We don’t have enough soft places in our lives. Those of you who were on hand Wednesday night know that I uncovered my need to soften up in an encounter with a photo of a tree at Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Soft is where it all begins. Soft is the essential step, the crucial place to be.
Becoming soft means trusting, relaxing, letting be, laughing, enjoying, easing up. But, it’s hard to be soft. It’s hard to be easy. So, we have to be easy on it not being easy. Be soft with it being hard, and let things be as they are for as long as it takes for them to be different. We all will make it as well as we can for as long as we can. What more could be asked of us? What more can be asked of the tree at Rocky Knob? We have to celebrate that tree, and honor it for what it is. The same thing applies to each of us.
The path begins beneath our feet. We start where we are. We don’t have to be somewhere else. We begin by being soft with ourselves. Accepting ourselves as we are. Letting ourselves be. “Easy does it,” is an AA slogan for staying on the beam and in sync with our true best interests, intentions and desires without trying to make anything happen. Of course, we would be better off sober than drunk, but we can-not will sobriety any more than we can will ourselves to fall asleep. But, we can arrange to fall asleep, just as we can arrange to be sober.
There is a Zen technique for dealing with our propensity for internal chatter, or “monkey mind,” during meditation. “Let it come, let it go,” or “This too, this too,” simply acknowledges the noisy thoughts without engaging them. We just observe them and allow them to pass on. This is quite different from “fighting for peace,” or “willing ourselves to be calm and serene.” We arrange to be quiet without forcing ourselves to quieten down.
The same approach applies to spiritual development. We cannot force spirituality. We can be spiri-tual, but not by not trying to be spiritual. “Do or do not,” says Yoda, “there is no try.” This is the Taoist doctrine (And they say they don’t have doctrines!) of wu-wei, or doing by not doing (It’s how water wears away stone and finds its way to the sea, how dandelions grow through asphalt, how we go to sleep and wake up—we do it but we don’t consciously, willfully, DO it). It is a matter of aligning ourselves with what needs to happen (so that it becomes what we want to happen) and getting out of the way.
Getting out of the way is the trick. We have to accommodate ourselves to the possibilities. This is where “easy does it” comes in. We don’t get out of the way by willing it. There is no forcing. “There is no try.” That’s the trick. How do we learn it? Spiritual practice, practice, practice. And the practice is becom-ing soft. Softening up. Getting out of the way.
It’s hard to be soft. And so, we practice. Being soft. Softness. Softness has to do with resiliency. With acceptance. With accommodation and acquiescence. And with persistence. Courage and resolve, kid. Courage and resolve. Soft is steady, constant, unrelenting, yet undemanding and non-intrusive. Soft is receptive, willing, waiting, anticipating. Soft is putting everything on the table, and seeing what comes forth, seeing what shows itself to be important, perhaps to our surprise and consternation.
In talking about his understanding of God, Carl Jung said, “(God) is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or worse.” How different is this view of God from the popular offering of institutional religion, where God is the benevolent doofus, the kindly Sancho Panza, helping us along our way, serving our ends, seeing to it that we prosper and are happy, and rewarding us with paradise when we die.
The soft understanding of God allows God to shake up our lives and allows our lives to be what they need to be in order to wake us up and change our intended course “for better or worse”—for better AND worse!—in order to become what they must be. If we are going to adopt the soft image, and allow the tree at Rocky Knob to be what it is, and allow ourselves to be who we are, we must also allow God to be who God is and allow our lives to be what they need to be. If we are going to be soft, we are going to allow things to unfold according to their nature, to become what they are, to “do” us, to “live” us, rather than us “doing” and “living” them!
The work of being soft is to sync-up with our lives, with the lives that are our lives to live, the Authentic Me, so to speak. We are all more or less authentic, there is something genuinely us tucked away into each one of us. The idea is to live so as to be more of who we are and less of who we are not—to live with our eyes on the lives that are ours to live. Ah, but. We have eyes for other things! And so, we must get out of the way!
How do we get in the way? What do we do to escape the lives that are waiting to live us, that are our lives to live? To numb ourselves out so that we don’t feel the uncertainty, anguish, and anxiety that comes our way? To avoid the fear of being abandoned or overwhelmed? To avoid the agony of not being able to live the kind of life we wish were ours (which consists of, don’t say it doesn’t, more in the way of avoidance and less in the way of responsibility)? In what ways are our lives spent running from life? Complying and denying? Where are we being asked to grow up, to do for ourselves what we wish someone else would do for us? Where are we not facing what needs to be faced and not doing what needs to be done? Where are we asserting or failing to assert the power of our own personal authority over our lives?
What do we do to keep from being still and quiet? How quiet can we be for how long? What meets us in the silence? How do we meet it back? Then what happens? The only thing silence is good for is listening. When we listen in the silence, what do we hear? What are the voices? Whose voices are they? What are they saying? Are they chastising us? Condemning us? Berating us? Where did we first hear them? Where in our lives, in our lived experience, did they originate? What person in our experience do we most easily associate with the voices? How old were we when the voices made their lasting impression?
We are no longer that old. We have to stop acting as though we are. Step into the silence in behalf of the person you were when the voices made their lasting impression. Stop agreeing with the voices. Whose side are you on? Become an advocate for yourself. Ask the voices what they want. When they tell you they just want you to become somebody, to make something of yourself, tell them they are taking a dumb route to that end. Ask them when has telling someone she is fat made her thin, or when has telling someone he is lazy, stupid, slow and worthless made him the opposite of those things? Point out to the voices that for all the years of their constantly haunting and hounding you, you are still the poop pile you always have been and their strategy of yelling at you hasn’t gotten them anywhere, and that is indisputable evidence that they are as great a failure as they accuse you of being. And then tell them to step aside because there are other voices you must attend.
The other voices have been waiting for you to be quiet long enough to hear what they have to say. These are the voices who know what you need, who know who you also are, who are with you to help you find and explore the path that is yours to walk, the life that is yours to live. Ask them what they have to say, and begin the dialogue that will sustain and guide you through the rest of your life.
There are a number of ways of developing your ability to engage the nurturing voices in this kind of sustaining, guiding dialogue with ourselves. The Clearness Committee exists to help us hear our-selves—our deeper selves—speaking to us. Parker Palmer’s “Circle of Trust,” which Carol Steger and Julie Strope are going to initiate here in the near future is another approach. Keeping a journal is another. Working with your dreams and paying attention to your projections are others. Learning to participate in active imagination is another. The list is long of ways to listen to ourselves and talk to ourselves and deepen, expand, enlarge ourselves thereby. It is a spiritual practice that never ends, and one that cannot begin too soon.