Monday, January 28, 2013


When people see some things as beautiful,
            other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
            other things become bad.

Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Ch. 2, Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu; Trans. Stephen Mitchell

A natural human inclination is to think of things in pairs. The preceding meditation from Lao Tzu's wisdom, however, describes another human tendency: the attaching of a value or judgment to these pairs -- one side characterized as 'good', the other 'bad'.  Or more properly, when we attach a value to one element, by default, the other assumes its opposite. Even the Taoist graphic above tends to elicit this bias: light (good) / dark (bad); yin (compassionate, flexible, patient -- good) / yang (aggressive, rigid -- bad); female ('good')/ male ('bad').

The second portion of this quote attempts to describe a 'healthier' perspective. In place of judgment (of one or the other), we are encouraged to explore the relationship between, the existence of one's dependency on the existence of the other, the natural (and necessary) sequencing or cycling of events, their temporal harmony. So common as to almost be cliched, we check the weather in the morning; and are pleased to see a warm, sunny day in store with a light breeze and low humidity. The prospects of a rainy, cool forecast, with winds from the East -- well, not such a happy prediction. But then where would we be with only the former. . . and none of the latter? It seems that the real trick is to establish a posture that values, accepts, and welcomes the current state -- since we seem to have very little choice over it anyway! 

As usual, a couple of conversations. The first with a neighbor I'd not seen for some time, she just having returned from a four-day, solo retreat in an idyllic spot on Lake Huron.  We met in the late evening street, walking our respective dogs. I was feeling cold and tired and a little resentful that our one Westie was doing her usual delaying tactics; the other two were worrying our neighbor's dog, five times their size and rather bemused by the whole exchange. I made a comment about 'hating re-entry', a reference to the transition from a period of blissful solitude and reflection to the urgency and 'noise' of the day-to-day routine and demands -- very likely a projection of my own past experiences. Our neighbor, not unlike her dog, seemed a bit bemused by my (evaluative) comment, considered it for a moment and replied that 'it is what it is' (the 'it' being the present circumstance). I had initially considered my comment to have been an expression of some sympathy and support for what I'd assumed to be a surrendered state of peace and insulation from the busy-ness she was about to re-engage. I was reminded, on reflection, that I'd done precisely what Lao Tzu warns of: celebrating one state and, by extension, denigrating, debasing another. The alternative: valuing, accepting both -- for what they are.

On a semantic level, a conversation with my wife triggered a similar awareness. She and her instructor in Alexander Technique had been discussing what she considered to be the guiding principals of this approach: Inhibition and Direction. Again, my subjective response, my associations, particularly to the first of these is, well, negative. Years of psychology linking inhibition with repression, forced containment of instinct, etc. had jaundiced things for me. And I was reminded how easily we apply a value. In practicing the technique, which in my elemental understanding, has a great deal to do with cultivating an awareness of body posture, then 'directing' oneself to adopt an appropriate and helpful orientation, one must 'inhibit' counter productive postures to enable healthier ones. Hardly a negative act.

Action, reaction. Sympathetic, parasympathetic. Flexion, extension. All paired, all intimately bound to each other. Not a 'good guy', or a 'bad guy' amongst them.

A large part of mindfulness teaching is based on cultivating a balance in our day, in our views, in our attitude. The wisdom is contained in the concept of equanimity. In brief, this is the practice of accepting what comes with a calmness and a composure, with a nonjudgmental perspective; the capacity to consider the 'polarities', extremes, or opposites from a balanced point of view -- without attribution, without assigning a 'valence'.

That this wisdom has practical value is underscored for me almost daily as I review the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy with individuals struggling with anxieties and mood issues. The approach espouses very little different than adopting an equanimous view of circumstance: collecting 'data' for a variety of interpretations, or 'automatic thoughts' -- those which both support and challenge the (reflexive) 'hot thought'; all with the same goal -- developing a more balanced view.

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