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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The Seduction of Pride

An old Buddhist story:

A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student’s humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery were not worried.

A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up.

The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified!

“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit.

“I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”

“Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?”

The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

“It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.” Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

“Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?”

“You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced.

The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island.

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A few days ago, as I attempted to do my homework, my mom was watching Oprah in the same room. The subject matter, spirituality, was too intriguing for me to ignore.

Oprah had brought three spiritual teachers onto the episode: two ran spirituality centers and authored books, and one was an Episcopal priest.

One caller into the show was a tearful woman who had invested her entire life savings into her bakery business, now failing. Her life, house, and her family’s welfare were all at stake.

During the commercial break, my mom mentioned that she liked the Episcopal priest more than the other two teachers. When I asked why, she pointed out that the priest was the only one of the three teachers who gave this desperate woman helpful, relevent tips instead of spouting rhetoric at her, such as, “You will grow from this experience in the end.” The priest talked with the woman while the other two seemed to talk at her.

These teachers had wonderful insights throughout the show, and while I don’t want to focus on the shortcomings of other people, (before I take the log out of my own eye…) I thought this demonstrated a paradox for a lot of spiritual people. A fine line separates humble spirituality from ego-driven dogmatism. Pure spirituality penetrates through the self-serving entrapments of the ego, such as pride, and shouldn’t feed them. While defenses are completely natural, they are still glaring signs that we still have a lot of work to do. Flaws are opportunities to grow.

I am far from perfect and occasionally become a wind-up toy, automatically hurling my ideas at people. But I try to watch myself and to maintain an engaged discussion, listening to the other party instead of judging them. I must always ask myself: am I trying to benefit myself with this, or to truly be of service?

If I ever stop talking with you and start talking at you, please stop me. That’s pride speaking, not me, and clearly it’s counterproductive to helping anyone, including myself. Pride only traps and encloses. I find the satisfaction it gives is illusory, gaseous, fleeting, and ironically, a sign that I need to address some insecurity within myself. There’s no need to compensate for the parts of ourselves that we are comfortable with.

Humility, on the contrary, is the epitome of spirituality, for it gives birth to pure love. You can’t force love or goodwill. Remove your own barriers, and you will allow love to expand and become you.

“The best way to live
is to be like water
For water benefits all things
and goes against none of them.”
-from Tao Te Ching verse 8

On a side note: I think I’ll start a facebook group soon for those of you who are reading regularly and would like updates. Keep an eye out.