learning to move like a cat

February 18, 2011

“Loki Tiger” by Ren Adams


During my daily practice of Tai Chi Chuan, our family cat always comes into the room with me, rubs her head and back on my legs several times, lies down in the middle of the floor space, and purrs continuously as I practice.  It can be a bit of a problem to avoid stepping on her as I practice…I often have to step around her or pick her up and move her, because she won’t move, even if I nudge her.  Her reaction to Tai Chi is curious to me, because I’ve never seen her purr for such a long time at a stretch, without being petted.  Perhaps watching the slow, flowing movements of Tai Chi is fascinating to cats, as watching a fish gliding through water would be.  Or maybe she enjoys the novelty of seeing a human being neither rushing about doing errands, nor lying asleep, but rather moving through space slowly, deliberately, mindfully.  Or maybe she recognizes something feline, something of herself in the movements.  I remember my wife commenting a long time ago that our cat is the embodiment of Tai Chi, that every movement she makes looks like Tai Chi—slow, graceful, relaxed.

When I began to read more about Tai Chi, I realized just how right my wife was.  In the collection of sayings and Tai Chi instructions known as the Tai Chi Classics, Wu Yu-hsiang instructs the practitioner to emulate a cat.

“Walk like a cat.”

–quoted from The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan:   The Literary Tradition, translated and edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe

When a cat walks, it places it paw softly on the ground and does not commit weight to it at first.  If necessary, the cat can lift that same paw up without losing balance, because no weight has been committed to it yet.  Only when it feels the ground firmly under its paw, does it gradually shift weight onto the paw.  Tai Chi trains one to step in the same way, softly with sensitivity, feeling the ground beneath your feet.  If a cat is pushed when it does not want to move, it does not push back or lift its weight up higher into its body, but instead  sinks its weight and energy down lower into its body and paws, sinking, rooting.  I’ve witnessed this with my own cat, when trying to nudge her out of the Tai Chi practice area.  When pushed, and therefore stressed, we humans tend to lift our tension and stress up into our upper bodies, and resist and push back against the force, all of which makes us more susceptible to losing our balance and toppling over.  However, Tai Chi teaches us the cat-like skill of sinking our weight into our legs, being firmly rooted, and redirecting or absorbing an incoming force either by shifting our center, or by absorbing the force down into the ground, into our root.

Cats are known for their grace and beauty in movement, the flowing way that their bodies move through space.  They move from the center of their bodies, and the motion and energy flows out from the center to the extremities.  For example, I’ve seen this when our cat lifts her paw to her mouth to begin grooming.  It is a quick motion, but when I watch it carefully, she does not just stick her paw in her mouth.  Instead, the energy of the movement of lifting the paw seems to begin in the center of her body, and flows up like a wave through her shoulder, and down her leg, and then finally ending in her paw.  This  continuous wave-like motion can be compared to the reeling of silk and is emulated in Tai Chi Chuan.  In fact, “silk reeling” is a skill set developed in the practice of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan.  To the best of my understanding (I’m just starting to learn about this), silk reeling involves learning to use the energy focused in the center of your body (i.e. using the chi in your dantien) and learning to let that energy flow out to your extremities in a continuous manner, which leads to a smooth, circling, and spiraling type of motion of your body and extremities while practicing.

“When changing position, you should move like a cat.  Exercising the internal power is like the delicate reeling of silk.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in T’ai Chi Classics, translated by Waysun Liao

As the quote above implies, this silk reeling leads to movements that are slow and graceful, yet have an underlying energetic power.

Cats tend to alternate between states of meditative stillness and motion.  Another saying by Wu Yu-hsiang in the T’ai Chi Classics instructs the practitioner to practice both stillness, as well as a fluid quality of movement, which is graceful and powerful:

“Be as still as a mountain,

Move like a great river.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan:   The Literary Tradition, translated and edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe.

Much of cats’ gracefulness comes from their ability to relax their muscles.  They use the minimum muscular tension necessary to move, and relax the rest of their bodies.  Because there is no unnecessary tension in the muscles, there are no blockages of kinetic energy, and everything flows.  Even when in a physical confrontation or in imminent physical danger, cats are able to maintain muscular relaxation and coordination.  My Yang style Tai Chi teacher repeatedly reminds us that most important principle of Tai Chi is “Sung,” i.e. relaxing the muscles, letting go of tension, while maintaining posture.  Through practice of the Tai Chi form, and particularly the practice of Push Hands with a partner, one learns the difficult and counterintuitive skill of relaxing, even when in conflict or under stress.  One learns that it is precisely this cat-like ability to relax that sharpens one’s sensitivity, enables one to more quickly respond and better cope with the situation.

The Tai Chi Classics also describe the apparent “mindset” of a cat…while a cat appears placid and calm, it is nevertheless able to respond in an instant to its environment…a striking, and seemingly paradoxical combination of serenity and alertness:

“Your mind should be centered, like the placid cat—peaceful but able to respond instantly to the scurrying mouse.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in T’ai Chi Classics, translated by Waysun Liao

This description of a centered mind combined with a finely tuned awareness of one’s environment, likened to that of a cat, is an unusual state of mind that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan develops.  During push hands practice, one works on simultaneously being exquisitely aware of the other person’s movements and sensing them, “listening” to them very closely, moment by  moment, but also remaining continuously aware of one’s own center…thus harmonizing and integrating the outer world and our own inner world.  One of Master Yang Cheng-Fu’s ten important points about Tai Chi Chuan was to “Harmonize the internal and the external.”

Although I have not been the most physically graceful person for much of my life (my wife would laugh at the understatement here, as I am prone to Inspector Clouseau moments), practicing Tai Chi Chuan gives me an opportunity to focus on, and become more mindful of the way I move, and where my body is in space.  A book that has been helpful as well is Peter and Laura Ralston’s book Zen Body-Being:  An Enlightened Approach to Physical Skill, Grace, and Power.   Hopefully this regular practice of Tai Chi Chuan will begin to affect the way I move throughout each day.


©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


bare attention

January 12, 2011

“Green Bamboo” by Ren Adams


My previous post, Content with this moment, following the natural flow, quoted Chuang-tzu as saying, “Be content with the moment…” and mentioned discontentment/suffering as the central problem that the Buddha also addressed.  But this idea of being content with the moment does not imply that one should try to artificially force oneself to be happy at every moment, even if something sad or upsetting is happening.  Being “content,” in this context, does not necessarily mean being “happy,” but rather implies being aware, being open and receptive, taking what comes in the moment, including one’s own feelings—whatever they are—but not rejecting, judging, or clinging to what is happening in the moment.  The Tao Te Ching seems to describe this state-of-mind that involves awareness, openness, acceptance, but nonattachment to what is happening in the moment.

“Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2, Stephen Mitchell translation

A related concept in Buddhism is “bare attention,” which was mentioned in a quote of Phil Jackson in my previous post following.  I’m really intrigued by this idea of bare attention.  It seems like a state-of-mind that is extremely valuable, though not easy to attain without lots of practice.  Bare attention can be cultivated through meditation, and can be extended beyond meditation to periods of one’s daily activities, including interactions with others, as Phil Jackson describes in the passage I quoted in following.  In his book Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein does a wonderful job of describing bare attention in detail.  Because I can’t really do this justice by paraphrasing, I included multiple quoted excerpts from the book–below:

“Defined as ‘the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception,’ bare attention takes this unexamined mind and opens it up, not by trying to change anything but by observing the mind, emotions, and body the way they are.  It is the fundamental tenet of Buddhist psychology that this kind of attention is, in itself, healing:  that by the constant application of this attentional strategy, all of the Buddha’s insights can be realized for oneself…Common to all schools of thought, …the unifying theme of the Buddhist approach is this remarkable imperative:  ‘Pay precise attention, moment by moment, to exactly what you are experiencing, right now, separating out our reactions from the raw sensory events.’  This is what is meant by bare attention….

“As noted before, bare attention is impartial, nonjudgmental, and open.  It is also deeply interested, like a child with a new toy.  The key phrase from Buddhist literature is that it requires ‘not clinging and not condemning’…

“Neither intense emotion nor intense stimulation need disrupt [bare attention], because its mirrorlike clarity can reflect whatever enters its field…”

— from Thoughts Without a Thinker:  Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, by Mark Epstein, Basic Books, 1995, excerpts from pp. 110-127

I’ve been trying, with variable levels of success, to use bare attention when listening to and talking with other people, especially people who are important to me.  It is not easy at all, and I feel that I’m just at the beginning of my efforts, but it seems to me that this attitude of listening with an open state of mind, noticing your own reactions but not getting too caught up in them, can allow you to really hear and connect with another person much better, as I alluded to in my previous posts listening, child and parent, student and teacher, listening and understanding in Tai Chi Chuan, and following.  This seems to me to be something worth practicing consistently, over a lifetime.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

content with this moment

December 22, 2010

Lao-tzu, who lived ~2,500 years ago, is the author of the Tao Te Ching, one of the most important Taoist texts.  Chuang-tzu, who lived after Lao-tzu, wrote extensively on the principles that Lao-tzu laid out in the Tao Te Ching.   As I’ve been reading Alan Watts’s book Tao:  The Watercourse Way, in the chapter entitled “Te–Virtuality,”  I came upon Chuang-tzu’s beautiful reflections on Lao-tzu’s birth, death, and way of being:

“Lao-tzu” by Ren Adams


“The Master came because it was time.  He left because he followed the natural flow.  Be content with the moment, and be willing to follow the flow; then there will be no room for grief or joy.  In the old days this was called freedom from bondage.  The wood is consumed but the fire burns on, and we do not know when it will come to an end.”

–Chuang-tzu, quoted in Alan Watts’s book Tao:  The Watercourse Way, in the chapter entitled “Te–Virtuality”

Another translation of this passage is below:

“I obtained life because the time was right.  I’ll lose life because it’s time.  Those who go quietly with the flow of nature are not worried by either joy or sorrow.  People like these were considered in the past to have achieved freedom from bondage.  Those who can not free themselves are constrained by things.  However, nothing can overcome heaven. It’s always been so.  Why should I dislike this?”

–Chaug Tzu as quoted in Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition, Lecture 8, Professor Grant Hardy, The Great Courses, Course 4620, The Teaching Company

“Be content with the moment…”–it’s worth dwelling on that phrase, worth considering it at length and repeatedly.  Lately I’ve been watching David Grubin’s PBS video “Buddha:  The Story of Siddhartha.”  Siddhartha was the Buddha, and the founder of Buddhism.  Siddhartha’s central dilemma was how we as humans can deal with suffering, e.g. the inevitability of our and our loved ones’ eventual aging, illness, and death.  The commentators in the video point out that the word that Siddhartha used for “suffering” might be better translated as “dissatisfaction” or “discontentment.”  If I understand the video correctly, we are chronically discontented because we don’t realize that this moment is all that we have, that this moment—right now—is everything, is Nirvana, if we could only recognize it as such.  The 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen wrote,

“Each moment is all being, is the entire world.  Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

–Dogen, “The Time-Being” in the book Moon in a Dewdrop:  Writings of Zen Master Dogen, 1985, p. 77

Like the present moment that contains the entire world, a single dewdrop reflects the entire moon and sky.  Dogen writes,

“The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water…The depth of the drop is the height of the moon.  Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.”

–Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” in the book Moon in a Dewdrop:  Writings of Zen Master Dogen, 1985, p. 71

Rather than being centered and aware in the moment, most of us are dissatisfied, thinking about what we would want to be different, or worrying about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.  What the Buddha and Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu seem to agree on is the inestimable value of being aware of what is happening in this moment, right where you are, right now; being content with this moment, valuing this moment, whatever is happening (easier said than done!); and allowing yourself to follow the natural flow.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

awareness, tranquility

December 7, 2010

“Tree Dreams in Winter” by Ren Adams


I’ve been reading Alan Watts’s book Tao: The Watercourse Way and came across his wonderful description of a way of practicing awareness, of practicing being present in this moment—a very Taoist way of being:

Later in the book, Watts quotes Chuang-tzu, a quote that Watts describes as the closest that Chuang-tzu came to outlining a method of attaining the Tao.  In this passage, Chuang-tzu writes in the voice of Nu Chu, a sage who is teaching another sage, Pu Liang I, about the Tao:

“To teach the Tao of a sage to a man who has the genius, seems to be an easy matter.  But no, I kept on telling him; after three days, he began to be able to disregard all worldly matters [i.e., anxieties about status or gain and loss].  After his having disregarded all worldly matters, I kept on telling him; after seven days, he began to be able to disregard all external things [as being separate entities].  After his having disregarded all external things, I kept on telling him; after nine days, he began to be able to disregard his own existence [as an ego].  Having disregarded his own existence, he was enlightened.  Having become enlightened, he then was able to gain the vision of the One.  Having the vision of the One, he was then able to transcend the distinction of past and present.  Having transcended the distinction of past and present, he was then able to enter the realm where life and death are no more.  Then, to him, the [end] of life did not mean death, nor the prolongation of life an addition to the duration of his existence.”

I love this quote.  It reminds me of the John Blofeld quote toward the end of my earlier post, Liberation from the fear of death.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


October 19, 2010

“Goldfish at Sunset” by Ren Adams


Our modern American culture tends to value leadership and devalue following.  “Be a leader, not a follower.”  This message is ingrained in us, starting from an early age.  Our TV ads and movies repeat and reinforce the message.  Many schools or colleges state that they aim “to educate the future leaders of America.”  Although we are a democratic country, we still tend to value “movers and shakers” and charismatic, assertive political leaders who can inspire or goad others to follow their own goals, agenda, or priorities.

In contrast, Taoists don’t emphasize the importance of attaining leadership, at least not in the sense of out-competing others, gaining and asserting power and control over others, or achieving recognition, popularity, prestige, or fame.  None of these things appeals to them (see my earlier post non-striving).  Typically, Taoists are not even in the mainstream of society, but rather are often nonconformist,  sometimes even recluses.  They are independent minded, and are not impressed or swayed by charismatic, manipulative leaders.

Perhaps the one sense in which Taoists themselves might be considered leaders is in setting an example of a way to live that is simple, unconventional, and centered on the Tao.  If they are leaders in their chosen fields of endeavor, it is out of sheer love for the work itself, rather than out of grasping for fame and glory.  Although Taoists don’t tend to seek political power, the Tao Te Ching includes advice for political leaders, and emphasizes the seemingly paradoxical need for leaders to follow the people they are leading, to show humility, to respect and listen to and understand the people, to put the best interests of the people ahead of their own desires for power and control.

“All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 66, Stephen Mitchell translation

“If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57, Stephen Mitchell translation

This idea that leaders should stop trying to control and start following the people and the Tao was a particularly radical idea at the time that the Tao Te Ching was written in China, when emperors and warlords held total power over the population.  But this Taoist goal seems difficult to fully attain even in our modern, Western democracy.  Even in a democracy, in which the people can vote, political leaders’ efforts to follow the people are not necessarily sincere.   Insincere, Machiavellian “following” involves determining what is currently popular and fashionable, following the daily poll numbers, and tailoring your message to the polls to attain or hold on to power.  In contrast, the Tao Te Ching encourages a sincere, non-manipulative form of following that is not motivated by a desire for power, but rather by an interest in following the Tao.

“The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 66, Stephen Mitchell translation

A leader’s sincere following of the people is not, however, passive and indiscriminate.  It doesn’t mean being a slave to the superficial whims, fashions, fads, prejudices, or hatreds that can spread quickly through a crowd, and that are often transient emotional reactions.  Rather, sincere following, in the Taoist sense, seems to mean following the people’s deepest and most enduring values, the part of them that is centered and peaceful, the part of them that is attuned with Tao.  This probably sounds overly idealistic, virtually impossible to achieve….even the Tao Te Ching itself admits it…but it is worth aspiring to:

“Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67, Stephen Mitchell translation

The usefulness of following applies not only to political leaders, but to leaders in all sorts of areas.  In his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, the  coach Phil Jackson, writes  about applying Buddhist and Taoist principles of listening and following to leadership in the high pressure world of professional basketball:

“Though there are occasions when a firm hand is needed, I learned early that one of the most important qualities of a leader is listening without judgment, or with what Buddhists call bare attention.  This sounds easier than it is, especially when the stakes are high and you desperately need your charges to perform.  But many of the men I’ve coached have come from troubled families and needed all the support they could get.  I find that when I can be truly present with impartial, open awareness, I get a much better feel for the players’ concerns than when I try to impose my own agenda.  And, paradoxically, when I back off and just listen, I get much better results on the court.”

–Phil Jackson Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, p. 67-68

Learning to “follow” another person or group of people, and to engage in a form of mutual, interactive following with others, is an important Taoist skill.  Again, this type of following does not involve a passive surrendering of one’s will to another, nor does it involve giving in to peer pressure.  It does not need to involve one person gaining power or control over another (except, perhaps, when the principle of following is used in the context of competitive sports or martial arts—see the discussion of basketball and Tai Chi Chuan below—but in those cases, paradoxically, it is the one who is most skilled at following who is able to achieve mastery and control over the interaction).  Rather, it involves a way of listening and connecting to each other, of understanding each other more deeply.  If we devalue and neglect this type of listening and following, and value only “leadership” in the modern American sense—asserting and imposing ourselves on others— we risk becoming more and more self-involved and more disconnected from the people and things around us, which can end up limiting and hindering us.  To continue the basketball example, even with the superstar Michael Jordan on their Chicago Bulls team, Phil Jackson and his assistant coach, Tex Winter, had the team work on de-emphasizing the dominating leadership presence of Jordan, and work on functioning together better as a team.  Jackson and Winter taught their players to use a strategy called the triangle offense, that Phil Jackson said is best described as “five man Tai Chi.” The triangle offense requires continuous moment-to-moment awareness and following, both of teammates and members of the opposing team.  In addition to the talents of the team members, it was this training in awareness, listening, following, working together as a team that Jackson believes led to their successes.

Another example that comes to my mind of the value of listening and following comes from my experiences playing in musical groups.  When I was in high school, I studied the clarinet quite seriously, and played in various youth orchestras.  I remember a conductor who I played under for about 4 years urging the orchestra members to listen to each other and follow each other and him while playing together.  To illustrate this type of following, he asked one of the violinists to stand up and walk while the conductor tried to follow his walking pace.  First, the conductor acted out the type of following he didn’t want.  The violinist walked, and the conductor walked along with him, but was always lagging slightly behind the violinist, never really with him.  Then, the conductor illustrated true “listening” and following…this time, as the violinist walked, the conductor stayed exactly with him, so the two looked perfectly in sync, and it was difficult for the onlooker to tell who was leading and who was following.  This type of following takes a high level of awareness and attunement to the other person, and an instantaneous translation of this attunement into motion.  This illustration, however, just shows one side of the following.  In playing music together, there would ideally be a mutual, reciprocal type of listening and following that goes on between performers that results in an exhilarating type of communication and attunement.  This is where the magic can happen in musical performances.   BBC Music Magazine recently wrote this about a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic:  “What’s extraordinary about the Berlin ensemble is not just their clarity of sound, nor their crisp articulation, but the level of freedom with which the players move as one, each tracking the other like swallows in flight.”

This type of following also can be learned and strengthened in practicing the Taoist martial art, Tai Chi Chuan.  In Tai Chi Chuan, one learns to follow the teacher in the class, and carry out the movements in synch with the teacher.  Also, in learning push hands with a partner in Tai Chi Chuan, the challenge is to learn to very sensitively perceive what your partner is doing or intending to do, and to follow your partner’s movements so closely that you stay in continual, steady contact.  As your partner advances towards you, you yield, while remaining in contact; as your partner retreats away from you, you advance towards him, while remaining in contact.  My Tai Chi teacher quotes his teacher, Dr. Tao Ping-siang, who said repeatedly when instructing students in pushing hands, “Don’t push back, and don’t pull away.”   The other person may try to increase or decrease the pressure in the contact between you, but you stay with them, and don’t allow any change in pressure between you to occur.

“If your [opponent’s] side is hard, change your own side to make it soft.  This is called following.  If your opponent is moving and you adhere to him while following in the same direction, it is called sticking.  Then you are attached to your opponent:  when he moves faster, you also move faster; when he moves slower, you move slower, thereby matching his movement…When he moves forward, he should feel that he cannot reach you, and when he retreats, he should feel that he has nowhere to escape to…If you achieve this level of sensitivity, there is no force that will defeat you…The T’ai Chi principle is as simple as this:  yield yourself and follow the external forces.”

— “T’ai Chi Classics II.  Treatise by Master Wong Chung-yua” in T’ai Chi Classics, translated and with commentary by Waysun Liao, 1990, pp.99-107

This is much easier said than done, and requires an inner calm, a deep state of relaxation, a continuous, moment-to-moment awareness, and a “listening” and sensitivity to your partner. (See three of my previous posts: inner quiet, relaxation and serenity, listening.)

Chen Ziqiang (left) and David Gaffney (right) practicing an advanced form of Tai Chi Push Hands called Da Lu

As you read this, you might be wondering about what seems to be a contradiction in Taoist values.  Why is it that Taoists tend to be so independent and unconventional,  so uninterested in following the crowd or domineering leaders, and yet, in another sense, value certain types of following so highly?  Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching emphasizes the independence and unconventionality of Taoists, their lack of susceptibility to peer pressures.

“Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don’t care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharper;
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother’s breasts.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 20, Stephen Mitchell translation

The seeming contradiction between independence from others, on the one hand, and the high value placed on following, on the other hand, can be resolved by understanding that what Taoists value is to be attuned to the Tao, to be “immersed in the wonder of Tao,” to follow Tao, as indicated in the last line just quoted from Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching.  Taoists are independent of superficial fads and fashions, independent of peer pressures or pressures from “charismatic leaders” that are not deeply rooted in the Tao.  But they are very interested in listening to and connecting with others on a much deeper level, and in sensing and following Tao in others.

“Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38, Stephen Mitchell translation

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

Gustav Mahler—a Taoist?

October 3, 2010

I wanted to say a bit more about my comment  following my post becoming Tao: music in nature.  In that comment, repeated in the next paragraph, I speculated that the composer, Gustav Mahler, may have been a Taoist at heart.  There are several themes in Mahler’s life and work that seem to resonate with Taoism, even to point explicitly to Taoism:  his search for a philosophical understanding of life and death, but lack of comfort in conventional religion; his love of Nature, and his feeling of unity with and attunement to Nature; his finding some sadness, but ultimately comfort and consolation in the idea that Nature goes on and on, beyond the lifespan of any individual, who returns and reunites with Nature upon death;  and the use of a Chinese poem by Li Bai, with explicitly Taoist themes, as the words to one of his greatest works, The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde).  Here’s the comment I had written previously:

“For the last several years I’ve been a bit obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler. I have a kind of ‘out there’ theory that he was a Taoist at heart, or became one later in his life, although he may not have described it as such, and perhaps was groping toward something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He composed most of his music in the summers immersed in nature, while staying in the Alps, or by a lake in the middle of the Alps. He was deeply affected by nature. There are some intriguing things I learned in a video entitled What the Universe Tells Me: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The music historian, Morten Solvik, comments, ‘Mahler was a religious person who was not at all dogmatic. He was born a Jew; he converted to Catholicism; and yet he felt at home in neither religion. His search was a philosophical one, not a dogmatic or religious one, in the narrow sense of the word. It was all embracing.’ And Catherine Keller, a theologian at Drew University, comments in that same video about the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, which has the structure of a chorale, and has been described as a prayer without words: ‘What does it mean, that, in some sense, Mahler is praying with us in this final movement without words. I think a prayer, for him, is not about gabbing at God, telling God what we need, or pouring out all of our self-deprications. A prayer, at this depth, seems to be about profound attunement to the spirit of life [I might replace ‘spirit of life’ with ‘Tao’].’ Although his music can express quite a bit of angst, it seems to move toward transcendence and serenity. In addition to being a composer, he was primarily known in his lifetime as a prominent conductor, and his conducting style went from being very physically active and dramatic early in his career, to very minimalistic (one might say, wu wei) later in his career. And later in his career he became fascinated by Chinese poetry and culture, and set his later work “Song of the Earth” to a Chinese poem by Li Bai. I like to imagine that he was a Taoist without fully realizing it or revealing it…”

This idea of Mahler as a Taoist began to occur to me as I have been reading and listening to various descriptions of Mahler’s life and work.  In a course from The Teaching Company, Professor Robert Greenberg states the following, regarding Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection” Symphony, which, by it’s title, had previously sounded to me Christian in theme:

“Mahler Symphony #2 is a philosophical tract, a spiritual and emotional journey that documented Mahler’s pan-religious belief structure, at least as it existed in 1894.  It’s not a Jewish religiosity.  It’s not a Christian religiosity.  Frankly,…the message of the symphony has more in common with various Indian and Eastern religious philosophies than European.”

–Robert Greenberg’s lecture #4 in “Great Masters:  Mahler–His Life and Music,” Course #756, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2001.

In that same course, Professor Greenberg touches up on the idea that, although Mahler suffered from all sorts of inner torment, he also was trying to find his way toward a sense of inner harmony, a very Taoist goal.  Professor Greenberg quotes from a letter that the composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote to Mahler in December of 1904, after attending a performance of Mahler’s Symphony #3:

“My Dear Director,  I must not speak as a musician to a musician, if I am to give any idea of the incredible impression your symphony made on me.  I can only speak as one human being to another, for I saw your very soul.  It was revealed to me as a stretch of wild and secret country.  I felt it as an event of nature.  I felt your symphony.  I shared in the battling for illusion.  I suffered the pangs of disillusionment.  I saw the forces of evil and good wrestling with each other.  I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony…”

–excerpt from a letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Gustav Mahler, December, 1904, quoted in Robert Greenberg’s lecture #6 in “Great Masters:  Mahler–His Life and Music,” Course #756, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, 2001.

Also, in the video Mahler—I Have Lost Touch with the World,  the Mahler biographer, Henry-Louis de la Grange, discusses Mahler’s composition, The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), and, in that discussion, makes reference to Chinese philosophy and religion.  Mahler wrote Das Lied von der Erde one year after the devastating loss of his beloved 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Marie, called affectionately Putzi, who died of diphtheria.  The last section of the piece, called Der Abschied (The Farewell) was written, in part, as a kind of farewell to Putzi, whom Mahler adored, and is pervaded with the themes of death and farewell, but also of life and the renewal of nature.  The last words of Der Abschied are, “The dear earth everywhere / Blossom in spring and grows green again! / Everywhere and eternally the distance shines! / Bright and Blue!  Forever….forever.”

Gustav Mahler and his daughter, Putzi

In talking about Das Lied von der Erde in the video Mahler—I Have Lost Touch with the World, Henry-Louis de la Grange describes Mahler’s philosophy and views of death in a way that makes them sound distinctly Taoist:

“He had religious feelings, more than beliefs.  I think he was neither a Catholic nor a practicing Jew, and I think he was much more a pantheist and influenced by Oriental philosophies, and that’s why it’s so interesting to see him setting Chinese poems to music in the Lied van der Erde … I think … the Orientals are…more familiar with this mixture of sadness and gaiety and this sense of farewell which is very sad and also rather mystical, rather otherworldly and does not express any particular belief in the case of the Lied van der Erde…  It is the renewal of nature every year in spring which is … when human beings compare their death to the fact that nature remains after their death.  It is a thing that is very inspiring and very moving, and I know very few passages in all of music which are more moving than the end of Lied van der Erde.”

Another Mahler biographer, Stuart Feder, also writes of Das Lied van der Erde, that, “In Der Abschied…The ultimate ‘place,’ the end point of human destiny has been transformed from the ‘heavens’ of the Second and Fourth symphonies, the Mutter Haus of Kindertotenlieder, and the occassional moments of grace in the lieder to a unique ‘place’ never before articulated in music.  At the same time, musical acts of mourning evident earlier find a point of resolution and comfort beyond mere resignation in the last moments of Das Lied.

“In this final movement, boundaries dissolve between the living and the dead; the human and the nonhuman; the organic and the inorganic.  By the same token, music, poetry, and philosophy merge in a confluence of meaning that none could adequately elaborate singly.  The truly engaged listener is drawn into the amalgam in such a way that there is a co-mingling of music and self.”

–Stuart Feder, Gustav Mahler:  A Life in Crisis, 2004, Yale University Press, p. 149

It seems that in this final movement, the living and the dead, the human and the nonhuman, the organic and the inorganic, the listener and the music all become one with Tao.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

liberation from the fear of death

September 16, 2010

“Plum Blossom Curve” by Ren Adams


In his 1992 book 365 Tao:  Daily Meditations(p. 57), Deng Ming-Dao writes, “Of all the spiritual traditions, following Tao is among the least popular…many traditions offer heaven, forgiveness, comfort, ecstasy, belonging, power, and wealth.  Tao offers only three things:  sound health, a way through the bewilderment of life, and liberation from the fear of death.”  Fear and horror of death is a powerful, if often avoided, feeling in many of us.  In Helen Liang’s ordeal with cancer, described in the last post, she was able to let go of her fear, even as she was facing what seemed to be imminent death.  By meditating on the Taoist idea that there is no separation between her and the universe, on the idea that she is Tao, there seemed nothing to be frightened of anymore.   From a Taoist perspective, each of us came from Tao, is a manifestation of Tao, and returns to Tao upon death.   In that sense, there is a continuity between the time before life, life itself, and the time after life.  Taoists sometimes say that the life that we are living now is only a dream.  Buddhists speak of “no self,” that is, the idea that our perception of ourselves as separate individuals is not really real.  What do these ideas mean?  From the modern, American perspective, they sound virtually delusional.

Here’s my beginner’s take on this, my work in progress toward understanding the Taoist point of view.  When you adopt the long view and contemplate the immensity of space and time, our separateness as individuals begins to seem less prominent, and you can start to let go of your deep attachment to the importance, the centrality, of yourself as a separate from everything else in the world.  Imagine taking off from a rocket ship from earth, going from the perspective of a small place and time on earth and rising up to the a view of the big, big picture, and looking back at the earth in space.  When you have the long view, then maybe all of our daily worries and conflicts, even our identity as separate from all other beings on earth, doesn’t seem so crucially important anymore.  Yes, each of us is unique and precious, and each of our lives should be cherished.  But part of what makes us each so incredibly valuable is that we are manifestations of Tao, the source of all things, which is infinite in space and time, and does not end upon death, even though our consciousness as a separate individual may end.  At death, we return to the source, in some sense, become the source.

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16, Stephen Mitchell translation, 1988

Here is another translation of the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16:

“Empty yourself of everything.

Let the mind become still.

The ten thousand things rise and fall while the self watches their return.

They grow and flourish and then return to the source.

Returning to the source is stillness, which is the way of nature.

The way of nature is unchanging.

Knowing constancy is insight.

Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.

Knowing constancy, the mind is open.

With an open mind, you will be openhearted.

Being openhearted, you will act royally.

Being royal, you will attain the divine.

Being divine, you will be at one with the Tao.

Being one with the Tao is eternal.

And though the body dies, the Tao will never pass away.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter Sixteen, translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

When Taoists speak of becoming an “immortal,” I don’t think that they mean literally living forever in this life, which is impossible.  Instead, they seem to mean achieving a deep realization of one’s unity with Tao.  Yes, we will all age and die, but during our lives we can cultivate the Tao within ourselves, can become “immersed in the wonder of the Tao” through various means, including meditation, qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, connections with other people, music, art, and immersion in the beauty of nature.  By doing so, we can let go of some of the anguish of the inevitable aging of our bodies, and more fully experience life, and realize our deep connection with—our identity with—the Tao that lasts forever.  This mindset and these practices can keep a youthful well of internal energy in us, even as our bodies age.  In the book Kung Fu:  History, Philosophy and Technique by David Chow and Richard Spangler, in the chapter “Taoist Contribution to Kung Fu,” there is a wonderful picture of the Nei Kung master, Kuo Ling Ying, then 85-years-old, in a standing meditation.  In the caption of the picture, there is a quote from Kuo Ling Ying: “Big moves are not as polished as short moves.  Short moves are not as polished as stillness.”  With his shaved head and traditional Chinese garb, he looks, in some superficial physical sense, like he could be in his eighties.  But his face and posture in the standing meditation seem to radiate an uncanny energy and awareness, an openness to life, a blissfulness, and an inner youthfulness rarely seen even in the young.  Anxiety and fear of death appear to be the farthest things from his mind.  I can only aspire to be that way if I make it to my eighties!

The Taoist view of life and death is beautifully described in the book Taoism:  The Road to Immortality by John Blofeld.  The passage from the book below really has helped me to begin to understand the Taoist views on death, views so different from the typical Western perspective.  Because this is difficult for me to do justice to by summarizing, I chose to include a long quotation from the book below:

“…it is possible to understand what is really involved in cultivation of the Way.  Man’s true nature (Mind as it is called in Ch’an (Zen) terminology) is not the personal possession of the individual; rather, individual existence is the prime illusion to be discarded.  Belonging to none, the Tao is present in all.  Therefore, as Mahayana Buddists are also fond of pointing out, the only difference in this present life between realised immortals and ordinary men is that the former are aware of their underlying identity with the Tao, whereas the latter have not experienced that identity.  Cultivation, then, is a matter of unveiling, peeling off successive layers of delusion, each more subtle than the one before.  It is a process of liberation.  When the final delusion of personal separateness has been cast off, only the physical body (soon to be discarded) remains to be mistaken by the spiritually blind for a personal possession.  By then, death has no meaning, except as a welcome release from bondage to an ageing carcass.  The adept’s real nature—-the nature of all being—cannot possibly be diminished by the loss of an identity that has had no reality from the first.  When clouds obscure the sun, its orb is not diminished; when they are blown away, its brightness is not augmented; the sun is always as it is, whether visible to the eye or not.  Thus nothing starts with birth or ends with death; the real is there all the time.  However, to understand this intellectually is not enough; it must become a direct perception.  To this end, the would-be immortal (goal-winner) follows a regime set forth very simply some two thousand years ago in a work of the Han dynasty:

‘Taking good care of his human body, perfecting within himself his endowment of the Real, cleansing will and thought, not straying into the paths of ordinary mortals, his mind and senses utterly serene, impervious to the effects of every sort of ill, welcoming life and death as parts of a seamless unity and therefore not clinging to the one or anxious about the other, free from every kind of anxiety and fear, roaming the world imperturbably at ease, he attains the Way.’

“How marvelous to wander through the world ‘imperturbably at ease,’ no matter where one goes or what circumstances arise!  No wonder the poems of the mountain-dwelling recluses are full of joy!  With this philosophy they were able to welcome life’s lovely scents and colours as gifts to be enjoyed from moment to moment, never regretting their transience or their passing, with never a twinge of anxiety or fear.  Where even the prospect of sudden, imminent death has no power to disturb, much less appall, one’s feeling of security is as absolute as that of a child in its mother’s arms!”

–John Blofeld, Taoism:  The Road to Immortality, 1985, pp. 161-162

To relax, to ease up on the excessive striving and anxieties, to “try on” the mindset of “roaming the world imperturbably at ease,” to perceive the Tao inside of oneself and in others, to let go of the fear of death…these are steps towards attaining the Way.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

meditation and Tai Chi Chuan, in illness and in health

July 21, 2010

“Quan Yin, Chinese Goddess of Compassion” by Ren Adams


Daily practice of meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi Chuan can be remarkably helpful in relieving stress, and, in that way, can benefit our health.  There are stories of individuals, exceptionally adept in Taoism, Buddism, yoga, or Tai Chi, who remained unusually healthy and youthful appearing until quite late in life.  In “The Tao of Pooh,” Benjamin Hoff recounts the story (reportedly true) of Li Chung Yun, who lived an astonishingly long life, appearing much younger than his age, and remaining in vigorous health.  Although he regularly practiced Taoist exercises and walked long distances, Li Chung Yun attributed his long life and good health mostly to his inner state of mind, what he called “inner quiet.”  Whether the various stories about Taoist adepts are fully true, exaggerated, or even fabricated, the message they convey, and the inner kernel of truth that they share, is that, by adopting a daily practice that cultivates serenity and reduces stress, we can enjoy a better quality of life, and probably a healthier life.

The July/August 2003 issue of Kungfu/Qigong magazine had a fascinating article about Helen Liang, an accomplished martial artist and daughter of the esteemed martial artist, Shou-Yu Liang of Vancouver (http://www.shouyuliang.com).  You can find the full article at this website:


It tells the story of Helen’s ordeal with cancer, and the way that she used meditation and Tai Chi Chuan to help her get through it.

She was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of lymphoma in her late teens, and underwent months of chemotherapy, which failed to put the cancer into remission.  She was still extremely ill,  and her oncologist told her and her family that the only remaining possibility for curing the cancer was a bone marrow transplant, which had less than a 5% chance of success.  Without the bone marrow transplant, the doctors predicted that she had only a couple of weeks to live.  She made the difficult decision to forgo the bone marrow transplant, leave the hospital, and live out her remaining days at home with her family.  Despite the grim prognosis, her father and their family doctor did not give up hope, and worked with her intensively on Buddist and Taoist qigong, meditation, tai chi, Chinese herbal medicine, and alternative Western medicine, in a last-ditch effort to save her life.  Every day, Helen spent prolonged periods meditating or doing tai chi outside.  Weeks passed, and she did not deteriorate or die, but rather her fevers began to subside.  The article describes in some detail her meditation practices:

“As Helen’s recovery progressed she practiced Buddist and Taoist qigong with her father, and also a serious amount of meditation by herself.  ’Every day,’ she recalls, ‘I’d go in the backyard where we had flowers and bamboo.  In the morning, facing the sun, with no noise, I’d sit and meditate.  I’d combine methods, and shorten then, tailor them to me.  I focused sometimes on the goddess Kuan Yin; I’d feel peaceful whenever I’d think of her.  So I’d do something that has something to do with her, visualize an image of healing light.

‘Another thing that really helped me, I found it myself.  I would sit there and imagine I am one with the universe, almost that I’m not there.  When you think about that, how immense the universe is—the good, the bad, disease and everything, how everything moves on, recycling, coming in a circle—you’re no longer afraid of anything.  I’d think, I’m not even sick right now, I’m the universe—feel how powerful the universe is—I’m not there and yet I’m powerful.

‘Sometimes feeling the pain, the side effects from chemo, I’d feel horrible, that’s when I meditated the most.  I’d wake up and feel refreshed—peaceful and powerful—I was the universe.’

‘One of the things I learned most is let nature run its own course.  Don’t worry about the outcome.  Worry about the process, and let nature go from there.  Always try your best, but don’t worry.  If you fail and lose, it doesn’t matter.  That’s part of nature.’”

–Martha Burr, “Opening and Closing the Gates of Heaven:  Helen Liang’s Triumph over Tragedy, Battling Lymphoma with Qigong, Tai Chi and Chinese Medicine,” Kung Fu Magazine, July/August 2003 issue

Over the course of about a year, she progressively regained her strength, and the cancer seemed to go into remission or disappear, as she continued to use Chinese herbal medicines, practice mediation, qigong, and tai chi.  She has lived to this day, 14 years after the cancer diagnosis, in good health, and she still practices and teaches martial arts as President of the Shou-Yu Liang Wushu Taiji Qigong Institute in Vancouver.

Someone with a background in Qigong or traditional Chinese medicine may have a theoretical framework that can provide some explanation for why or how Helen recovered.  But as someone who comes from a background in modern, Western medicine, who is not well versed in Qigong, and who is not typically an advocate of alternative medicine, I found this story fascinating and puzzling.  What are we Westerners to make of it?  The facts of the story seem to be indisputable:  Helen Liang is a real person, and this happened to her, and she is still alive today, recovered from an apparently fatal cancer, for unknown reasons.  To try to understand it, my tendency is to first use the framework of Western medicine to think of all sorts of possible explanations.  Could the initial diagnosis have been inaccurate?  Or could this have been such a rare form of lymphoma that so little was known about it, including the fact that it sometimes can “spontaneously” remit…in other words, could the doctors’ prognosis have been wrong?   But, on the other hand, if the diagnosis and prognosis were correct, and she really was on the edge of death, then what was it that allowed her to recover, despite there seeming to be no chance?  As the article itself says, “Whether to attribute this miracle to Kuan Yin, the goddess or mercy, to qigong, to bitter Chinese herbs, to a family’s unwavering love, or to Helen’s own will to heal her cancer, the answer is still a mystery.”

I don’t know which of these factors or combination of factors, if any, made the cancer go away.  In the parlance of Western medicine, Helen’s story is “anecdotal,” a single case, and therefore it is not possible to make any definitive conclusion about what caused her to recover.  I don’t tell this story to encourage anyone to forsake conventional medicine, or to use only alternative or non-Western medicine.  If I, or someone close to me, had a serious illness, I  would seek out conventional, Western medical care, although I respect the right of others to choose alternative approaches, and clearly, as in Helen’s story, there are situations in which one can run out of good treatment options in conventional medicine.  If I were in Helen’s situation, after the chemotherapy failed, I’m not sure what I would have decided about the bone marrow transplant.  One thing is certain, though—that the meditation and Tai Chi that she practiced was wonderfully effective in relieving her fear and stress, and in enabling her, in the midst of this situation, to reach a state of inner peace and calm…even bliss.  Helping patients to cope with the potentially crushing burden of fear and stress inflicted by serious illness is so important, but so often neglected by conventional Western medicine.  And why does Western medicine neglect it?  Even from a hard-nosed, skeptical, Western scientific/medical perspective, there are reams of convincing data indicating that severe anxiety and stress can have strongly negative consequences on our physical and mental health.

I was moved by reading about the situation that Helen faced, and by the way her meditations about the immensity of the universe and feeling one with the universe enabled her to reach a state of no fear…and by her stance of letting nature takes its course…trying your best, but not worrying about the outcome…if you lose, fail, or even die, it is OK…it is part of nature.  Who knows?….maybe her ability to let go of fear and stress really did contribute to her recovery.  In our society, we have a tendency, quite different from Helen’s, to encourage people with serious illnesses to “fight” and “battle” the disease.   This attitude of “fighting” apparently helps many people to not give up, to hold on to hope and to a sense of control.  But sometimes I wonder whether all this talk of “fighting,” “struggling,” and “winning the battle” against the disease could, at least in some people, be counterproductive, could even contribute to stress or to a feeling of defeat and failure if things don’t go the way they were hoping.  I wonder whether Helen’s stance—not of fighting and struggling, but of becoming a part of nature, doing her best to care for herself but not worrying so much about the outcome, going with the flow of nature—may be more relieving of stress and burden for some people…it would seem more relieving to me, at least.   And, in the end, by not worrying about “winning,” she won.  She embodied wu wei, “doing not doing” or “effortless action.”  Whether one is ill or healthy, it seems clear that joining the flow of nature through meditation and Tai Chi can enhance our quality of life, can help us let go of the stresses that wear us down, and can help us reach a state of inner peacefulness and happiness.  That is why I want to continue practicing Tai Chi Chuan, no matter what happens in life, letting the attitude that Helen describes sink in.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

becoming Tao: sailing

July 9, 2010

“Man in a Boat” by Ren Adams


I’ve always been attracted to sailing.  I’ve been thinking about sailing more lately, maybe because it’s summer…or maybe because of feeling upset about the horrible polluting of the ocean by the ongoing BP oil spill disaster.   Many years ago, I spent a summer working in my college’s sailing center, maintaining boats and getting some sailing lessons.  There is something soothing, yet thrilling about the beautiful boats, the gentle clinking sounds of the rigging in the wind, the white sails against the blue sky, the feeling of lift and the sound of rushing water as wind fills the sails, and the spray of water as boats move through the waves.  Recently, I’ve been thinking about how sailing resonates with Taoism.  In the Tao Te Ching, there are many comparisons of Tao to water and descriptions of Tao as flowing.

“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8, Stephen Mitchell translation

“The great Tao flows everywhere…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 34, Stephen Mitchell translation

“All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.”

–Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32, Stephen Mitchell translation

The strategies used in sailing are analagous to those of Tai Chi Chuan.  In sailing, you accomplish what you want—moving in a particular direction—not by forcing or by artificially pushing against nature with the help of a motor, but rather by “listening” continuously to the wind and water currents; by skillfully aligning yourself, your boat, and your sails to those currents and thus borrowing the energy from nature.  The awareness and listening are very important.  By staying in the moment, with a calm and clear mind, aware and aligned with the continually shifting wind and water flow,  you become a part of what is around you…in some sense you become the wind, the water, the boat and sails moving with them…you become the Tao.  Albert Einstein, who loved sailing, described an experience like this on the water:

“Never before have I lived through a storm like the one this night…The sea has a look of indescribable grandeur, especially when the sun falls on it.  One feels as if one is dissolved and merged into Nature.”

–Albert Einstein, December 10, 1931

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

finding Tao in science

July 5, 2010

“Tang Dynasty Nobleman Wanders in the Snow” by Ren Adams


My oldest son just finished kindergarten, and his favorite subject by far, and the favorite of many of his kindergarten classmates, was science.  This popularity of science among the kindergarteners may be partly attributable to the school’s terrific science teacher.  But I also think that the wonder that most kids feel toward the natural world and science is a fundamental, inherent, not yet “civilized away” fascination with Tao.  Many adults still have some of this curiosity and wonder, but it often seems at least half forgotten.

My own career in research is really driven by that same childlike, endless fascination with nature.  My wife and I wonder, sometimes, why I chose and continue to pursue a career in science that can be so grueling, but I think my stubborn persistence is mostly due to this fascination that is like a gravitational pull for me.

Many aspects of scientific work can be repetitive, monotonous, and annoying.  A career in science requires a high level of anxiety and frustration tolerance.  But there are times when we make an unexpected discovery, however small, or when I hear a great scientific presentation, that reminds me of why I do this.  For example, I remember hearing a talk years ago that gave me such a sense of new depth of understanding, and a sense of the possibility of even deeper understanding, that I felt almost like laughing with excitement at how cool it was.  It may sound unusual, but, at times like that,  I can feel a euphoria of understanding that is almost kinesthetic, a feeling akin to falling through space, much as Carl Sagan described the feeling of contemplating the cosmos, as I quoted in an earlier blog:  “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries” (Carl Sagan, “Cosmos” 1980, Random House, p. 4).  I think it is these moments that keep me going.

Dudley Herschbach, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has a surprising perspective on what someone needs to be a good scientist:

“Interviewer:  What do you think is the most important skill or characteristic a scientist should have?  Is it curiosity or perseverance or analytical skills or something else?

Herschbach:  All of those are important, but if you ask me to say the single most important one—certainly not unique to science—but the most important one is the capacity to fall in love.  To get excited, enthralled, obsessed with some question or problem and helplessly give themselves over to their destiny.

Interviewer:  Like the mad scientist.

Herschbach:  I don’t think it’s a mad scientist so much.  I think it’s fulfillment of human potential to experience this kind of thing in your life, to be fascinated by some questions.  It’s very much manifest in many scientists I know, but also artists and musicians.  You know how many of those people struggle.  Our society undervalues them enormously and yet they are in love with what they are doing.  That is why they do it at all costs.  I think that is the most important single thing.”

–Harvard Alumni Gazette, June, 1989

I remember when I first began working in a neurobiology laboratory, and learning about the incredible intricacy and complexity of the intracellular “machinery” of neurons.  The amazing complexity of it, and the fact that somehow it all works and somehow contributes to our mental functioning…contemplating all of this conjured up in me thoughts of “God.”  The thoughts were not of an anthropomorphized God, the creator, like a clockmaker, who created all of this with his hands.  Rather, I had the sense that whatever “God” or the Tao is, is manifested in this awe-inspiring and beautiful intricacy of nature.  Although there is a popular belief that science and religion are diametrically opposed (despite the fact that some of the great scientists of history were religious, like Isaac Newton), many theoretical physicists, such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, refer in their work to God or understanding the “mind of God.”  Whether or not a scientist is a practicing member of a formal religion, or believes in God in the conventional sense, there is something in scientific work that can conjure up a sense of mystery, of awe at nature, that feels, for lack of a better word, spiritual, because it helps one become closer to the mystery of Tao.

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

Albert Einstein – “The Merging of Spirit and Science”

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

–Albert Einstein

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description .. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.”

–Albert Einstein

“We know nothing about [God, the world] at all.  All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren.  Possibly we shall know a little more than we do now, but the real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.”

–Albert Einstein, quoted in “The Expanded Quotable Einstein,” Princeton University Press, p. 207

Although, as Einstein wrote, we will never know the real nature of things (“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”), the thrill of science is that it can get us a little closer to the Tao.   I think that is why kids love it, and why some adults hold on to that childlike fascination with nature and science.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved

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