In honor of my Master

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Me with Doctor Alan Uretz

Back in September of 2008, I stood outside of Midwest College of Oriental Medicine anxiously anticipating the first of many classes of what was to be a long journey into the field of holistic medicine. Nervously, I was standing alone watching the cars roll by in the Saturday morning Uptown Chicago traffic when I turned around to see a tall, thin man, wearing a dress shirt and tie, slacks, Chuck Taylors, and a cowboy hat walking into the school. He had the air of a collegiate professor with the demeanor of a punk rocker. “If that’s one of my professors,” I said to myself, “I’m in the right place.” As I walked inside the classroom, I looked up at our professor and found that it was him.

I’ll never forget that first class on our first day of school. I was scared and anxious, knowing next to nothing about Chinese medicine, but somehow I found myself in the middle of a Masters program for it. It was intimidating and exceedingly foreign to me. But the moment Doc spoke, his voice resonated with experience, authority, and passion, with a soft, underlying tone of compassion riddled with the wisdom one can only garner after a lifetime of trials and tribulations. During his welcome speech, he didn’t speak to us as if we were students in the midst of the sterile environment of academia, he spoke to us as friends and future colleagues. He knew nothing of us at the time, yet we were as familiar to him as apprentices that he personally took under his wing. He spoke and looked at us endearingly, as if to say “Kids, I’ve been there. I’ve been you. Let’s enjoy this together. Let’s live this path together.” We weren’t alone on this formidable journey. His energy was infectious and his passion was captivating. He welcomed us to the school, to the program, and thanked us for taking part in the medicine that was to revolutionize the country. We were going to change a lot of lives and help a lot of people to find comfort in their suffering. And it started right then and there in that classroom, face to face with a brilliant man who was going to teach us all we need to know to change the world of healing. I’ve never been inspired so viscerally in my life. His reassuring tone confirmed that I belonged exactly where I was sitting at the moment, that I was where I was meant to be. After so many years of feeling uneasy in my own skin, lost in this tumultuous world, he welcomed me home. And with him – at that very moment – I finally found a glimpse of hope.

Throughout the years of getting to know him, I’ve felt within his voice and saw within his eyes the pain and turbulence that was his life. The hurt and sorrow, and the struggle to be a sensitive creature in such an unforgiving world. I saw myself in him. There are only a few spaces where people like us can turn to for solace, and that’s the arts. Doc mastered the musical, performing, philosophical, and martial arts. But his greatest achievement was his mastery of the art of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Indulging in all of the arts that he loved, and by merely being his own eclectic and eccentric self, he was able to heal, inspire, and to help change lives. And by doing that, he found his inner joy. He taught me the value of being unapologetically true to your wild, weird self. And through him, I learned that when all else fails, the greatest way to heal yourself was to heal and inspire others.

I’m now keenly aware of my own grief from Doc’s passing. I simply miss him. I lament the fact that I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted with him. I wish that I could listen to his horribly dry jokes and to see him smile and to hear him snicker through his teeth just one last time. Most of all, I’ll miss his friendship, his influence, and his guidance. He helped me change my life.

I regret that I won’t be able to make it to his life’s celebration hosted by Midwest College in the coming days due to my obligations to my patients. But in that way, I’m honoring him in the way an apprentice forever honors his master… by carrying on his teachings. And I know in my heart that as long as I’m a healer, he’ll always be with me. Because of the wisdom that Doc has transmitted to me, now a professional acupuncturist myself… through every patient, through every single person that I’m able to bring at least an ounce of peace and comfort to, the healing spirit of Dr. Alan Uretz – my teacher, mentor, and friend – lives on.

Thank you for everything, Doc.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis (via Zen Pencils

To all of my single friends, I’ve been there.

All those times you gave another person your all. Your best. Your soul. And they just chewed you up. They devoured you. And spit you out. Maybe they laughed at you while they were doing it. And it left you reeling with the resounding feeling of being alone, emotionally battered, and vulnerable.

I’ve been there.

I remember the grueling nights, all cried out. You wanna cry more just to release all that pain, but you ran out of tears. So you lay there clutching yourself, wondering if this pain is real. It’s very real. It hurts so badly you find it hard to muster enough strength to stand up. 

You bet I’ve been there.

And you see your friends happily coupled, happily married. A sort of resentment grows within you and you lock yourself away from the world. From life. From love. 
“I don’t care how nice they think they are, nobody is ever going to destroy me again,” I said to myself. So I closed myself off from the world. 
Yup, I’ve definitely been there. 

But then I realized how much is out there. So many people and cultures I’ve yet to experience. So although I closed myself off from “love,” I opened myself up to more friendships and the vastly different walks of life. My heart became open to the bigger realm of the world, and began to enjoy life once again. And after several years of nurturing myself, learning about  myself, and being compassionate towards myself, I met someone. At first I was careful, but realized that the more guarded I was, the less this wonderful woman could see the true me.

And that’s when I discovered that true strength is allowing yourself to become vulnerable enough to give and receive compassion. 

Compassion is what unifies us and allows us to experience oneness. My pain and joys are yours, and yours are mine. Without compassion, there’s no true love.

The moment you open your heart up to the bigger world in order to evolve and experience compassion towards others in its truest and most organic form, you’ll find that other equally compassionate people will seek you like a flashlight in the dark. 

So on Valentine’s Day, while couples are annoyingly expressing their love towards each other in front of you, there’s no need to hit up Tinder for a quickie, or express how you resent others, or how you resent this dumb materialistic Hallmark holiday (can you tell I’m with you here?!). Simply turn off all media and, as Chuang Tzu would say, cultivate yourself. Learn more about yourself, nurture yourself, and be compassionate towards yourself.

Open up your heart to the bigger picture of the world, and you’ll find that there’s others – hurt, lost, lonely, emotionally bruised, and looking for light – just like you.

The Tao of McDonald’s

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Earlier today I realized after my morning coffee that I had forgotten my wife’s papers at the office last night, as well as a bag of gifts that one of my patients had given to me to give to my 3yo daughter. Dang… because that means I’d have to drive, which also means that I’d have to drive around other drivers, and other drivers are – to put it mildly and skillfully – challenging. After another 60hr workweek and a record breaking January at my healing practice, I was tired, and in no mood to “put up with” other people. BUT… if I were to be something of a skillful seeker of The Way, as well as bring home the stuff I left at the office, I must get out of my own dumb head and do my thing. So I got dressed, walked a half a block to my car, slapped on a good audiobook (Bill Bryson’s “The Lost Continent” – which is hilarious, by the way), and off I went.

When I got within a block of my office, and for some reason, the sight of the golden arches of the McDonald’s sign suddenly popped into view with a rather profound distinction unlike I’ve ever experienced in the last few years since I stopped eating meat and fast food. Then I felt my stomach rumble. How odd, since I don’t particularly like fast food. However, I was hungry, and I could use some hash browns and an orange juice. So I slowed down and turned into the McDonald’s parking lot.

Right as I turned into the parking lot towards the drive thru, a silver colored Honda who was driving towards me suddenly punched the accelerator and bolted aggressively right at me, then turned right into the drive thru with a daring sharp turn, finishing with a screeching stop at the ordering screen. The young millennial in the passenger’s seat turned and looked at me like they had just beaten me at ping-pong.

“Jesus fucking whore Christ,” I said to myself, while simultaneously almost regretting that I did. I tried to tell myself that they must’ve been hungry, and that their puppy is dying in the back seat, and if they didn’t get it a sausage and egg mcmuffin on time, it would certainly meet the doom of samsara. But I didn’t. All that came out of my mouth inside of the safe anonymity of my own car is “Please go on ahead of me kind sir, I do recognize how fucking important you and your boyfriend are, and that I realize that if you had to wait 30 seconds behind my order of hashbrowns, I know you’d certainly be late for your appointment with your goddamn television set. Fucking rat-race ass piece of shit.” I was saying all of this to myself as I watched him yell into the ordering monitor, watching his order on the screen becoming progressively larger and larger.

“Hooo-leeee SHIT, guy. What the fuck are you ordering? Can you even eat that much? Are you ordering for your goddamn church?” He finally stopped yapping at the machine and drove through. I proceeded to place my order and waited in line patiently, still blathering on to myself about the guys in front of me. Lord knows what I said. The funny thing was that the people in front of them apparently ordered a ton of food as well, and that’s when I remembered that five minutes in a fast food drive thru line seems like an eternity to many people. It was kind of fun watching the two morons in front of me go apeshit as the seconds ticked by. I remember the last time I was at a drive thru, it was at White Castle where it’s customary to order 30 cheeseburgers at one time. I finished about half of the book “War and Peace” by the time I got my 2 veggie sliders and fries.

Anyway, Mario Andretti and his trusty pal Sancho Panza finally got to the drive thru window, ungraciously received their order, but then waited a couple of minutes to check and recheck their order, holding up the entire line behind us. Then I watched as the driver opened up his door and tossed trash out of his car onto the ground. The littering was a nice cherry on top of their deliciously ignorant sundae.

I couldn’t believe it. That’s when I lost it. That’s when I looked at the assholes in front of me, and all the assholes behind me. I’m surrounded by assholes. I yelled at myself. Why did I do this to myself? Why did I place myself in a situation where I would willfully receive mediocre food suited for people of the most mediocre existence?

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That’s when it hit me.

Earlier today, I tweeted (including the very first photo above):

 

 

I posted that tweet because throughout my life, people were being judgmental towards me. But it struck me that right in the middle of McDonald’s today, I was being judgmental as well.

I was who I thought those people were: an asshole.

A part of our suffering comes from the fact that we believe, no matter what circumstance, that people “should” act a certain way, as opposed to accepting the fact that people simply act the way they do. There’s a huge difference there. Thinking that people “should” do or be certain things is a product of our own ego, a filter… and it causes us so much anger, indignation, and maybe even resentment. Accepting people, animals, circumstances, and weather for what they do and what they are at the particular moment is the only real skillful way to remain centered and at peace.

By no means am I condoning littering and dangerous driving as “good behavior,”  however, it’s really important to note that there are people who are so incredibly “stuck” in their own sense of self importance that, for whatever reason – whether circumstance or upbringing – they just don’t have it in them to be mindful of the cause and effect that their actions have on the world. As Jesus pleaded to God as he was being tortured on the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

The same goes for seekers of The Way, or The Tao. Not everyone is where we are in life, and we have to understand that it’s not their fault. Many people just don’t have it in them to seek a higher version of themselves, the compassionate version of themselves that realizes the interconnectedness with the entire world around them. Once we reach a certain level of cultivation, then we realize that we have to be responsible for our own reactions to what others do. We can’t judge them, but we can help them if help is what they’re seeking.

So what would I do if I had a chance to rewind? I would have simply allowed the guy to move into the drive thru first, which I did, but without the animosity. I would have simply waited, ordered my food, and continued listening to my hilarious Bill Bryson audiobook. And when I witnessed the littering, I would have waited for him to drive away, get out of my car, and I would have thrown away the garbage properly. And like water that simply moves around a stone blockage, I would have gotten my dumb food peacefully, without contrivance.

But I can’t rewind time. So all I can do is learn.

 

Forgiveness.

My meditation/qigong practice borders on obsession, my nutrition and exercise are [nearly] on point, my studies on Taoist scriptures are solid, but one thing I keep forgetting in my Taoist practice is forgiveness… I’ve got a lot of un-eradicated resentment to work through. And it doesn’t help that our society not only condones anger, but actually perpetuates it. It’s pretty toxic shit, and it feels like we’re getting worse about that.

Society says it’s okay for individuals to suffer their own anger, to act upon it unhealthily, and to even spread it to some extent. But that’s “their” suffering. The question I pose to myself is should I suffer along with our angry, polarized, and resentful society?

We should always fight for what’s right, and to right every wrong. So forgiveness isn’t about letting other peoples’ bullshit slide. As I’m learning from cultivating the Tao, forgiveness is less about others, and more about letting go of the inner wrath that I’ve allowed myself to feel. To liberate myself from the insufferable anger and resentment I feel towards others for what has happened in the past.

And only I can do that for me, no one else.

It’s empowering to forgive. When the world has hurt you so badly and has taken so much from you, then forgiveness means that they can’t take what’s left… the most important part of you: your very “soul.”

I have a lot to work on.

The Piss and Shit of Reality

Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Tao… where does it exist?”
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung-kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in the ant.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It is in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the piss and shit.” 

I love this entry from the Chuang Tzu/Zhuangzi. It’s probably my favorite entry in the whole book, because in my eyes, it talks about reality.

When I talk to some people about spiritual practice, they’re taken aback by how “ordinary” I seem. I swear a lot, I’m into punk music, I laugh at fart jokes, and have the sense of humor of a sailor. But the reason why people are weirded out by me is because many people’s idea of “spirituality” is an image of a sage with flowing robes, floating just above humanity, walking two inches off the ground, speaking in a sagely tone using the word “one” as a fucking pronoun (“one must…”), and that everything is puppy dogs and ice cream.

But that’s all bullshit.

Taoist spirituality and meditation practice is about reality. Reality isn’t about the world being such a pretty and perfect place, or at least the popular idea of what might be pretty and perfect. Reality is everything. Everything is reality. Reality is you, me, TPS reports, dick jokes, zebras, horny couples fucking on the floor, and of course, piss and shit.

The practice of Taoism isn’t an escape into a delusional reality where things look like a 1940’s cartoon with singing flowers and impromptu animal parades where everyone looks happy, the practice of Taoism is a skill that allows you to accept things for what they are in order to become the centered pivot around which the chaos spins. That’s what true inner peace is…. it’s not an escape. It’s being present in the thick of life, being exactly where you are, and finding harmony with whatever life hands you.

But the above entry by Chuang Tzu not only teaches that reality is everything around us, but he also means that in order to accept everything as reality, we can’t just concentrate on the things that we find “pretty” or “nice” or “pleasant.” Because those things are judgments relative only to the human ego. I’m not suggesting that you go out and drink some piss and eat some shit, however people have to understand that everything in nature has its purpose. To be honest, I don’t know what the purpose of piss is (I’ll look it up eventually), however, shit is not only just a stinky waste product, but it’s also food for flies and for the earth. Flies eat turds, then go on to be food for other insects or animals, who are then eaten by other animals, who are then eventually eaten by us. And if shit isn’t eaten by insects, then it eventually becomes compost to further nourish the earth and plants and trees. The ecosystem that helps give us our existence is in constant flow, and even something so “low” as excrement also has an important role in it. Hence, “the Tao is in the piss and shit.”

So what Chuang Tzu is suggesting is that everything can be both ugly and beautiful at the same time, and that if we can allow ourselves to view life past our limiting human egos, then we can truly see the endless ebb and flow of the universe around us… and to find peace within it.

On exercise.

I have no goals when I exercise. I’m only in the moment.

Fitness isn’t a goal, it’s an action. It’s what you do. To me, coming from a Taoist standpoint, the act of exercise is in itself fitness. It also goes much deeper than how you look.

When I go jogging, it’s just one foot over the other. When I’m lifting, it’s just the weight completing its range of motion, then back. When I’m tired, I stop. The more I do that every day, then the faster I can run, the more I can lift. But really, all I care about is jogging one foot over the other, and lifting the weight to its complete range of motion.

In working out, when you’re ready, then go. Enjoy every millisecond of each rep and every step. When you’re tired, just stop.

That’s how I work out. It’s a mindfulness meditation. A Taoist qigong, the cultivation of energy and stillness.

I don’t give a crap how much I lift, how many reps, how many miles, or what I look like. All I care about is how I feel inside. It makes happy. My heart is pumping, blood is flowing, cortisol cycling out. I’m boosting my energy, increasing circulation, and optimizing my organ systems. Most of all, I’m calming my mind and spirit. When the spirit is calm, I can make better decisions, especially lifestyle/diet decisions. The calmness also makes it easier to be happy and content. It’s harder to feel angry when I’m content. It’s easier to spread compassion when I’m happy. My family benefits from that compassion. My community. Everyone around me.

That’s why I work out. Doing it for looks or macho dick-measuring is not my style. I just wanna feel healthy and happy inside. By concentrating on every micro-moment of each movement, I feel centered. I want to feel centered at every moment, and to have that carry on into my daily life. Because when the chaos is all around you, someone must be the centered pivot of inner peace. It might as well be me. And you.

Knowing

My qigong master once said, “When we practice our qigong, we realize the brilliance of our own intuitive knowledge. But if we don’t practice, we not only forget what we know, but we forget that we knew.”

About a month ago, one of my former classmates from acupuncture college came into my office for a treatment. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but that day she stopped for a second and said that I looked like a “monk.” I was pretty flattered because I knew that she meant that I have the appearance of someone who cultivates every single day. Being a person who cultivates as well, she could read that in me. And it’s not because I have a bald head and wear beads on my wrist. I guess I have a “look.” But I’m not going for a look.

I’ve been doing meditative practice since 1995, but it was only within the last 8 years when I started doing it more regularly, and it wasn’t until March of 2014 when I started doing it virtually every single day. And it wasn’t until I started doing qigong every single day that I’ve noticed the changes it can provide me. I posted this in a previous entry (twice, actually by accident lol), but my energy level is up, my mood is more stable, and I get angry/stressed/depressed a lot less.

But the most important thing that’s been happening to me is “knowing.”

In Taoism, there’s a distinction between intellectual knowing and intuitive knowing. Intuitive knowing is the raw form of knowledge that you get internally, and intellectual knowing is the type that you get from books or schooling. Even though intellectual knowledge is highly valued in our society, it doesn’t quite give us the complete picture. I also believe that in our society we don’t take enough time to cultivate our intuition. I think it’s important to have a good grasp of both.

Looking at the Yin-Yang symbol (technically called the “Taiji” or Tai Chi”), if Yin means “internal,” and Yang means “external,” then the result of the harmony of both internal knowledge (intuition) and external knowledge (intellectual) is what’s called “wisdom.”

And to me, that’s true “knowing.”

The reason why “knowing” is so important to me is because I’m in the field of Eastern Medicine. There are times when I’m intellectually at a loss when coming up with a treatment strategy for a very complicated case. But that’s when looking internally for answers helps tremendously. And every time I do that, the answers are clear as day, and my patients’ conditions improve.

People call it intuition, or a gut feeling. In any case, in order to find the “right” answer using your intuition takes a lot of the skill that meditative practices provide you, particularly in quieting all that background noise in your head. It’s the stillness of your mind that allows you to quiet all the voices and imagery in your brain that will make the answers to all your deeper questions about life jump at you like a pop tart. But it takes a lot of work to get there.

 

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