Thurs..er Saturday(?) Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 6

Gads! Thursday Tao is two days late. Mea culpa!

The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and Earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it; it will never fail.

In Taoist teachings, the ultimate duality is yin yang. Yin yang represents the duality of all things, emptiness and form, and in all things aspects of both yin and yang can be found. Again, what is a sound without quiet? What is an island without water? Emptiness gives rise to form and vice versa.

What is a valley but the space between two hills? The valley is the emptiness as defined by the substance around it. Simultaneously, the distinction of two mountains comes only with the vacancy between them. The valley is the fertile land that supports life, that accepts the flow of the stream and shelters those within its wide and low bounds. The empty spaces allow for life to thrive.

Likewise, emptiness of mind cultivates healthy thought. Emptiness of bias cultivates truer seeing. Emptiness of desire allows needs to be met and contentment to be achieved. Emptiness gives rise to not-doing, to natural, rather than forced progression. Emptiness can never be exhausted; it is always there if we want it. Allow for emptiness within the self, and you allow for life to thrive within the self.

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This Song Rips: Coliseum “Blind in One Eye”

Alright, this is not the rippingest Coliseum song. In fact, as far as Coliseum songs goes, it’s pretty toned down, but I am so hyped about their new record. I like Coliseum’s past records, but this one sounds like they might have taken some cues from the other Patterson brother’s last album. I loved that Young Widows record, and if the new Coliseum has elements of it mixed in, it might just be the perfect rock album for this summer.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 5

Heaven and Earth are impartial;
They see the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The wise are impartial;
They see the people as straw dogs.
The space between heaven and Earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the center.

When I was in high school, I had one of those quintessentially teenage moments while sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris during the Easter midnight mass, looking out over the lights of Paris — one of those moments where you get a real grasp of the enormity of the world. There, below me, were two million people that I would never know. Two million people who have lives I’ll never touch, who are each the center of their own little universe. As far as they were concerned, I did not exist.

What is two million people? It’s nothing, really. There are some seven billion people in the world. These two million people make up less than one half of one tenth of one percent of the entire world’s population. Yet, were these two million people or the city in which they live suddenly wiped from existence, the effect would be felt the world over. But it matters not to the world who these people are as individuals. No one is important in the grand scheme of things.

The world, the universe, they are impartial to us individuals. Yes, we are each important in our own spheres of influence, but the world will move on with or without us. That is actually a pretty good feeling when you get used to the idea. There is a lot of stress in the idea that one needs to change the world when really all we need to worry about is our lives, our own little spheres of influence. That’s not to say that we should be apathetic about global issues, but rather that if we want to effect more happiness in the world, we should focus on what we can do in our own circles.

There’s something we can learn, too, from the world about being impartial. In many things, it is best to to approach things as being equal. Take science, for example. Being partial to a particular outcome ruins your experiment. Or consider dealing with people at work: if you play favorites, you not only disrespect members of your team, but you also set yourself up for stressful, uncomfortable situations. Or consider being confronted with new ideas. Does it benefit you more to be open and willing to accept a new idea if properly founded and defended, or to stay with your current beliefs, even in the face of new information? The world is impartial, and if we are learning from it, we should be as well.

Now consider that the space between heaven and earth is the mind. When we empty ourselves of predispositions, of bias, we can change and adapt, and the more the mind flexes, the more it produces. The opposite holds true for our mouths when we get caught up in the illusion of our own self-importance. Open the mind, close the mouth, stay humble.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 4

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.
Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!
Blunt the sharpness,
Untangle the knot,
Soften the glare,
Merge with dust.
Oh, hidden deep but ever present!
I do not know from whence it comes.
It is the forefather of the gods.

From the grandest star to the meanest insect, everything that is ages and dies. The passage of time and the natural laws of the universe can be stopped by no man. That which is sharp will be dulled. That which shines brightly will dim. Everything returns to dust sooner or later. This is an immutable truth about our reality. This law has existed before we ever dreamed of gods, before even there was an Earth on which to dream. Whence comes this law is unknowable and unimportant. It is enough to know that it simply is.

Sometimes religious people ask me if, being an atheist, I am scared of death. No, I tell them. I have accepted that I — like everything that came before me and (presumably) everything that will come after — will die. And when I die, I do not expect to continue my existence in any form whatsoever. The matter that makes up my body will return to the Earth and, ultimately, to the universe, but when my synapses stop firing, my consciousness — that which makes me me — will no longer exist. That’s just how it goes. I am not afraid of it, but it does make consider that while I exist, I want to be happy, to enjoy my existence.

Consider the photograph above, “The Pale Blue Dot.” Taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 some 3.7 billion miles from home, it shows us Earth as we never see it (can you find it?). It gives us a perspective we usually do not get. In 1994, Carl Sagan gave us his thoughts on this photograph, a stirring and profound reminder that in the grand scheme of things, we live on but “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” He went on to say, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

Now consider that this same sentiment applies just as much to our lives, to our time. Our universe has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions of years after we are gone. Each of our lives is a hint of a moment in the lifetime of the universe. What point is there, then, but to seek happiness in the brief time that we have, to bring happiness to those we care about?

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Thursday Tao follow-up

I stumbled across a blog where the authors are putting together a synthesized translation of the Tao Te Ching, and the third chapter has a clarity to it that I like. The last lines, and the use of “the scoundrel,” are the highlights.

If no person is called great, people will not fight over greatness. If great intrinsic value is not placed on material things, there will be no theft. To refrain from displaying the value of things will allow people to be satisfied with what they need. Therefore, the sage would rule by not ruling, by filling the bellies of their people and keeping their minds at ease, by strengthening their bones but giving them no reason to fight. By guarding ag … Read More

via Nothing Just Is

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Start Today

Even the longest journey must begin where you stand. — Lao Tzu

I have lived much of my life in future tense. Someday I will write a novel. Someday I will have a healthier social life. Someday I will relearn French and go back to France . Someday I will lose weight and get healthy… Someday sure seems like an awesome time, but it never actually gets here. Something always gets in the way, whether it’s working twelve hour days or going to school full time in addition to working full time. While waiting for the “right” time to make of my life what I want to make, I waste time that could be spent actively doing it.

No more. I am thirty years old, almost thirty-one. With my family’s history of heart disease, if I do not make the physical changes I need to make, this could easily be the halfway mark in my life. If I do not change now, I may never get the chance to. What is life for if not to be lived? While I hesitate and plan and delay, the days that I should be squeezing the most out of are passing me by. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, indeed. I am not waiting around for Someday any longer. I have adopted a new mantra: Start Today.

So I did. On Tuesday, I finally started trying to make some changes. I started exercising and tracking what I eat (using Livestrong.com’s MyPlate tool). I am working on a schedule that will give me the time I need to work on the other changes I want to make. It’s tough to shift gears after so many years of doing the same thing day in and day out, but I find I have more motivation than ever to make a real change in my body, mind and relationships. It may not be surprising that I have found no little motivation in Taoist philosophy.

That first workout was hard and humbling, and I wanted to quit halfway through. My feet hurt. My calves burned. I was tired and ready to throw in the towel, but then I thought about the quote from Lao Tzu above, which is more commonly written as “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” When you have a goal, no matter how grand or modest, there are two universal truths: you can only start from where you are, and you can only reach the goal by starting down the path. When I started to flag, I reminded myself that this was the only way to succeed, and that waiting will just make my starting point more distant from my goal.

To a large extent, trying to make a profound change in my life starts with managing my expectations and squashing my desire for instant gratification. I have much work ahead of me. I am not going to suddenly have the energy and endurance to run a 5K, but if I want to eventually have that, I have to start where I am and I have to start now.

At the same time, every bit of that work is a move toward my goal, a gain of ground I would not have made if I did not put forth this effort now. Thinking of that, I started to think of the concept of balance and duality. While working out, I realized that every bit of effort or pain will be repaid to me with time that I can enjoy, more time to relax in the future, time where I can breathe easier and feel more comfortable. It can also pay off in terms of giving me more opportunities for things that I want to try, things that I cannot physically do right now. Every bit that I push past my boundaries now will push my boundaries out that much further for the next time.

I have no illusions about what kind of work lies ahead. I am just getting started, and I have the zeal that comes with a newfound dedication to something. I know that this will fade, and I will have to settle into the real grind. I know that my motivation will sag and that temptation will rear its many heads. I know, too, that I will not always resist it. I will have failures. But I will have more successes, and each success will build upon the last to see me through. I am looking forward to the challenge.

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Thursday Tao: Tao Te Ching – Chapter 3

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.
The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

The third chapter of the Tao Te Ching is one where the translation and the level of abstraction one reads it with can have a profound impact on the lesson one takes from it. Taken literally, it prescribes a system of rule that cleaves to the socialist/communist (little “s” and little “c” intended) ideal of equal social class for all with a lack of private property, wherein the people are satisfied because their needs are met and their lives are comfortable. Abstract it out, and it becomes less about rule and more about coexisting harmoniously with your community by applying the principles of rule to interpersonal behavior. That’s all fine and good, but in my mind, the real lesson is a personal lesson, buried in the poetry and metaphor. I am going to take this line by line.

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling. On the surface, this advises us to treat people as equals to one another to prevent jealousy and infighting, but the principle applies to more than just people. Apply it to sensations or ideas, and it takes on new meaning. Reconsider the concept of duality presented in chapter two, that opposite concepts define one another’s existence. Now consider that contentedness comes from acceptance. If I experience pain, I can still be content, for without pain I would know no pleasure. That does not mean that I will actively enjoy pain, but simply that I can be content with its existence, content with the fact that I will experience it. I can come to this point more easily by not exalting pleasure, by not putting the things I actively enjoy on an emotional pedestal. To exalt the “good” sensation or concept, I create inner turmoil whenever I am not experiencing that sensation or concept. By treating opposite concepts as equals, I prevent the inner turmoil and increase contentedness.

Not collecting treasures prevents stealing. Again, on the surface it is the Marxist ideal: if everyone has a chicken, then no one will steal a chicken. Eliminate private property (meaning eliminate unequal access to goods and services), and you eliminate the motivation for theft: greed. But let us shift this idea from the societal to the personal. To be truly content is to be free of desire, but to be free of desire does not mean to lead an ascetic life of self-denial. Instead, to be free of desire means to satiate one’s needs and accept that that is all that is needed. To be free of desire also means to stop attaching emotional value to material goods. As Carl at CenterTao notes, theft is not necessarily the act of taking, but the feeling of loss we experience when something is taken from us. By eliminating attachments, or more accurately by accepting impermanence, we make it so that we can never be the victim of theft. To collect treasures — in the mind or in the physical world — is to build desire and create greed and to make oneself vulnerable to theft. Learning satisfaction leads to a more contented life.

Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart. Ignorance is bliss? One might get that idea from this phrasing, but I think it is more about the elimination of desire. Rather than “out of sight, out of mind,” I look at this as the reverse: out of mind, out of sight. My take on this line ties in closely with the previous line. To prevent envy or greed, we must not see desirable things, not by hiding them, but by no longer desiring them. This goes directly to separating want from need, recognizing those things we think we want that ultimately only cause us unhappiness because we do not have them. For example, back when I was collecting music equipment, I spent too much time desiring equipment I didn’t have. I would save for it until I could afford it. But the equipment would not satisfy me, and I would be on the next thing. Meanwhile, no music was being made. If I had separated my needs from my desires, I could have been content to make music with what I had until I really needed something else.

The rest of chapter reinforces these ideas and brings it back to the concept of non-action. The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones. Satiate needs, humble oneself, eliminate desire and strengthen resolve. If one governs oneself in this manner, harmony or contentedness can be achieved. If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever people will not try to interfere. Remove yourself from having just one perspective and eliminate your desire, and those who would take advantage of you through guile and playing upon greed or envy will have no means of getting to you.

If nothing is done, then all will be well. This goes back to practicing no-action. Think of a person walking from one room to the next. The doorway is six feet to his right. The person who lives by these principles will walk six feet to the right to go through the doorway. The person who does not live by these principles will instead walk up to the wall and decry the fact that there is no opening. He will look at the doorway and say, “If only I had a doorway like that!” He might leave and get some tools and come back and start cutting himself a doorway. What follows? If one creates contentment by changing one’s perspective, then it will be a lasting contentment that requires no doing. If one tries instead to create contentment by doing, then one may find that action leads to more action and never to actual happiness.

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This Song Rips: Iron Maiden “Number of the Beast”

Sometimes the anticipation of rippage makes a song go so much harder. Consider Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast,” one of the truly great metal classics. There is no doubt that a song called “Number of the Beast” is going to get live, but Maiden knew the value of a good build up. First, there is the text from the book of Revelations: Woe to you O earth and sea for the Devil sends the beast with wrath because he knows the time is short… And you get hyped and think, ‘Oh, man, this song is going to bring it.’ Then the guitar starts with a riff that jams and Bruce Dickinson starts in with Harris’ bad poetry and you just feel that tension start to rise. Dickinson can hardly bear it himself, letting a little steam bubble out at 45 seconds in, and the rest of the band takes his cue and starts to rev their engines, and, god damn, that pot gets boiling and you just get ready to rage hard. Then at around 1:20, Horatio Caine says, “Looks like this beast’s days are numbered” and puts on his sunglasses, and Dickinson lets out a wail that makes Roger Daltrey cry himself to sleep at night. The lid blows off the mother, and for the next three-and-a-half minutes or so it’s constant back flips. God damn, this song rips.

And just for good measure, here’s another classic Maiden track:

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This Song Rips: Descendents “Jean is Dead”

Some people never get punk music. They mistake rawness of emotion for a lack of sophistication and a lack of sophistication for puerility. But to my mind there is no other music that works on such a fundamental level, with such an economy of words and sounds, that it taps into your most primal emotions and lets you vent them all out in two minute bursts of catharsis. It’s like in that scene in Ordinary People when Conrad’s walls finally break down and he says, “I need something. It just keeps coming. I can’t make it stop.”

For every time your emotions are boiling over, there’s a punk song to get you through it, like this song from the Descendents. The first song in this clip, “Jean is Dead” is such a pure response to a complex and heartbreaking situation for the young singer. (Note the tie back to Ordinary People in the subject matter. Great book and movie. Anyway…) This song rips.

You should have told me. I should have known.
Now you’re gone, and I’m alone.
Your mother told me last night on the phone.
Why’d you do it? Now I’m alone.
I would have helped you, would have done anything.
I would have taken you with me or bought you a ring,
But now you’re gone and I’m alone.

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This Song Rips: “Crucified”

Originally recorded by Iron Cross and popularized by Agnostic Front, “Crucified” (here done by 25 Ta Life) became the de facto skinhead anthem on both sides of the political aisle. Traditional skins were fed up with being lumped in with Nazis, and Nazis felt persecution for their racist beliefs (Irony Cross?). But any member of a little-understood and widely-disparaged subculture can identify with the song’s themes of misdirected persecution. I remember goth kids getting harassed after Columbine. I remember having to explain over and over again to people that when I was straightedge, it had nothing to do with the militant moron crowd. It’s guilt by mistaken association, and it’s frustrating as hell. Sometimes you just need to go off, and a song like “Crucified” is perfect for it. This song rips.

They don’t know our feelings, only desperate cries.
They see reflections through distorted eyes.
We don’t care because it breaks their views.
Got to learn to fight to live
Before they grind us under heel!

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