I thought I’d share something I just wrote for my new book.

Sailing in the Sea of Dao

God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly—not one. Rumi

If we imagine Dao to be a vast unknowable sea and our consciousness to be sailing vessels on it, the bow is where the meetinghappens. The present moment. It is here that we say I-You.  I encounter You without greed or purpose, memory or anticipation.

(photo of boat bow by Michael Ricciardi)

If I prepare by fashioning a mind-object of that which I am to meet, my awareness is in the past. If I try to capture the meeting in my thoughts, it is gone. Instantly, it is split into two parts by the intellect, the It-Mind. (Intellect comes from the Latin, intellegere: “to choose between”).

Stillness is broken by the cleaving, and the mind starts to roil. Yin separates from yang and I experience things as separate. Attention is drawn port or starboard to phenomena that can be named and measured and categorized. I become aware of things as they appear to be.

I look astern and see the wake of the boat. The past. Long trails of foam tell me where I’ve been and what I have experienced. They mark the disturbances I have made in the world—interference patterns—and linger long enough to inspire my stories. They are like footprints left in the sand on the beach.

It is thought that Polynesian sailors of old were able to navigate vast distances without instruments by observing the wake of their boats. We often navigate our own lives by fixating on the past behavior patterns of ourselves and others.

(“People don’t change. They are so predictable.” “The past is prologue.”, etc.) Ideologies provide formulas for finding meaning in past patterns. part of this sea of uncertainty that comes into being for us in any moment is determined by our awareness.

When I meets You at the bow of the boat, there is the greatest uncertainty but also the greatest potentiality.

We can never see beyond this point, nor can we bring order or structure to it. But it is here that we have “intimations of eternity.” (Buber)

We have the option to open to the infinite possibilities offered by being. It is like breathing pure oxygen. You can’t do it very long, but wow does it make you feel alive while you are doing it. It is such a heady wine that small wonder we seek the familiar and predictable, even if just facsimile and replica.

When awareness is drawn left or right as the bow splits the water, it moves to more familiar turf—that of emerging phenomena. When yin and yang divide, the It-mind can now contrast and compare. Attention is shifted from the indivisible present to the appearance of things.

It is here that we make sense of current developments and fit them into ongoing narrative. It may only be a moment removed from Now, but we have shifted from I-You to I-It. From objectless awareness to abstracted thought.

Yin and yang were originally the dark and light sides of a mountain. Two contrasting views of the same thing. Heads or tails of the same coin. The mind can only evaluate information in terms of opposites. There is no hot without cold, good without evil, front without back.

Beauty and mercy are only recognized by people because they know the opposite, which is ugly and mean. Lao-tze

The story deepens when we look abaft. Our role as characters in it solidifies as we assume a more remote perspective. It is here where potentiality is at its lowest point and structure is most established. Our ‘history’ persists long after the wake has dissolved into the sea of What-Is.

It is easy to lock attention onto one view and consider that the ‘right’ one. Some fixate on the past and interpret life by its lessons. Others lean port or starboard and see from the perspective of an ideology or cultural bias. A few may even immerse so fully in the present that they cannot remember what happened a few seconds ago.

Each way of looking is important and must be honored. The skilled boat captain can easily shift awareness among them to meet the challenges of living.

Gongfu depends on knowing how and when to do just that. For instance, if I’m playing push hands I must meet my partner in the present moment or I’m at a serious disadvantage. I must also recognize changes as they occur and be able to update my responses quickly. That takes me out of the moment and into I-It mode. This is where I make sense of what is going on. But I can’t fixate there or my attention gets stuck in the past. If I linger too long in thinking mode, I can be a half-second or more behind the action. It takes time to process information with my nervous system. I must also be able to call upon more distant memories to recognize familiar patterns for both of us. (“Joe is usually aggressive with his left arm.” “Remember to neutralize with my kua.”) Deeper into the It-mind.

If I go there, I must quickly return to meeting my partner in I-You mode. Back to the present. These shifts can occur many times a second.

Training this ability is an essential part of any gongfu.