Thursday, August 13, 2009

"You do not have to be good." - Mary Oliver on self-compassion

"When will you have a little pity for/every soft thing/that walks through the world,/yourself included?" - Mary Oliver

Sitting here in the woods of Vermont, I've been wanting to write something about the poetry of Mary Oliver as it relates to compassion. I recently bought a CD of Ms. Oliver reading some of her work, and though I haven't spent much time out on the Cape where she lives, her poems resonate well here when I'm running down a tree-lined road. Ms. Oliver, from time to time, refers to matters I'd call “self-compassion.”

I've been thinking a lot about self-compassion. If compassion literally means, “to suffer with,” self-compassion means, to me, to be with your own suffering, and to accept it fully and mindfully. As an artist, this points to fully embracing yourself and your journey; without this embrace, when you're denying your suffering, it's hard to imagine an audience connecting to you and your presence. You're not giving anything to them, and you're surely not giving anything to yourself.

Famed voice and acting coach Patsy Rodenburg says this is required in order to feel alive. From her book The Second Circle, talking to a group of highly privileged young women:
“I hope you all get what you want in life. Husband, beautiful children, country house, town mansion, shopping trips to Paris, New York, and London. Travel far and wide and stay in the most glamorous resorts on the planet... But beyond this, I believe you will still be bored, because in order to feel alive you have to give, and I have never seen any of you give anything to anyone in my presence... why don't you believe you should show anything, give, offer? Do you really think you can go through life showing nothing?”
It's hard to imagine an audience connecting to a performer whose work comes from boredom, that lacks aliveness.

Poet David Whyte recorded a talk on the poetry of self-compassion (released as a CD called, surprisingly, The Poetry of Self-Compassion). It's worth the cost of the CD just to hear him read Ms. Oliver's “The Journey.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
but little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.

- Mary Oliver
Whyte talks about how hard it is to make this journey, leaving where you are in order to “come home.” But “you knew what you had to do.”
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations, though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
Whyte continues:
“Mary Oliver says, 'you want to know what it's like, when you take that step outside your house, and leave that confining identity around, and go out on the road of life, that's what it feels like, it feels like as if you're leaving at two o'clock in the morning in the middle of a windstorm.'”
Thich Nhat Hanh says (in his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching) this journey is required, to grow, to have the peace and joy you deserve;
“Without suffering, you cannot grow. Without suffering, you can not get the peace and joy you deserve. Please don't run away from your suffering. Embrace it and cherish it. Go to the Buddha, sit with him, and show him your pain. He will look at you with loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, and show you ways to embrace your suffering and look deeply into it. With understanding and compassion, you will be able to heal the wounds in your heart, and the wounds in the world. The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace.”
As I previously mentioned, Thay also talks about the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in his book For a Future to be Possible.
"The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is 'the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'; This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply -- our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less."
An artist must embrace his or her suffering, and by doing so an audience is given a space where they can accept their own suffering, where they can experience self-compassion. Avalokitesvara is present in any artist who embraces his or her suffering, because an artist doing so allows an audience to feel understood, and relieves their suffering.

Whyte goes on to talk about probably my favorite Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese,” which he calls a “poem of tremendous self-compassion and self-forgiveness.”
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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over again announcing your place
in the family of things.
- Mary Oliver
Whyte says that that when you first “step in to write your poem, when you first step in to write your life, you do not have to be good. You can't get there from here if you think you have to be good in order to do it. She's saying if there is goodness in the world it comes from us rubbing ourselves up against life and testing ourselves against it, and making lots of mistakes, and falling down flat. And doing bad things thinking we're doing good things. Doing good things thinking we're doing bad things. And making sense of it from the greater perspective of one's own personal destiny and intuitions of where we're supposed to go in the world.”

It seems to me that any artist who does this, who's willing to embrace mistakes, to embrace his or her life, creates the listening that allows any audience to connect to their work. To create a space where we, ourselves, can experience self-compassion. To know that we do not have to be good, and to accept it fully.

So there's my advice for the day, from the woods of Vermont. “You do not have to be good.” *

No comments:

Post a Comment