The Tao and Water

by Laura K. Secor

Hello my UU friends,

Samhain is upon us. I was in Salem yesterday, and the witchy costumes, spiderweb leggings and green lipstick were out in full force. It is a strange juxtaposition, isn’t it, this celebration of the thinning of the veil between worlds, combined or contrasted with people’s childlike pleasure in playing dress-up?

But that is not my topic for today. I am still thinking about the various wisdom traditions I have been exploring, in the ongoing search for meaning in a very confusing world. Today I would like to share with you some current thoughts on Tao, a Hindu goddess and the impulse to pick and choose.

My favorite spiritual book is the Alan Watts book “Tao, the Watercourse Way.” There are ways in which water is a marvelous metaphor, and ways in which I wasn’t fond of Lao Tzu’s application. For example, the persistence and patience and flexibility of water are virtues in my eyes as well as his, but I don’t see those virtues a feminine rather than masculine. Even before my child came out as non-binary, I lacked comfort with the many labels men wished to apply to me under the umbrella term “feminine.” When it was “masculine” to want an income and a corner office, to want to be invited to look inside the engine of the overheated car, to prefer hot wheels to barbie, to fly a fighter jet, or to be a spy who is not required to sleep with the enemy, then I didn’t want to be feminine. Now I am happy that I was the one who got to grow the baby inside my body, but I still prefer hot wheels to barbie, I still prefer not to wear a skirt on any occasion, and I still enjoy picking up the check at the restaurant. I think this train of thought will lead me to write an essay on the “new feminine” or the “post-modern feminine” or the “Anthropocene feminine”.

Many Hindu goddesses inhabit the status of “consort”, and seem content to live in the shadow of their divine husbands. But not all. In “Awakening Shaki” by Sally Kempton, I discovered the goddess Chinnamasta – the fierce, even violent feminine, offering her blood to her children, or destroying enemies to protect her own clan. I do want to see some alternative females, but I can’t say I find anything admirable in self-sacrifice or tribal warfare.

Maybe we could develop a new quality of the feminine by contrasting “matter” to “pattern,” as Alan Watts has said. “Mater” for maternal in contrast to “pater” for paternal, the making of the thing rather than the idealizing of the thing. An ultimate practicality. Grounded, earth-mother, Terra. Again, though, I feel limited. The more I explore this division into two sets of qualities, I feel we are doing more to isolate and separate, when I think the true Tao is about interconnections of each among all.

And where do we include those who live beyond the binary?

Tao is certainly the spiritual philosophy closest to my heart, but I find that I pick and choose what parts I like. This might be disloyal – it seems as though one should, in the spirit of inter-connection, embrace without reservation. Is that what interconnection means? A friend recently said that the things we perceive through our senses come to us without asking permission. We hear sounds, and we can cover our ears, but the horse is already out of the barn. And I’m sure we each have our own personal collection of sights that caught us by surprise, sights we wish we could un-see. Ideas too – sometimes I read a small newspaper article, and afterwards I wish I could forget the gruesome details.

But are we allowed to pick and choose?

I believe that Taoists would urge us to embrace every ugly sight and gory story, as well as the flight of the monarch butterfly or the tale of a kitten rescued from the side of the highway. I don’t know if I can do this. Some zealous practitioners of yoga spend the night at the charnel grounds, I believe attempting to rid themselves of the idea that death does not apply to them. I am thinking of the way news of a death takes us by surprise, but isn’t that a necessary delusion? Could we really live without our illusions?

I think picking and choosing is essential. By choosing a single thing, we automatically reject a hundred things. If I accept the non-dualism of Tao, I have to reject their masculine/feminine metaphors. And that’s a choice I’m happy to make. Or consider Lao Tsu’s commentary on government, that less is more. That’s a choice, and I wouldn’t want to live without the extensive government services we all now rely on.

I think I can choose to reject some of Lao Tzu’s verses. And maybe view others as precursors to zen koans, things that are not meant to be understood so much as they are meant to evoke a state of befuddled openness. Meanwhile, the vision of the generative nothingness that births the ten thousand things is one that resonates. I wonder if I could capture that in a painting?

Do any of you study Taoism? I bet many of you heard Alan Watts on the radio back in the 60s. He really has a way of opening up the mind, doesn’t he? I’d love to hear from any of you who remember listening to him, back in the day.

Until next month…