Tides of Change

Michelle Martin
Column Three

Life seems slightly grey-tinted during winter. As I ride my bike from class to class I simply endure the wind chill while wishing for spring, when I can cheerfully ride my bike in a skirt and tank top, pleasantly warmed by the sun overhead.

Alas, the overcast sky often leaves me feeling a little overcast as well. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly not depressed, but mood swings seem universally prevalent in the winter, as demonstrated by the existence of Seasonal Depressive Disorder. But throughout winter I try to remember that for every miserable day, I will later enjoy a bright day during spring. I remember that the earth must spend a season encased in its frozen tomb before it rejuvenates with the joy and brightness of a new season.

The constantly changing seasons are a powerful metaphor, reminding us that life works in opposites and cycles. The earth gives us both the frigid extreme of winter and its opposite—sweltering summer. Maybe if I patiently endure winter (sipping frequent hot cocoa along the way), then I will value spring that much more when March rolls around. I’ll never miss an opportunity to be outside—and trust me, I usually don’t.

The existence of natural contrasting forces illustrates a fundamental Taoist principle, symbolized by the Yin Yang image. I remember seeing Yin Yang on earrings, posters, pins, and shirts but never knowing what it meant. Now I realize that it embodies two opposing energies which, together in harmony, create the world. The Yang is the active force: bright, pure, and stimulating while the Yin is the receptive force: dark, passive, and tranquil. You need both Yin and Yang to create anything of substance. In Taoist thought, Yin and Yang literally create the Tao, or the underlying force which creates and guides the universe. According to the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, “As the Yang and the Yin displace one another, change and transformation arise.” Although the Chinese philosophers might view notions of good and bad as human constructs, sometimes you have to endure the unpleasant to fully savor the pleasant. As the cliché goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Let us briefly consider an example. I can’t have a genuinely healthy meal unless I take the time to cook it and purchase the right ingredients. This is a balancing act—the benefit of a wholesome, delicious meal requires a sacrifice of equal proportion on my part. However, if I spend money on cheap ingredients, like using canned tomatoes instead of farm fresh tomatoes, then I sacrifice nutrition and taste in order to save money. And often cheap food incorporates questionable production methods, such as factory farming, so someone or something pays for the cheap price tag, while the production shortcuts comes boomerang back to us in the form of lower nutrition and hormone-laced food. In short, if I bring less to the table, I get less in return.

This balance of give and take is the quintessence of Yin and Yang. If imbalances exist, nature will find a way to correct them. If you burn yourself out working on projects (too much Yang), then you will probably crash for the whole weekend afterwards (corrective Yin). Nothing can exist without a “flip side.” Every brilliant idea requires hard work to actualize it. Every Saturday spent partying or relaxing requires a Sunday of homework and meetings. And all money earned requires a proportional amount of your time. If you think you’ve found a way to take a short cut-like taking a diet pill instead of exercising-the balances of the universe will surely catch up with you when you start experiencing the side effects. Verse 36 of the Tao Te Ching (the primary Taoist text) states, “To overthrow someone, first exalt them; To take from someone, first give to them.”

Examine your families’ and friends’ personalities. Each one of them has both pleasant and unpleasant traits. For example, perhaps your friend is tons of fun to hang out with, but she’s flaky. Maybe you have a teacher who is a brilliant thinker but is intimidating, or a kind, friendly coworker who talks your ear off. Every positive trait has a shadow-its complementary opposite. Likeable people can be arrogant, quiet people are often thoughtful, and even cruel people could be intelligent or determined.

Accepting the necessity of opposites creates a sweet sense of tolerance during times of unpleasantness and cultivates the wisdom that we reap what we sow.  When homework overloads us, when friends and parents clash with us, or when the sky is dim with clouds, we can remember that this isn’t the apocalypse. Like the changing seasons, our lives will forever cycle between winter and summer. As the Tao Te Ching states, “It is the flow of nature, an eternal decay and renewal. Accepting this brings enlightenment, ignoring this brings misery.”

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Mindfulness Tames Clutter

NOTE: I haven’t posted here for over a semester, but I just started writing a column for the Index on spirituality, so I’d like to revive this blog. Sorry for the inordinately long delay. I’ll post something most weeks (for sure, now that I have a weekly deadline), and I’ll try to keep adding fun little things in between to keep you coming back. Here you are-hope you enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback!

My friends and family tell me I am the spaciest person they know. All my life, I’ve been dubbed the “space cadet.” Since my first years of grade school, I struggled with inattention and took ADD medication for years before deciding in college that I couldn’t depend on a pill to solve my problems anymore.

Unfortunately, a running commentary of fantasy, worry and analysis constantly streams through my head. If I absentmindedly wade into this seductive current of daydreams, it lures me into the tantalizing world and keeps me distracted from whatever is actually happening. Despite my most valiant efforts, I am simply not the student who raptly follows a teacher’s every word during a lecture.

Although I realize my issues with inattention are at least somewhat worse than average, I think most Americans struggle with it to some degree. We avoid boredom like the plague. A friend of mine tells me that her house literally has a television in every room – even the bathroom. We have iPods to drown out dullness when we’re walking around campus, and we usually read or talk to friends while we eat. TV commercials have reached a five-second run time and USA Today no longer prints stories that are long enough to jump to another page because readers might get bored and never finish the story.

With a new distraction around every corner, I am not surprised that ADD diagnoses rose among school-age children by three percent per year between 1997-2006, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Something in us always wants something more exciting than what is in front of us.

The downsides of this mentality? First of all, we waste our money funding our distractions, and we waste our time planning for future distractions simply to avoid existing without something colorful or interesting around. Second, we lose when we forget the moment we are in right now. I have read the words of Eastern mystics who claimed the present is the only thing that exists. After turning over the idea, I decided this was true. Yes, the future will come, but the future only exists when it becomes the now – when we are living it.

When we spend all our time fantasizing about the future or wringing our hands over what could happen, we miss out. The same idea goes for the past. The cliché holds true – don’t cry over spilled milk. If you spent all last weekend procrastinating instead of studying, then stressing out about it won’t help. Just do the best you can right now.

On a side note, I don’t think the Eastern philosophers meant that you can’t plan ahead. As we all know, a degree-seeking Truman student probably couldn’t emerge from college unscathed without planning ahead. But agonizing over what you cannot control is anything but productive.

Although I will probably never be rid of my inattentiveness, I have learned that practicing mindfulness – living in the present – helps me immensely. Mindfulness slowly tames the mind to ignore the mental clutter, but Lord knows I haven’t mastered it – mindfulness is about as easy as capturing jelly in a net. We have hardwired our minds to sniff out the most interesting objects around, so change takes some time. But I have discovered that when I consciously focus my attention on what I am doing right now, the present becomes a lot more interesting. My mind stops trying to plan out my next ten minutes or ten years, and I can relax and enjoy myself.

Anyone who has tried to pay attention in a boring class knows that mindfulness is pretty difficult. But from what I have experienced, simple practice eventually pacifies the wild beast. The more I think about mindfulness, the more frequently I remember to be here. When your mind simply cannot come down from the clouds, try breathing. As someone once told me, breathing connects the body and the mind. That sense of physical stability will focus your mind and bring you back. Meditation clears and sharpens my mind-without it, I would never have survived school sans Adderall.

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” I distinctly remember one passage in which Hanh explains that even when we undertake tedious tasks, like doing the dishes, the mindful individual doesn’t do the dishes simply to make them clean. Rather, he or she does the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes. Hanh writes, “While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

Those dishes are sort of fun to wash when you are living every moment, and the tea afterward tastes quite robust when you savor every taste.