Posts Tagged ‘Tao Te Ching


The Lowdown on ‘Surf’s Up!’

I spent several days last week up on the North Shore of Lake Superior – this time on a retreat to try and gain a greater sense of direction related to my work life. I had the opportunity to work with life coach Marcia Hyatt, and to stay in her cheerful yellow cabin on the water’s edge.

Any career guide will tell you, the place to start in choosing a fulfilling career is to know and understand oneself, so that is where we began. Self-reflection isn’t new to me, but I was curious to know if anything else valuable might surface. So, I wrote, I drew in a visual journal, I hiked up a mountain, I did ki breathing and yoga, I talked with Marcia and played in her sandplay box, I didn’t talk with anyone else for a day, I wrote some more, I paid attention to my dreams..

By the middle of the second full day, I was tired of focusing on myself. Since the night before, prodigious waves had been crashing relentlessly, and the sky was a churning kaleidoscope of dark clouds and blinding sunlight. I thought it would be fun to send a clip of the waves to some friends, so grabbed my iPad to capture some video. Just one clip though, didn’t seem to do the scene justice, so I kept shooting more. Back at my cabin, I searched around for some video editing software for the iPad, and started throwing my clips together, making a slapdash video I ended up posting on Facebook.

All the while I felt like I was totally goofing off, and not doing the work I had come to do. Toward the end of my retreat, trying to discern what I might have accomplished, I was reminded of the Tao Te Ching – of doing without doing, of being so in harmony with nature that there is no sense of conscious effort. Among the insights I experienced during the week, this video and other spontaneous things I did when I was taking a “break” were at least, if not more telling than the more deliberate thinking I had done.

Who are you when you goof off?


On the path of the Tao

Mountainsides are newly green, orchids are fragrant,

In the mountain cleft… a house sits like a walkway;

After reciting some Taoist texts, nothing to do;

Holding a wine cup, I spend the day admiring the shimmering lake.

– Kung Hsien (1619? – 1689)  Poet and painter in the Taoist tradition, who, following political upheaval at the end of Ming dynasty when all his family were killed, fled to the mountains where he eked out a living by selling his work. This poem is one of several poem paintings done a year before his death.

Today I found myself driving by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Having an hour to spare, I decided to drop in and take advantage of a quiet day at the museum.

Having no agenda, I found myself drawn to a room of large Chinese landscape painting hanging scrolls  in the Taoist tradition. I have always been attracted to this form of art, without knowing much about it.

I love the Tao Te Ching, and it continues to inform on my outlook on life. Today I learned that Philosophical Taoism, based on these writings, was “fundamental to the early development of landscape painting and nature poetry in China.” This type of painting was practiced by the literati – also referred to as scholars – to describe an ideal way of living in which the individual finds meaning and peace in nature. Typically these paintings show a small figure engaged in contemplation, set within a tableau of mountains, water and clouds. The emphasis of literati art was as a practice of reflection, expressing aesthetics, values and feelings, rather than as a feat of technical skill and/or commercial success, though some were that as well. It was at its heart a personal, amateur endeavor, rather than one oriented toward public approval. Here is an example of one of the paintings I saw today.

As someone who’s spent many years as a student and then as a civil servant (the typical literati career), I realized for the first time how my own personal story and orientation as an artist mirrors in its own small way the lives of these literati. It was humbling and affirming to think perhaps I’m on a path that generations have traveled before me.

It also occurred to me  that most often it’s within the realm of landscape and nature photography that I find qualities akin to Taoist art – photographs that speak of nature as a source of beauty,  peace and wisdom that cannot be named. Practiced by photographers of all skill levels, the literati impulse is alive and well.

Since I feel this way about many of my own landscape photography experiences, I decided to see which images of mine might directly connect with the Taoist landscape genre. I worked up this one this evening – consciously choosing a shot that incorporated traditional elements.

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