At the Bath by Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt & Spiritual Alchemy
Spritual Alchemy for Women is an anonymous 19th c. text on Taoist yoga and meditation. It was dedicated to (and probably written by a disciple of) the outstanding woman Taoist master Cao Zhenjie, who is described in the preface as "more learned and knowledgeable than men." This excerpt is edited and arranged into poetic form from the translation by Thomas Cleary (IMMORTAL SISTERS, Shambhala 1989). The above illustration: "At the Bath," by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), whose work was inspired by her love for Japanese prints. See more on Cassatt's painting in relation to spriritual alchemy in the section below on supple body and mind.


    Lao-tzu said, "The singleminded energy is most supple,
    able to be like an infant...."

    Spirit is essence, energy is life.
    This is what is meant by the classic saying:
    "The root of essence
    is rooted in mind;
    the stem of life
    stems from breathing...."

    In daily practice it is essential
    to embrace the breathing steadily with the mind
    and embrace the mind steadily with breathing.
    When you have done this for a time,
    once you reach even balance
    you naturally
    become very stable and concentrated.
    You plunge into a profound awareness
    where there is no sky and no earth,
    where you forget about everything,
    including your own body.

    This stage is the experience referred to
    by the classic saying:
    "Knowing the white,
    keep the black,
    and illumination of spirit
    will come of itself."

    You seem to feel body and mind revitalized
    and supple,*
    with remarkable bouyancy and well being.

    One alchemist said that in this state
    you are like someone
    without the power of speech tasting honey
    unable to tell of its sweetness.


The painting by Mary Cassatt at the top of this page (her self-portrait left) is famous for the way in which it juxtaposes the mother's hand with that of the child, similar to the Taoist idea in the citation below comparing the lack of self-consciousness in a newborn child and the "texture of experience" in an older person's hand.

The notes to Stephen Mitchell's gender-inclusive translation of the TAO TE CHING include commentary by Mitchell's friend and teacher, Emilie Conrad-Da'oud. The following is her reflection on Taoist "suppleness" and "fluidity."

"There is no self consciousness in a newborn child. Later on, the mind wanders into self images, starts to think. 'Should I do this? Is this movement right?' and loses the immediacy of the moment. As self consciousness develops, the muscles become less supple, less like the world. But the young child is pure fluidity. It isn't aware of any separation, so all its movements are spontaneous and alive and whole and perfect.

"If an adult body becomes truly supple, though, there's a quality to its movement that the child's doesn't have, a texture of experience, a fourth dimension of time. When we watch a seventy-year-old hand move, we feel, 'Yes, that hand has lived.' All the bodies it has touched, all the weights it has lifted, all the heads it has cradled are present in its movement. It is resonant with experience, the fingers curve with a sense of having been there. Whereas in a child's hand there's a sense of just arriving. The child's movement is pristine and innocent and delightful, but a truly supple adult movement is awesome, because all life is included in it."

Mary Cassatt & Spiritual Alchemy
(for more on Mary Cassatt, see WOMEN AT THE EASEL)
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