Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf

ferdinand the bull

This was one of my favorite books as a child.  The story is about a bull, named Ferdinand, who grows up differently from all the other bulls.  Instead of fighting, he likes to sit in the meadows all day long and smell the flowers.

When it comes time to pick the biggest, baddest, meanest bull to fight in the ring, the people who pick bulls see Ferdinand kicking and giving off an awesome display of madness because Ferdinand just happened at that moment to be stung by a bee.  So they cart him off and put him into the ring.  Everyone is clapping and all the fighters are very scared.  But Ferdinand goes to the middle of the ring and sits down amongst all the flowers the beautiful women have thrown.  No matter what they do to prod him, they can’t get Ferdinand to fight.  So eventually they cart him back to the meadow, where he goes to sit under his favorite tree and is happy.

I love this story to this day.  I love children’s books more than many because the best ones often contain lessons about life with few words and lots of pictures!  When I re-read this book recently, I thought, not only is it a wonderful story to share, but it struck me that there are many similarities to Taoist principles.

According to Tao, one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  There are popular sayings in the West, too, such as – “Do not try to fit a square peg into a hole.”   Many of us know the saying – take some time to stop and smell the flowers.  What does this mean?

Ferdinand is not lonely when he sits by himself in the meadows.  He is not doing anything but enjoying his surroundings in the moment.  He may be solitary when he does this, but this is a solitude that brings him happiness.

We have so many distractions in our lives today.  Personally, in the past year, I have found myself wasting too many hours on my smartphone, surfing the news, playing games, etc.  This fills the space in my mind temporarily with distractions.  More than that, it takes away from my quiet time and space to simply be still and silent so that my mind is open and relaxed.

When we find ourselves in a quiet space of the mind without distractions, we can be more creative and feel inspired.  If we are constantly busy, trying so hard to fill the empty spaces with tv, games, news, whatever it is available in front of us to keep us “busy” without purpose, we often end up missing feeling in touch with ourselves, others, and our immediate surroundings.  As I am writing now, I stop and feel the breeze coming through my window.  I notice the light.  I feel quiet and content.  But if I’m on my smart phone, I often don’t enjoy or appreciate this at all.

As for fighting, we fight in our minds.  We fight ourselves, if not others.  We get angry because people don’t live up to our expectations.  We lose touch with nature and ourselves, which is easy to do when we are pummeled by advertisements and a constant pressure of what life should be, instead of listening to ourselves and following our instincts and being truly in touch.

So take the time to stop and smell the flowers.  Put down your cell phone, turn off the tv and stereo.  You might be surprised at what you find.

Advertisements

A Passage from Lao Tzu about Simplicity

On my way to work the other day, I found myself thinking of this passage from Lao Tzu which I have always liked:

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.
*

In this passage, Lao Tzu tries to tell us that too many distractions can lead us astray from living simply. 

To live simply means that we get rid of things that “muddy” our lives and make us feel confused and less peaceful.   Too many desires or too much desire can make it easy for us to get carried away or become disappointed.  But when things are simple, we can find happiness from “what is within” rather than “what is without.” Simplicity allows us to enjoy the smallest things in the present moment.  If our minds are too busy, it’s difficult to enjoy the taste of tea or whatever is in front of us.  We’re too busy thinking of what we need to do or, perhaps, regretful of what we didn’t do.

My father told me that there are two kinds of happiness.  One is when we forget ourselves because we are caught up in excitement (as when we attend a rock concert), and one is when we forget ourselves because we feel peaceful.  The difference between the two, he said, is that when we feel excited, it tends to be fleeting, but a feeling of peacefulness tends to be longer lasting.

Now, if there is too much disorder around us, we may first have to get rid of the chaos in our environment.  Some people choose to leave their environment and take great risks in doing so.  When our environment is not orderly or is full of ups and downs, we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about our health and our safety, and it drains us of energy.  If basic necessities like food and shelter cannot be met, then it is indeed difficult.  Once our environment is more stable, our bodies and minds can relax.

To live simply means that there is order.  Orderliness allows us to see more clearly. Our rooms, for example, become messy if we don’t clean them regularly.  Then we often can’t find what we are looking for and can feel easily overwhelmed, tired and frustrated.  It’s easy to say, I’ll clean later, but later, the rooms are just as messy.  But if we start putting away one thing at a time, then we arrive at a sense of order.  We may have to take a little time every day to keep the rooms neat, but, in the end, cleanliness and neatness give us a sense of calm.  The less things you have, the easier it is.

Keeping one’s mind simple is like cleaning a room.  All sorts of thoughts and worries pile up in our minds that can make us feel heavy and tired.  We may be too self-critical or worry too much about what other people think instead of accepting what is and what we have to work with and stop blaming ourselves or other people.  We may feel we don’t know where to start or how to deal with things we have to face.  Some people try to escape reality through drugs and alcohol or other ways which don’t help their problems go away and can make things worse.

To get rid of “noise,” some people close their eyes, even for brief moments.  Some people listen to music.  Others read or knit.  Whatever we are doing, when we are able to shut out more outside distractions for a period of time, we can feel more peaceful.  Our minds aren’t so busy.  We don’t need to feel bombarded or care much about what other people are thinking or doing. 

When we can empty our minds, we don’t worry.  We can actually see more of our surroundings without feeling “pushed” this way or that.  We can see more without being judgmental about ourselves or others or situations.  We can then focus better on what we do.

So every day, I try to set aside some quiet time for myself.  This helps keep me healthy and gives me a sense of peacefulness without drugs, alcohol, or feeling like I need something to numb myself to be happy.  During my quiet time, I read, write, draw and do something I enjoy.  Or I can do nothing at all.  This doesn’t mean the bills I have to pay will go away.  It means simply that I give myself some time to rest and to relax.  Then, when I have to face the things I have to do, I feel I have more energy. 

In the morning, we get up, brush our teeth, get dressed.  We work, eat and go to sleep at regular times. Our bodies exercise and empty themselves of waste.  It’s equally important to give the mind activity, rest and empty the mind of waste.  The simpler and more regular our daily routines are, the healthier and better we tend to be.  The more things we have to juggle, the more difficult it is to keep ourselves balanced. And when our routines become disrupted, it can make us feel very unsettled and usually take us some time to regain a sense of order again.

Now, while I was walking to work last week one day, I felt rushed.  My head was very busy and full of congestion.  Suddenly, I said to myself, Stop thinking.  Just walk. Whenever a thought came into my head, I repeated this exercise, and one thought after the other would appear and disappear until I was just walking.  I felt lighter.  I no longer felt rushed.  I just walked and rode the subway, and by the time I got to work, I was smiling inside.  

When I was little, I once remarked to my father, “Dad, you never take a vacation.” He replied, “I take vacation every day when I drink tea.”  Now, when he drank his tea, he wanted to be alone, and he wanted quiet.  He did this every night.  I asked him why he wanted to be alone and quiet when he drank his tea.  He said, “Because I meditate.”  

At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant.  But today, it is one of the most beautiful lessons he taught me – that if I care to live simply and take a little time to clean out the busy thoughts that are in my head and give my mind some rest – if I can learn to enjoy tea without any expectations of myself or others and just enjoy quiet – I can take a vacation every day.

*Translation from the Tao Teh Ching by John C.H. Wu (Shambhala Dragon Editions)

Shòu 寿 (Longevity)

寿 [shòu], has been written in many different ways through thousands of years.  Below, you can see 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity, a powerful motif.   

Chinese bats coin

Old Chinese coin with 5 bats surrounding the character for longevity

The 5 bats represent the five  or the Five Blessings in the ancient Book of History which are:  longevity, wealth, health and peace, love of virtue (or doing good), and a natural death in old age.  

The character for longevity is highly valued and revered.  It represents efficient use of energy and conservation of energy, a key concept in Taoism.  This concept of 寿 or longevity is very important in Chinese culture.  It means, for example, that one does not fight unless necessary.  Or one does not force oneself to do things that are unnatural.  If we expend or use energy unnecessarily, our bodies age faster and our lives become short.  To be blessed with a long life therefore implies that one is able to accept what happens in life and find peace or “to go with the flow.”

Bats are representative of longevity in Chinese art and culture.  Like most animals, they are good at conserving energy and tend to live long lives for animals of their size. Bats also symbolize happiness and prosperity because the word 蝠 [fú] sounds identical to 福 [fú], which means fortune, prosperity, and happiness.

By the way, I found this interesting information about bats on Animal Planet recently, which I think is illustrative of the concept of longevity, as well as the practice of meditation:

Bats that live in cooler climates hibernate through the winter. Their heartbeat slows. Their rate of breathing lowers so much that it can seem as if they have stopped breathing. Their bodies cool to match the temperature of their shelter. They spend the winter in a deep sleep. Hibernation helps bats survive until the weather is milder and food is more plentiful.

Sometimes a bat must wake from hibernation to move from a disturbed roost or to drink water. Waking can cause a bat to use up the energy it had stored as fat for the winter. A bat that is awakened several times might not survive the winter.

So to have a long life, we can observe nature and learn how animals and plants survive.  In nature, animals and plants generally do not fight or use energy unless necessary.  When they use energy, they use it efficiently.  (This understanding also underlies almost all practice of martial arts.)  Mentally, it is also important not to fight with ourselves.  I heard this saying once:  Buddha said, “If you lay down your sword, you become a buddha.”

What is Qi?

qi

Traditional Chinese character for qi

The concept of qi plays a central role in Chinese culture, traditional Chinese medicine and the martial arts. According to traditional Chinese medicine, people often fall ill because qi becomes unbalanced or gets blocked in the body and does not flow well. Acupuncture, massage, the administration of herbs and other medicinal techniques are aimed at helping to restore the balance and flow of qi.  In the martial arts (also known as gong fu), one’s qi can be cultivated through training of mind and body, leading to agility, strength, stamina and increased awareness and longevity.

Tai qi (or tai qi quan)* is one form of Chinese martial arts which has become popularly practiced around the world due to its purported health benefits.  It emphasizes bringing qi into balance through focus on a systematic coordination of postures and breathing exercises.  You may have seen people practicing tai qi in the parks, their mind and bodies engaged in a series of slow, circular movements as in a dance.  In China, millions of people, young and old, practice tai qi or qi gong** daily in the parks or public squares.  At many workplaces, people gather together and start off their day by practicing tai qi or qi gong exercises.  Tai qi and qi gong have been known to help improve physical coordination, stamina, strength and flexibility, improve circulation, as well as help bring about improved emotional health and a sense of calm and clarity.  In relaxed movement, our minds also relax.  This is why many people refer to tai qi as meditation in movement or as mindfulness in motion.

Qi is also the underlying concept in feng shui 风水 [fēngshuǐ], which is literally translated as the words, “wind, water,” and, in ancient times, literally meant “the Tao of heaven and earth.”  Feng shui attempts to bring about balance in qi as it relates to our environment and surroundings and is believed to impart good health and fortune.  As a simplified example, we can position ourselves in light and space to feel good.  We know, for example, that a dark, cramped room doesn’t make us feel as good as being in a bright and open space.  

In the end, I don’t have a good answer for what qi is.  To me, it is the energy we receive and project.  Applied, it is the practice of bringing about balance and harmony with all things around and within us.  Children are full of “good” qi because they are natural and in harmony with themselves.   When we grow up and become adults, however, we tend to find many conflicts inside and outside ourselves due to our environment and experiences.   Application of a basic understanding of qi can help bring about a greater sense of harmony, lower stress, increase positive energy and allow us to become more vibrant.  

Here are a few ways to practice this in our daily lives:  

  • Eat and drink in moderation.  It is good to have the belly half-full and not until you feel stuffed.  Chew slowly.  Enjoy the flavor and texture of the food you are eating.  Also, try to keep a balanced diet and avoid eating fast food or eating too many processed foods (eating processed foods adds strain on your liver).
  • Sit and stand relaxed and comfortably.  Try not to slouch and maintain good posture.  This does not mean you need to force yourself to be rigid and straight! Enjoy silence, and feel yourself and your surroundings.
  • Try to go to bed early, if possible, and get regular sleep.  Our bodies go through processes throughout the day at regular, natural intervals, usually in 24 hour cycles,  These include changes in melatonin secretion, body temperature and bowels, as well as others.  In the West, we call these “circadian rhythms.”  In Chinese medicine, regular sleep cycles and deep sleep cycles should coincide with the Chinese clock or calendar (based on the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets) to help increase kidney and liver functions, aid in digestion, as well as to help keep hormones in balance.
  • Keep your home clean and organized.  This gives us sense of peacefulness and helps reduce chaos around us and within us.
  • Try not to rush through tasks.  When you wash the dishes, feel the warm water and the bubble suds.  Or when you fold clothes, be aware of the smell of the clothes and the warmth of the cloths.  When you do each task, be aware of your body and your senses as you are doing it.  This is called mindfulness.
  • Try not to expose yourself to unhealthy or polluted situations.  If something does not feel good or feels uncomfortable, try to remove yourself from it or pull back.  Enjoy nature as often as possible.
  • Exercise regularly.  We all know that exercise is good for our health.  If you have some physical limitations like arthritis, try to take daily walks which is not as stressful on the bones and ligaments and can be very therapeutic for both mind and body.
  • Watch less tv.  Watching tv can be relaxing, but it is completely passive.  If you take half an hour out of watching tv every day to enjoy tea, take a walk or do almost anything where you can practice mindfulness, you may find not only that you feel better but that you also tend to get more done.
  • When it comes to work, don’t push yourself too hard so that your work feels painful.  If you stare at the screen too long, your eyes will become tired.  Turn off your screen or look away and take a break.  Look out the window and see the trees, animals, buildings, or whatever catches your imagination so that you temporarily remove yourself from the hustle and bustle around you.  If you learn to take these few moments to relax, you will find yourself able to focus longer.
  • Don’t think too hard.  Go with the flow.
  • Finally, try to keep life simple.  This is easier said than done, but with practice, you can learn to brush away distractions and see that many things are not as important as you thought.  Meditation and practicing mindfulness can help you to achieve this. My father once told me, keeping your life simple is like polishing a mirror.  If you don’t polish the mirror regularly, the mirror becomes dirty.  At some point, without regular cleaning, it will take more work to be able to see clearly.  Start by taking an effort to slow down.  Stop what you are doing and take 15-20 deep breaths.  At first, for many people, this may feel difficult because we are so caught up in rushing and doing things without being aware of our bodies and ourselves in our environment.  Feel your body from head to toe.  Be aware of the silence in and around your body.  Practice this once or twice a day.
  • Even if it is just one thing out of many things you do every day, try to do it mindfully.

*Note: the Chinese character for qi [jí] in tai qi is actually different from the character, qi, as we have discussed in this piece, and means “supreme” or “ultimate.”  Tai qi quan can be translated as “ultimate supreme fist” or “ultimate supreme boxing.”   

** Qi Gong (气功 [qìgōng]) uses the same basic principles as tai qi and plays an important role in tai qi training.     

Why I Practice Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese character safeI sit down and arrange a few things before me – paper, ink, inkstone, brush and zi tie, which literally means “word obedience” or “word submission” but can be translated into “word copybook.” (The zi tie is a printed copy of an original work of calligraphy, usually done by a master. This copybook serves as the model for calligraphers.) I pour a bit of ink into the well of the inkstone. 

I then take the brush, which is made of wolf hair or goat hair, dip it into the ink which I have poured into the well of the stone and gently wipe it across the surface of the stone to get rid of any excess ink. I gather myself. Before the attack, I relax, concentrate, breathe.

My goal is is to copy the characters I see on the zi tie as best as I can. I use one zi tie religiously, which was recommended to me by my father. He said, if you can learn to copy these characters well, then you can write any calligraphy well. “Write” is not quite the right word, I think. Perhaps “draw” is more appropriate. You are, after all, using a brush to draw each stroke of each character.

At any rate, I realize that with every stroke of the brush, I am making an attack. I need to concentrate in order for the brush to obey my will and do what I want it to do. Once you make a stroke, you cannot modify it or take it back. You have only one chance. When the stroke appears on paper, it is what it is.

The first thing I’m aware of when I’m writing calligraphy is whether my stroke is balanced or not. Every character in Chinese requires balance. In fact, a single unbalanced stroke can make an entire character look unstable, as if it would fall easily if you were to push it gently with your hand. Each character should stand upright so that it has poise.

The second thing I’m aware of is knowing that certain strokes aren’t as good as I’d like or even complete failures, but I can’t paint over them. I can’t change them, so I keep going. Even if I’m disappointed, I finish the rest of the character as dutifully as I can, and I try to keep in mind that each new stroke is another chance at doing well. When this happens, I realize that practicing Chinese calligraphy is a metaphor. Accept what happened, move on and try again.

I keep dipping the brush in the ink and wiping the excess ink away on the stone and copying the characters until I have a full page of characters in front of me. That’s when I realize something else. For the whole time that I was practicing this art, I forgot everything else – all my worries, my troubles, unfinished chores or what I needed to do later. I was completely absorbed in a simple act of copying characters.

The written Chinese language is so poetic. When I write in general, I feel alive. But when I write Chinese, I feel it even more keenly because when you write in Chinese, you need to pay attention to how you construct every word. If you miss a dot or a line is too long or too short, it can change the character into a completely different one. Writing Chinese requires you to remain aware and stay balanced. Chinese characters are pictorial in origin. It is the only major modern language which remains so and has no alphabet. Therefore, each character is known by memory.  

However, many characters actually make sense in their separate parts. For example, if you place the character for “woman” under the radical for “roof,” you arrive at the word that means “safe,” i.e. a woman under a roof is “safe.” Now, if you were to write this character, and you put the roof too high above the woman or the roof is crooked, it might not look or feel “safe.” You need to write the strokes so that they look and feel like they go together. In other words, you achieve a sense of harmony. 

When I practice calligraphy, something magical happens. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. But it is a sense of peace and of being alive that infuses me and travels through my brush. If you practice every day, you start to notice something else about your characters. They start to gain strength. Not just balance, but real strength. Now that you are better at taming your brush, you can channel your energy so that the soft tip of hair becomes like a sword and can carve sharp lines into the paper. It is said that a great master can literally carve characters with his brush into a wood table. I think this is an exaggeration, but it also contains some truth. Calligraphy is, in fact, a type of kung fu. It uses the same principles. Energy is channeled in the same way so that with practice and concentration, you can achieve balance, flexibility, focus, awareness, a sense of harmony and strength through simple actions.

But more importantly, writing calligraphy helps me realize that what’s important is now. It is this stroke before me that I want to make and am making. You can’t think of your last stroke with pride or disappointment if you want to do well because you have to concentrate on this single moment. So focus. In the end, for the half hour or hour that I sat down to produce a sheet of copied characters, I feel calm. I feel like I disposed of a lot of garbage in my head.  

I remember something my father said when I first tried writing Chinese calligraphy when I was young. I said the character for “one” which has only one stroke, looked easy to write. He replied somewhat mockingly, “It’s the easiest that is the hardest.” I think I understand now what he meant. Your characters express what is going on with your body, your imagination, your character and the discipline you have gained. It is entirely visible to the world in that one, single stroke. You can’t balance it out with another stroke or dot. It is naked in the moment in time that you created it. It takes courage to write the character “one.” I’m still working on it. 

Chinese brush inkstone           Chinese calligraph