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.

Photo Story: Rivers in the Gravel

In my last post I used an image that I found literally laying at my feet, in a place I never would have thought to look.

I had only recently begun exploring photogrophy as a more serious project at the time I took this picture. All I have been using up until recently was the (arguably quite decent) camera on my smartphone, playing with shutter speed and ISO to learn as much as I could about proper exposure and technique.

What was probably more annoying for my family during that time (probably still) is that I was constantly fiddling with my phone and taking pictures everywhere that we went. The upside of this is that I have continued to be even more eager to get outside with the family, dragging everyone to the local parks and woods as much as possible, even though it was middle of winter at the time.

My family is game, however, but not without their own opinions, as is perfectly within their rights. Picking locations that my children will enjoy is usually pretty easy because they are also into exploring nature, the more dirt and mud the better. On this occasion, however, they really wanted to head to the playground very near our house, attached to an elementary school. This playground has some nice equipment and lots of space to run, but everything is either covered in pavement or pea gravel. Not what I expected to be a photogenic location.

Despite this I still spent as much time as possible trying to find interesting shots, even if it was just practicing focus adjustments and composition.

As the play time extended over the one-hour mark and the weather continued to be unseasonably pleasant I felt as if I had exhausted all of my potential photography targets. As I was debating whether or not I needed to convince everyone that we were going home, the golden hour of sunset started, adding some extra contrast to the scene.

There, at my feet, was an interesting sight. Long pine needles, grouped together, lined up in wavy formations, snaking around the gravel. Here was nature at work, using rain water to collect needles and deposit them artistically around the playground to highlight where water pooled and drained. It was an amazing example of the fact that we cannot avoid the influence of natural cycles, even in environments that have been constructed specifically to eliminate needed maintenance of plants and landscaping. In some ways, seeing these flowing needles out of a more natural context highlighted the forces at play. This was a wonderful subversive wu wei at work, effortlessly showing us that no matter what we do nature will not be sidelined or ignored.

I got a few pictures in the angled light, but wasn’t able to capture the energy of these needles. Just having seen it, however, I felt even more sure about my time spent with a camera. Training myself to look helped me to notice something I never would have seen before, which added so much value to my visit to the playground that day. For me it was a friendly gesture, letting me know that no matter where I looked I couldn’t truly be separate, and that if I keep myself open, I will be able to connect myself with something larger, even in the most unlikely of spaces.