In her poem, Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes about self-compassion. But she is also talking about the true meaning of mindfulness, stripped of its commercial and aspirational ornamentation. It is a true intimacy with our experience, both internal and external:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
You are in for a real treat if you listen to Jack Kornfield interviewing teacher and author Frank Ostaseski on the Heart Wisdom Podcast.
Aside from talking about his new book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Ostaseski shares his thoughts on how mindfulness that has found its way from the temple and retreat into the boardroom and the military. Instead of teaching mindfulness, awakening, realization and enlightenment, Ostaseski instead now thinks of his practice and teaching as one of cultivating intimacy. Becoming familiar with one’s experience and letting it all in. Leaving nothing out. No need to try to make things a certain way. The clarity that comes with intimacy of one’s experience can point the way to wise action.
A challenge to modern day mindfulness is that it is so easily co-opted to become yet another thing to strive for, another things grasp. It can become an intellectual exercise. Not to say that it isn’t valuable but to me mindfulness can represent a thinking presence, a constructed narrative and world, compared with the knowing presence that is intimacy.
A fellow teacher recently described a student who was getting meaningful stress relief from the practice of mindfulness. But instead of resting in this relief, the student kept asking, “But what does it buy me?” It is tempting to try to use mindfulness to get somewhere, to achieve something. But as Richard Rohr says, “You can’t get there. You can only be there.”
Unfortunately, in a culture encouraging perfectionism, mindfulness can appear to be yet another thing for us to master. In a seventh grade class I teach, we use three questions as a tool when we find ourselves under stress or in a difficult situation:
What am I doing? Is it right? What will I do next?
When I ask a student to remind me what the three questions are, they get the first two correct. The third question, not so much. Invariably, the third question contains a value judgment as opposed to a choice. Students suggest “Why don’t I do the right thing?” With intimacy, it is different. Instead, as Mary Oliver writes, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” You won’t always get the next action or word correct, but you are on an intentional path. But to connect with one’s passion requires patience, stillness, time and a forgiving heart.
One way to become more intimate with your experience is to share in fellowship with others. Oftentimes, common threads are shared that can be woven together for insight.
Men Sitting By A Fire – June 26, July 11, August 1 and August 27 at 8pm in Wayne, PA
Teachers Sitting By A Fire – June 29, July 13, July 30 and August 20 at 8pm in Wayne, PA
Years ago, I was trying to build a self-compassion practice and found myself recording my level of self-judgment every hour. The response to “What is happening?” was boiled down to a number between 1 and 10. What was so useful in this practice is that I could evaluate it as a warning sign. Several hours of “I’m not good enough” would generally lead to an argument with a loved one or similar unwise choice. As I became intimate with this unpleasant sensation, I could learn to avoid confrontational situations in that state but also to soften and take care of myself.
In this week’s podcast, Uncovering the Intimacy of Our Experience, I describe the universal process of creating an identity and the “masks” we wear to hide the emotions and identities that seem to contradict the self we share with the world. One way to practice intimacy, seeing behind the mask is to sit quietly and silently ask yourself the following questions: “What is happening?” and “Can I be with it?”. As my friend and fellow teacher Josh Gansky writes, this practice is one where we notice and allow. In this way, we become more intimate with our internal experience.