No Thing Like Normal

Growing up I struggled to pin down a haven for myself, a place that would be unchanging, a situation that would be predictable. I wanted to have a sense of normalcy in the midst of a world that seemed to be ever changing the rules and scenario.

It has continued to be difficult to pin down any time of my life that I could describe as “normal”. Only in retrospect can I point to periods of time in which I felt like I had a sense of what was going on, a sense of stability. When those times were happening, however, I would not have described them as normal. It is also not these periods that I cherish the most.

Talking about change as a constant has become a pretty throw away piece of conversation. I am in a position at work to coach employees and peers through change, but despite the lip service that we give to the idea that “nothing stays the same”, it continues to be an uphill struggle for all of us to embrace this concept that we cannot hold on to what we think of as normal.

Here’s a slightly different take, however, that has helped me to re-frame it for myself. It is one of the core beliefs of Taoist thought that ties me to the philosophy and continues to challenge my thinking.

In Taoist physics it is understood that everything that exists, every particle of matter, every wave of energy, is connected at the root, is fundamentally the same energy, not separate except in the way that we describe it.

The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42

This quote from the Tao Te Ching suffers in under the limitations of language. It makes the creation of the universe seem linear in time, when in reality the description of giving birth is more like a continuous process. In the way that the sun gives birth to light.

The myriad creatures (all objects and creatures that we experience in the world) exist but are not separate from Unity. If we are able to look close enough, and quantum physics has proposed the same idea, we would be able to tell that everything is simply energy vibrating at different frequencies, resonating with itself in different ways in order to manifest matter in all kinds of forms.

In metaphorical terms, The relationship of all under heaven to the Way is like that of valley streams to the river and sea.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32

This is a beautiful way to think about it. Water cycles, either falling as rain, flowing through streams or collecting in the ocean, perhaps locked in for millennia as ice, or under the earth, but never not water, never not connected to the unity of the water cycle, eventually always flowing back to the source and starting again.

Here, change in the water cycle isn’t a change of adding or subtracting. The water that is here now has been recycled since long before humans, before dinosaurs. Change may alter the course of the water, the specific forms that it takes, but change does not destroy it.

Change in this system is a heart beat, a renewal of the energy so that it does not become stagnant, a bringer of life.

It is the law of conservation of energy, that the grand total of energy and matter in the universe cannot be changed. One may be converted into the other, but the whole unity of existence cannot be diminished, it is always complete.

Tied in with the ever changing forms of matter and energy are our perceptions about these things that make them seem more different than they are. It is our labeling of things are larger and small that make them seem so different, when in reality they share the same energy, are the same source, merely appearing different in the way that we experience them.

There is nothing under the canopy of heaven greater than the tip of a bird’s down in autumn, while the T’ai Mountain is small. Neither is there any longer life than that of a child cut off in infancy, while P’eng Tsu himself died young. The universe and I came into being together; I and everything therein are One.

Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, Yutang Lin Translation

Embracing contradictions in our understanding of reality is a core concept and skill within Taoism. Our language makes it very difficult to speak about the true nature of things without getting ourselves into horrible tangles. That is a key reason why Taoists spend so much time trying to observe the world around them, to gain understanding beyond words.

If we can embrace even a piece of this understanding it will be possible to see that two truths exist side by side: nothing that exists can remain the same, nothing that exists will ever be different.

Seeking a sense of normal may be a doomed endeavor if we are looking beyond ourselves. Our surroundings, our friends and family, our work and financial situation and any other outward aspects of our lives cannot be depended upon to remain the same. If we need a set schedule and unchanging social interactions then we are destined for trouble adapting in this world.

On the other hand, it can be possible to see things from a different point of view. No matter how much the outward aspects change, the fundamental reality never does. We are all, and always will be, connected at the deepest possible level.

Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates fullness and decay, and therefore does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not constant.

Chuang Tzu, Chapter 17, Yutang Lin Translation

It is not easy to adapt to new situations, but it is much more difficult when we are struggling to back-pedal, to return to a sense of what is normal. Only by exploring and embracing the situation we find ourselves in right now can we embrace what is good, and begin to adjust what we do not like.

Things will not always be pretty or comfortable, but that is just where we are in the cycle. It will not be long before things look different once more, whether due to our perceptions of them or the way that they change around us. Either way, even though there is no such thing as normal, there is also no such thing as abnormal either.

The Source and the Ten Thousand Things

The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations.
These two come paired from the same origin.
But when the essence is manifested,
It has a different name.

Excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

A fundamental principle shared by Taoism and Stoicism is that all beings, all matter, everything that exists, are connected. I am connected to all other humans, all other animals, all other objects that I can observe. Marcus Auralius thought of this as a “community” of existence, all things sharing together in one and the same “soup”. To take it a step further, it isn’t even quite right to say that we are separate things at all. We share a common Source, and if we are able to peel back our layers of perception that guide us to see “things” and “people” and “animals” as distinct, we will come to realize that all of existence is really One, undivided except in perception, sharing all qualities, a universal energy flowing in cycles.

This is not to say that the things we encounter and must deal with in our physical reality do not exist, or are not really there. Things exist, people exist, animals exist, various forms of energy and frequencies exist. More distinct parts of our existence are discovered every day, from the quantum level to new species, to new planets, to new forms of matter.

The duality of nature is not a mistake, not a fallacy of the system. It all depends on where perception is focused. Am I having a profound moment, at one with my desires and the world around me, feeling the common flow of energy, or am I feeling isolated, confronted with things I have not yet encountered that I must learn to deal with?

Taoism describes us, and the objects around us, as manifestations of the universal energy expressing itself. Yin and Yang flow back and forth in cycles, creating new combinations of matter and energy that take on new forms and begin to follow their own unique nature. The variety of manifestations is described often as “the Ten Thousand things”, a placeholder for some very large number which might translate better as the “infinite arrangement”.

There are two lines of thought that I would like to follow while talking about the Ten Thousand Things. First, each individual manifestation is unique, and each has its own nature. Each individual manifestation of our reality could be thought of as the Source searching for new ways to explore its own existence. I think that the work we are doing here in our lives has everything to do with discovering our own unique nature, and how it fits into the larger pattern. No two paths will be alike, no two expressions of reality will have the exact same qualities. We already know that snowflakes do not repeat, and if we believe that, how hard can it be to believe that every other object is likewise unrepeatable in the history of existence?

Figuring out who we are, what makes each of us tick, is a wonderful challenge, but it can be difficult to look inside without a frame of reference. Luckily, there are at least nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine other things sharing existence with us that we can use for comparison.

Taking pictures and travel have both been invaluable to me in allowing me to expand my horizons. Seeing through a camera lens helps me to look at the world differently, and being in the state of observation allows me to see things that I wouldn’t normally have noticed, or see common things with fresh eyes. Travelling has exposed me to some of the variety of human expression and has challenged me to continue changing my ideas about what it means to be a person.

We cannot find ourselves in a vacuum, because without the dark there can be no light, without the cold there can be no heat and without another person how can I truly know where I begin and where I end? How can I know if I value the same thing unless my values are tested? How can I understand what fires my imagination unless I am constantly exposing myself to things I have not yet seen or heard?

If that is the case for me, it must also be the case for the whole of reality. We are all one, the same energy cycling in new formations, but if that energy weren’t manifesting, if it weren’t exploring its own nature, it could never learn what it is.

Our existence as one of the Ten Thousand Things might be thought of a reality’s project of coming to understand itself. Just as our path is to figure out who we are, that echoes the universal project.

The second line of thought about the nature of the Ten Thousand Things that I must not pass over, is this: our value as individuals is inherent to us as a manifestation of the Source. Our existence is our value and our contribution to the project. We can never be separate from reality, and we can never fail in our mission to help explore our collective nature.

There will be many times when I am frustrated, challenged, and exhausted in this life. There have been many times that I did not feel like I was moving in the right direction, or fast enough, or contributing enough, or earning my place in society. Learning who we are is a process, and like all things it will go through cycles. It is the work of our entire lives and will never be completed.

Within that search for ourselves we must remember, that we are already there. Our presence in this world is unique, and vibrant, and necessary! What we bring to the world no one else can express. Being who we are is enough, and more than that, is the best gift that we can give.