The Simplicity of the Uncarved Block

Tai Chi teacher Chungliang Al Huang, in his book Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, gives us good words to ponder:

“There are many basic concepts in Tao that emerge in Tai Chi when you practice. One is the word pu, which means the original material, before it is trimmed and modified, fixed and polished. Sometimes we translate it as “uncarved block.” It is the raw material before it is carved into artistic form, the essence that exists before you change it. Learn the grain of the wood before you carve it. Pu is the basic substance of the real you, before it’s manicured or painted over. Expose your own basic essence before you clutter it up. Don’t let all the external things blind you so that you lose the uncarved block within.”

A wonderful book that explores this subject with humor and whimsy is The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

The simplest person, if he or she lives in that simplicity comfortably, without guile or apology, is respected by all. You don’t need complicated teachings or practices. If you can find who you are and be yourself, your children will naturally love and respect you regardless of your education, your job, your “standing” on the illusory scale of wealth, or your race and class. If you are truly yourself with dignity, you will be respected, whether you are rich, poor, or in between.

Being yourself also means you allow others to be themselves. As it says in Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain,

“When you look at nature, everything has its own motion: the tree and the rock and the running water — they somehow tie together without making a point to fit. When you watch the waves coming over the rocks, you see that the wave has wave-nature, the rock has rock-nature. They do not violate each other’s nature.”

We learn to allow our children to be who they are — not mere reflections of us or who we wish we were. We are not afraid to share ourselves and our history with our children, and show them what we have learned and what we still want to learn. We are not afraid to be wrong and apologize and to talk about the times when we have veered off course. Inside, we have determination to constantly learn and grow, and we know we learn a great deal from adversity and mistakes. When we can truly be ourselves all the time, we allow our children to learn right along with us.

In my parents’ day, anything that might have exposed a parent as vulnerable or not perfect was hidden away. So there was a duplicitous quality to their parenting. For example, many of them were closet alcoholics who were appalled when their children experimented with drugs.

The rebellion, when it came, was great. The hypocrisy of our parents’ lifestyle was suddenly repugnant to a whole generation of teenagers, who stood up together and said, “NO!” — as the children’s story goes, “The Emperor has no clothes!” All we really wanted was for our parents to be themselves. But we didn’t realize that was nearly impossible for most of them, for they had been conditioned — their minds had been scripted — in an entirely different world, where there was only one definition of “normal.” With the explosion of worldwide communications media, we discovered that there were many definitions, and that some of them were much healthier and more integrated than what we had been brought up with, and some came from age-old cultures that were about to be wiped off the earth forever by the materialism of our culture. We felt an urgency to learn how to find and be our true selves, and to apply that knowledge to our western cultures, which seemed riddled with fake values, with false faces, and no substance.

What is “Normal” Anyway?

Not long ago, in most communities, there was only one way to be “normal,” to fit in and conform. There is a Chinese story about a woman who always cut off the end of a ham, before she cooked it in her oven. Her daughter asked her why she did it, and she replied, “My mother always did it that way.” When they asked the grandmother, she said, “My mother always did it that way.” Finally, they asked great-grandmother. “I did it that way, “ she said, “because otherwise it wouldn’t fit in my little pot.”

When I was a young housewife, I folded the sheets precisely the way my mother had, and got upset when my husband didn’t fold them “right.” Finally I realized how silly it was; there was no reason for folding them that way, but my mother, and her mother, made it seem as if it had to be done in just this way. To this day, when I fold my sheets willy-nilly and stuff them in the closet so I can go do something more interesting, I smile to myself and I see my ancestors in my mind, shaking their collective heads, arms folded in consternation.

There is no such thing as some kind of “normal” behavior for any group of people that doesn’t change over time. It’s futile to try to be normal. It’s much more fun and fulfilling to be ourselves.

Share Your Journey

Being oneself is, obviously, not being a clone of one’s parents, friends, teachers, television personalities, or anyone else. It’s not conforming to anything. It isn’t requiring your children to fit into some preconceived notion of what children “at that age,” or in your neighborhood — or of your race or family history — should be.

Have the courage to find and be who you truly are, and to share yourself and your journey with your children. That doesn’t mean you don’t protect them from some parts of the adult world that may frighten or harmfully influence them. For example, it is not wise for parents to fight with each other in front of their children. The children don’t understand the complicated dynamics of marital relationships, and if you find yourselves yelling at one another, you should work with each other (or go to therapy if necessary) to find other, healthier ways to communicate — certainly for yourselves, but also to model for your children how to work through problems and differences in a healthy way; learn how to argue constructively. Don’t fight in front of the kids — but don’t, also, pretend that all is well if it isn’t.

If you are having difficulty communicating, you can explain to your children that there are some things that are just between their parents. You can reassure them of their safety and of your love for them. That is enough to keep it real without lying to them, scaring them, or involving them in problems and responsibilities that are not theirs. And, for goodness sake, make sure they understand that your problems are not their fault.

All too often when we become parents we think we need to play a role, and often the role we try to fulfill isn’t synchronized with our own values and principles, and isn’t updated to the culture we live in now.

Being yourself means being available to your loved ones in whatever condition you happen to be — not hiding away when you are hurting or imperfect, and then showing yourself only at your best, pretending you never have those human moments of vulnerability, mistakes, wrongdoing, and regret. It entails working to make your inner and outer life fully integrated with each other, so your life is a relatively open book. This requires a commitment to honesty, which is sometimes very difficult. Temptations to lie, either overtly or by withholding, are constant. My spiritual teacher once said, “In ancient India, when you found someone lying, you were surprised and shocked. These days, when you find someone who is really honest you are surprised and shocked.” You can’t expect honesty and integrity from your kids if you aren’t that way yourself.

Sometimes we get into a bind because we have a lot of “shoulds” controlling our lives that my not match our deepest needs and wants at all. So we spend important moments of our lives doing things we think we should do or acting the way we think we should act, or judging ourselves against someone else’s standards. We forego our deepest needs; we silence ourselves through these judgments and thus convey to our children that it’s not okay to be who you are and, far worse, that you will never meet the standards set for you.

© 2015 Vimala McClure


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