes the Tao as beyond categorization, beyond labeling with words, beyond definition).

And it is exactly what the Song of the Thirteen Postures appears to be telling us also! In order to achieve action without action, we must attune ourselves to the invisible force which is inside us and which permeates the universe around us as well (which it explicitly calls 氣  or chi ).

The line which most clearly deals with the concept of action while centered in complete stillness or lack of action (lack of attachment, lack of motion) is the fifth line of the Song of the Thirteen Postures (the line which is highlighted in red in the text shown above, superimposed on the photograph from Wudang), and which translated rather literally reads:

Stillness [in the] Center of Initiating-Action: Action Like Stillness.

The poem could hardly be more clear and direct on this point.

Note also the important third line of the poem, which emphasizes guarding deep in our heart-soul-mind the endless interplay of empty and solid: this, I would argue, could well be the very same interplay or struggle allegorized in the Battle of Kurukshetra -- the endless interplay between the realm of Spirit and the realm of Matter (between "empty" and "solid").

Finally (although there is much more to discuss), we cannot end this brief examination of The Song of the Thirteen Postures without pointing out that fascinating fourth line from the end, which says:

A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh! One Hundred Forty.

What is this supposed to be teaching us? Well, the very next line tells us the meaning of the "one hundred forty": it refers to the characters in the poem itself. So, the first half of that line which says "A Song -- Ah! A Song -- Oh!" must be talking about the Song of the Thirteen Postures itself.

It is advising, it would seem, a regular repetition of this song to oneself, as a way of calling to mind this important guidance for our struggle in this life. It is telling us that this song is something we should sing to ourselves, perhaps daily -- in much the same way that the sections of the Mahabharata which take place immediately prior to the Bhagavad Gita present us with a hymn to sing in order to summon the goddess Durga, and then tell us that this is a song we should sing to summon the goddess every single morning!

Thus we see that the ancient texts were given as powerful helps for us in this life -- powerful tools to guide us towards the cultivation of our contact with the infinite (which is, in fact, already inside us and already all around us) and our cultivation of an effortless and unattached principle of action: doing what is right, without attachment to the outcome.

And, along with these ancient texts, there were given very specialized disciplines, including the practice of Yoga but also in China of martial arts which have a clear focus upon the cultivation of the internal power of chi.

These practices are for our daily use -- and both the Song of the Thirteen Postures and the jade inscription from 380 BC advise us to pursue them diligently, because the benefits of practicing them are very great, but the penalty for neglecting them include sighing and loss and regret.

We are indeed fortunate that this ancient wisdom has survived and that we can avail ourselves of it, and that doing so does not necessarily entail a life of asceticism in the Wudang Mountains -- although for some it might!

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Self, the senses, and the mind

Self, the senses, and the mind

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In the introduction to his famous Light on Yoga, Sri B. K. S. Iyengar quotes a passage from the sacred Vedic Upanishad Katha Upanishad, or Kathopanishad, regarding what Sri Iyengar calls the well co-ordinated functioning of "body, senses, mind, reason and Self" (30).

The passage he quotes from that Upanishad comes from the third chapter of Part I, beginning in the third verse -- you can read the entire Kathopanishad online here in an English translation, and find the passage in question beginning on page nine of fifteen in that file (the page itself bears the page number "7" at the bottom of the image of the page). There, we read:

3 Know the atman to be the master of the chariot; the body, chariot; the intellect, the charioteer; and the mind, the reins.
4 The senses, they say, are the horses; the objects, the roads. The wise call the atman -- united with the body, the sense and the mind -- the enjoyer.
5 If the buddhi, being related to a mind that is always distracted, loses its discriminations, then the senses become uncontrolled, like the vicious horses of a charioteer.
6 But if the buddhi, being related to a mind that is always restrained, possesses discrimination, then the senses come under control, like the good horses of a charioteer.

In the translation found in Light on Yoga (also given below for comparison), the first mention of Atman is capitalized, and next to Atman in parenthesis the text gives as a "gloss" or synonym the capitalized word: "Self."

Clearly, in this passage, there is a clear distinction being made between "body, sense, and mind" and "the atman -- the enjoyer" (or the Self) which is somehow separate not just from body and senses (which is fairly easy to understand) but also from "mind" -- which is a lot less intuitive.

We don't have much difficulty making a distinction between our "Self" and our body or our senses. However, we are usually accustomed to thinking about "ourselves" as being identical or co-equal with our mind. For example, someone might say they appreciate a man or a woman not for his or her physical beauty or for his or her body, but rather for his or her mind -- meaning, we usually think, who they really are, who they are inside

Why is this passage apparently making a distinction between our mind and the Self? Is this passage from the Vedas teaching us that our true Self is somehow distinct from our mind as well as from our body and our senses?

The distinction is even more evident in the English version of the same passage given in the introduction to Light on Yoga:

Know the Atman (Self) as the Lord in a chariot, reason as the charioteer and mind as the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses, and their objects of desire are the pastures. The Self, when united with the senses and the mind, the wise call the Enjoyer (Bhoktr). The undiscriminating can never rein in his mind; his senses are like the vicious horses of a charioteer. The discriminating ever controls his mind; his senses are like disciplined horses. 30.

How can we understand that we are not the same as our mind? Or, to put it another way, if we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as co-existent with our "mind," then what definition of "mind" are the above ancient scriptures using, since they obviously are not using the word "mind" to mean our True Self?

Obviously, what they are calling "mind" is something from which the Self stands apart -- like a charioteer. The mind is compared to the reins, which the Self uses to control the horses, which themselves are connected to the senses. The mind somehow makes all the difference between being carried away by the power of the senses, and guiding the senses "like disciplined horses."

Recently, I saw a video of a talk given by clinical psychologist and author Dr. Darrah Westrup at the mindbodygreen "Revitalize 2015" conference, in which she discusses another metaphor that (to me) sheds a lot of light on this distinction between the Self and the mind which we see operating in the ancient Vedic scriptures.

Dr. Westrup's talk can be found as the last talk in the segment from "Friday Morning Session One" and it begins at approximately 1:03:00 on that video segment (embedded below):

In the beginning of her interview, which has been titled "Why Stress is a Healthy Part of a Meaningful Life," Dr. Westrup makes a very interesting comment in response to a question about "dealing with stress."

At about the 1:05:30 mark in the video, when asked about the source of stress and suffering, she identifies a culprit we might not have expected, when she says: "It turns out that our ability to develop and use language is a key player in this."

Interviewer and mindbodygreen CEO Jason Wachob then asks, "Like, just poor communication?"

But that's not what she is pointing towards at all: Dr. Westrup clarifies, "No -- just language itself."

It turns out, she says, that while language has tremendous benefits, it is also directly related to what the Kathopanishad calls "mind," and it can and does threaten to "run away with us" like the "vicious horses" described in the metaphor above.

With language, we are able to analyze, criticize, evaluate, and project. We can speculate about the future, and we can brood about the past. In fact, long before the invention of "computers" and "virtual space," we could create our own "virtual worlds" with language, in which we can test out ideas or think about future and past events and analyze them from every angle in a "virtual space," in much the same way that a modern aircraft design team might "construct" a jet airplane inside of a virtual "computer-modeled" space, in order to test out its strengths and weaknesses before the actual airplane is ever built in the physical world.

This ability to analyze actions and events from every different angle inside of the "virtual reality" of language, Dr. Westrup says, is an incredibly powerful and potentially beneficial ability and this aspect of language itself must be appreciated in order to understand how it can also lead us astray.

With our internalization of language itself, Dr. Westrup says, which she calls a sort of "verbal virtual reality," we create the virtual-world concepts of "future" and "past," neither of which actually exists in the present. And, while this ability is something we cannot actually get rid of (nor would we want to, she says), it is also the cause of stress and suffering. She says:

All those concepts -- all those concepts -- I'm inadequate, I'm too fat, I should've, if only -- those are all language-based. As far as we know, only humans have the ability to create constructs like that with words -- and then we carry them around -- and it causes a huge amount of suffering. We get ideas about what we should and shouldn't be experiencing; what is and isn't OK.

Again, Dr. Westrup never says that this ability to create such verbal mental constructs is not a good ability: it is vital and necessary to our lives in a myriad of different ways.

Some examples I might offer would be that through language, we can ask ourselves (about the future), "Should I go to that event this weekend, or should I work on the other project that I've been meaning to finish?"

We can ask ourselves (about the past), "Did I turn off the stove burner in the house when I left an hour ago?"

These can be helpful and useful and appropriate things to run through our minds -- as long as they don't get out of control.

But, as Dr. Westrup explains beginning at about the 1:08:00 mark, that is exactly what tends to happen, and why this incredible ability to create "verbal virtual reality" can become a problem, if not understood. And it is here that she offers a metaphor which may shed light on the passage from the Kathopanishad quoted earlier, and the distinction between Self and mind.

In response to a question from interviewer Jason Wachob about how we can "deal with stressful situations," Dr. Westrup says:

In my book, Advanced ACT, I talk about this metaphor called "the over-eager assistant." So this is the idea of that assistant that's really, really trying to help -- so we all probably may have encountered an assistant like this -- always in there, full of ideas, full of suggestions, commentary -- and, you know, a lot of times just not that helpful. And I think of my mind like that: my mind is on overdrive right now, for instance. She's -- my assistant -- is handing me commentary, writing little post-it notes, weighing in, telling me how I'm doing, grading, all of that, OK? And struggling with that assistant is not going to do -- it's not going to make her go away. I can't get her to stop -- she's not going anywhere. But what I can do is understand that she's doing her job. My mind in a stressful moment is doing what our minds are supposed to be doing, means well. And so understanding that, kind of allowing that to be there, it's kind of like, "Yeah, I know you mean well," but that allows me to be in this moment, vital and engaged here -- I'm not trying to get that to go away."

In this metaphor -- of the mind as the over-eager office assistant -- we can suddenly begin (I believe) to understand what the ancient Vedic scriptures mean when they describe Self as being separate not only from the body and the senses, but also from the mind as well (in her book on page 213, she also notes that she attributes this metaphor to a fellow ACT practitioner, Jeremy Goldberg).

In this metaphor, she explains, what she is referring to as "mind" is not the same as "who we are" but rather mind is there to serve us, and it does the best it can, but in many situations the observations or suggestions that come from this eager assistant are "just not that helpful."

We might think of a character from the long-running television comedy The Office, in which the character who may in fact resemble the above description of "mind" might be Michael Scott himself: usually well-meaning, but often not that helpful, and in many cases making the situation worse with his constant desire to give suggestions, commentary, and analysis -- even when his "help" is not needed.

You may prefer to think of another character from film or literature (or from The Office) who better exemplifies to you this concept of the "over-eager assistant," but Michael Scott may in fact be the perfect example, because Dr. Westrup has identified mind with the facility of language, and with the ability to create "verbal virtual reality" through language itself -- something that actually characterizes Michael Scott in The Office to an extraordinary degree.

And yet, as well-meaning as Michael Scott is, and as funny he can be, we really don't want to let him "run the office" completely unchecked -- and that is why Dr. Westrup explains that we have to cultivate the ability to sort of "stand apart from" the constant chatter of the mind, and analyze what it is doing and saying and suggesting, without letting it take things in whatever direction it wants to take them.

Towards the end of her discussion, in response to a question about what we should not do when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, Dr. Westrup suggests that one should not:

Really buy everything your mind tells you about it, which is, "This is not OK," "I can't tolerate this," "This means my life isn't working," "I'm never going to figure it out." Notice I'm not telling you not to have those thoughts -- good luck! But rather, when they show up, that doesn't mean that they're True with a capital T.

And this brings us back to the distinction that the passage from the Upanishad cited above is trying to articulate, between the True Self or Atman and the body, senses, and mind. It stands to reason that if mind is somehow related to the construct of language, and that its greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is its ability to create "virtual worlds" or "virtual realities" in which it can analyze, critique, judge, describe, compare, and contrast, then the higher Self, the True Self, the Atman must somehow exist beyond all of that.

It stands to reason, in other words, that the True Self is not constructed of language, or of modifiers and descriptors and adjectives and judgements and labels.

And this is exactly how Sri B. K. S. Iyengar -- and the sacred Vedas and other texts in the same tradition -- describe the transcendence of the mind and the achievement of samadhi. At the end of the introductory section, Sri Iyengar writes that in this state:

The mind cannot find words to describe the state and the tongue fails to utter them. Comparing the experience of samadhi with other experiences, the sages say: 'Neti! Neti!' -- 'It is not this! It is not this!' The state can only be expressed by profound silence. The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged in the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known for they are merged like camphor and the flame. 52.

Note the important observation that the state of samadhi is characterized by the complete absence of description, of modification by language: it can only be said that it is "Neti! Neti!" -- it is not whatever one wants to compare it to or describe it as.

It should be apparent that this is identical to the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching (at least as traditionally arranged for the past 1000 years) in which it is said of the Tao or the Way that

The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;
The names that can be named are not the eternal name. 

Translation by Victor H. Mair, p59.

The actual Tao is beyond description -- as soon as it is "named," we know that we are not actually dealing with "the eternal name." The very concept of "the Eternal" (which is mentioned in the Sri Iyengar quotation immediately above as well) means in a state which is still pure possibility, all possibility, containing all options, and thus not manifested in one form or another, and thus not able to be "pinned down" or labeled.

We might note that the divine name in the Biblical scriptures implies the same rejection of modification or description, the same Eternal potentiality and Eternal present (past and future being constructs of language, as we have just seen). For more on this subject, see the previous post entitled "PTAH, JAH, TAO, and BUDDHA," as well as some of the discussion of the Dream of Solomon in 1 Kings chapter 3 towards the end of the video entitled "The Blessing Mother, The Cursing Mother, The Dream, and The King."

To evoke the same ineffable concept, Sri Iyengar quotes the Song of Sankaracharya, the Atma Shatkam or Song of the Soul (Sankaracharya, pictured above, is also known as Adi Shankara and his song is also known as Nirvanashatkam):

I cannot be heard nor cast into words, nor by smell nor sight ever caught [. . .]
I have no speech [. . .]
Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form,
I dwell within the senses but they are not my home;
Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound --
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I am found. 53.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Note that in the image above showing a shrine to Adi Shankara, the statue of Shankaracharya in its alcove is flanked on either side by twin female deities, each of whom is carrying a torch in her inside hand, pointed downwards.* This quite clearly links to the concepts discussed in the previous post entitled Isis and Nephthys: March Equinox 2015, as well as to equinox-and-torch symbology discussed here.

Thus Adi Shankara and his message can be clearly linked to the central "Djed-column raised up"

which is also depicted in between the equinoxes (and which is associated with the vertical column connecting winter and summer solstices), and all that it represents.

* Later note: Special additional thanks to correspondent Ramakrishnan T., who points out that these figures are known as Dwarapalakas, are found throughout India, are almost exclusively male, and are carrying a mace and not a torch! However, what is very interesting to me is that, while he is certainly correct, these figures do sometimes appear to have characteristics that are slightly androgynous, but even more interesting is that they often have their legs crossed in a very distinctive manner reminiscent of the equinoctial figures (who are also male) discussed in the link included in the above paragraph at the word here.

And, there is also no doubt that the mace seen in the Dwarapalaka symbology is similar in form to the torch found in the symbology further west, raising interesting questions about possible common origin or cultural diffusion on this particular symbol.

Thank you to Dr. Darrah Westrup and Jason Wachob for sharing their helpful discussion of this extremely important subject!

The Djed Column everyday: Tantra and Fong Zhong Shu

The Djed Column everyday: Tantra and Fong Zhong Shu

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

If all the world's sacred scriptures and mythology actually consist of stories in which the motions of the celestial spheres take on the personalities of men, women, gods, goddesses, angels, demons, monsters, djinn, and other mystical creatures (and they most certainly do), then we are left with a very important question:


I believe the answer certainly includes as a central feature the profound teaching embodied in the Great Cross of the Year, formed by the solstices and equinoxes, and associated with the concept symbolized in ancient Egypt by the "casting down" of the Djed column of Osiris and the subsequent "raising-up again" of the same: an esoteric concept which depicts the entire nature of human existence as a divine soul thrown down into incarnation, while voyaging through, reflecting and in some mysterious way embodying the infinite universe at the same time -- a universe which is itself composed of both a visible realm and an even more important and subtle invisible realm.

Recent posts and videos which have attempted to outline this critically-important central teaching (found, I believe, in virtually all of the world's sacred traditions in varying depictions and disguises) include: 

and many others.

Those discussions presented evidence that the concept of "raising the Djed" conveys a powerful message regarding the long process of our realization of the infinite divine sleeping within ourselves and indeed within every atom of the living universe around us, a process which takes place during the entire cycle of our earthly existence and perhaps over the course of many successive "existences" -- but it is also (we saw) a message which appears to urge upon us the practice of "raising the Djed" every single day, through the practice of blessing, through the recognition and elevation of the divine in ourselves and others, and through the special form of spiritual elevation leading to the state of ecstasy or ecstatic trance, in which our perception actually transcends the physical body and makes contact with the invisible world (for more on ecstasy and trance-conditions see also herehere and here, among many other previous posts).

And, while the entry into the ecstatic state is perhaps the most intense and most transcendent of the forms of recognizing and reconnecting with and calling forth and raising up the infinite divine spiritual realm which is always present, around us and within us, we have also seen evidence that in addition to incorporating techniques of ecstasy into our lives on a regular basis, we can also practice other forms of "raising the Djed" into our lives as well, even when we are not in the ecstatic state (since it is not possible to exist in a state of ecstasy at all times). It seems likely that consciously incorporating more than one of these into our lives is quite possible and probably beneficial -- and that they are not at all "mutually exclusive" (incorporating one does not require that we renounce all the others, although there is obviously a limit to how many we can choose to really pursue seriously).

In order to simply provide a very cursory pointer towards some practices which have been developed in different cultures from very ancient times, for those who may wish to learn more about them on their own, I started a short "mini-series" of posts discussing a few such practices which seem to fit into the general category of "raising the Djed." The first one we mentioned briefly was the practice commonly called qigong or chi gung, which clearly involves contact with "the invisible" in some way (the "invisible within," the "invisible without," or both), and which enables its practitioners to directly and tangibly experience the fact that we are made of more than just physical substance.

The goal of this little mini-series is not to try to teach these practices, or even to point to specific teachers or resources where people can learn more about these practices, but rather to simply make people aware of the existence of these many different disciplines which fit into the general category of "raising the Djed" and which some readers may find very beneficial if they choose to pursue them. Many of these practices, while extremely ancient, are not well known in "the west" -- that is to say, in the parts of the world in which the ancient esoteric knowledge was largely replaced by a literalistic rather than esoteric understanding of the ancient sacred stories and myths.

Another discipline which clearly falls into this same category is the practice of techniques known in some cultures (especially India and Tibet) as maithuna and usually known in China and Taoism (or Daoism) as fong zhong shu or 

房 中 術

The above calligraphy shows traditional characters, but in simplified characters the final character above is changed to 术 (which is present in the middle of the traditional version of that character) and so the same phrase would be rendered as

房 中术

In either case, the three symbols stand for "bedroom - within - skill" (pronounced fong zhong shuin Mandarin and fohng jung seuht in Cantonese) and are usually rendered into English using the phrases "bedroom arts" or "art of the bedchamber" and corresponding very generally to what is often referred to in the west as "Tantra" (although apparently that word actually encompasses a much wider landscape of transformative disciplines involving meditation, mantras, mandalas, visualization, and other practices in addition to what most people in the west today envision when they think of Tantra).

In general, these related arts involve transformation through sexual ritual, a practice which can be seen to have been highly developed in ancient China, ancient Japan, ancient India, ancient Tibet, and many other cultures around the world, including some Native American cultures. There is some evidence that the spiritual potential of this aspect of human existence was also developed in "western" cultures in various forms prior to being largely rejected or suppressed with the advent of literalist Christianity.

Although still perhaps not so very widely known, excellent books on Taoist fong zhong shu have been available in English for many years, including the work of Daniel P. Reid and Mantak Chia, among others. 

Additionally, some of the ancient Chinese texts that traditionally formed the foundation for the preservation and development of the knowledge of fong zhong shu have survived in varying degrees of completeness.  

Of these, perhaps the most important, and almost certainly the most often-cited and well known is the Su Nu Jing, or 素女經.

The title is often translated as "Classic of the Plain Girl," but the three characters actually stand for "natural-colored [often used to describe natural-colored or undyed silk]" - "woman" - "classic or canonical text" and because the first word can also mean "plain" as in "unspotted" or "without markings" or simply "white, pure, or undyed," the same title is also sometimes translated as the  Classic of the "Immaculate Woman" or the "Pure Woman."

This figure appears in some aspects to be a goddess or divine figure, who is in some cases associated with grain and hence may connect to the celestial figure of Virgo (this would not be a surprise). Interestingly enough, this would also connect her to the Greek goddess Demeter, whom Plutarch uses as part of his powerful argument against the consumption of animals for food, and the same word and symbol sometimes translated "Plain" that is used to describe her in China is can also be used to mean "vegetarian." She is sometimes depicted as giving instruction to the Yellow Emperor or Huangdi (sometimes spelled Huang Ti), whom Hertha von Dechend and Giorgio de Santillana identify as a Saturnian figure in Hamlet's Mill.

So, Su Nu Jing means "Pure-Undyed-Silk Woman Classic" in Mandarin, and would be pronounced Seuh Neuih Ching in Cantonese, and the last word in the title (Jing or Ching) is the same word found in the title of the Tao Te Ching. It is certainly at least as old as the Sui Dynasty (AD 590 - AD 618) and may be even older, perhaps originating in the Han Dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC) -- and the knowledge it contains may of course have come from an even earlier source.

As explained in Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society circa 1500 BC till 1644 AD, by R. H. Van Gulik (1961), no complete original text of the Su Nu Jing nor of several other ancient Taoist fong zhong shu texts has survived. However, much of the text of the Su Nu Jing was preserved in a different text that quotes large portions of it, which is called the Tung-hsuan-tzu and which may have been written by the scholar Li Tung Hsuan in the 7th century AD.

The text of the Tung-hsuan-tzu begins as follows (as translated in 1961, when conventions were slightly different than they are today -- the modern reader may wish to mentally substitute "humanity" for the general "man," which in previous decades was generally used to mean all of humanity and not specifically men to the exclusion of women; they also seem to have been more tolerant of what is sometimes today called a "comma splice"):

Master Tung-hsuan said: Of all the ten thousand things created by Heaven, man is the most precious. Of all the things that make man prosper none can be compared to sexual intercourse. It is modeled after Heaven and takes its pattern by Earth, it regulates Yin and rules Yang. Those who understand its significance can nurture their nature and prolong their years; those who miss its true meaning will harm themselves and die before their time. 135.

This introduction is extremely significant, and author R. H. Van Gulik notes that most of the more ancient Taoist sexual texts also begin with an expression of the cosmological aspect of human sexuality, which was seen to "model Heaven and [. . .] Earth."

Later, we reach a portion of the text in which the Su Nu Jing is quoted extensively. In the introductory chapter, entitled "The Supreme Significance of the Sexual Act," the Plain Girl declares that in sex:

Woman is superior to man in the same respect as water is superior to fire. [. . .] The union of man and woman is like the mating of Heaven and Earth. It is because of their correct mating that Heaven and Earth last forever. Man, however, has lost this secret, therefore his age has gradually decreased. If a man could learn to stop this decline of his power and how to avoid ills by the art of Yin and Yang, he will attain immortality. 135 - 136.

Here we again see the explicit "macrocosm-microcosm" understanding that the motions of men and women on earth mirror the motions of the great cycles of the heavenly objects, and also mirror the motions of the earth which contribute to our interaction with the celestial mechanics in the heavens above. We are also introduced to one of the central concepts in Taoist fong zhong shu and related disciplines, which is the inherent superiority of the woman to the man, in that she is already capable of multiple, progressive, and basically unlimited orgasms (leading to the raising of chi, prana, or the kundalini, and ultimately to ecstasy), while the man must learn to achieve this capability and does not usually obtain it without the cultivation of fong zhong shu, primarily through the ability to separate orgasm and ejaculation and achieve multiple orgasms without ejaculation. 

Without going any further into the specifics of that subject, which interested readers can pursue for themselves, it is worth noting that in this ancient text, the Natural-Silk Woman or Immaculate Goddess uses the expression "as water is superior to fire." This phrase is loaded with esoteric symbolism, as we have explored previously in the post entitled "Fire and Water," where we saw that the concept of fire plunging into water is an esoteric metaphor for the process of incarnation itself, by which the divine spark of spirit is plunged into and submerged within the physical material realm and a physical material body.

Because of this understanding, we can then gain a better appreciation for the insistence in these ancient texts that human sexuality itself somehow "models Heaven and Earth" and becomes an esoteric symbol for our incarnation itself . . . and for our ability to be spiritually transformed and elevated by our experience in a physical body, an experience which ultimately leads to transcendence of the physical nature. 

Rather than being extinguished by and completely subsumed within the material nature in which we find ourselves, our task is to hold on to the spiritual, call it forth from within this physical world, and ultimately to transform both matter and spirit together -- "raising the Djed." It can readily be perceived that the arts that are often referred to as Tantric are esoterically and experientially involved in just this very purpose as well. 

Just as the myths themselves "bring the stars down to earth" by depicting the sun, moon, stars and planets as human beings and as gods and goddesses walking among humanity, rituals which we undertake that mirror and embody the motions of the heavens and the earth (as the Plain Silk Girl tells us that fong zhong shu most certainly does) connect us to the motions of the universe, and "bring the heavenly motions" down into the human realm, the microcosm reflecting and embodying the macrocosm of the infinite cosmos.

Finally, it is worth noting that here that, as in so many other places where the esoteric ancient wisdom has somehow been subverted, a practice and a body of knowledge which is clearly intended for the elevation and liberation and positive transformation of individual men and women has instead been turned too often into a negative force for degradation, dehumanization, oppression, and powerful feelings of shame, hurt, and alienation. 

The fact that, as we are told by the Immaculate Woman, in the bedroom "the woman is superior to the man as water is superior to fire" can lead to tremendous insecurity and resentment on both sides, when these ancient practices are not known and understood -- but when they are understood and put into practice, they can lead to tremendous security and empowerment for everyone involved.

This subject provides yet another example of how vitally important it is to understand what the ancient texts and the ancient treasures which were entrusted to humanity are actually trying to tell us, and how we can learn to incorporate them into our lives on a very practical level -- and what a great tragedy it is that this ancient inheritance imparted to the human race has somehow so often been turned completely upside down.

The Tao Te Ching: "Be like water"

The Tao Te Ching: "Be like water"

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The preceding post presented evidence to suggest that the ancient wisdom which informs many of the sacred traditions around the world may have had a deep common source, or that while manifesting itself in different outward appearances in different cultures and time periods around the world, one stream can be detected surging through all of them.

In particular, that post and previous posts related to this discussion (such as this one and this one) argue that when these ancient traditions are understood to be esoteric and allegorical in nature, then their deeper unity can be perceived: different metaphors may be employed, but upon closer examination it is found that these varying metaphors are all attempting to convey a very similar message.

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence to support the conclusion that replacing the esoteric and allegorical approach with an approach that understands these texts primarily as describing literal and historic events and personages leads almost by necessity to divisions and separation and contentions.

These divisions can even lead to a cutting-off from the connection to the universe itself, and to the invisible flow of the universe referred to in some ancient texts as the TAO or the Way (a word which itself may, we saw, be linguistically related to a host of other sacred names around the world, including PTAH, JAH, BUDDHA, MANITOU, and others).

It is both interesting and valuable to examine some of the principles of Taoism and see how they resonate with principles in other ancient cultures seemingly far-removed from ancient China. One well-known passage from the Tao Te Ching, found in the section traditionally numbered 8 out of 81 (although earlier texts only discovered in the last decades of the twentieth century and discussed further below appear to have arranged the sections quite differently), reads as follows:

上 善 若 水
水 善 利 萬 物 而
不 爭
處 眾 人 之 所 惡
故 幾 於 道
居 善 地
心 善 淵
與 善 仁
言 善 信
政 善 治
事 善 能
動 善 時
夫 唯 不 爭
故 無 尤   (link).

This section has been translated:

Best to be like water,
Which benefits the ten thousand things
And does not contend.
It pools where humans disdain to dwell,
Close to the Tao.
Live in a good place.
Keep your mind deep.
Treat others well.
Stand by your word.
Keep good order.
Do the right thing.
Work when it's time.
Only do not contend,
And you will not go wrong.

Translation by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (link).

The final character in the first line of traditional characters above, and the first character in the second line, is the symbol for "water": 

The passage says twice that water "does not contend." This is expressed by the traditional characters 


which mean "not" and "contend," the first symbol sometimes being described as a bird, flying up to a ceiling and not being able to fly out (therefore expressing the concept of "not") and the second symbol being composed of two characters stacked on top of one another, the top character resembling a "claw" and originally carrying that meaning (it looks like a horizontal bar with three "fingers" extending downwards) and the lower character being a symbol for "manual dexterity" and being derived from the basic character for "hand," which looks like this: 

Thus the symbol for "not contend" or "it does not contend" is composed of a symbol meaning "not" and a symbol that expresses "grasping" or "clawing" or using the hand to seize and clutch and grab.

We can readily appreciate that water in fact does not contend: it is a well-known and oft-stated aphorism that water always "seeks the path of least resistance." Water seeks the lowest places, something that this section of the Tao Te Ching points out, while commenting that these are the places where people (indicated by the symbol


in the third line of characters as shown above) "disdain to dwell" -- and then saying that these places are somehow those that are actually "close to the Tao." 

This is interesting, because it is at this point that it becomes clear that the text is referring to something more than a literal concept: it is probably not telling us that in order to become "close to the Tao" we have to actually seek out certain low-lying swampy pieces of terrain and crouch down there. The text is referring to something that is invisible, something that is a principle related to the universe and the Way that it operates, through an examination of the principles that we can see in water.

From this rather famous passage from the text, we can perceive that aligning with the Tao seems to have something to do with "not contending," with emulating certain aspects exhibited by water in its efficiency and its lack of "grasping" or "clawing," and with aligning ourselves with the invisible energy of the universe and the direction that it takes us, rather than seeking out the things that are perhaps most highly sought after by society (the comment that water "pools where humans disdain to dwell" indicates that the things most highly valued by society may not always be the best guide or indicator of the direction we want to seek).

The character for the word "Tao" itself is actually composed of the symbol for a road and the symbol for a head (which itself is based upon the symbol for an eye), and appears in the computer version of the symbols in the text cited above in the following manner (you can see it at the end of the fourth line of characters):

This symbol looks rather prosaic as rendered by a computer, but when written by a calligrapher is a singularly beautiful and expressive character (below is an example from a manuscript of the Tang dynasty, which has been dated as written by a calligrapher in AD 676):

image: Wikimedia commons (link) -- I've taken the liberty of adding a cutout of an enlarged image of the character for "Tao" (Way or Road) from the text, and pointing out its location within the text. 

The word usually rendered into English as "Tao" which is indicated by the above character is actually pronounced dao in Mandarin Chinese (poutongwa), and douh in Cantonese (Guangdongwa) and means "way" or "road" (but also "Tao" and is also used to refer to Taoism in general).

It is interesting to think of this "Way" as being somehow akin to the path followed by water, which unerringly seeks out the most efficient and effective and least contentious Way, a Way that has no need for contending -- and then to think about examples in daily life that seem to embody this principle. 

For instance, one might think of a motion in a familiar sport, such as basketball or tennis: shooting a basketball is a fairly complex skill, as is striking a tennis ball effectively with a forehand or backhand or an overhand serve. There is a set of motions that is most effortless, most efficient, and generally most effective for shooting, say, a three-point shot in basketball or hitting a powerful forehand in tennis. 

However, when we first begin to try to perform these motions (or when we see someone who is just learning to do it, perhaps a child or a teenager or some other beginner), what often happens is that the beginner will find his or her way into using a set of motions which are not the most effective or efficient -- a set of motions which we might say are not, strictly speaking, "good form," but which give the person a sort of "artificial" success.

You might see children who are not quite strong enough to shoot a basketball properly at a full-sized hoop, for example, using a variety of "compensating" motions in order to get the ball to the proper height to go into the basket -- but which you realize are habits that must eventually be corrected as the child gets older and stronger, because they are actually not the most efficient motions or the motions that will produce the most consistently accurate shots, because they actually are motions that "work against each other" in some way. 

Sometimes, we ourselves (or people we see who are learning a sport such as basketball or tennis) will "hold on" to these bad habits, because they produce a modicum of success, and we are afraid of losing that success by unlearning those motions and replacing them with the more effective motions. Coaches sometimes see a lot of resistance from a player who is comfortable in some bad habits which the coach knows are holding the player's shot back in certain important ways. 

This may be a good example of the concept being expressed about being "like water" and "not contending" -- a shot which is using "bad form" is actually "contending" against gravity or against the principles of physics or some other principles "of the universe" in some way, which holds it back and makes it more awkward and more self-defeating than it should be.

Obviously, this rather "physical" example can then be applied to all kinds of non-physical aspects of our lives in which we are doing things in ways that are "contentious" or "not like water" or "not in alignment with the Tao" and which in doing things that way we create all kinds of "turbulence" between ourselves and those around us, or within ourselves, or both. We can even feel the resistance of the universe itself when we are stubbornly refusing to "align ourselves" with the principles of that flow, just as a tennis or basketball player can often feel the ways in which their refusal to align their shot with the principles of "good form" may be causing them to sabotage their own efforts.

Interestingly enough, calligraphy itself and the painting of traditional Chinese characters can be an expression of alignment with the Tao. Producing beautiful traditional characters such as the page of text from the Tang dynasty shown above requires alignment with certain principles which are every bit as demanding as those required in a basketball or tennis shot, and requires the practitioner to learn how to overcome bad habits and inefficient motions that can be every bit as self-defeating as those which players can develop in any sport. One can do a simple search for the words "Tao" and "calligraphy" on the web and find a host of interesting texts on the subject.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the desired characteristics of Taoist calligraphy are expressed in terms of the human body: the characteristics are categorized into the areas of "bone" (the actual structure and form of the characters, as well as their size and "posture"), of "blood" (the consistency of the ink, which is mixed by the calligrapher using a stick, a stone, and a small amount of water), of "flesh" (the thickness and flow of the strokes themselves, and their proportion in terms of being neither too "fat" nor too "skinny" in their conformation), and of "muscle" (movement, energy, spirit, and vital force) -- see for instance this text among many other possible discussions.

This itself expresses the concept of "microcosm and macrocosm," in that the letters themselves are acting a role as a "microcosm" of the human body and, by extension, the human life lived in alignment with the energy of the Tao or the universal flow. Alvin Boyd Kuhn discussed manifestations of this same principle in regards to the letters of Hebrew and Greek and other writing systems within the esoteric traditions of other ancient civilizations in other parts of the world.

As alluded to above, during the 1970s previously unknown manuscripts containing the text of the Tao Te Ching were discovered in tombs in Ma-wang-tui (also frequently written as Mawangdui). These texts, sometimes known as the "silk texts" because they were written on sheets of silk, date to the middle or even the first part of the second century BC, and were much older than previous extant texts of the Tao Te Ching by about 500 years (since that time, in the 1990s, new and even older texts containing lines from the Tao Te Ching have been found in another tomb, this time on thin bamboo strips).

This discovery prompted one scholar of Chinese language and literature to decide that the Ma-wang-tui texts cast so much new light upon the text of the Tao Te Ching that it was worthy of a new translation and examination: the 1990 translation by Victor H. Mair. Towards the end of his edition, Professor Mair (the Chair of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania) embarks upon some examination of the resonances within Taoist thought and expression to other ancient sacred texts and thought, including the texts of ancient India.

At one point he makes an extremely important observation concerning a passage from the sixth stanza of the Mundaka Upanishad and the section of the Tao Te Ching traditionally numbered 11 (but numbered 55 in Professor Mair's 1990 translation, based on the Ma-wang-tui texts):

The whole second khanda (section) of the Mudaka Upanisad has so many close parallels to the Tao Te Ching that it deserves the most thorough study by serious students of the Taoist classic. Here I shall cite only a part of the sixth stanza, which bears obvious resemblance to one of the most celebrated images of the Old Master:
Where the channels (nadi) come together
Like spokes in the hub of a wheel,
Therein he (imperishable Brahman as manifested in the individual soul [atman]) moves about
Becoming manifold.
The corresponding passage from the Tao Te Ching (chapter 55, lines 103) has a slightly different application but the common inspiration is evident:
Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the cart lies.
In one of the earliest Upanisads, the Chandogya, we find an exposition of the microcosmology of the human body that certainly prefigures Taoist notions of a much later period:
A hundred and one are the arteries (nadi) of the heart,
One of them leads up to the crown of the head;
Going upward through that, one becomes immortal (amrta),
The others serve for going in various directions. . . . (translation adapted from Radhakrishnan, p. 501). 156-157.

This correspondence, as Professor Mair makes clear, is most significant and most remarkable. The use of the imagery of spokes is common to both, and both clearly use the metaphor of the spokes of the wheel to refer not only to an aspect of the wider universe but also to the human body and to human life, connecting each of us not only to the universe but specifically to the invisible part of the universe, the "space within the wheel," where the invisible divinity is located, and who is also manifest within the human soul.  

Not only does this continue the "macrocosm-microcosm" theme which can be shown to be an absolutely fundamental aspect of virtually all the world's esoteric sacred texts and traditions (including the texts of the Old and New Testament), and not only does the concept of the "hidden divinity" have important connections to the concept of "Namaste and Amen" discussed in numerous previous posts (which also connects to the scriptures of the Bible, as well as to important themes present in ancient Egyptian sacred mythology), but it is very likely that these passages which Professor Mair here focuses upon also contain powerful echoes with the text of the extraordinarily important "Vision of Ezekiel" and the "wheels within wheels," which I have discussed at length as being a metaphorical description of an understanding of the motions of the celestial machinery -- the same understanding which is depicted in the models of the heavens known as armillary spheres. 

Note that in both of the passages cited above -- one from the Tao Te Ching and one from the Upanisads  -- the metaphor of a wheel with spokes is used, and in the Upanisad it is said that Brahma dwells "therein" or in the center of that wheel, exactly as the Most High is described as being enthroned upon or above the wheels in the Vision of Ezekiel

In fact, as I explained in the previous examination of the details of the description in the Ezekiel text, there the wheel is specifically described as being composed of "strakes," which is a very precise term from the old craft of wooden wheelmaking, describing the curved outer segments of a wooden wheel -- outer segments which would be a perfect metaphor for the twelve segments belonging to each sign of the zodiac within the great celestial band or "wheel" of the zodiac.

Notice that in the passage from the Tao Te Ching, the number of spokes on the wheel is specifically given as thirty

spokes: is it not significant that each of the sections of the zodiac wheel (each of the "strakes," if you will) would have exactly thirty degrees, if there are twelve signs of the zodiac and if the circle is divided into three hundred and sixty measurement units called "degrees"? 

Based on these correspondences, it is almost certain that there are direct parallels between the esoteric message being conveyed (albeit using slightly different metaphorical details, and different versions of the divine name) by the ancient texts of the Upanishad, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Tao Te Ching.

This is all very important, and points to profound connections between the ancient sacred knowledge of the human race, and to the fact that we should all actually be united by our ancient heritage, and not divided.

One very practical implication of the foregoing is the realization that one can learn from and incorporate the profound lessons conveyed by different sacred traditions, because they are all using slightly different expressions to try to point towards the same truths. If one aspect of the metaphor provides better insight, or feels in some way more accessible, there is nothing wrong with learning from it. As we have already seen, Buddhism and Taoism are almost certainly names which have linguistically identical origins, and which probably share the same linguistic heritage with the divine names of JAH and PTAH and MANITOU and many others.

The Tao Te Ching has a unique power of its own, a unique voice in expressing and conveying the ancient wisdom.

It describes the ideas of aligning with the flow of the universe in a way that might be particularly helpful in all kinds of "simple" ways within our day-to-day life. 

Thinking about having "efficient good form" in a shot in tennis or basketball as being a good example of "aligning with the flow" and not going against it, we can then think about expressing that same kind of alignment and efficiency and "non-contention" in the way we drive a car, or wash dishes, or open a door, or interact with people around us.

When someone starts "contending" with us, we can see if they are acting in ways that are not aligned with that universal flow, and we can ask ourselves whether that is a good reason to allow ourselves to also get out into contention and turbulence, or if we prefer to seek to stay aligned with the Tao and act more like water in a stream.

Of course, since none of us is perfect and since this material realm is full of systems which seem almost purpose-built to jostle us out of alignment with the Tao, this is a process that can fruitfully provide us with rewarding challenges, even if we are performing what might otherwise seem to be the most mundane of tasks or jobs. And even if we have relative success on one day, we won't become bored because the next day will probably teach us how much we still have to learn in this regard.

Ultimately, as the deeper connections touched on above seem to indicate, I believe that the process of aligning with the Tao that is the subject of the Tao Te Ching involves the awareness of, the acknowledgement of, and some interaction with the reality of the invisible aspect of the universe, and not just its physical forces.

And, as we have seen in many previous posts, this seems to be one of the most central messages of the world's esoteric texts and traditions, all of which I believe should be viewed as our shared inheritance from the remarkable messengers who gave us this sacred ancient wisdom.

Gung-hei faat choih!


Centeredness is the cure for impulsiveness

Centeredness is the cure for impulsiveness.
Serenity is the master of restlessness.
Knowing this, one of universal nature is placid
     and never departs from the center of his own being.
Tao Teh Ching 26

It is generally the nature of weapons 
     to turn against their wielders.
[. . .]
to be excessively strong
     is to hasten decay [. . .] violence
     is against the integral nature of the universe.
Tao Teh Ching 30

Weapons are instruments of killing
     and destruction,
     which are contrary to the nature of life.
Thus, they are avoided by those who follow
     the subtle Way of the universe.
Tao Teh Ching 31

One of subtle universal virtue
     is not conscious of being virtuous,
     therefore, he is truly virtuous.
One of partial virtue attempts to live up to
     an external standard of virtue.
Therefore, he is not truly virtuous.
Tao Teh Ching 38

All translations from The Complete Works of Lao Tzu: Tao Teh Ching and Hua Hu Ching, An Enlightening New Translation and Elucidation by Hua Ching Ni.

Just three things . . .

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Tao Teh Ching, 67.  Translation by Stephen Mitchell.