The Slow Regard & Stillness of the Way

It’s 8:30 pm, Tuesday, November 8, and Xiaolin and I leave the school to walk after dinner. We’ve been eating light for dinner, so tonight was a few steamed sweet potatoes and some fried broccoli in garlic. As we leave the school gates, Xiaolin overhears something odd – a woman is discussing a coming lockdown. I encourage her to go back and clarify — the school? The city? Something in between – our entire district of Jiulongpo in Chongqing, and supposedly, in 4 hours, as the clock strikes 12, we’ll shut down for three days. We all take three days with a grain of salt, though, because that’s how Shanghai started, which lasted for months. We decide to turn our walk into a shopping spree but quickly discover that stocking up will be harder than it looks. 

Carrying heavy bags, navigating closed buildings, people prepare for another lockdown.
Carrying heavy bags and navigating closed buildings, people prepare for another lockdown. (Photo by Kai)

As we walk up the hill, we feel the energy; the vibe is electric. Something is coming; we can feel it. People are shopping and carrying heavy bags, and Xiaolin says it feels like Spring Festival. Later she said it felt a little like the end of the world. Many shops are closed, cordoned off with police tape (signs that someone infected has recently passed through), and the shops that are still open have been picked clean. People are stocking up.

Some of the few shops in Shiqiaopu that weren't closed were picked clean, and late shoppers were surprised to find options were few.
Some of the few shops in Shiqiaopu that weren’t closed were picked clean, and late shoppers were surprised to find options were few. (Photo by Kai)

We go to the bakery – one of the few remaining shops open, lucky somehow to have avoided contact with an infected patient this week, and find the shelves bare. We’ll make do with our pumpkin bread and stocks at home and hope to shop again in a week or so.

The bakery was picked clean as the rumor of a district lockdown at midnight spread through the neighborhood.
The bakery was picked clean as the rumor of a district lockdown at midnight spread through the neighborhood. (Photo by Kai)

Finally, we find a shop that sells fruit and vegetables that’s a little tucked away, and we buy a few bags of green vegetables and fruits. By the time we’ve paid, a gang of locals has lined up behind us, ready to pick the place clean. It’s a good day for selling food, at least.

Rumors of a lockdown spawn a lot of stocking up and shops were quickly picked clean.
Rumors of a lockdown spawned a lot of stocking up, and shops were quickly picked clean. (Photo by Kai)

I report this to some friends later, and they scratch their heads. In Canada, most people don’t even wear masks, and many recover quickly from COVID without ill effects. What about the ones who just dropped dead? Or suffer nerve and organ damage from Long Covid, I ask? Oh, well, most of their friends weren’t in that group, I hear. I have a few friends who were, though, and they are still recovering after months or years of a Sisyphean battle to wellness.

After launching Amos the Amazing for Halloween, it’s been nice to take a few days to relax and then hustle to keep up with regular classes, finish the October iteration of the Hemingway course, and keep up with editing duties and the daily news. Steady busy after a month of manic-frantic-writing Olympics. I’ve been sleeping well, spending more time with Xiaolin for the past week, and thinking about my November writing project. November, of course, is NaNoWriMo- National Novel Writing Month. I have a few good ideas. I want to share them, but this time I’m going to finish a book before I tell a soul what it’s about. Let’s keep that steam under wraps, I say. I have two great ideas, but I feel I can only do one—- I want to do both — maybe one day, I’ll come back to the other one. I settle in and start to plan.

COVID test on campus Wednesday morning, as we wake up to a '3 day lockdown' to get control of the current outbreak.
COVID test on campus Wednesday morning, as we wake up to a ‘3-day lockdown’ to get control of the current outbreak. (Photo by Kai)

I woke up Wednesday morning, and we got a COVID test inside the school. I see a few coworkers, but they seem quiet. I say let’s hope for a short one. I think they can feel my enthusiasm to have some quiet thinking time. A lockdown is hell on a business owner but a treat for a writer. A week or ten at home locked in my office sounds exceptionally productive.

It feels like 2020 again, but we’re not scared and confused this time. We’re quiet and stoic and ready. If we were green, inexperienced soldiers in 2020, nervous and peeing our pants and puking in our helmets, this time we’re grizzled veterans, seasoned by years of battle, fighting the lockdowns and the virus, and even the politics, the multifaceted sides of the invisible war. That said, we clocked over 300 infections TODAY – in one day – and it’s all moving so much faster than it did when we rather successfully beat it the worst outbreak to date – in 2020.

When life comes at you fast, take a breath and remember to go slow.

We accept the reality and deal with it, finding moments of sunshine and peace in the chaos. I know this is not the worst I’ll see in my life, and I have let go of any expectations- when you release expectations, perhaps you can maximize your appreciation and action in the moment.

Some people question the policy, but it has evolved from full city lockdowns to compound lockdowns, a smart lockdown system. If an area has had cases, everyone stays inside for a few days, break the chains of transmission, gets a few tests over 3-5 days, and then they can see what’s going on. It’s worked before to stop outbreaks in their tracks. From a scientific outlook, it’s logical and sensible, but it is a heavy burden to carry. We do our best.

COVID-19 is life’s way of slowing us down, people say…. A chance to be reflective, a chance to take care of ourselves. Such as, in a war, there is no other way to deal with the day-to-day chaos than to go with the flow, to be, as Bruce Lee said, like water.

Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Let things flow naturally in whatever way they like.” I think this is a perfect bookend to “Change is the only constant,” famously said by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Perhaps in the middle is this gem: “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans,” said John Lennon. And so it goes, and we hang onto our dreams and try to make the best of what’s left of the day, remembering that no matter how dark the night, the sun also rises.

So I tell myself when stressed, so relax; when uptight, to be calm; when tense and irritated, to slow down. Don’t resist change. If I do, it’ll only bring more frustration, strife, and suffering and keep returning until its purpose is fulfilled. Only by working with the present moment, not against it, can we transform, moment by moment, day by day.

The midterm elections are now in the US, and my friend’s take on it makes me chuckle:

‘The world’s dumbest country holds an election to reverse gains of the last two years and return to anarchy.’ It sounds dramatic, but right now, the precarious democratic hold of the house is looking like it will fall, and with it, America’s ability to pass bills to control inflation, help the poor, and even save the environment. Instead, the other side is consumed by denying the many crimes and transgressions of their Emperor Agent Orange. I can’t even imagine how it’s legal to be under two dozen federal criminal investigations for everything from tax evasion to selling classified documents and treason and still run for the country’s top job. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid. Check out an essay by Adam-Troy Castro if you want a list of several dozen offenses against every law, moral, or standard of a leader or good human being and then wonder why 75 million Americans are still praising the Emperor with No Clothes, No Morals, and No Idea What He’s Doing… but at least he’s not a war hawk. In the end, as awful as a return to the last four years would be for American democracy, it might even be good for the rest of the world to get Big Uncle Sam off their backs and forge new polyphonic partnerships between Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the developing world… at least, that’s my hope, trying to make the best out of the worst situations.

Jeff tells me: “Jorah Kai, I think the love for ((ex-president)) has to do with desperation, exasperation, ignorance, false promises, and hate for the ideology of the US democratic party. There are people who believe that trying to help everyone is “commie loser-talk” and for “us” to win, someone has to lose.” That sounds like sad, confused people with bad ideas and a poor education looking for easy answers to complex problems in all the wrong places. But, c’est la vie. Many good people in America are doing their best, too, we are all humans, having a human experience, and all we can do is our best.

Choy Lee Fut's rules of conduct, a sort of poem for martial artists and fighters: pay respect to teachers, never injure others, and train every day to be better than you were today.
Choy Lee Fut’s rules of conduct, a poem for martial artists and fighters: pay respect to teachers, never injure others, and train every day to be better than you were today.

In the face of the chaos, I turn to some sage advice and a couple of 10s’ starting with the Way.

  1. Don’t harbor hatred or jealousy in your heart. Accepting what is and focussing on your success will take you farther, faster, and better for your health.

2. Maintain a kind heart and do not kill. A kind heart seems like the greatest gift we could bring to any situation in troubled times, and empathy and kindness for all living beings feels like the least I can do after all that I’ve been given.

3. Maintain purity and be withdrawn in your social interactions. Moving to a mountain in China to think is not enough; I must constantly aspire to be my best, harbor good thoughts, and take time from my work to help others. We are all devils and angels inside us, and we choose, moment by moment, what to cultivate.

4. Don’t set your mind on sexual desire or give rise to passion. Daoism has mainly aged well- but this is a tough one for the internet generation, but what we can do is focus on our work and our legacy beyond momentary pleasure, a struggle since the Lost Generation a century ago, but for me, Stoicism has been my constant companion in this regard. Pleasure is fleeting, but legacy is immortal, and I’m at a stage in my life where legacy and family are more important.

5. Don’t utter bad words. Don’t use flowery and ornate language. Daoism has got me trippin’ again here – but I think I can take the meaning to be as honest and quiet as I can so when I speak, my words contain more power and meaning. Perhaps a little flowery writing is excusable for the greater good.

6. Don’t take liquor or drug. Regulate and harmonize your energy and inner nature. Nobody said Daoism was easy, but in the decade since I moved to China, I’ve learned to prefer sobriety and quiet, peace, and mindfulness so I can write and relax to the wild excesses of a musical career in my younger years. 

7. Don’t be envious if others are better than yourself. Don’t contend for achievement and fame. This is a great reminder- while we have dreams, we mustn’t be greedy, and for me, the doing is more important than the acclaim from doing.

8. Don’t criticize or debate the scriptures and teachings. Always act as if you were face to face with the gods and immortals. I think this one is about respect, a certain stoicness to our actions and attitudes, and maintaining a positive outlook of building up rather than tearing down.

9. Don’t create disturbance through verbal argumentation. I take this as a reminder not to argue on the internet. People will be what they’ll be; all I can do is put my ideas out there. Take them or leave them.

10. Be equanimous and of whole heart in all of your actions. Ensure all exchanges between humankind and the divine gods are proper and respectful. Whole-hearted actions, gratitude in all things, and a slow, peaceful way of being: not an easy task in this busy life, but certainly wonderful ideals to strive for, and reminders to slow down and enjoy life because we all know what’s at the end of the road.

(( Today I feel grateful for the sunny day, my old dog Benben, my lovely wife’s good sense of humor, our health, our home, food on our table, my new book is well received, I am hopeful for the future and I have a yummy, warm green tea with lemon that is going down nicely — I am taking a break from coffee, and that’s OK ))

I’m reminded of ten other principles I learned in the desert; watching the sunrise in the world’s most inhospitable place while I did some serious soul-searching in the middle of one of the hardest periods of my life. Radical inclusion: welcome and respect the stranger. Gifting: be generous with your time and material possessions. Decommodification: nurture social environments that are unmediated by commercial transactions. Radical Self-reliance: discover and nurture your inner self, and discover your inner power. Radical Self-expression: you are a gift to others and the world around you. Communal Effort: creative cooperation and collaboration create the world around us. Civic Responsibility: we are all responsible for public welfare. Leaving No Trace: respect the environment. Please clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them. Participation: we are all part of the performance of life, players on the stage. May no one be a spectator in their own life! Immediacy: your life is now, the only moment that is real, and do not waste and squander the gift that is the present.

Going for a walk inside the campus with Xiaolin, I see a positively solar punk message of hope for the future.
Going for a walk inside the campus with Xiaolin, I see a positively solar punk message of hope for the future. (Photo by Kai)

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in how things are. The whole world belongs to you when you realize nothing is lacking.” Gratitude is a state of mind. When you realize that nothing is missing from your life, you’ll see that you have everything.

Edit: To my surprise and satisfaction, I woke up on Thursday to see headlines like, “Americans take a stand for decency as the GOP red wave turns to dust, surprising all of us,” (MSN) – and feel that well, things aren’t always as bad as they seem. I’m grateful for that, too.

In the end, precepts and ideals are like stars to guide the way; we may fall into the dirt, and often, and how, but picking ourselves up again and trying to do something worth doing is always the way forward.

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