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: Eyes in the Ice

I had been on a combination training run/photo hike for a couple of hours already. It was early February in Minnesota and I was somewhere in the middle of back-country Hyland Lake Park Reserve, Bloomington, MN. I had come here often without snow to run the trails, but coming here with a good snow pack made for quite a different experience.

Recently I have been much more interested in leaving the trails and following animal tracks into the woods wherever I am, but on this occasion it was a necessity. All of the major trails were groomed for cross country skiing, and I had received a few sideways glances already for walking across the nicely manicured skate tracks.

Thankfully there were plenty of well marked sets of footprints leading into the non-maintained areas of the park, which I had been following when I suddenly ran out of trail on the edge of Hyland Lake. The only way to proceed from here was to follow a classic ski trail, or to try and go back from where I had come from. Now, I wasn’t sure that going back along my trail would be simple, given that I had been carving my own path for a while. Besides, I wasn’t really interested in moving backwards at this point, even if the light was changing. That was certainly another factor. The sun was on its way down. I had time left, but I hadn’t brought a light, and definitely didn’t want to spend an hour trying to find a trail only to end up trekking in the dark. I knew if I could get around the lake I would be able to catch up to a main trail and head back.

After walking along the ski trail for a few minutes, and enduring a few comments from skiiers zipping silently around the blind corners, I decided the only other good option was to head down to the lake itself and follow the shore along the ice.

It was clear that the ice was very thick in this part of the lake, and there was plenty of evidence of other people following the same track. I was keeping my eyes on the shore, looking to find an interesting picture that one could only take from this unique vantage point, when I noticed something dark and round on the ice further out into the lake.

Apparently, after someone has drilled a hole for ice fishing, the ice re-freezes much as one clear piece, rather than the cloudy layer of ice that has built up over the rest of the lake. This leaves a black hole, often cracked, resembling an unblinking eye.

It was a wonderful experience of encountering something I never would have considered looking for. During my circumnavigation of the lake I was able to find several more, noting how each one, though formed the same way on the same lake, had its own character based on how the ice had refrozen and cracked in the process.

Capturing the depth of the ice and the natural contrast proved to be quite difficult, and I wish that more of the images had turned out as interesting as they looked in real life, but for me this wasn’t so much about the final image as it was about the reminder that there is more out there that I can imagine, and the things that take me by surprise are often the most beautiful.