Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that has been living in my heart this fall:
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
2016 has been an invitation to connection with the “soft animal of my body.” This phrase has been running through my mind all fall, through the travel, the empty nesting, the election, and the deaths and the funerals. And through the missing of those who have died. I’ve been noticing how my own and my clients’ bodies have a tender and reasonable, but often unremarked, sensitivity to what happens around us.
There are many moments when our mind moves forward and dismisses the experience that the body is having. Here are some such moments that I have noticed, but every body is different, so I bring these examples as invitations to all of us to continue to pay attention to the neurophysiological relationship that our body has to our community, our world, our past, and to the voices inside our own heads.
My body notices exclusion. My well-being plummets when I sense that I do not belong, or that I am not central to the issue. It doesn’t matter how mature my mind is about clients completing, newsletter readers unsubscribing, friends going out without me, or growing away from me, my body is affected. And there is a neurobiological hit that I take when I reach out and the other person says, “no.” These can be very small moments, like asking someone if they would like a bite of my food, or if they want to watch a movie, or when I ask a question and the other person responds by changing the subject. When I pay attention, I can feel my own reactive withdrawal. Sometimes it feels like embarrassment, sometimes like hopelessness. Sometimes I don’t even realize it has happened until some hours later, when I notice that I am feeling ashamed and small. Then I can stop and trace back to the moment of the, “no.” In my imagination, there is a Sarah cramped and frozen in that moment in the slimy experience of shame.
What happens if I bring resonance to her? What happens if I say, “Hey, Sarah, did that suck? Do you need acknowledgment of the micro-shock? Did you stop breathing? Did you retract, like a sea creature pulling into a shell? Do you need to know that you are beloved? That you are delighted in and welcome on this planet? Do you need to physically feel that you are wanted?”
My body alerts to incoherence and incongruence. When people say one thing and do another, there is a visceral confusion that arises. I’m not sure what to trust, and I become a little frozen and bewildered. No matter how much reassurance I offer myself, or how much I want to push right through to get things done, my body still holds its reservations, which results in a stuttering, non-fluid and ambivalent response, notable for its lack of clarity and later resentment.
What happens if I respond with empathy to my body? Especially, what happens if I am willing to slow things down and move much more slowly than my mind usually moves? What happens if I am comfortable with long silences while I self-connect and do silent self-empathy processes, connecting present-day alarm and confusion with past moments of receiving people’s anger or mixed messages, being soft and responsive to the earlier Sarah, who was a caged bird, caught in power differentials as a child where she had to be wrong because the adult so needed to be right? What happens if I open the door to that cage for her and let her fly free, landing on my shoulder in present time if she would like to, and I take as long as I need to let my body calm and balance in the face of incongruent messages?
My body remembers past moments of danger. Noises in the night turn my body into a tight band of dried sinew, and the tension rules me, sleepless, for hours afterwards.
What if I curl around my memory-blasted cells and say, “Of course you are freeze-dried with the conviction that there is no safety here? Would you like acknowledgment that you have very good reasons for your belief?” Would you like it if I said, yes, Sarah, there has been danger at night when there are noises? Does this unyielding body need to be surrounded with warmth and understanding for as long as it takes for the clock to show that the world is safe again? Does my body need to be loved even if it can barely soften in response to empathy?
My body buttresses itself against loneliness. It objects to the starvation of moments spent in isolation. It has been hungry for companionship for so long that it can’t actually settle into the true relational connection that is here for the having. It longs for my mother to be her true self, and to be able to experience her turning toward me. There is a cold in my bones that is so ancient that the marrow has cracked.
What happens if I turn toward the parched, broken earth of my longing, and sing to it of its dream? Of the specificity of feeling my mother’s body relax into happy connection? And what about loneliness for myself? Am I longing also to feel my own cells be plump with relaxation and trust that I matter? What if I ask my own ground-of-being if it is wishing to be watered with reciprocal warm curiosity, affection-filled teasing and real dialogue? And what if I ask myself if I am willing to be loved by the humans who surround me? Am I willing to give up my self-defining loneliness and become a fluid mover between alone-ness and connection?
My body aches with pining. All through the holidays without my parents, through Christmas without Ben, through New Year without Patrice. And the sudden news of the death of my beloved friend Don Pogue, which came in while I was writing these paragraphs. The world is missing some essential elements now. It is as if a part of me went with them, and is calling me. My body responds with alternating wracking grief and numbness. There is a specificity to who, exactly, my cells long for. This body, this line of jaw, this nape of neck and shape of skull. I stop breathing as the waves of targeted searching and memory arise together, and breathe again when they subside.
What happens if I say to my soft body, “Are you confused that they are gone? Are you looking for them all the time? Does it feel like, if you could find them, they would be back here again? Are you bewildered to be on this earth without them? And would you like to re-write the recipes of their cells so that you could have them back in full health and well-being and vigor? Are you stopping the convulsions of grief by not breathing? When the grief slips through, does it painfully sting your eyes and your lungs? When you let the grief come all the way in, does your body become transparent and wavy with the enormity of it, like the air moving over a hot road in the distance? Are you needing to be held and acknowledged, to feel other grieving bodies warm and sobbing next to yours, so that the loss of death would make a little more sense?”
So, the most important question here is, what if I am tender with the soft animal of my body? What if I respond with acknowledgment and resonance? What if I’m willing for there to be more silence in my connections with others? And what if I become willing to share my own tenderness?
The answer is, good things happen, and I join the family of things, or the family of the world, or perhaps even more, I step out of the husks of story, fear and resentment, and join the present moment and myself.