The Tao of Bill
Chico writer and teacher Bill Martin reinterprets the ancient wisdom of Taoism for today’s spiritual seekers
In last year’s movie The Tao of Steve, the main character is an overweight, slovenly 32-year-old kindergarten teacher named Dex who lives with a bunch of guys, rarely gets out of his bathrobe and feeds his dog directly from a whipped-cream can but still manages to be remarkably successful at seducing women.
His secret? Something he calls “the tao of Steve,” referring to the actor Steve McQueen, who to him is the epitome of cool. Dex is a dabbler in Eastern philosophies, including Taoism, and from them he’s culled the underpinnings of his theory of seduction, which calls first of all for him not to express desire before the woman does—to be cool like Steve.
His comeuppance arrives, as might be expected, in the form of a woman with whom he actually falls in love. So much for cool.
To Chico author Bill Martin, who has spent more than a decade studying Taoist spirituality and has written three books based on Taoism’s principal text, the Tao Te Ching, Dex’s appropriation of the word “tao” is little more than an amusing misuse of the term. The Tao is not about acting cool to get your way. That’s just manipulation, and the Tao is the opposite of manipulation. It’s about looking deeply into nature, including one’s own nature, to see and understand “the way things work,” and then adjusting one’s life and behavior in order to be in harmony or accordance with the Tao.
Written more than 2,500 years ago, the Tao Te Ching is comprised of 81 short, poetic and yet eminently practical lessons penned by the legendary Chinese sage Lao Tzu. Such is the enduring beauty and relevance of the Tao Te Ching that it has become the most widely published book in the world next to the Bible.
What Martin has done—quite boldly, if you think about it—is to rewrite this venerable classic for specific modern audiences. The first of his books, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching, is about rearing children; the second, The Couple’s Tao Te Ching, is intended for adults in committed relationships; and the third, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, is for those in “the second half of life” and a call for them to claim their rightful role as “sages.” (The books are beautifully designed, with lovely brush paintings by Hank Tusinski, and are available for $13.95 via Martin’s Web site, www.thestillpoint.com.)
Using a style and tone that resemble the original’s, Martin has rewritten each of its short chapters in ways that make them applicable to his readers. A chapter in the parent’s book, entitled “The Still Point,” is a good example of his approach:
A wheel spins in a circle.
The still point at the center
gives it direction.
And your children will see
the way ahead.
A pot has beautiful sides.
The emptiness inside
makes it useful.
Empty yourself of agenda
and you will be available
for your children.
A good house has strong walls.
The space within the walls
makes it a home.
Create space within your heart
and your children
will always rest secure.
As Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior, writes in his introduction to the book, “It’s a rare thing when someone is able to improve upon a classic—not only improve it, but wrap it in ribbons and offer it as a gift to the modern world. It takes a man of rare wisdom, insight, and heart.”
Bill Martin is 57 years old. He’s a slender man of medium height with a narrow face framed by short white hair and a neat white beard. He smiles often, and when he talks he uses his hands to paint pictures in the air, a carryover no doubt from his love of Tai Chi Chuan, the slow, graceful movement art practiced by millions of Chinese.
Tai Chi is the physical expression of Taoist spirituality, which emerged in China about 600 B.C.E. and is based on a small number of texts from that period, particularly the Tao Te Ching. Miller began seriously studying Taoism a little over a decade ago, but he’s been influenced by it much longer. In retrospect, he can see that his life has been a journey to discover his own “tao,” his natural path.
He grew up in Mt. Shasta City, into a family with deep roots in the area. When he was in seventh grade, his father, a pharmacist, bought a pharmacy in Chico, and Martin lived here until he graduated Chico High School in 1962.
From here he went on to college at UC Berkeley, where he earned a degree in civil engineering, and then spent four years in the Navy as a research scientist. By this time he was married and had a daughter. The urge to explore spirituality was beginning to pull him, however, and he decided to go to graduate school to study theology.
Then followed a long push-pull process of trying to give form to his spiritual life. Institutional Christianity was the obvious choice, and he spent four years as pastor of a Presbyterian Church in the Phoenix area, but it began to become uncomfortable for him. More and more he realized that he was drawn to the contemplative life.
Institutional Christianity, he explains, “tends to focus on correct belief and correct action rather than a practice of awakening.” He’d long been interested in Eastern spiritual thought and practices, and he decided to begin exploring them more deeply. He quit the church and opened a private counseling practice.
By this time he and his wife had parted ways—"grown apart,” as he puts it, adding that they remain friends to this day. The children—by this time they also had a son—lived primarily with him.
About 13 years ago he met his present wife, Nancy, at a retreat. The connection was immediate, he says. She was then a United Methodist minister, but like him she yearned for something more. “We were both attracted to the contemplative heart of all religions,” he explains, “because we believe that’s where the unity of religious paths occurs.”
Three years ago, in 1998, they walked away from their life in Phoenix—jobs, home, furniture, the works—to create a new life elsewhere. After spending nine leisurely “sabbatical” months on the Oregon coast, where Bill wrote two of his three Tao Te Ching reinterpretations and they rested and walked the beach together, they settled in Chico.
For Bill, Chico had always been filled with fond memories, and both of them saw it as a perfect town for what they wanted to do next: establish a center for the contemplative arts.
That center is The Still Point. It’s located on East Avenue near Ceres in a small, new office complex. There Bill and Nancy both have offices and share a lovely meditation room that is also used for Tai Chi classes. Nancy is a master in the Japanese healing art known as reiki, and she offers both reiki training and treatment. Bill offers training in meditation and movement in the Tai Chi tradition, and both offer workshops and retreats around the country. The facility is also open for meditation at many times during the week.
“We’re trying to offer ourselves and this place for and to anyone taking a contemplative spiritual journey from any spiritual tradition,” Martin explains.
In Yeats’ famous late poem “Lapis Lazuli” two old Chinese monks are pictured on a vase climbing a mountain. Their eyes, the poet writes, “mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.” By reinterpreting the Tao Te Ching in such sensitive and clear ways, Bill Martin gives us nothing less than an opportunity to view our lives anew, with eyes that are at once fresh and ancient, like those of Yeats’ monks.
Wisdom does come with age, and Martin wants us to be glad for that. Wisdom, he says, happens naturally to anyone who lives life joyfully and with acceptance of all that it brings, good and bad. After all, the whole of life is made up of opposites, and we can’t know what’s “good” without experiencing what’s “bad.” He calls the process “saging” and urges each of us to celebrate and honor it, in ourselves and others.
Sometime last year Oprah Winfrey happened to be visiting a spa in the Los Angeles area. As Martin tells the story, there she discovered The Parent’s Tao Te Ching lying on a coffee table. She picked it up and became so enthused that she began reading it aloud to a companion.
Shortly afterwards, the book appeared on her famous “O List” of recommended readings in her magazine O. “I give all my friends with children a copy of William Martin’s The Parent’s Tao Te Ching as a reminder of what’s important in raising little ones,” Oprah wrote at the time.
High praise—and good for sales, too. “For a few months my publisher had to really scramble,” Martin says, laughing at the notion. He figures Oprah’s little push resulted in 20,000 additional books being sold. “She is some powerful force in the publishing world,” he marvels.
Indeed she is. But she wouldn’t have promoted the book had she not sincerely liked it. Oprah does not allow publishers to send her promotional copies. Every book she recommends she discovers on her own, whether browsing in a bookstore, talking with friends or, as in Martin’s case, purely by accident.
That, you might say, is the Tao in action.