Walking the Way Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching


by  Robert Meiko Rosenbaum

tao te ching image

One who fully embodies Rightness
can be compared with a newborn child.
Wasps and scorpions will not sting,
snakes and vipers will not bite,
fierce beasts will not attack,
raptors will not pounce.
The infant’s bones are weak, sinews soft,
but its grip is firm.
As yet oblivious to sexual copulation,
not knowing male and female,
still its body is fully aroused.
Its life force perfect at its height,
it can scream all day yet never get hoarse
because it embodies harmony completely.
To know harmony is to know the always-so,
to know the always-so is to see clearly.
Trying to add more to life portends poorly;
controlling life’s breath with your mind overstrains it.
Forcing things: excess vigor hastens decay.
This is not the Way.
What is not in accord with the Way
quickly crumbles.

You are a corporeal being: you are literally some body. When your body and mind are in accord, you are undivided and whole.
Voluntary and involuntary nervous systems meet in the breath. If we don’t think about our breath its rate adjusts to our activities; we can modify our breathing at will, but overcontrol injures us. People who need to feel always in control get anxious easily and their breath becomes shallow; if they try to take a deep breath they strain, pushing out their chest and raising their shoulders. They’re either unaware or cannot trust that letting go would allow the diaphragm to relax naturally and grant them the ins and outs of a satisfying breath.

Infants don’t have this problem. They embody themselves com­pletely, so their bellies go up and down as they breathe, unworried by conflicts and undivided by distinctions. Newborns find everything equally fascinating: their expeditions through the worlds of their bod­ies have no particular object, and they explore the furthest boundaries of their selves. They grasp their toes and put them in their mouth, they find their nose and ears and suck their thumbs. At first infants find the anus, the penis, the vagina, and urethra not to be particularly special (and much less vital to them than their mouth), but soon they are taught differently. As infants mature into children they are taught distinctions: clean and dirty, forbidden and allowed, male and female.

Many religious and psychological paths make either too much or too little of sex. Sexuality is rather mundane. As physical beings in the order of primates, we are naturally sexual beings. There are many ways of acting or not acting on our sexuality, any of which can embody Rightness — or not.

Sexuality offers an opportunity for wholehearted activity, to fully express yourself through losing yourself in love. Like anything else, though, sex can become contaminated if it serves as a vehicle for self-centered power, greed, and hate. In modern industrial societies people are often divided within themselves, alienated from their work, and separated from their family; because of this sexuality often becomes a substitute for connectedness, a “cure” for the diseases of detachment.

Neither intimacy nor sex is something that can be manufactured, turned on and off artificially, but advertising uses sex to sell the illusion that our sense of inner emptiness can be alleviated through consumer­ism. The mass media portrays sex as the stimulant that can fulfill you and tries to convince you that physical interpenetration is the same as feeling connected, but this cannot truly satisfy if it does not touch the intimate always-so of interbeing.

So long as we treat sex as a product rather than a natural flow of life’s force, we are prone to being alienated from our bodies as well as each other. One cannot reduce sex to a formula (fancy car + ravishing perfume + fashionable vodka = sexual encounter) that can be sched­uled on a day planner; one cannot order up an orgasm via an equation (methodical stimulation of the G-spot + application of thrusting tech­nique #4 = pleasure rated as an 8 out of a possible perfect 10). Truly this is absurd.

Sexuality is a form for the intercourse of part and whole. When sex is kindled through intimacy it is like the breath, an inhalation and exhala­tion of separateness and togetherness, which is most satisfying when it is most Right.

Embodying Rightness takes place at the boundaries of yourself. When you do not need to keep a firm grip on yourself nor clutch onto your lover, when you can abandon yourself to the experience of union without shame or pride, you can more easily attune to each other and find the release of true intimacy. You cannot force this. That which har­monizes intercourse’s climax and repose is ungraspable and eternal. Its foundation is deeper than in or out, you or me.

There is no accomplishment or failure in such intimacy, no gain and no lack: only joy.

One time when I started meditating at dusk in the Sierras I found the mosquitoes out in force. I tried moving to a place with more of a breeze, but the buggers soon found me. I moved again to a drier patch of ground, but the anopheles accompanied me. I continued to try to meditate but was hyperalert for a buzz by my ear, poised to brush any mosquito away before it could bite. I started feeling annoyed at both the bugs and at my own inability to settle down.

Finally I decided to just do a short meditation and let the mosquitoes bite as they wished. I told myself that most of my body was covered with clothing thick enough the mosquitoes could not bite through; the worst that would happen was that I would itch a lot in a few places. So I ignored the buzzing, relaxed, and let myself sink into stillness without fighting either the mosquitoes or myself.
I enjoyed about forty minutes of meditation focusing on the sound of the nearby stream, its snow-melt rushing to the sea. Afterward I checked myself for bites; to my surprise, I had none. I realized that as I had sunk deeper into meditation, the mosquitoes had buzzed me less and less, letting me meditate undisturbed.

Perhaps meditation changes body heat or pheromones; perhaps, though, the insects did not sting because I’d forgotten myself in the music of the spring.

One who knows does not speak;
those that speak do not know.
Seal the openings,
shut the gates,
round the edges,
untangle the knots,
soften the glare,
settle with the dust.
This is called “deep merging,”
“dark consonance,”
“mysterious identity,”
“profound evenness.”
You cannot grasp such a One,
cannot push it away,
cannot help it or harm it,
cannot stain or exalt.
Thus this is
the incomparably precious
of the world.

When you emerged from your mother’s womb you did not need words to know the world around you; the air that filled your lungs for the first time spoke of liveliness and the arms that held you spoke of love.

When your open eyes focused to take in sights and your ears started to sort out sounds, you began to interpret the sensory data. Interpreta­tion gives meaning to experience but is already one step removed from merging, because it compares one experience with another. Soon lan­guage comes along and by separating symbol and significance inher­ently divides us.

As soon as you say “I” you set yourself apart from the world. Less obviously, as soon as you say “I” you are divided from yourself, becom­ing both observer and observed. “Who am I?” You can never answer this only through words. Young children faced with this question, though, just laugh and say, “I’m me!” When you are being one with yourself, you know who you are, but grasping at the words and ideas you use to describe yourself gets in the way.

Fundamentally, identity means “oneness.” When you merge with this ungraspable identity, you reemerge as your true self.
To directly experience your unity, it helps to take a step back and return to yourself. Close your eyes, or keep them open and look within; shut the door and let your tensions unwind of themselves. Turn off the music so you can listen to the swinging gate that is your breath. Soften around the silence, and then let go completely.

When you sit quietly, not doing anything in particular, neither thinking ahead nor thinking back, neither looking out nor in, you can let go of the language of judging. Once you stop comparing yourself to others, you can settle down and relax in a place beyond compare. Your body and mind find each other without a hair’s breadth deviation.

You cannot make your one true self better or worse. You cannot run away from your shadow, nor can you chase yourself away; a dog chasing its tail is still a dog. That’s why I meditate; I get tired of chasing my tail and need to just sit down and rest.

Stop dividing, stop discriminating, and you find what is incompara­bly precious. You are precious in a way only you can be. Don’t speak of it.

When I was a young man for a while I lived in a Japanese Zen temple. Every morning we’d get up early, vigorously clean the hall, and then sit down for an hour in the dark predawn cold.

During that time I had multiple respiratory infections. Whenever I sat down to meditate my sinuses would fill up with phlegm. I couldn’t breathe through my nose and if I opened my mouth the postnasal drip was distracting. Every few minutes I’d take out my handkerchief, blow my nose, then resume meditating until my nose blocked up again.

One day the head monk came to me after meditation and, using his broken English, pointed at my nose, shook his head vigorously, and said, “No blow!” I tried explaining I had a physical problem but he shook his head and repeated, more strongly this time, “No blow!!! No move!!”

So at the next morning’s meditation I felt I shouldn’t-couldn’t-wouldn’t blow my nose. Very soon I felt my nose itching . . . getting watery . . . and on the verge of dripping. All my attention focused on my nose and the drip whose fall I fought. I started to sweat, my whole body shook, my hands tensed. Finally, the inevitable happened: MY NOSE DRIPPED and a big drop of mucus fell onto my bare hands.

The initial relief was tremendous, but then something interest­ing occurred: having let go of what my mind said “shouldn’t” happen and let my body be, not only was there no more dripping, but I could breathe freely through my nose. When my body’s mind opened up, so did the sinuses of my mind’s body.

I realized most of my tension had been due to emotions conditioned by words. How old was I when I first heard “Blow your nose”? How many times had parents or teachers told me how I “should” be both­ered by a runny nose? Yet babies and young toddlers, before they learn manners and shame, are able to go around when they have a cold quite unconcerned that their noses are rivers of mucus.

Ever since then when I meditate if I’m ill, usually my symptoms (whether of pain, congestion, nausea, etc.) briefly intensify during the first few minutes of meditation and then abate in some way. Sometimes they come and go and come back, but they no longer interfere so long as I don’t get caught by judgments of good/bad, healthy/sick.

Meditation is not a cure—symptoms reappear—but merging body and mind facilitates a nameless state that, nameless, is incomparable. Because it is incomparable, suffering gives way to the simplicity of just being. Snot—like each and all—is incomparably precious, just this manifesting as a slimy booger.

Govern a state by nothing special;
being crafty is for waging war.
Order all under heaven through noninterference.
How do we know this is so? From this:
The more prohibitions there are, the more rebellious the people.
The sharper the weapons people possess, the more disordered the realm.
The sharper the schemes people employ, the stranger the outcomes.
More laws are proclaimed, then there are more criminals.
So the sage says:
I do not act, and people transform themselves.
I stay in stillness, and people settle themselves.
I have no business, and people prosper themselves.
I let go of desire, and people return to themselves—
simply natural, like the uncarved wood.

We often don’t know how to govern ourselves. This may be why it’s so tempting to order others around; it offers a distraction from our own unruly disorders. Perhaps that is why we have so many politicians, middle managers, and administrators. How can you supervise others, though, without first being able to manage your own states?

Of all the modes of governing one’s self, perhaps none requires as much sensitivity as the artful discipline of noninterference. We think that to influence the course of events we need to do something special to make an impression on others. We forget that even when we just lie down on the ground we naturally leave an imprint of ourselves. Simply by entering a meeting room, your body changes the air temperature and your mood alters its climate.

We tend to trip over our own feet, stumbling over good intentions and posing problems for ourselves with prohibitions. If you tell your­self not to stare at somebody’s birthmark, your eyes will keep coming back to what you are trying to avoid; if you are attracted to someone and want to ask for a date, tell yourself not to stutter and you’re liable to get tongue-tied.

Noninterference does not mean passivity: it requires getting out of the way of the Way, not through repression, but through acceptance. Acceptance is not acquiescence or resignation but a matter-of-fact acknowledgment of how things are, independent of our opinions about how they “should” be. The challenge becomes how to face yourself being as you are while facing the world’s being as it is, without hope or fear, promises or threats.

Noninterference relies not so much on objective measures as on measured awareness: “What suits this situation?” When you accept something without rushing in to interfere you can see it more clearly and size it up more dispassionately. Sizing something up can include, but does not require, measuring it. Measuring always has its limitations and sharp measures have a way of backfiring. As Chuang Tzu says, “Fashion pecks and bushels for people to measure by and they will steal by peck and bushel.” Pass more laws for mandatory sentencing, and you’ll have more prisoners, more prisons, and soon an entire industry that relies on punishment to thrive.

Noninterference need not mean inaction, benign neglect, or turning a blind eye to difficulties around you. Intimate awareness discerns how the continuous ebb and flow of change “wants” to go and works with it so that the movement is mutually beneficial. When dealing with a crime wave, encouraging law officers and members of the community to cooperate works better than draconian punishments. If you are rais­ing a teenager, it helps to limit your rules to the most necessary ones and save your energy for the inevitable battles over boundaries as they find themselves. If the forests of California are subject to frequent con­flagrations, perhaps you should consider doing less firefighting rather than more: allowing the underbrush to consume itself in small blazes helps prevent calamitous wildfires. Let it be; forests and people natu­rally return to themselves.

I became very fond of a man and woman I had seen for several sessions in couples therapy. Each of them wanted the relationship to work, and was doing his or her best to be respectful of the other person while remaining honest about his or her own feelings, but somehow each therapy session kept sliding into the same pattern in which misunder­standings piled up and frustrations festered.
One session after trying everything I could think of to help them without success, I asked them if they felt we were getting anywhere. They replied, “No.” I asked if they’d permit me to leave the room and wait while I spoke with a consultant to get some suggestions. (This is a fairly common procedure in couples therapy). They agreed.

I went and found a friend of mine, an expert on couples and family systems. We spent about ten minutes discussing the situation, and my friend helped me craft a very clever but rather complex intervention that might prove useful to disrupt the couples usual maladaptive inter­action pattern.

I returned to my office, carefully rehearsing the complicated instruc­tions of what I would say to each. I sat down and was about to deliver the intervention when the woman told me she wanted to say something first.

“While you were out of the room, my partner and I discussed our situation and how things are going in the therapy,” she said. “We agreed that we both feel you’re working much too hard.”

“Would it be okay with you to simply sit back for a bit and just let us talk to each other here for a while?”

When the government is dull,
its people are wholesome;
when the government is efficient,
its people are deficient.
Good fortune depends on misfortune;
within good fortune misfortune crouches.
Who knows where the pivot point is?
When naturally correct is no longer modal,
straight becomes crooked,
auspicious turns ominous.
People lose their way for a long long time.
Thus the sage is
an edge but does not cut,
a sharp point but does not stab,
a straightforward line but does not overreach,
a light but does not dazzle.

We don’t like it if other people think of us as dull.
Adolescents fear being ordinary more than anything else: better to have an interesting negative identity than to be boring. As adults we revere celebrity until it seems if you want to commune with the stars you need your photo on the front page of People, when all you really need do is look up and away from yourself on a dark cloudless evening.

The larger the field of influence, the more the law of unintended consequences applies. Colossal corporations and elephantine govern­ments try hard to manage everyone and everything efficiently. To do this, they establish set procedures and insist people fit into the slots provided. Individual quirks and quibbles get shaved off in order to conform to bureaucracies’ categories. This not only frustrates peoples’ uniqueness but deprives society of skills that might be a poor fit today but a valuable resource in the future.
Meanwhile, efforts to promote efficiency often backfire; what looks like a straightforward procedure can take crooked turns. Thirty years ago the medical center I worked for needed only one full-time execu­tive administrator to serve two hundred thousand patients; today, with the same number of patients, it has five executive administrators and dozens of managers, one for each clinic. It turns out when an adminis­trator wants to monitor what a doctor does, he creates a form for the doctor to fill out; this form needs more people to review and analyze the information that’s been collected; then a manager has to be hired to review the reviewers, and soon managers are needed to manage the managers. Meanwhile, taking the time to fill out forms has made the doctors less productive, so now they are forced to follow procedures standardized for the average patient but are given little time to tweak their treatments to a specific individual’s needs or to establish personal relationships with patients. Very few patients fit the average profile exactly, and when they do not fit into their scheduled slots everyone feels uneasy.

We need to return to knowing each other as real people rather than abstract figures in a computer database. You don’t have to be brilliant to encourage a little human contact between yourself and whoever you bump into: the client you serve and the person who serves you at the check-out counter at the store, the person who delivers your mail and the cop who catches you for rushing too fast.
Each intersection of your life with others can become a pivot point that turns your day in either direction, auspicious or oppressive. Which way you go is up to you but as you pivot, there’s no need to overreach. Just follow Chuang Tzu’s good advice – “Don’t stand out and shine, don’t go in and hide” – and you will be a light for yourself and for others.

When my friend Moshe Talmon first noticed how many of the patients who came in to our psychiatry clinic did not return for any further sessions he assumed this reflected some problem in the treatments we offered. Surprisingly, when he and Michael Hoyt and I researched the matter we discovered most hadn’t come back simply because they felt better after even a single session of psychotherapy.

We decided to explore this by videotaping our therapies and doing a formal study of what happened during the first treatment session. We always offered additional sessions, but often a single session turned out to be the only one clients felt they needed.
At first we tried to make clever interventions we thought would maximize the likelihood for clients to get better in their very first visit. We’d consult with each other and, after what felt like a particularly good session with a client we’d sometimes say, “That was terrific! I was really ‘on’; I bet it will turn out to have an excellent outcome.” We were chastened to discover there was little correlation between our feeling of being dazzling and how well clients actually did. Often sessions where we thought we’d been very sharp turned out to have not-so-great results, while sessions that seemed ordinary and dull resulted in clients experiencing very significant improvement.

I remember one session with an elderly woman who came in com­plaining of anxiety and depression but who talked so nonstop I literally was unable to get a word in edgewise. At the end of the session she turned to me and said: “So what you’re saying, doctor, is that I should take a little more time for myself, be honest with my mother-in-law about our difficulties, and go out and do more pleasurable things with my husband, right?” The only word I uttered during the entire ses­sion was my response: “Right.” She turned out to have an excellent outcome.

We learned therapy was not about us and what we did: it was about how each client made the therapy work. Later research performed in clinics around the world found that even in cases of traumatic misfor­tune resulting in severe problems, people often are able to turn their lives around in pivotal moments so long as therapists don’t get in the way by overreaching.

My Australian friend Colin Riess told me of an experience he had ten years ago when he was first introduced to the possibility of single-session work. He was called in to provide a psychiatric consultation for a seventy-five-year-old man who was a Jewish survivor of concen­tration camps in Nazi Germany. For the past twenty years the client had been suffering from nightmares four or five times a week. Colin remembers thinking, “well, this isn’t going to be a single session.”

Since Colin didn’t really expect the session to lead to anything other than a referral for longer therapy he didn’t try to do any sharp interventions and restricted himself to matter-of-fact questions. The session was not terribly dramatic and did not involve reawakening of the terrors of the Holocaust; instead, it focused on the dull details of daily life.

It turned out whenever the client had a nightmare he’d forego taking his usual morning walk with his wife; he said he didn’t want to burden her. As the client and his wife talked to each other in the therapy ses­sion, though, they decided it would be better, after a nightmare, to be sure to go out on their morning walk and have him tell her a bit about his dreams. By the end of the session they felt hopeful and said they didn’t feel a need for further treatment until they’d tried out this new approach. On follow-up, they reported they’d followed through on the plan and felt more close to each other; meanwhile, the frequency of nightmares had decreased to once every few weeks and was no longer interfering with their lives.

I cannot know for certain, but I suspect that if this client had been pushed into longer-term therapy for post traumatic stress disorder he might have been in for quite an emotional roller coaster. Instead, what had seemed ominous to the client – talking to his wife about his traumas – turned out to be healing. What had seemed to be a tremen­dously difficult psychotherapeutic problem turned out not to require dazzling treatment techniques; it was open to healing from the light of simple human contact.

From Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching, by Robert Rosenbaum, © 2013. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA. www.wisdompubs.org.