Yin and Yang, The Scottish Referendum, and Competition and Collaboration

When many people think of the Eastern concept of Yin and Yang, they tend to think in terms of taking these opposite forces and bringing them into balance. I have thought in much the same way for a long time, but increasingly in the last couple of years I have come to think about Yin and Yang, and other such polar opposites as needing something more than balance: I think they need integration.

This is a subtle distinction, but an important one to me. The idea of balance seems to me to be a devil’s bargain where I take these apparent opposites and do my best to juggle them in my life trying never to let one or the other be too dominant, which I would suggest leads also to never fully committing to one, or the other. At the heart of this balancing act is what I consider to be a somewhat flawed belief in the first place - that polar opposites by their difference are necessarily separate.

When we introduced the idea of integration we step into an entirely different dialogue, one where opposites don’t just attract but are intimately linked, necessarily interdependent. For me this is a truth which is expressed by the Yin Yang symbol which contains a dot of white in the black and a dot of black in the white, Yin contains a seed of Yang, and Yang contains a seed of Yin. This is the essential paradox at the heart of Taoism from which these concepts originate: things which seem to be opposed are actually in support of each other. You can’t say yes to one thing without saying no to many others; to jump up you must push down; we only know there is light because we can contrast it against darkness.

This seems in some ways particularly pertinent this week where the debate in Scotland has been so hot about whether to separate or stay together with the rest of the UK. What seems to me to have so often have been lost in this debate is the fact that if Scotland chooses independence, in the turbulent and tough times we are facing in this world Scotland and the rest of the UK will need to find a way to be close allies. Equally, if Scotland chooses to stay in the United Kingdom, then the central UK government will need to be ready to give Scotland greater freedom. Either way it seems to me we will have to be ready to work together, and either way the people of Scotland who have been in such heated debate will have to be ready to live together. I think the divisiveness of this debate and the way the politicians have handled themselves has not paved the way well for either of these 2 things.

We can draw a wider application when we consider the broader positions of competition and collaboration. So often these 2 things are seen as being mutually exclusive, so often I hear competitors speak with scorn about collaboration, so often I hear collaborators speak with distaste about competition. In my opinion, as with any Yin and Yang the 2 things at their heart are completely interdependent and it is when one is exclusively heralded and the other pathologised that systems and relationships begin to break down.

I used to be very much in the collaborators camp having had a difficult time with competitive sport at school and found my home in theatre where the cast depend so much on each other. However, playing Capoeira at University, studying the Samurai Game, and discussing this with Jane Magruder-Watkins when I trained in Appreciative Inquiry shifted my perspective. In Capoeira competition is strong but playfully and joyfully held, in the Samurai Game fierce combat is conducted with total respect, and what Jane helped me to see is that in any competitive situation short of the death-match collaboration is necessary.

No matter how competitive the sport, let’s take football as an example, unless I walk onto the pitch armed with weapons ready to slay anyone who tries to stop me putting the ball in the goal then collaboration has to be a play! In even the most collaborative environments, unless we are all going to “play small” desperately trying not to be better than anyone else then some kind of competition is at play: we each bring our best game and want everyone else to do the same but some ideas will be pursued and developed while others won’t. When we can stop trying to make one approach right and the other one wrong competition and collaboration are mutually nourishing and supporting.

Let’s hope that whatever the outcome in Scotland we as nations and regions can find a supportive and nourishing integration of togetherness and apart-ness.

I invite you in your communities and organisations to consider the place of competition and collaboration and how they can be better integrated.

If you’d like to explore the integration of Yin and Yang I will be running a workshop 27th of September on this theme, and I will soon be releasing a new book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable’ which is a modern take on the most ancient Taoist text exploring the expression of Yin and Yang in the world.

Death and Life

You are going to die

You

Are going to die

There is no avoiding it

Pretending it won't happen won't prevent it

And more than that,

Everyone and everything you love will die too.

There is no solace in this world, no legacy great enough to ensure your immortality.

You are closer to death now than when you started reading.

Take another step my friend,

There is no avoiding it.

There could be misery in these thoughts...

Terror,

Disillusionment,

Pain.

But there is a gift as well:

It is only by embracing the reality of death that we truly learn how to live.

There is a fierce urgency that is yours to claim,

A freeing knowledge of your own doom

That waits

Like death

Just around the corner.

Many imagine the knowledge of imminent doom

To bring a rush

Of hedonism,

A selfish 'fuck you' to the world as you pursue your own pleasure.

...But that is not what I see.

That is not what I feel in myself as I contemplate my own demise,

No.

I want to share,

to give,

to love.

I seek belonging

Not belongings,

I welcome simplicity and peace, not a chaotic feeding of my inner glutton,

I seek substance not substances,

Because.

In confronting my death

I have to confront my life,

In facing the fact that I could disappear at any moment

I have to ask the question

"What if I could appear at any moment?"

What if...?

What if...?

What if I stepped out from behind the cloud of my own inhibitions and really lived?

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

Not for fame,

Or greatness,

Or money,

Or any of the other egoic delights

I may pick up

Incidentally along the path,

What if I grasped the opportunity in my life

for ordinary wonder?

What if seeing death could help me to see life?

What if the marvel of life lies not in the marvels but in the minutiae?

The light on my cup,

The moment of satisfaction after eating a meal,

Or speaking to a friend.

What if I could appear to myself at any moment?

What if I could see myself with fresh eyes now, and now, and now

And know:

This is who I am.

And tomorrow I will be someone else,

And that is wonderful and terrible.

Wonder-full and terrible

To have to face

My own death

Every day,

The possibility of my physical death

And the reality of dying to myself every moment,

Because I am not the same person now as when I started writing this,

You are not the same person who started reading this,

You are not only dying but dead.

You are dead.

You are dead already.

You don't owe anyone anything,

And you owe a great legacy in every moment

Because you are your own ancestor.

Are you going to let the million you's who died so that you could live

Die for nothing?

Knowing that you will die anyway, can you sacrifice yourself in this moment

So that the you who is being born

Might receive a legacy of choice?

 

Can you embrace death, dear one,

so that you might learn how to live?

My Taoist Foolish Heart

I have had lots of good feedback about the first chapter of  My Tao Te Ching - A Fool's Gide to Effing the Ineffable which I posted a little while ago so I thought I'd share some more.  So... Here's one of my other favourite chapters of the 30 I've written so far.  For those of you who didn't see the last post and want to read the intro follow this link.  The short version is that I'm re-writing a thousands of years old chinese text for modern times, in my own admittedly slightly eccentric language!  I'm hoping to get the book published in the coming year.  You can read an excerpt of the book I have just published which is also Taoism inspired and is called 'A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.'  It's not on full release yet but will be early next year.  To get an advance copy click on this link.  Anyway, here's the Chapter!

 

Chapter 13

You are going to lose and look a Fool time and time again - get used to it.

Life is painful and often hard work - deal with it.

It's the way of the world:as soon as you gain something you're at risk of losing it.

If you didn't have a body you couldn't feel pain or do work, but being human entails having a body.

Trying to deny these things is like trying to arm-wrestle the moon:

It's way bigger than you....

....and....

....It has no arms.

 

Accept the world on it's terms and compassion will come naturally.

Love the world - and yourself as part of it - just the way it is, and you are truly ready to be trusted.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I'm feeling like spoiling you so here's one more chapter as a treat!

 

Chapter 22

 

Heart broken... open

Confusion and mystery lead to clarity.

To fill up, empty out.

Embrace dying to foster living.

Give to receive.

 

The wise fool lives from the Tao, listening to the still, small voice in her heart.

Quietly blossoming, people see her beauty.

Like the sun behind a cloud: Her brilliance is hidden but people feel her warmth.

When she makes a point, there's no arguing: she's got nothing to prove.

She offers an open heart and people see themselves in her eyes.

With no ideas of good or bad she's wonderful at everything!

 

When the ancients said "Embrace dying to foster living," was that crazy?

 

Surrender to the Way and find yourself where you are

Here and now

Here and now

Here and now.

 

Stop trying to be something and be something.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I hope you've enjoyed this 'borrowed poetry.'  The Tao Te Ching is such a rich and beautiful tome.  If you'd like to know more about my books, be on the mailing list for our courses, or be told when a new book or the online Spiritual Exploration course is available then please get in touch and we can put you on the mailing list.

 

Thanks for reading y'all.

First Chapter: Finding your Way

I wanted to share with you all the intro and the first chapter of my forthcoming book "A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff."  I've been really enjoying writing it for the last 6 months or so.  It is going to be a short book (hence the title) but I think it 'has legs'.  So short book, but a long journey ahead of it!  I hope you enjoy this except and perhaps it will whet your appetite for the whole thing when it's ready (should be in print by December this year).  Thanks for reading this and joining me on the journey...

 

Introduction: The Way

 

          We all want to be good at something.  Let's face it, most of us who haven't had all the passion squeezed out of us want to be really good at something. It almost doesn't matter what the thing is – just to be that good, to be able to say “I'm World-class.”  But how do we envision this goal?  I'd say that in the western world we have a pretty limited idea of what achievement really means.  It mostly seems to mean Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller, just plain MORE!  I think there's another way...

          It's a way that has been around in the West forever but has only been applied to certain disciplines (primarily the arts).  It has been suggested by certain modern and progressive psychologies.  But I think it has been best explored and expressed in the Far East where it has been inherent in some of their oldest philosophical approaches.  What is that way?  Good question.

          It is The Way.  It has it's roots in Taoism (an ancient Chinese religion and spiritual path) and found further expression in Japanese Zen Buddhism.  'Tao' (sometimes Dao) in Chinese or 'Do' in Japanese translates as 'Way.'  So when I say it's The Way, that's what I mean.  And this book is not just about doing stuff it's about Do-ing stuff: taking something you do and making it a Do (see how beautifully I've set up that pun?  That's part of my Way, I learnt it from my Dad).

          The Way is not about Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Taller or More.  It is about someone expressing their essential nature.  It is about blossoming into the fullness of your being – and not in an 'I'm the most beautiful blossom ever' kinda way – in a finding out who you are and living that kinda way.  When you really do that, as the song says, nobody does it better.

          This is not about converting you to some religion, making you shave your head, selling you a line of 'The Way'TM T-shirts, or selling your Soul to Santa.  It could be described as a spiritual path but only in so much as it is a path and if you want to you can involve your spiritual self in the journey.  That's all up to you.  My personal experience is that by taking certain activities and bringing a special mindset to them I have learned about myself and found a deeper sense of who I really am.  It's not any kind of objective truth (if such a thing exists) but it has brought me joy in the good times and peace in the tough times and that's good enough for me.

          The Way is not really about the activities that help to cultivate it. The Way is your unique path in the world.  When that's really written in your heart then you can experience all kinds of Ways and all kinds of people and they all help to feed you in your own Way.  In the words of the Hagakure[1]:

 

 “It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

  


Chapter 1: All Zen Masters are Geeks and Anoraks!

 

          I think one of the reasons why we view mastery as we do in the West is because of school.  In school it's not cool to be good at stuff unless it's mainstream.  This will probably depend on the school but at my school, being good at football was cool.  Sports were generally a cool thing to be good at but Football was top of the pile.  Music could be cool to be good at... guitar was cool, oboe was not.  As we got towards driving age, knowing a lot about cars was cool.  Being academically strong was not cool, but particularly maths, the sciences and history were not cool.  Religious Studies didn't even get on the radar.  These are mostly examples from the boys side of the fence and from my school in particular but most of us develop a sixth sense about what's cool and what's not when we are at school and I'm sure you can fill in your own examples. 

          In this environment where only certain activities are safe to be enthusiastic about, is it any wonder that many of us loose our way?  In the rarefied social environment of the playground or the sports field or the canteen you just didn't say “You know what?  I love renaissance poetry!”  If you did you were a geek.  Likewise, it would have been a special kind of social suicide to say “This algebra stuff is brilliant, I could just play with numbers and letters like this all day!”  If you did you were an anorak.

          Most of us will have had relatively little safe space growing up to explore what really excited us.  We have been socially educated to hide away any passions which don't fit the mould.

          I think that to find our Way we have to love something.  It's not always the case but I've often found that the things I fall in love with are things I have some natural talent for.  That doesn't mean I find them easy – the challenge is part of what gets me really hooked long term – but when I first try it there's a zing of recognition like I've done it before and the process of learning is more like a remembering.

          I never really learnt to love football, but it wouldn't surprise me if many of my school friends did.  They learnt to love it but I suspect only a handful loved it straight off.  In my heart there were other things I loved straight away, and some of them have taken years to discover.  Most of the things I love would have definitely placed me in the Geek camp at school.  Karate for instance, but not the high kicking kind of cool 'Karate Kid' Karate, no.... A rare form of old Okinawan Karate that is compact and probably not that impressive to watch.  Another example would be a love of world religions and philosophies.  Definitely not cool.  My most recent discovery is 'Card Scaling'.  “What?!” I hear you cry.  It is the skill of throwing playing cards with enough power to stick in a water-melon or fly for hundreds of feet.  Throwing playing cards like a ninja!  Sound kinda geeky?  Fair enough, but I love it.

          Where in the East people who obsessively train in obscure disciplines are given titles of respect, in the West they are called Geeks and Anoraks.  Take a Zen master as an example.  He (or she) spends years sitting still.  Their other key activity is contemplating ancient pieces of short and confusing poetry.  It sounds like a geek and smells like a geek, it's a geek!  Ancient poetry that doesn't have any immediate or obvious meaning?!  What an anorak!

          If you want to master something, if you want to find a Way that will nourish you and help you grow it's got to be something that lives in your heart; and that means that by the world's standards it might not be cool. 

          There are Ways already defined and laid out for you to pick up: the martial arts; zen flower arranging; calligraphy; brush painting; pottery; carving; the Japanese tea ceremony.  That's not what this book is about.  What I'm looking to do here is set out some principles so that you can take any activity and turn it into a Way.  Hell, if the Samurai and monks of ancient Japan could turn making the tea into a Zen art then why shouldn't we do the same with anything?  Cake baking, accountancy, wine tasting is virtually there already, the application of make-up, dog walking, throwing stones into the sea – anything!

          If you're going to undertake this task and find a Way for yourself you'd better get in touch with your inner geek.  Revere the anorak in your heart.  These are the parts of you that are capable of completely investing themselves in the deep deep detail of their activities no matter what anyone else thinks.  And remember that all Zen masters are Geeks and Anoraks.

 

          Some of you who have an altruistic outlook and want to take care of others or even change the world may be wondering if this isn't all a bit self serving.  Isn't it a bit selfish to dig deep into myself and find what I like to do and really invest time in it regardless of whether it is an activity which serves others?  I would say no.  If you don't take care of the vessel doing the work (that's you) then the work won't get done.  One of my favourite quotes at the moment is this one from Howard Thurman:

 

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

 


[1]     Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Translated by William Scott Wilson



The Incomparable Jim Dodge

I have long been a fan of Jim Dodge.  He is a simply wonderful writer if not the most prolific.  I first came across his writing when I picked up his book 'Stone Junction' in a 2nd hand bookshop.  I loved it - it is an awesome tale of one young man's existence and the existence of the universe at the same time.  It includes some wonderful characters and is one long, very grand adventure.

The next step in my love affair with his writing came when I found his little book FUP.  It's about a duck, a man and his grandaddyy.  It is the most perfect book I have ever read (and I've read a lot!).  I get the sense that it is short because Jim Dodge knew exactly when to stop writing.

I read an interview with Jim Dodge and he called himself a Taoist-Dirt-Pagan.  I like that.

I have now just acquired his book of poetry 'Rain on the River.'  It is, once again, beautiful.  Mr. Dodge has not previously published his poems in a full book, having kept to the old format of publishing shorter 'chap-books' and releasing them locally as part of his modest goal to become "famous for a hundred miles."  In this age of global media coverage it strikes me that it might even be harder to be famous only for that hundred miles!  I guess I'm not doing him any favours spreading word of him in the UK!

Anyway, I thought I'd share with you my favourite poem so far, in the hopes you will feel inspired to investigate this man's gorgeous writing.  Fup is probably the best place to start, but you can't go far wrong.

Love Find - By Jim Dodge

 

After the Oklahoma City bombing

search-and-rescue dogs

were flown in with their handlers

from all over the U.S.

 

But when the dogs couldn't find

any survivors

they became disconsolate,

 

and after another day of nothing

but dead bodies,

if they'd even search

it was desultory at best.

 

So the handlers began taking turns

hiding in the rubble,

letting the dogs find them alive.

My Tao Te Ching - Chapter 1

One of the books I'm working on at the moment is my own version of the Tao Te Ching.  For those of you that don't know, the Tao Te Ching is the central text of Taoism.  It is thought to be the oldest complete sacred text dating back to something like 500 years BC and is said to have been written by a mysterious figure called Lao Tzu.  Whether Lao Tzu was a real person or is a mythical figure, no-one is sure and some say the text is an amalgamation of several philosophers writings.  I don't know about all that, but I do know that the Tao Te Ching is a wonderful text full of beautiful poetic subtlety (when well translated) and profound lessons about the nature of life the universe and... well, everything!

"So," I can hear you thinking "...why are you writing your own version of a profound, ancient Chinese text?  Do you even speak Chinese?  Who the hell do you think you are anyway??!!" 

All fair questions.  It is in the nature of translation work - especially in a language which is so different in it's nature to English (Chinese being made up of pictograms which have image-based significance as well as linguistic) - that the translator is not a mere technician swapping one bolt for another in the machine of language, but is an artist re-creating the original work in another medium.  Imagine getting a Picasso painting and then asking a contemporary artist to re-create it as a piece of music.  It's not quite the same thing but translation is closer to this metaphor than we often like to think.  There are some wonderful translators out there (one of my favourites is Daniel Ladinsky who has translated a lot of the Sufi mystics - check out his book 'Love poems from God').  There are also some wonderful translations of the Tao Te Ching - I've read about 6 or 8 cover to cover over the years, some many times, and dipped into a further 5 or more that weren't as good in my opinion.  To be clear, my opinion is based not on being a scholar of the Chinese language but on having studied and lived with Taoist arts for much of the past 10 years or so.  The ones that I feel really capture the essence of the Taoist outlook are the translations by: Gia-fu Feng and Jane English; Stephen Mitchell; and Ursula LeGuin.

There are some great translations out there... and I feel there's space for another one!  I wanted to write one in language that doesn't lose the wonderful sense of the mysterious but is in slightly more 'modern-friendly' language.  There is also, in the Taoist tradition, a great sense of humour and rogue-ishness.  The other versions of the Tao Te Ching seem to me to be missing this quality.  It's probably the case that the original text didn't have this quality so they are accurate translations.  None-the-less, I wanted a version with a sense of humour so as no-one else seemed to be forthcoming in writing such a thing, I thought I'd do it!  I've written the first chapter below for you to have a read, I hope you enjoy it.

The Tao Te Ching is written in 81 'Chapters' and each chapter is a kind of poem.  The first chapter is considered by many to contain the essence of the entire book.

My Tao Te Ching - A Fools Guide to Effing the Ineffable - By Francis Briers

Chapter 1


I'm going to talk about something

I'll call it Tao (which means 'Way').

By Talking about it I'm only going to confuse matters,

But if I don't,

This will be a very short book.

 

Even by calling it "Tao" I've taken something amazing,

Limitless

And wonderfully mysterious,

And reduced it to a 3 letter word.

 

Direct experience, no matter how confusing, is the real deal.

 

As soon as I give it a name it's just another thing

Like the toaster,

Or the train,

Or Auntie Maureen,

Or the Jelly mold...

 

Sometimes

When we let go of our need to pin things down

Our confusion can be very beautiful.

 

When we get obsessed with having all the answers

All we can see is the toaster.

 

Strangely: Beautiful confusion and the toaster come from the same place.

This place is called "The Dark."

It's so dark you can't see anything,

But if you want to understand

Then "The Dark"

Is the only place worth looking.

 

 

If you like this and you'd like to be kept up to date on this and other books I will soon be publishing then drop us a line and we can put you on the mailing list.  There is also a spiritual development course coming up in October which has a Taoist element and we will be offering other Taoist influenced workshops in the future - please do get in touch!