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Larkin and Kyrie are starting to get their spiritual game on. They are asking amazing questions. They are getting more and more confident in the asking. They are making connections across religious traditions. And – the best indication in my book of true comprehension – they are cracking some really good jokes about big things.
When I was driving Larkin to Buddha knows where recently, I asked her to fish a crumpled piece of paper out of my purse and read out a really cool 11th century Buddhist commentary from a sage named Atisha that I’d recently stumbled upon online.
The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.
A Cheshire-ish grin slowed poured across Larkin’s face as she finished, and then she quipped, “Hey, the Buddha was the ultimate hipster!”
I laughed, did my didactic due diligence and pointed out that the Buddha hadn’t actually written it but close enough, and then asked her what she meant.
“That ‘not conforming to the world’s ways’ thing. It’s just such a hipster vibe.”
She then asked what was meant by, “The greatest generosity is non-attachment.” I reminded her that attachment was how the Buddha described our fundamentally flawed way of understanding the world, which leads to our own suffering. That when we cling to things, people, ideas, whatever, it’s out of fear, because we think we are separate from all of these things rather than ultimately interconnected.
“That’s really just a mindset of Mine versus Yours, and by implication I want Mine to be Better than Yours, instead of Us, Ours, the whole We Are All One thing. So, that’s why it’s a sort of selfishness to “attach” to things, and I guess that’s why Atisha’s saying the most generous thing we can do is just let all things be, embrace everything without clinging to anything, without any need to control or judge.”
We talked a bit more about the meaning of generosity in general and quickly ended up talking about how in Buddhism the Eightfold Path is kind of the ‘how-to” list for how to become generous, which didn’t seem a far off description of enlightenment at that point. Then, we talked about why I was now a Buddhist, which basically is because I feel it best calls me to – and explains to me how to – open my heart more and more and become more and more loving.
Larkin got quiet then and stared out the windshield for a while. Then, out of the blue, she observed, “So, in Christianity something -someone else, God, Jesus – saves you, and in Buddhism, you save yourself.”
I was so impressed and readily agreed. I also asked her if she was aware how shocking some Christians would find this, the “presumption” of saving ourselves. She did. Then, she got quiet again. She continued staring out at bright hot day, and we didn’t say anything more. But, I could literally feel brightness emanating from her, a growing capaciousness in her heart. She wasn’t judging. Just… perceiving. Considering. Understanding.
“No chi, no fee!”
You gotta love a martial arts instructor who provides a money-back guarantee for simply experiencing the universe’s energetic life force, what in Taoism is referred to as chi. I certainly love him, even though I’ve never met him.
Back in April, my Taoist boyfriend Joaquin Avellan – who my girls love as much as I do – was our primary introduction to the heart and the practices of this very unreligion-y religion. And, it was an Italian-American from the Bronx, Jim Borrelli, who had introduced Joaquin to Nei Kung, a physical practice generally considered foundational to the Taoist martial art of Tai Chi Chuan years before in Los Angeles.
Joaquin hardly exercises in the traditional sense at all, and yet he is in shockingly good shape for a nearly 50-year-old. Actually, for an any-year-old. When he practices Nei Kung, he basically just holds any or all of 10 otherwise unremarkable positions for anywhere from 3 to 8 or 9 minutes each, and then he is drenched in sweat and utterly energized. He says that he literally hums with bodily electricity, a force channeled into him from the world around him through very careful alignment in and orderly execution of these poses. The results are very real, physically and energetically. From the very first day, Joaquin always paid his fee, with gratitude. Jim always delivered.
As does the Tao, according to Taoists. Basically, philosophical Taoists don’t find the idea of The Way, the fundamental energy of all of life flowing throughout our world, to be inscrutable or abstruse or difficult to align with. It’s us and the way we live that is so often inscrutable, abstruse and difficult to align with. It’s the aligning – accepting the flow of the universe and allowing ourselves to move with it, rather than against it or irrespective of it – that is so often so hard for us. And, since changing ourselves mentally or emotionally is also so hard for so many, Taoism, being such a practical spiritual practice, developed so many direct physical paths and processes to encourage this fundamental alignment.
When Joaquin demonstrated the first pose to my girls, Kyrie jumped up alongside him, but in a silly way. “Sort of just cocky,” she confessed later. She mimicked his position but kept a little giggly smile on her face. Quietly, Joaquin made little adjustments to her hand positions, the width of her arms, the depth of the bend in her knees. And, not two minutes later, her face took on a more serious look. Her eyes locked onto the focus point Joaquin suggested. She began to shake slightly. Once, she glanced at me. At first I thought she looked scared, but then I realized that it was more an expression of shock. As in, electrical shock.
“That was so real!” she whispered to me later.
We were at Pease Park, observing other Tai Chi practitioners nearby. Just before we departed, we saw what looked like an average middle-aged woman walking onto the concrete basketball court behind us. A little overweight, a little underbrushed of hair. From a large black duffel, she withdrew a long wooden sword. Not two minutes later, she was flowing in powerful circles and executing complex spins and intimidating thrusts as she revealed her powerful command of sword dancing. A woman in mom-jeans had morphed into a real superhero right before our eyes.
And who says Taoism isn’t a real religion? I’ll lay money down on that one.
So much for promising to write on Sunday. You know, I am realizing that one of the reasons this journey with my daughters is going so well is because we aren’t being terribly goal-, much less deadline-, oriented. Gotta remember that as I get this blog back on track.
What a great reason we had to get off track, too! Our journey to the Galapagos late last March was, according to all, the best and most amazing trip of our lives. Where spirituality is the abstraction of wonder, glorious nature is its celebration. Spirituality, being interior, may be more portable and more communicable, but Nature is a cathedral that never leaves you once you make any proper pilgrimage to Her.
I still tried to be Little Miss Didactic Mom on our trip, of course. I had a biography of Charles Darwin with me along with the famous play “Inherit The Wind.” I had fantasies of the kids all discussing the religious ramifications of evolution and putting on famous scenes from the court room of the historic Scopes Trial. However, I was no match for swimming with a penguin. On our last night, the kids staged a talent show packed with pop songs and impressive dancing instead. Books were just so second string.
Nevertheless, I attempted to read out snippets and bits over breakfast, and two otherwise minor details seemed to touch everyone. First was how generally poor and drifting a student Charles Darwin was his entire youth. After years of running away from boarding school and then basically failing out of medical school in a year, he crammed his way through several entrance exams and headed off to Cambridge to prepare for, yes, the ministry. Still, he struggled generally, at one point even writing to a friend at home, “I stick fast in the mud at the bottom [of my math class] and there I shall remain.”
It was just being in mud, being out in the world and observing it wondrously, that lit young Darwin up. He started skipping his classes again, instead exploring nearby creeks every day with the famous botanist John Stevens Henslow. Darwin simply and passionately loved the world around him and wanted nothing more than to honor it by studying it carefully and, ultimately, understanding it. As we all talked about this, the kids clearly were touched to hear that following one’s own inspired path, even if it wasn’t the prescribed path, could lead to such monumental contributions.
Later, I got a big laugh as I repeated my favorite quote from “Inherit the Wind.” When the girlfriend of the young teacher who had dared to teach evolution is put on the stand and forced to testify against him, the famous prosecutor insinuates that the accused had declared that God didn’t create Man, but rather that Man had created God.
“Bert didn’t say that! He was just joking. What he said was: ‘God created Man in His own image – and Man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.'”
This definitely loosened all of the kids up. We had a brief but powerful discussion about how much spirituality is our recognition of, and attempt to honor, all that is beyond us and how much it can be a projection of our own needs and presumptions. Then, we all headed out for a day of splashing with smiling sea lions, floating alongside giant sea turtles and seeing nothing but blue horizons all around. All of us were utterly filled up by beauty and complexity just beyond our complete understanding, but completely within our native sense of what is, and should be, sacred. No book, however influential, can ever be any match for such a direct experience of wonder.
No wonder nature was the first thing humans worshipped.