I am so distant from the hope of myself
in which I have goodness and discernment
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly and bow often.’
Mary Oliver from ‘When I am among the trees’
Perhaps we wouldn’t be here on earth if we didn’t have a bit of distance between our current selves and our hopes of our selves. We can glimpse that serene woman or man striding purposefully through the world, bestowing wisdom. Sometimes she seems to be just a few steps away—at other times a very, very long way away. And we yearn to catch up with her or him; we long to leave our disordered selves behind.
Yet it takes time, patience and limbering up our soul-spiritual capacities to get there. When we fail to be that person in the distance, when we lose our cool with our child or our friend, if we droop into melancholy, when all we can sense is utter confusion, then it is hard not to give up on that hopeful vision.
Yet when we are learning to transform aspects of ourselves then of course we are going to fail. We are going to react defensively to our ex-partner’s text message, eat way more chocolate than we intended, flail in uncertainty when someone shouts at us, snap at our spouse’s struggles with ageing as they repeat the same request for the 24th time. OK, none of these reactions may be helpful, but if we just berate ourselves for our misbehaviour then we spiral even more deeply into the pit of negativity.
Instead, we can observe what’s going on, we can notice it ,and try something more like compassion and curiosity. Before we head into reacting to our reaction, we insert a circuit breaker.
Conductor Benjamin Zander saw a difference between youth orchestras and professional players as the young people would always stop playing if they made a mistake.
Instead of seizing up, he taught these young musicians to observe to themselves, ‘How fascinating!’ whenever they played a wrong note.
We can try the same strategy when we find ourselves sliding into a little reactivity. When our pattern of yelling, sarcasm, bitter words, or storming out of the room becomes uncomfortably visible to us, we may not immediately stop ourselves from taking off along the well-worn tracks of our habitual behaviour, but we can begin to change. Like a learner driver with a manual car, we’ve crunched the gears yet again but after a bit of practice and a little fascination with our mistakes, we’ll no longer crunch or stall.
What matters most is our capacity to observe what we’ve done and then to ask for help from our own internal wise helper, our witnessing consciousness, as well as whatever intangible support may be on offer. Observing ourselves with fascination rather than repugnance allows us to try it.
And how exactly do we do that when we’re really stuck? If we get into a bit of a stew then allow a mini sacred pause, a micro-meditation, offer a quick prayer if that fits with your beliefs. Say a little mantrum or two. Recite your favourite sanity-saving poem. Inhale a few deep breaths. Go for a walk. Journal for a bit. Write a poem or a story. Draw or paint a picture. Make a time to meet with a good listener, either a friend blessed with that gift, or your favourite professional listener.
When we are on a path of inner development, of growing more conscious, more loving, more forgiving, then we have to start with our selves. Screaming at ourselves for our ineptness is about as helpful as berating a toddler who falls over when she first attempts to walk. We have to bring in our calm and patient inner parent who encourages these toddling parts of us to have a bit of a cry if we’ve hurt ourselves or others, observe the fascination of our error, then get up and try again. That’s the way to draw a little closer to the hope of ourselves.