The soul selects her own society.
Loneliness is felt most profoundly when are alienated from ourselves, when we are disconnected from our soul. And though we may ignore its quiet nudging and whispering in our ear, our soul is always there–inviting us back into union. And just how does the soul do this? By, as Dickenson says, selecting her own society. The soul knows what she needs, what environments are nurturing, what people are loving, what situations are in alignment with our purpose. There is far more flow and ease in life than we realize, if we would just let our soul lead.
So perhaps in the busy moments of our days, we can grab a few moments and be quiet, perhaps put our hand on our hearts and connect to our soul, and ask where she wants to lead.
Our job is not to expose the mystery; it is to participate in it.
Mysteries can be very threatening. They shake our supposed firm footing and supposed understanding of ourselves and everything around us. And we often think that things have no purpose if we can’t categorize them or draw profound life lessons from them.
In response, we expend a great deal of energy struggling to find answers and sometimes restricting our lives to the familiar, known and safe. And in doing so, we unfortunately limit the fullness of our experience.
Life is always speaking to us, always inviting us in, just that much closer—through the big things and the small things, through the illnesses and losses and the joys and blessings. And perhaps, if we could soften our gaze, unclench our jaw, and let go of our need to control every outcome, we would begin to taste the beauty of being.
There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.
We’ve all got them—fears, pain, triggers, bad memories, hopes and desires. This is part of what makes us human, and what has kept our species going generation after generation.
It’s not the presence of challenges or even our dislike of them that is the source of our suffering; it is our resistance to the present moment. It is our saying no, this shouldn’t be happening. But here’s the thing—it is.
And we’ve all become experts at saying no and we all have our coping mechanisms—substance abuse, withdrawal, perfectionism, just to name a few. So, what do we do?
Well, we don’t beat ourselves for being human! We don’t tell ourselves we shouldn’t desire or feel fear or be sad. What we can do is what Tara Brach calls learning to pause. Rather than habitually slipping into those patterns that make us and those around us unhappy, we pause and check in and find out what is really happening, what wound is being touched, where we feel it in our body, and we wait, and we breathe.
This might not sound as fun as binge-watching the latest Netflix series or downing a few vodka shots, but in the long run, it is much more fulfilling, and as Tara Brach says, wonderfully bold and liberating.
In the critic’s vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotations of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.
-Jorge Luis Borges, from “Kafka and His Precursors”
Most recently, it was author Christopher Booker who espoused the belief that there are seven basic plots, and every story is a retelling of one of these plots. So, is there nothing new under the sun?
Borges, in the above quotation, is telling us yes, and no.
What has not changed is human nature, which is why the Ten Commandments are just as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago. What changes, on the other hand, is our personal experience with the seven plots. We are, Borges is saying, unique and at the same time an amalgamation of all that came before.
Stepping back from art a bit, I think we can extrapolate this into the wider sphere of society, into the older and younger generations, into the political right and left, into religion and gender and race. We all had precursors and we will be precursors. So, maybe rather than righting off the past and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can try to see history as one long chain of influence and growth, of pitfalls and tragedy, and hopefully we can learn to find peace in wholeness rather than exclusion.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone. If he does not love solitude he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is truly free.
We are persistently inundated with external influences. If you live amongst others, it’s inescapable! We can’t avoid being affected by our family of origin, the values of our country, our peer group and colleagues, not to mention social media, Hollywood and pop culture.
That is why it is so important every day to spend some time alone. Solitude is a key ingredient for self-actualization and self-empowerment. If I am to have my own voice, my own dream, my own journey, then I must find it on my own. I must risk isolation and even ridicule. I must take the steps required to listen to that inner voice and respect its wisdom. But I can only hear that voice if I spend time alone, away from the buzz of my busy life and the wants and desires of others.
However, I disagree with Schopenhauer that man can only be himself when alone. Human interaction is essential, and we can only truly grow as individuals when in relationship. But the depth and health of our relationships depends largely on our own sense of self—which can only be attained through moments of solitude and self-reflection.
But I do agree with Schopenhauer that, at the end of the day, we are alone with ourselves, and we must be right with ourselves, and only when we can accept and love all of ourselves, can we be truly free.
If I only did what I could do I wouldn’t do anything.
Most of us are completely unaware of our potential. We limit ourselves in so many ways: by talking negatively to ourselves, by allowing others to criticize us, by comparing ourselves to others, and by setting unrealistic goals—thereby fulfilling our self-fulfilled prophecy that we can’t.
But what if you can?
To start with, we’ve got to tell ourselves that we can. We’ve got to speak positively to ourselves and surround ourselves with people who love and support and encourage us.
We also have to stop comparing ourselves to others. Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson says that we should not compare ourselves to others, but rather to ourselves. “How was I yesterday?” should be the question, rather than “How is that person over there today?”
And finally, we need to set realistic and realizable goals. Saying I want to climb the highest mountain tomorrow when I haven’t exercised in a year is a recipe for disaster. But having the goal that one day you want to climb a mountain, but starting today you are going to run for twenty minutes a day is realistic and realizable.
It’s a real balancing act. As Derrida states above, if we never push ourselves, we’ll get nowhere. But if we let negativity push us, we’ll never be happy—even if we do manage to get to the top of Mt. Everest.
We need to take it easy, nudge and push ourselves, be clear about our passions and dreams, and be comfortable with all the baby steps along the way.
The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom.
Sometimes the challenges in our country, community or family can feel overwhelming. And we wonder, what can I do?! I don’t think Rav Kook is saying that we only sit by passively and think positive thoughts. I believe he is calling us to action—and that action can take many forms—but action that is motivated by a loving heart. So, maybe we should check in with ourselves and with our righteous indignation, and ask ourselves what is motivating us, ask ourselves how we regard others, and ask ourselves if we seek goodness or strife. These aren’t easy questions and they don’t have easy or simple answers, but the inner dialogue is a good place to start.
If the self remains in its citadel, anxious to control and heavily defended, it declines in the sources of vitality. To lay the citadel open, however, is to court danger: a danger inseparable from the enhancement of life.
-Roberto Mangabeira Unger, from “The Religion of the Future”
I am visiting my university student daughter this week, and today had the opportunity to attend one of her classes—a lecture taught by Professor Unger.
In today’s class, Professor Unger was tackling an issue we all face—how to encourage self-invention and at the same time create a healthy society. How do we maintain a sense of individuality without become narcissistic? How do we work toward a healthy society without conforming or becoming a prisoner of the thought police? The answer is that there is no one answer. A Hegelian at heart, he believes in the continual dialectic, that life is a process of constantly renewing, reinventing, rethinking ourselves and our place in society, and any religion or philosophy—he believes—that posits a utopian or all-encompassing theory fails.
It was clear from many of the questions asked in class, that the students were unsettled by Professor Unger’s lack of resolution. They wanted an answer, some sort of proof that all of this philosophizing led to something, some sort of world-view, or economic or political outlook. But, Professor Unger would not assuage their fears; instead he encouraged them to continue to ask questions.
When I was in my early twenties, listening to similar lectures at college, I also wanted answers. But now, I am much more comfortable with the questions. I recognize, as Unger’s quote states, that to lay the citadel open, however, is to court danger. This is the danger of uncertainty, of risk, of rebellion. It is the danger of not knowing or perhaps discovering something new that rocks your worldview. But this danger is what keeps us alive, keeps us growing. So actually, it doesn’t seem so dangerous; rather it seems exciting, beautiful, even sublime.
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice…
Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
today is always gone tomorrow.
With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.
-Wislawa Symborzska, from “Nothing Twice”
Symborzska’s poem reminds us to stay present. Why? Because, as she writes in the first line—nothing can ever happen twice. This moment happening right now is irreplaceable.
Faced with this truth and with the precarious and often unpredictable nature of life, how do we respond? Symborzska offers two possible answers. We can either treat the fleeting day with so much needless fear and sorrow or we can with smiles and kisses…prefer to seek accord.
But, these two choices offered to us are highly nuanced. I don’t believe that declining fear and sorrow means that we deny our feelings and thoughts and need to make plans. The problems only arise when our concerns propel us out of the present, and we become anxious about the future and obsessed with the past.
And similarly, seeking accord with smiles and kisses doesn’t mean that we ignore the real challenges in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we stop locking our doors and embrace someone who means to do us harm. Rather, I think the smiles and kisses reflect a mindset—one that is open to the moment and present with whatever is happening.
So we have a choice; personally, I choose rainbows and sunshine and colorful art painted by my daughter, and puppy kisses–even on days like today, when it’s cold and my body aches, and I miss loved ones. Soak it in; it never happens twice.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
-Shakespeare, from Sonnet XIX
Continuing with last week’s theme of remembering, these final words from Shakespeare’s nineteenth sonnet evoke a sense of the eternal nature of memory. Memories are not relegated to dusty attics, or shoved back into the recesses of our mind; rather, as Shakespeare says, they “ever live young”.
And why not wax poetic from time to time? Why not remember moments that are frozen in time—the birth of a child, a wedding, a meeting with a significant person, a fabulous adventure…?
We may plead with old Time to let these moments linger, but they do not. They pass away. The moments in time pass away, but they live eternally inside of us. And by recalling them, we rekindle the fire they first lit—in some sense reminding us, as Anne Lamott says, I’m all the ages I’ve ever been.
Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice as is your image in my eye; dry frost glazes the window of my hurt; what solace can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?
-Sylvia Plath, from “Winter Landscape, with Rooks”
Sometimes—usually in the winter—I feel drawn to Sylvia Plath, and to this poem in particular. Sometimes I recognize that, while certain challenging times have passed and they no longer define me, I want to remember them—not re-live them or dwell in them—but remember them.
Sylvia Plath wrote this poem in 1956, the same year she married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Her poem explores the twofold process of exploring one’s pain—awareness of suffering, as evidenced in the bleak winter landscape, and the desire to flee one’s suffering, seen in the image of the rook—a bird seeking escape through flight.
Plath ends her poem with the question, Who’d walk in this bleak place? She, obviously—by the mere writing of this poem—is walking in this bleak place. But, is that such a bad thing? Sometimes it is helpful to walk in a bleak place, to remember one’s pain, to remember the loss of a loved one, to remember moments of sadness or depression. And then, to cease walking in the bleak place, and fly away and see—from above—the bleak landscape fade. To see and remember that we are no longer in that bleak place.
Through the act of remembering, we honor loved ones we lost, we honor times in our lives we have survived, we honor states we have surmounted. We remind ourselves that we are strong, that we are survivors, that winter can be cold and bleak and at times frightening, but spring does come, as do buds and flowers and joy and warm hugs and watermelon, and linen sundresses.
There are times when it is beneficial to walk in bleak places, remembering that we—like the rook—can always soar.
Thinking is only a small part of our consciousness.
Most of us would agree with Descartes statement: I think therefore I am. The unconscious process goes something like this—when a thought arises, whether it is as simple as I really want another piece of cake or as reproachful as I’m a horrible friend, we usually accept it as truth. Then, when enough similar thoughts accumulate, they turn into feelings, and before we know it, our general emotional and mental state is fixed! And then we believe that we are good, fat, friendly, smart…fill in the blank.
But what if Eckhart Tolle is right, and not Descartes? What if, instead of being our thoughts, we are the awareness of our thoughts, the consciousness behind the thoughts? What if every thought could be questioned?
Then we would gradually stop being our own worst enemy, and the conscious process would go something like this—when a thought arises, we would step back and look at our thoughts as one looks at clouds in the sky. We wouldn’t instantly accept the thought as true, and instead we would ask if this thought were true or relevant or beneficial. Then, we’d make our decision, and go from there. And instead of being anxious or angry or frustrated, there would be more flow, more ease, more peace. And probably a lot more laughter…because some of the stuff our mind comes up with is down right hilarious!