Master of All Situations

A reader, Marianne Powers, astutely suggested I reflect on where I learned to see truth in myself and others – a wonderful task that ought to take just about the rest of my life to figure out. However, something did come to me almost immediately: I remembered a book my mother gave me when I was twenty years old. That book was The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, a slim classic of Eastern philosophy published in 1906. Okakura had intended to create a short discourse for some American friends and admirers aimed to overcome some of the “spiritual misunderstanding” between East and West. Why that book among the many should come to mind so quickly is a riddle to me. It was only one of many books on Eastern philosophies I had begun to read at that time. I liked it because it seemed to cut through the hub-bub of American individualism, probing at something deeper, more nature-based and more real.

ebbey's seaweed

Describing Lao-Tse’s view that the concept of totality must never be lost in that of the individual, Okakura wrote:

…only in vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it is made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible. One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations.

My mother inscribed part of this passage inside the cover and over time I drew closer to these words, squeezing all the mysterious truth out of them I could find. And so it is no surprise that today thirty-five years later I find myself writing about openness, both inner and outer. Perhaps I could say this is one step in my learning about “truth-seeing” — this commitment to letting things enter as they will: beauty and pain, angels and demons, good relationships and poor ones. I believe I have tried to welcome it all in (even the darkest parts of the road) and let it teach me what I need to know. I do notice that I am often working with clients who for years have avoided the darkest parts of their paths; have defended themselves against it and now need some help being able to reclaim the ability to receive — not just the dark but the light that comes with it.

One thing is certainly clear: it is not so easy being a vacuum as Lao-Tse (through Okakura) suggests. Do you know what it is like to walk into a room full of people that you know or that you don’t know and truly be open? Can you sense your own first impressions, both respecting and questioning them? Can you allow the true form of the energy in the room to come to you or must you shift it or dominate it in some way? Can you welcome each person just as they are? Can you let them tell their story in the way they need to tell it without it somehow becoming yours? Can you listen without judgment?

Such old, old questions on the path to becoming “master of all situations.”


  • Another insightful and inspiring post — thanks for sharing these pearls!

    I was reminded of the Zen concept of “hollow bones” (and a retreat based on this concept … that friends have attended and I hope to experience first-hand someday), wherein a person simply acts as a channel for spirit … without judgment or attachment.

    I, too, seek to be a master of all situations, and am grateful for your channeling of spirit in a way that helps me reconnect with this intention.

  • Thank you for you appreciative comments and observations, Joe. I really like your coyote photos. Perhaps this shape shifter has a message for you.

  • Dan, great to see you blogging again 🙂 I am enjoying that Lao Tse passage.

    “One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations.”

    The concept of vacuum reminds me of something in my Aikido practice – where it’s so much easier to throw an attacker who moves (naturally if you do it right) into a void/empty space and then falls freely with little effort on your own part. Truly, then you do become a master of the situation 🙂

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