It is St. Patrick's Day and I am fortunate enough to be sitting in a seminar with poet and writer David Whyte. He is keynoting tomorrow at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, DC, a massive gathering of my professional "tribe." "Thank goodness for a poet among shrinks," I think to myself as I sit, front row, in what is a surprisingly cold ballroom on an unseasonably warm day in mid-March.
The workshop title is "Solace: The Art of Asking the Beautiful Question." And because I relate to my work as being much more of an art than a science, it's a welcome respite from all of the latest clinical research that, while perhaps "cutting edge" today, will be old news tomorrow. There is something timeless, however, about our existential reckonings; the human spirit will never be irrelevant or outdated.
David Whyte works with what he calls "the conversational nature of reality"; he is interested in questions that come from the Source rather than from the peripheral personality. And he believes that beautiful questions shape us more by the asking than by the answering. Anyone who has ever been set free by the precision of inquiry in a seemingly unbeautiful moment can attest to the fact that he is onto something.
His invitation, in essence, is to "turn sideways into the light" and, in doing so, to turn away from the conversation of habit. The tendency to stop paying attention to that which we cannot conceptualize or control is fierce in us. Therefore the task at hand is to remain faithful to our vulnerability in those moments when we most vehemently want to check out and run for cover. And that requires engaging a fundamentally different dialogue with the world.
David Whyte beckons us to the conversational frontier. There is no more being in exile. "What is the beautiful question you have not been asking yourself?" he wants to know. And so we drop in. First to our bodies in silence. And then we take pen to paper.
I can feel mine. It lives in my heart and my gut. I'm having trouble articulating it perfectly but it has something to do with love...and what it demands of us. I close my eyes and track my internal landscape. And then, suddenly, it comes in a fury: What it is to live with the full weight of love's consequence?
Earlier this week I was reading the blog of a mentor when a seemingly unassuming phrase arrested me: "the heartbreak of giving a shit." It strikes me that we are called to feel this precise burn; to become good citizens of our vulnerability and, by extension, our magnanimousness. "Everything is waiting for you," Whyte reminds us. "Including your own disappearance." The truth is that we will ultimately lose everything. Yet, in the meantime, the world is begging for us to participate.
David tells us a story. It's about Rumi and his complaint of a lazy pilgrim: "He stays inside the temple all day so that God has to go out and praise the rocks." And I'm struck, at once, by the entitlement of living at arm's length from the world; it's as if we've shirked our duty and left some disembodied cosmic hand to do our bidding in the mud.
We create solitary conversations to escape; when Life decides that it will not acquiesce to play on our terms it becomes a standoff. And that standoff takes many forms, from refusing difficult encounters, to overworking, to munching our way through the junk food, to retreating inside ourselves and glorifying it with a name like "introspection" rather than calling it what it actually is, which is isolation.
Being available to the world requires that we are betrothed to heartbreak as an initiatory gateway into the grandeur of our becoming. Martín Prechtel writes of grief and praise as if they were sisters; to grieve is to pay homage to that which we love. To love is to endeavor to care enough that we are leveled by the loss that is inevitable.
One of the most insidious ways in which we try to inculcate ourselves from our fragile humanness is to "know"; we strategize and conceptualize and frame and name. We are lost without our competency and our logic. David Whyte jokes, "If you're in a bar in East Texas and you say to someone, 'Turn sideways into the light,' you're in trouble." But he doesn't linger long in the humor; seconds later a seriousness befalls him and he reminds us of a sobering truth we cannot afford to forget: "The imagination always knows what to do with this invitation."
The initiation into the tenderness and dissolution of "not knowing," has been my personal crucible as of late so this reminder comes at the perfect time. One of my mentors is a woman who sometimes functions more as an elder in a culture that has regrettably traded wisdom for information and egregiously mixed up the two. We've been exploring this place in which our "not knowing" has been used against us by a misguided world; it's been a source of shame rather than a beckoning into the largess of our deepest humanity.
In one of our recent conversations, when I was coming undone by this part of myself that doesn't have a blessed clue, Christiane reminded me: "You cannot know everything. And you do not know everything. And you don't want to know everything. And if you lived in a healthy culture you would have been raised by elders who would have said, 'Sweetheart, get over yourself. You've got such a powerful one in you. And her power is only going to serve to the extent that you can know this: in some realms you know almost nothing yet. And it's beautiful.'"
And so I have been learning how to hold a wildly different kind of conversation with the world. It is one that is much slower, much more present, much more penetrating, much more embodied, and, ultimately, much more humble. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to gallop; I'm smart, quick-witted, and I rarely miss a beat. But I'm tired. Exhausted, in fact. I've grown weary of holding up space. Of needing to know. Of being always at the ready with an answer. Of having, as the poet Tomas Tranströmer writes, "words but no language."
I'm becoming well-versed in fumbling my way to a new fluency.
After we dare to pose to ourselves the beautiful question we haven't been asking, David Whyte instructs us to find a partner and share. I pair up with a woman named Ellen. Ellen is older, probably in her 60's, from New York. She strikes me as anxious and slightly needy and I notice the places in which I have already gone into judgement. I decide I will open myself to the possibility of being surprised. She shares with me a short piece she's written about wondering what's happened to an old, childhood part of herself. It's aching and beautiful and I find myself moved in an unexpected way. I reflect how deeply I feel her. And then I venture an offering: "I wonder what it would look like to connect more deeply with that little girl."
She halts me, but in a way that is welcome. "Notice how quickly we go there; to wanting to know and do. Maybe sometimes it's enough that we've simply asked the question. I'm going to trust that."
A tear gingerly escapes from my right eye. "Thank you," I say.
I marvel silently at how deeply it lives in us, this one who must name and qualify. I'm humbled in that moment by the places in myself in which I am still caught in the conversation of habit.
The tears come with more ferocity now. I'm not sure exactly what I am grieving but I suspect it has something to do with the ways in which I have failed to companion well the one in me who is exquisite and perfect in her helplessness. In "Santiago" David Whyte writes, "You were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach."
It's one of my favorites for a reason.
The workshop ends; today is only the "warm-up." Tomorrow the Prime Time begins. I learn that this is the 39th annual Networker Symposium; it began in 1977. That was the year I came into the world with the umbilical cord tangled around my neck like a noose; the very force of energy that propelled me into the light of day could also choke and kill me with the strength of its resistance. It's been a fitting emblem of the ambivalence I've carried about incarnation.
I've also been ambivalent about joining the "official" ranks of my profession. I've always been a bit of a renegade, an outlier, an off-the-map traveler; I don't like to play by the rules. I put off clinical licensure for years because I wasn't sure I wanted to rightfully take up the lineage and call myself a "psychotherapist." It was too sterile, aloof, detached, rigid, and hopelessly caught in the thorny entanglements of hierarchy. It wasn't "progressive" or "innovative" enough, I argued.
For a lot of the last 39 years, I have specialized in the art of saying "no." But living with the full weight of love's consequence or "the heartbreak of giving a shit," requires a very different dialectic with the world.
Or so I'm finding.
I still have all of my very compelling reasons for questioning the ways in which I've chosen to belong to my profession and, beyond that, to the larger human world. They may never go away. But my honest, mined-in-the-harrowing-trenches "yes," has been the alchemical agent that's shaken something free. It was never about a solution to the problem so much as it was about my own willingness to go all in, to show up for the full catastrophe, to love with wild abandon, knowing that, ultimately, the deck is stacked.
I'm finally learning how to be here. It's no small task as it requires, to use Whyte's metaphor, that I "abandon the shoes that brought that [me]." In "Finisterre" he writes: "No way to your future now but the way your shadow could take, walking before you across water, going where shadows go, no way to make sense of a world that wouldn't let you pass except to call an end to the way you had come."
This is indeed a threshold.
Quite literally, this afternoon I will go wandering around DC in my new golden shoes. I'm still breaking them in, so I'll be sure to walk more slowly than usual. Later, after a blind man has asked me for an arm to cross the street, after he has led me to the Metro on the other side, after I have ridden the seemingly endless escalators down into the underground and back up again, after I've unearthed unexpected poems in the corner of an old haunt, after I've finished birthing the vision for a women's circle with a friend back home via phone in a coffee shop over an impeccable chai tea, after I've enjoyed a spontaneous, heart-wrenching two hour park bench conversation with a prison psychiatrist from LA, after I've listened to a street musician play a stellar and soulful cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," after I've danced my ass off with a group of several hundred strangers, and after I've been summoned from across a ballroom by a woman magnetized by my "meditative presence," I will smile as my heart cracks a fraction of a hairline deeper and say, "Oh yes. This. Thank you."