How Do We Live With a Joy That is Profound and Subtle?

Can we live free from the dominance of the ever-changing weather of emotions?  Can we live with the quiet joy of life being okay, just as it is?  Perhaps yes, but this passage from Lao Tzu* would suggest it requires a different way of moving through this unfolding process of being:

Tao te Ching 15

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
They penetrated the dark.
You would never know them;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing a stream in winter.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Ephemeral as melting ice.
Simple as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
til the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

Each stanza, each of these lines, is a practice instruction.  We can make use of them that way.

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle
If we let go of the names we give to experience and go beyond settling for  just the ‘headings’ we give to experience, the vividness of each moment begins to speak.  What at first seems subtle, difficult even to notice, becomes profound – the light illuminating a loved one’s face, the bird flying overhead just now, the way the person walking appeared from nowhere, the explosive warning of a dog’s bark.  When we begin to notice, we find that every moment is just so, unlike any other.  The ‘ancient Masters’ trained themselves to experience greater and greater subtlety, to experience the vividness of life, they didn’t settle for concepts that explain life away.  We can do this.

try this practice: during the day when you are walking from here to there, let go of thinking thinking and open to your actual experience – the rhythmic crunch of your feet on gravel, the breeze on your cheeks, the heat of your body, sounds near and far that arise and disappear, the sense of the weight of your arms – notice the ever-changing movement of what comes and goes.  Let go of naming the content.  Let go of being lost in stories.

They penetrated the dark
They penetrated deeply beyond pretending to understand.  Leaving behind the tiny match flame of naming, they open in this profound darkness to the richness and vitality of what actually is.  Our minds name things, but we can let the description vanish in a moment.  We can look at the moon, stars, and sky but see no moon, stars, or sky.  We can hear the wind and far off bird calling but hear no thing.  We can walk as a breeze that comes and goes in the empty night.

try this practice:  notice a sensation inside yourself.  Bring attention to it, gently and easily.  Let your attention saturate the experience of the sensation.  Now describe the sensation, metaphorically or descriptively.  Now let the descriptions go and open, drop into, blend with, the sensation as it is.  Let go of hurrying.

They were careful as someone crossing a stream in winter
How often do we engage the moment with care, sensing our way, testing the ground as we move along, not assuming ‘the ice won’t break’?  When we pay attention we know all of life is vulnerable, every moment like a soap bubble in the wind.  Sensing the ground, sensing the wind, listening deeply to the silence.

try this practice:  walk slowly in the dark, stepping from one foot to the other, pausing on one foot, feel what it is to balance.  Stand in an open space in the dark, close your eyes, let your senses spread out like ripples around you, notice what comes up from inside you.

Alert as a warrior in enemy territory
In contested territory sleepiness is the enemy.  In a world of projected patterns, ours and those of others, wakefulness is anathema to the status quo.  We must be alert to the snares and traps that would pull us in to patterned behavior – if not, we are simply pulled under yet again!

One could substitute ‘wakeful’ for ‘alert’.  Neither ‘alert’ or ‘wakeful’ implies being tense.  We can have relaxed attention, relaxed wakefulness.  Alert to what?  It could be a heightened awareness of the darkness, the space, to what is there; like when entering a dark room or an alley, a deep forest, or a dark entryway.

Alert to nuance, the whole of the situation, relaxed wakefulness with what is unfolding.  Too often we are ignoring without even being aware of it, lost in our projected versions of what is transpiring.  We can relax, and be right where we are, alive to it!

try this practice:  be alert to the nuances of space and movement as you move through the ‘forests’ of your workplace, or the ‘jungle’ of a store – alert to what you feel, muscles and bones and skin, to sound, to the shifting shapes and colors, to internal cues.

Courteous as a guest
Consider what would be different if you acted with courtesy, as if you were a guest in someone else’s home.  Can you be courteous towards other beings, to trees and grasses and ground, to the air, to space, to a process? Courtesy takes us out of the confines of self importance.  Courtesy means assuming others are at least as central to what-is as we believe our selves to be.

try this practice:  go through a small part of a day being courteous to all you meet, even to the moment.  Notice the differences in your experience.

Ephemeral as melting ice
Consider:  we are transitional experience, never beginning, never arriving, never solid, in motion even when still.  We are not things, we are loci of ever-changing experience.  Perhaps this is different than how you usually imagine you ought to be.

try this practice:  this may seem subtle to you, but try it – for a few moments, notice the ever-changing quality of your experience of being.  Notice how each moment is different, you are different, everything keeps changing.

Simple as a block of wood
I have several blocks of clear (clear means it has straight grain and no knots) Douglas fir that I have kept for a long time because they are so simple, and so wonderful! They are dense, solid, and beautifully colored by the years.  They are simply blocks of wood – they are so clearly what they are; they have no pretense to being something else.

Imagine that you are simply awareness. Just for a few moments, forego following the complexity and drama that is our usual fare. Experiences come and go, awareness remains, clear and simple.

try this practice:  for a few moments imagine that you are simply awareness – experience what comes and goes as if it is projected holograms on the perfectly clear three dimensional ‘screen’ of awareness.

Receptive as a valley
I have spent time in a moist river valley in Washington State that is filled with azaleas and rhododendrons that begin to bloom in the Spring, a river that runs deep and wide, logging trucks that come crashing down the road, forests and clear cuts, birds nesting, and people living their lives.  Last Spring mud slides wiped out huge areas – azaleas, river beds, trucks, and whole towns – the valley receives it all.

The open space of a valley is not concerned with what comes and goes.  It receives everything, filling and emptying, neither clinging nor pushing away what comes.

try this practice:  from time to time through your day simply experience what comes and goes, without labeling it good or bad or meaningless.  Experience it; don’t cling to it.

Clear as a glass of water
It is not that The Master is clear, it is that there is no master.  When we look there is no one there, simply a presence, an awareness, a response when the situation calls for it.

try this practice:  for a moment, let your sense of ‘I’ simply be another aspect of the moment.  Be right where you are, with experience coming and going on it’s own – even the experience of ‘I’.

Patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear
Patient enough to be right where we are.  Returning again and again to the stillness of open clarity.  Even as the muddiness of stories and reactions run by, patiently returning to stillness and open clarity.  Gradually the mud settles.  If we jump in and try to speed it up, make it happen it whirls and swirls and away we go again.

try this practice:  on your next inhale, suspend it about half way and open right there;  then continue breathing, open and still.  Allow stories and reactions to come and go.

Remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself
I trained in dance and performance for several years in New York City.  Improvisation was an important part of that training as it taught one to listen to the moment and respond.  One of the most important pieces of advice I was given was:  ‘don’t move until you must move’.  This cut through the fretting, the struggle and extraneous movement created by ‘over thinking’.  Action became simple – move when you must.

Right action arises from our knowing, which is informed by all that we have done and from our perception of the needs of the situation we find ourselves in.  The way forward reveals itself, though we often don’t choose it – all too often our beliefs and fears get in the way of our knowing.  Recall the major movements in your life – for many of us they simply happened, they unfolded naturally.

try this practice:  several times a day, try not acting, not moving, until compelled to.

Doesn’t seek fulfillment / Doesn’t try to be seen
The moment we are in, this one right now, is what is.  We ‘fulfill it’ by simply being in it.  When we seek fulfillment we are acting from needs that originate in the past – needs from the past cannot be met in the present.  This can be hard to fully ‘get’.  No matter what we accomplish, no matter the wonderful experiences we stack up, there will still be something lacking.

Consider:  perhaps there is no one to be fulfilled, no one to seek fulfillment, only patterns and imprints that by their very nature are unfulfilled and cannot ever be fulfilled.  Fulfillment – contentment – can arise, but not out of our seeking to make it so.

Just as there is no one to be fulfilled there is no one to be seen.  Only patterns of need saying ‘please see me’.  No one can see those patterns, they don’t even truly exist.

try this practice:  for a few moments a day, let go of seeking anything or trying to be a certain way.  Perhaps even try being no one, simply a presence.

Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things
If we let go of wishing, we can welcome what is.  The moment becomes vital and alive, just as it is.

The underlying assumption of seeking is that right now is not as it should or could be.  Right now is all there is.  It is always all there is.  If we practice being in the ‘right now’, not expecting a better or different ‘right now’, then the moment becomes vital and can unfold with that vitality.  A different  moment unfolds when it is filled with wanting, a sense of not-having, an expectation that things should be different than they are.

try this practice:  for a few moments a day, let go of seeking anything or wishing for things to be a certain way, and welcome, actually welcome, the moment as it is.  Stand at the doorway of awareness and welcome whatever comes.


We make an agreement to move through life differently than we have been.  We agree, and then we practice this new way.  Slowly, without even knowing it, we find that we are filled with a quiet joy, content to drop into the world as it is.  We find this world is a world of wonders in it’s very ordinariness.


*Most of this translation is from Stephen Mitchell’s “Tao Te Ching”, some is from Red Pine’s “Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching” – both books are wonderful and can be purchased most places books are sold!

©Copyright Jeff Bickford, August 2014  all rights reserved.

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