Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Method of No-Method


All over the internet you’ll find articles on creativity, productivity, and how to build success in 10 easy steps. Everyone’s trying to describe the mysterious path from inception to fruition. In the chaos of conflicting advice it’s hard to find a clear way forward. Instead of reading yet another life coach blog, let’s look at an ancient Chinese source, Zhuangzi.
            Zhuangzi (370-287 B.C.E.) was the best of the Daoist writers and philosophers. Coming a few hundred years after Laozi, he far exceeded his predecessor’s reach in terms of sheer literary power. Laozi’s beloved Daodejing is still the starting point in any study of Daoism. But when you’re really ready to have your mind blown, pick up Zhuangzi.
            At issue is this: what is the best approach to accomplishing any task? Aggressive forcefulness? Aloof indifference? Something in between? Zhuangzi has an answer. And he presents it in a story. It is the story of a cook who worked for Prince Wen Hui. In Thomas Merton’s translation, it goes like this.
            Prince Wen Hui’s cook was cutting up an ox. Out went a hand, down went a shoulder, he planted a foot, he pressed with a knee, the ox fell apart with a whisper, the bright cleaver murmured like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance, like “The Mulberry Grove,” like ancient harmonies!
            “Good work!” the Prince exclaimed, “Your method is faultless!”
            “Method?” said the cook, laying aside his cleaver, “What I follow is Tao beyond all methods.
“When I first began to cut up oxen I would see before me the whole ox all in one mass. After three years I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.
“But now, I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by a natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, I chop no bone.
            “I have used this same cleaver nineteen years. It has cut up a thousand oxen. Its edge is as keen as if newly sharpened.
            “There are spaces in the joints; the blade is thin and keen: when this thinness finds that space, there is all the room you need. It goes like a breeze. Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years, as if newly sharpened.
            “True, there are sometimes tough joints. I feel them coming, I slow down, I watch closely, hold back, barely move the blade, and whump! The part falls away landing like a clod of earth.
            “Then I withdraw the blade. I stand still and let the joy of the work sink in. I clean the blade and put it away.”
            Prince Wan Hui said, “This is it! My cook has shown me how I ought to live my own life!”
            Zhuangzi’s allegory is a thick slab of wisdom ready for the grill. Whether you’re trying to write a song, navigate a relationship challenge, manage your finances, resolve a workplace conflict, plan your next career move, or cook an omelet, Zhuangzi has laid out the path as only a master teacher can. Let’s unpack the components of the parable.
             Right off the bat Prince Wen Hui gets it wrong. He mistakes the cook’s mastery as the deliberate practice of a specific technique or method. “Your method is faultless!” he says, only to be swiftly rebuked by the cook. “Method?” said the cook. “What I follow is Tao beyond all methods.”
            At the heart of Daoism is the idea of Dao (Tao), a word that literally means “way” or “path.” In Daoism Dao refers to the underlying process by which everything unfolds. All things follow the Dao, the way of nature. Dao is considered the sacred source and the harmony of all things. Unlike God in the west it is not personified or localized in a conscious being. Dao is found within all things, and guides all things to their optimal natural function. The goal of Daosim is to get our interfering egos out of the way and learn to live in accord with the Dao.
            Then the cook describes the three stages of mastery, using the example of butchering an ox. In the first stage, his inexperience and lack of discernment make it impossible for him to distinguish one part of the ox from another. It’s all a blur.
            This is where we all begin in any learning process. It’s a ball of confusion. We don’t even know what questions to ask. Or how to begin. Think back on how you learned a second language, how to play guitar, or how to cook. You didn’t know a verb from a noun, a G from a C, or sauté from sear.
            Then, after a lot of hard work and awkward flailing around we reached the second stage. “After three years,” said the cook, “I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.” Here the fog begins to lift, and we learn the nouns, verbs, tenses, and contexts. We learn all the notes, scales, and chords. We know the names of all the vegetables, herbs, cuts, prep styles, and cooking techniques.
            After years of practice at stage two, something deeper begins to emerge. We go beyond merely knowing all the details. We slip out of our intellect with its endless categories, concepts, and distinctions. We see the whole. We feel our way. Now our wisdom is an embodied wisdom, no longer housed just in the mind, but throughout the mind-body. Here’s how the cook said it: “Now, I see nothing with the eye. My whole being apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit free to work without plan follows its own instinct guided by the natural line, by the secret opening, the hidden space, my cleaver finds its own way.”
            Now we are following the Dao – the method of no-method.
            But as the cook points out, this doesn’t solve all of your problems. Things will go still wrong. They always do. But you have a new way of moving through problems. You slow down. You let it be easy. You trust the process. You have faith in yourself. You let the tools do the work. You feel your way toward the openings. No struggle, no strain.
            In Daoism this is called wu-wei, or creative letting-be; the art of aligning the energies within you with the energies around you into a singular confluence, with minimal interference from the busy-mind.
             In chapter 64 of the Daodejing, Zhuangzi's great teacher Laozi wrote, "Rushing into action you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe." Mastery, no matter what the project, and perhaps most especially in the most important project of all crafting a meaningful life is a curious confluence of effort and effortlessness, allowance and assertion, intuition and deliberation. The preparatory stages are crucial they cannot be skipped. But when you are ready, allow yourself to slip into the stream of excellence beyond method the method of no-method.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Music and Meaning


When we lost Aretha Franklin, we lost an American icon, a towering genius of musical prowess. But in an important way, her beauty never left – it lives within us, and when we listen to her music, all of the power and magic is fully present. Music doesn’t die. Nothing real ever does. There’s a timeless essence hidden just beneath the surface of the waves of impermanence. Music reveals that eternal realm and draws us into accord with it.
            When words, doctrines, and explanations fail us, songs salve our wounds and bind our broken places. As Beethoven said, “Music is a higher truth than philosophy.”
            At the heart of every great wisdom tradition lies one core idea: ineffability. The ultimate source or ground of being is beyond words and thoughts. We cannot name it or describe it. We cannot even think it. Language and conceptual thought are wonderful tools, but they only get you so far. There’s a glass ceiling even they cannot penetrate. But what lies beyond that glass ceiling can be apprehended, experienced, and felt. And music is a powerful catalyst for that apprehension.
            In the weave of melody, in the dance of chords, in the breath and beat of rhythm there is an alchemy that binds the threads of our souls into the web of being around us. Of course we can’t talk about it. But the tears in our eyes don’t lie.
            Who hasn’t driven home, turned off the car, and sat in the garage unable to tear yourself away from a beautiful piece of music? This is home now.
            In Plato’s masterpiece The Republic, he argues that knowledge has four levels. The lowest level consists of images, say, the image of a tiger in your mind. The next level, slightly more real, is seeing an actual tiger. The third level is the rational level, beyond the sensory realm. Here, real knowledge begins to take shape, utilizing logic, evidence, and rational discourse. But even this isn’t the highest level of knowledge. There is a fourth level called noesis – intuitive grasping or awareness. At this level we no longer use logic, language, or concepts – just pure, formless, concept-free awareness. Plato, like mystics the world over, says that the highest truths and realities elude the grasp of the conceptual mind. We know them only when we transcend linear thought.
            In Buddhist philosophy, Nagarjuna makes a similar claim. For him there are two levels of knowledge: ordinary knowledge and transcendent knowledge, or prajna. Ordinary knowledge is comprised of concepts, analogies, logic, and categorization. Then there is a higher form of knowledge called prajna which has little to do with conceptual thought or language. It is direct seeing into the nature of things, without conceptualization. In Buddhism this is sometimes likened to “awakening” or “enlightenment,” although those are just analogies, and as we have seen, analogical thinking exists at the level of ordinary knowledge.
            In the ancient Chinese wisdom tradition of Daoism, Laozi begins his magnum opus The Daodejing with the famous line, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” With this warning, Laozi emphasizes the gulf between conceptual thought and reality. Our concepts, no matter how subtle, sophisticated, and well-wrought are pictures of a plum, never the plum itself.
            Zhaungzi, another Daoist teacher who lived a few hundred years after Laozi put it this way: “A fish trap is for catching fish. When the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. A rabbit snare is for catching rabbits. When the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten. Words are for capturing ideas. When the idea is caught, the words are forgotten.” Like Laozi before him, Zhuangzi delights in the playful use of provocative language, but never as an endpoint – only as a starting point. Words and concepts are tools that help us construct a bridge to meaning. But they can never be the meaning itself.
            In a famous Zen story, one day the Buddha gathered his whole company together to deliver a talk. On this day, instead of saying a word he simply held up a flower. Only one man, Kashyapa, signaled with his eyes that he understood what was being said. For Zen Buddhists this is the origin story of their tradition – the origin of the wordless transmission: that wisdom or prajna is conveyed directly, not at the level of language and concepts, but at the level of experience. No scriptures or rituals needed. Just open hearts and deep surrender to what is.
            This is why music, and all art for that matter, is so powerfully effective at opening us to the cosmic mystery that we are. It administers to our whole being, not just our intellect. As wave after wave of powerful, beautiful music pours through our mind-body literally altering our energy patterns, it becomes us and we become it. The fortuitous energies of music make us over in their image, and this disappearance is exactly what our soul has been asking for. Art, especially music, disarms us and fosters that surrender.
            Lori and I were just in Paris, and like many visitors we stood slack-jawed before the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. But nothing could’ve prepared us for what happened inside. Here was a cavernous space where architecture, engineering, stained glass, sculpture, theology, liturgy, devotion, mysticism, civic identity, and human achievement comingle into a tour de force that overwhelms you. And as synchronicity would have it, a mixed men’s and boys’ choir was performing. The sound of their harmonious voices reverberating throughout the towering 12th century hall, washed in the divine light streaming through stained glass, was the very definition of ethereal.
One song came to an end. When the conductor spread his arms like wings, the choir began to sing a choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” As Barber’s mournful ascension began, something broke open inside of me – a resistance, a practiced façade, an artifice. I can never describe the wave after wave of knowing that rushed through me in those timeless moments – it was dumbfounding. The hairs on my arms stood up.
As the music bathed the room, another sound rose up through the strains of music, an all too human sound, the sound of scores of people around me weeping. We were all drowning in a sea of beauty and nobody wanted to be saved.
            This is how music works. It strips away all of your worldly cleverness and leaves you washed clean, innocent, newborn, and free; back in the Garden of Eden before it all went wrong. Music doesn’t explain itself. It doesn’t have any answers. But it lifts you past the place where the questions have power, where finally everything seems right with the world. Music heals. Music restores. Music transcends and liberates. Music sets us aloft in the space between heaven and earth, where we taste the eternal right here in the realm of embodied forms. Aretha could do that. And she still can.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Veil of Perception


At the height of the Renaissance, as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Da Vinci were crafting their masterpieces, the prevailing theory of perception was that light emanated from the eyes, not the other way around. We can laugh now about their error. But then you wonder – what beliefs do we cling to today that will one day appear as folly?
            Many of us walk around assuming that our eyes are cameras faithfully recording a real world of objects. Um, you better sit down. You aren’t going to like this.
            Turns out perception is not a passive act of apprehending objective reality – instead, it’s a highly interpretative act that transmutes raw data into recognizable shapes formed largely within our own imagination.
            There’s a word for this phenomenon in Sanskrit – maya. In their philosophical investigations the ancient Hindus realized that the perceptual field – the world as presented to us by our five senses – was maya, an ephemeral realm of thought-forms one step removed from the energy field that generated them. In other words, what you and I call “the world” or “reality” is a creative, collaborative act built on a delicate dance between perceived and perceiver.
            In the end, the world of maya – all of these shapes, colors, sounds, sensations and the ideas we build upon them – acts as a veil that ultimately hides true reality from us. And what is that true reality? It is Brahman, the sacred formless ground of being from which all forms emerge and to which all forms return. In a word, God.
            For example, let’s examine the so-called solidity of the material world. My senses tell me that I live in a world of solid, relatively stable objects. This desk is just as it was yesterday, as is this room, and this house. But at the atomic level, so-called solid matter is 99.99999% empty space. I don’t know about you, but when I see five nines after a decimal point, I round up. It turns out that the allegedly solid world is 100% empty space, a fact my sensory apparatus are too crude to perceive.
            As Einstein and others showed us in the last century, at the atomic level, the old Newtonian duality between energy and matter disappears – there is only energy. What you and I call matter is energy. All of this is only Brahman. My body, this coffee mug, the Empire State Building, everything, is a vibrational apparition. The mistaken belief that there actually is a substantive world of distinct objects is called by Deepak Chopra “the superstition of materialism.”
            Every wisdom tradition reminds us of the transitory nature of all forms. This heartbreakingly beautiful world is a shifting cloud. But behind the veil of maya lies an immutable realm beyond perception and beyond thought. We can’t touch it, see it, or understand it. But we can experience it. 
             Spiritual teachings offer maps and methods for this shift. Study, prayer, sacred service, and meditation are the most common. But it might even be simpler than that. Embrace the method of no-method. Take a walk through your neighborhood. Watch the sky. Listen to the sounds of the city. Hear the songs of birds. Feel your own heart beating. Let go. Slip beneath the thought-stream, a shift not so much achieved as allowed. If everything is Brahman, not one of your steps leads away from it. How can you seek what was never lost? How can you become what you already are?

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]