“Double Happiness x2”
I can’t recall where I first read or heard that the secret to keeping life fresh was to “stay in the moment” rather than obsess on the past or speculate about the future.
It was probably in the early 1980s, when Ram Dass’s admonition to “Be Here Now,” began to go mainstream in Michigan along with Eastern Spirituality and yoga. But the concept was so abstract; I had no idea what it meant.
A few years later, I was swept into the “now” like a log in a flash flood. It was late 1985, and I was on sabbatical in China, working at the China Daily, the country’s English-language newspaper. It was a balmy Sunday and I was meandering around Beijing with Andy, a British colleague; Jasper, a friend of his who also was British, and Jasper’s Chinese interpreter, Christine.
We were on our way to the city’s Catholic Cathedral for Mass – my idea – and got sidetracked. We strayed into the old Hutong District, a labyrinth of winding streets leading to a jumble of alleys, each alley opening to a courtyard shared by several families living in traditional dwellings with red tiled roofs.
Andy and Jasper were up ahead; just when Christine and I thought we had lost them, a shower of firecrackers exploded around us. We jumped into an alley. The men ran back to see what all the excitement was about, and Christine shouted, “It’s a Chinese wedding!”
A young bride and groom loomed at the hutong entrance like giant wedding cake toppers. She wore a scarlet Mandarin-style dress, embroidered in gold, he a dark Western-style suit. Their entourage piled behind them, and a blizzard of multi-colored metallic confetti rained down on our heads.
The bride and groom looked at us exactly as we might have looked at them if it had been our wedding taking place in the United States and we had found four Canadian Inuit on our doorstep, dressed in sealskins and mukluks.
“You must come to our wedding,” they insisted, pulling us into the alley. How could we resist? Christine explained that our appearance was considered especially auspicious because it was out of the ordinary, a symbol of “Double Happiness” times two!
We were made the guests of honor and ate and drank for the next five hours in all three homes, which were just single rooms, really, each with a circular plywood table seating a dozen people.
In the sunlit courtyard, two young men flung handfuls of prawns, chicken, whole fish, pork, beef, and Chinese vegetables into sizzling woks the size of saucer sleds, producing course after course of the most delicious stir-fries.
All the homes were decorated with streamers and vases of roses. There was a cassette player, and when it was discovered that Andy and I could waltz, the guests begged us to dance to Andy Williams’s rendition of “Moon River” — again and again and again. Andy and I were so wasted our waltzing consisted mainly of holding each other up. But it was fun and romantic; at one point I glanced in a mirror and saw a big, bright magenta dot pasted on my right cheek.
When we finally left, we were hugged, toasted and cheered. Or did we waltz out of there? The wedding couple escorted us to the street, where I took off my sparkly zirconia studs and gave them to her. She was elated. I was on a cloud, rooted in the still center of “Right Here, Right Now.”
The memory of being whisked so dramatically into the “Mystery of the Moment” has dimmed, but the wonder is still with me. The experience now seems like the equivalent of a Buddhist teacher hitting a student on the head with a stick.
I had not yet begun to delve into Eastern Spirituality, but shortly after the wedding, a Chinese journalist friend introduced me to the “Tao te Ching,” a classic Chinese text on the art of living, written in the 6th Century BCE by Lao-Tzu, a poet and philosopher. We were resting on the lawn of the National Library after a long bike ride, and Jing Jun pulled out a notepad and wrote down two of the book’s 82 gemlike precepts:
“The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet” and, “Be like water, which seeks the low places.”
He said the Tao was the ultimate reality, an energy or power that gives rise to all creation and loves all things unconditionally, which sounds a lot like the Cosmic Christ to me. You can’t know the Tao, but you can align with it, J.J. e said. It is subtle and mysterious, but the 20th Century expression, “Go with the flow” pretty well covers it: Stay in the River, make course corrections as needed (steer clear of logs), and do your best to ride the current, which will take you farther faster than forcing things. Let the River carry you into “the Mystery of the Moment.”
Aligning with the Tao is the bedrock of my spiritual practice, which is grounded in Christianity, which has been called “the Tao with a human face.” Like Christianity, the Tao is built on trust: The more you let go, the more real the Tao becomes.
I think of the Tao as a benevolent Fifth Fundamental Force of the Universe – and why not? The first Four Fundamental Forces – gravity, Electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces — are also invisible (not counting lightning and atomic explosions) and were discovered one by one through experimentation or by pure accident.
Retirement has crystallized my desire to slow down – and then to slow down some more. As a reporter, I lived with inviolable back-to-back deadlines; I was always rushing, undermining any attempt to live mindfully and artfully.
New Rule No. 1: No rushing unless I’m trying to catch a train or plane or my house is on fire. If I rush, I may miss the moon door, obscured by fog, and blow right by it. No over-extending or taking on more than I can handle without getting stressed. I stray out of the River all the time, but once I know I have, I head back in and catch the current.
With apologies to Lao-tzu, I’ve coined an 83d precept: “Stay in your body, live in your hands.” It came to me as I was making sourdough bread. I knew nothing about bread making before the pandemic, but I have since made more than 100 loaves. They are really good — if I may say so — but just when I think they’re perfect, they get better. I let my right brain take me where I need to go, and my hands seem to do the rest. Or maybe my hands lead my brain – it sure feels that way.
New Rule No. 2: Store that left, rational brain in the freezer! I don’t need it most of the time, and it too often drags me into the past or future. Staying in the right brain makes it easier to be in the now, which “is all we have” as Eckhart Tolle says.
A man I love is ill with cancer, and things don’t look good. I just found out, and it’s hard not to think dark thoughts and worry, but I’m trying. In the past, the value of surrender and acceptance were lost on him. His modus operandi was control, which creates the illusion of security. But people change. His last email ended, “I’ll try very hard not to get too far ahead of myself, and just let things unfold.”
Wrtier’s Statement: This essay describes a moment and an experience that altered my expectations of what may happen on any day, at any time.
Bio: Patricia Chargot is a retired journalist from Ann Arbor, MI.