Before we are conditioned by all the “dos and don’ts” of life,
we are naturally tender and gentle.
As we grow old,
we constrict around these conditions and end up dying stiff and rigid.
Indeed all living things begin soft and supple
and end up brittle and dry.
So we see that hardness and inflexibility are signs of death,
and that tenderness and gentleness are signs of life.
It is the ability of an army to change its plans
that keeps it from defeat.
It is the ability of a tree to bend in the wind
that keeps it from toppling.
Our natural tenderness
is our true strength.
Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching, trans. William Martin
The myth of toughness and hardness has done great harm, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. The hard body, the “buns of steel,” delusion has dominated our subconscious ideas of health and power for so long that we have become ill, weak, and vulnerable.
My outer muscles do offer some protection for my inner organs when the threat is a tiger or some similar predator. But absent this external predator, my muscles are designed to relax into a state of flexible softness. like that same tiger who spends most of his or her time stretched out in the sun. If my muscles don’t spend most of the time in this soft flexibility, they siphon energy, blood, enzymes, and nutrients away from the immune, circulatory, neural, and other vital inner systems. Even in times of sudden threat, the soft muscle is usually the best response.
I spent many decades of my life as an avid long-distance runner. From my mid-twenties until my sixties I ran 10K races, marathons, and even the occasional triathlon. My running muscles were firm and strong. Fortunately I also studied Taiji most of those years as well, training myself in softness and flexibility. One afternoon, sometime in my forties, I was running through a desert park near Phoenix, Arizona. It was a hot day and I was dressed only in running shorts and shoes. The trail was rocky and most of the plant life sported various types of sharp spines. I had been running for a few miles and was lost in thought, sort of the “runner’s high.” My foot caught a rock and I was propelled forward with all the momentum of my run. I didn’t have time to think. My arms went soft as my hands touched the ground. orI curled into a ball, tucked, and rolled, ending up standing on my feet with a shocked expression on my face. “What was that!” I examined myself and found no bruises, no scrapes, no cuts, no punctures, no harm whatsoever. I remember that moment to this day. It was not my strong and solid running muscles that saved me. It was my softness and flexibility.
In the current health crisis the world is facing, it will not be our buns of steel or abs of iron that carry the day. It will be our flexibility, softness, and ability to let our inner systems do their work without interference from our fearful mind which will be constantly trying to armor us up in a mistaken attempt at protection. Rather than send our societal resources to our guns and corporations, let’s send them to the inner systems of health care, social care, education, art, music, and literature – that is the mark of a truly healthy society. Rather than deplete the Earth’s resources in consumer capitalism, let’s restore the forests, rivers, lakes, and meadows so they can once again provide us what we need for our lives. Rather then deplete our bodily resources in food, inactivity, unhealthy habits, and addictions let’s let our inner body systems recover and they will reward us with the health that only they can give – a soft, flexible, responsive, and restorative body.
There are certain subjects that I am not able to write about with any kind of equanimity. In many of life’s arenas I can maintain a certain compassionate stance and see the hope and goodness shining through. But I cannot look at this country’s national leadership with any feeling other than intense shame, disappointment, and fear. I see the leaders of other countries responding to crisis with, if not perfect, at least compassionate and intelligent consideration. When forced to watch Donald Trump I want to turn in my passport and renounce my citizenship. How in the world can such stupidity, ignorance, and clueless behavior be condoned? That it is causes me to feel a subterranean flow of fear.
I see many hopeful signs for humanity around the world. Our own state, California, has intelligent leadership. I even see CEOs of major companies speaking out with compassion for their employees and stepping up with practical support and help for them. Creative and compassionate actions are blossoming in thousands of situations. But at the national governmental level in the United States I see only dishonor and shame. I feel the need to disassociate myself from that dishonor and shame and I’m not sure exactly how to do that.